Map-Making Pitfalls

Kelvin Kay, user:kkmd Category:Columbia River ...
Kelvin Kay, user:kkmd Category:Columbia River Gorge (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the joys of creating a fantasy world is making your own maps. As discussed in Worldbuilding is not Mapmaking, even though maps aren’t the most important part of fantasy worldbuilding, they are iconic and our reaction, both as creators and readers, is visceral: maps are a portal into a wonderful place. They make foreign places seem real. A well-drawn map, like a well-executed cover, grabs us.

However, as with writing where one needs to watch for too many ‘shows’, flat dialogue, uninteresting characters, etc., there are pitfalls to map-making that can scream amateur and other aspects, while accepted in the genre, might be places where you could make your maps more distinctive. Here’s a list of a few I’ve come across.

Compass Point Rivers:

This is a surprisingly common feature for those making their first maps: they have their main rivers run north-south and their tributaries run east-west. While it is certainly possible and in some story might go to the core of the setting (e.g. rivers run this way because the world is built on top of a giant computer laid out in a grid), this is a rather rigid arrangement. Aesthetically, it looks forced or careless. Geographically, while many rivers in the United States tend to run north to south (Hudson, Colorado, Mississippi), many others do not (Willamette, Columbia). And if you look farther than North America, you see plenty of other examples.


Between the Nile and a North American bias for many readers, it is easy to see where this comes from. Geologically, this happens because both the Americas and Africa are moving part from each other on a east-west axis (the mid-Atlantic ridge) and mountains tend to form perpendicular to the expansion. Since rivers generally go around mountain chains, you generally get the rivers parallel to the mountains. Exceptions exist, though, such as the Columbia River, which cuts right through the Cascade mountains in the spectacular Columbia River Gorge.

In general, rivers run downhill. Or put another way, they move away from your mountains. Whether you start with the mountains and add the rivers or vice versa, is a matter of style and what your story demands. For instance, if you want your story to occur in a land where the kingdoms abut each other in a line, you might want to create two mountain chains and put the kingdoms in between. Naturally, there would be rivers draining the resulting valleys, with tributaries in the mountains and probably one or possibly two major rivers between the mountains. The mountains could be mostly straight but nothing says you can’t put some kinks into their general run, which would give you more interesting rivers to match. Or you could start with the rivers and add the necessary hills and mountains as head-waters.

Downstream Forks

This one puzzles me because I can’t think of any real-world examples of this yet it shows up in maps fairly often. It’s not braiding in a meandering river or delta that I’m referring to but a fork in a river that causes it to discharge into two different bodies of water. For example, imagine if the Mississippi split in St. Louis, with part continuing on to the Gulf and the other part heading east to the Atlantic. Absent magic, this can’t happen, at least not for very long. To me, it tells me the mapmaker really doesn’t have much of a sense for geography, which rightly or wrongly, makes me question the writer’s ability to deliver a good story.

There could be a short-lived condition where a body of water drains two different ways but it wouldn’t take very long for one of the egress points to cut deeper than the other. It’s inherently unstable. Even in the exceptions noted above where it does occur (deltas and braided rivers) it is unstable. The water channels are constantly shifting about over the course of just decades. As an example, if you are wondering why Vicksburg was so important during the Civil War, don’t look at modern maps to figure it out: the river has moved quite a bit since then.

Of course, one of the ‘foundation’ techniques of world building is to imagine how something that shouldn’t happen could actually be. Magic solves many problems: you could have a god or water spirit or college of mages who ensure the fork remains stable. Maybe this ‘unnatural’ splitting of waters is the core of your story: long ago the waters were split to flow to three different lands, maintained by a water spirit. But that spirit has disappeared and the heroes must intervene to assure that their lands do not run dry. If you do this, though, best to make sure that something on the map calls out this fork as special so that the casual reader flipping through the book knows you put the fork there on purpose. For instance, put a star there and label it “Temple of the Water Spirit”.

Note that this critique applies to lakes as much as a simple downstream fork in the river. The lake example might actually be more common on maps: it’s just as hard to have a lake with multiple egresses: sooner or later one outlet will erode lower than the other and become the only outlet.

On the other hand, at least some of the US Great Lakes once drained through the Mississippi River. For some period of time, they must have drained through both the St. Lawrence and the Mississippi. Though it probably wasn’t very long, it might have been for a few generations. But unless you have a really good story reason for multiple outlets from a body of water, best to avoid it because it looks amateurish.

Forest-Mountain Gaps

This one you see even with our beloved Middle Earth: it is common to draw the forest distinct from the mountains, with a gap between them. This is not usually the case on earth because between forest and mountains, there isn’t generally a good reason for the trees to peter out. Trees actually tend to do pretty well in mountains because as the air rises over the mountains, it cools, dropping the dew point, resulting in rain. Even in deserts, you find some trees in the mountains. As an example: the Tularosa Basin in New Mexico is one of the harshest deserts in the US yet it is bordered by the fairly lush Sacramento mountains. Even the Organ mountains on the other side manage some trees, although you wouldn’t call it forested.

Mountains don’t generally form a barrier to an existing forest. The forest runs right up into the mountains. The trees may change to suit a colder or wetter climate higher up but there isn’t usually a gap. A really good example of this is the hike to Rockpile Lake from the east side of the Cascades in Oregon, where over the course only six miles, you go from dry Ponderosa pine to firs, to lichen-draped spruce and finally hemlock at the tree-line.

Mountains do form rain shadows, of course. There are almost always prevailing wind directions in a region with the mountains catching the rain on non-lee side. The lee side of the mountain chain is often dry, sometimes desert dry. How many of you realize that Oregon is mostly near-desert: it’s only the rainy west side of the cascades that are wet? So it is perfectly reasonable to have non-forested lands on one side of a mountain chain but these dry-lands tend to extend for hundreds of miles beyond the mountains, as in Oregon (until the next rain catcher: the Rocky Mountains) or the Great Plains of the US Midwest (once called the “Great American Desert” believe it or not.)

What you don’t tend to find, over short distances, are mountains then a bit of grassland, then forest, then a bit more grassland, then mountains. It’s forest -> wooded mountain slopes -> drier mountain slopes -> drier lowlands, which might be too dry for more forest.

Why do mapmakers put gaps between forest and mountain? Convenience: it’s harder to draw the forests running into the mountains. This is true if you are doing your map freehand and it is just as true if you are using something like Campaign cartographer where you might have a limited number of symbols that mix mountains and trees (if you have any at all to work with).

Missing Forests

Forests may be a pain to draw but there is usually too little forest on most fantasy maps. This is because most fantasy settings are in a place with European-like climate and populations levels akin to early Middle Ages (or less in a world overrun with goblins and dragons). Granted, Iron Age civilizations did cut down a lot of forest land but it was nothing as severe as what you see in modern Europe or much of the Eastern US. Without human intervention, the natural state of reasonably well-watered land is forest. Below a certain rainfall you’ll get grasslands as in the Russian steppes or the African Savannah but add a bit more rain and you get vast forests. Almost all of England used to be forested. Same for most of mainland Europe or the east side of the Mississippi, places where today you find farmland with just a few forest islands.

Such scarcity of forests isn’t natural. It takes a lot of humans with reasonably advanced technology to keep the forest at bay. If we suddenly disappeared, it would all return to forest in less than a century. In most fantasy settings, there aren’t a lot of ‘civilized’ people in the world. Middle Earth is particularly sparsely inhabited, as far as I can tell: it would probably be more appropriate for the Shire to be an island in a vast forest than a green gem in a wasteland.

Worlds where humans aren’t dominate, where there are the perils of barbarian races or too many monsters for them to spread out like we did on earth, those worlds would probably have much more forest. Fields and farmlands would be little islands in a vast expanse of trees. And those dark woods would seem alien and creepy: you can get a sense of how people used to view forests from faerie tales. There’s a reason why Hansel and Gretel found a witch in the deep woods: it was a forbidden place beyond the pale.

As with the gap between mountains and forest, the tedium of drawing (or plopping down forest symbols) is one reason why there tend to be too few forests on maps. But probably a bigger reason is that we have been trained by earlier fantasy maps and by modern landscapes to expect an unforested world where the opposite is the natural order of things.

Missing Swamps

Thanks to a thousand years of land reclamation projects, we don’t tend to realize that much low-lying land used to be swampy. Glastonbury Tor used to sit in the middle of fens, not farmland. Same for east Anglia, much of the Lowlands, parts of Poland. A combination of dykes and gates to drain low land at low tide or canals to drain a higher marsh have been used over the centuries to reduce or eliminate what used to be large swampy tracks. These were never as vast as the primeval forests but they were huge, the places where kings on the run used to hide out. In fantasy settings, they are places where nature (or monsters) rule.

Swamps and marshes tend to be omitted out of oversight: large ones are less common in our modern world so we forget to add them to our fantasy world.

Curiously, if mankind disappeared, most of the swamps wouldn’t come back. Sea-dykes would rupture and flood lands at sea level but otherwise, what was once swamp would probably stay dry: the canals remain to drain them and centuries of farm use have raised the level of the land to where it might not get so soggy again, even without human intervention.

Missing People

It is perfectly reasonable to have empty fantasy worlds. Populous orc tribes, dragons, ogres, giants, all these things could exert enough pressure on the civilized peoples that they cannot spread-out over nearly ever biome as humans have on earth. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with having a kingdom here and another there, a wilderness in between.

The trouble arises when your setting presupposes lots of contact with other peoples. Take the Gyre from the Thomas Covenant series. I haven’t read these books in 25 years so I’m a little hazy but I remember at the time being quite annoyed with the Gyre: it’s a large trading city at the edge of a desert. It had a harbor packed with ships from all over. These ships must have brought food because, unlike Carthage or Alexandria, there was no fertile hinterland to feed them (I think). But regardless of a hinterland, where were these other lands that the Gyre traded with? The Thomas Covenant world felt rather empty to me with implied “large populations elsewhere” that were never shown. It all felt rather sloppy.

Empty worlds are fine but the interactions the characters experience should be appropriate. For instance, there might still be trade (something like the old silk road linking civilizations across a lot of emptier space) but it would not be high volume and the distant lands would be little known and have little influence on each other. China never went to war with Europe. Neither knew much about the other, even after Marco Polo.

In your world, if you have small kingdoms separated by large wilderness, they won’t have much reason to fight with each other or even have much to do with each other. This can actually be a boon for the writer: you don’t need to flesh out the far away places until your heroes get there. But it also means you probably shouldn’t have powerful merchant families running the show.

Tolkien gets some of this right in Middle Earth: Rohan is alien to all but a few of the more traveled folk of Gondor. Lothlorien is entirely isolated, as is the Shire. But other parts don’t really ring right for me. Laketown trades with “people to the south” but on the maps there doesn’t really seem to be anyone close enough to justify such a trade oriented settlement. And while I love the imagery of Rohan and the Rohirrim, they are modeled on iron age Germanic tribes whose culture and trappings arose from tribes rubbing shoulders with other tribes. It doesn’t feel right to me for something exactly like a Germanic tribe to arise in isolation without warfare with other tribes to help shape it.


As with many tropes, most of the items above seem to be accepted by fantasy readers. They aren’t reading your opus for your ability to model trade routes in a world ravaged by dragons. And while a few do stick out as probably something better avoided (all north-south rivers, for instance), most of the rest can be overlooked because no one seems to be particularly disturbed by them. But as with momentum in teleporters or energy density in laser weapons, you can use an awareness of these elements to make your map stand apart from the countless fantasy maps we’ve all seen.

Tolkien didn’t do Fantasy Writers any Favors

Cover of "The Silmarillion"
Cover of The Silmarillion

Okay, that’s a bit harsh. What I really mean is Tolkien‘s elaborately crafted setting didn’t do us any favors but the title was getting wordy. That’s not to say that, like many readers, I don’t love his setting. I do adore it, from its linguistic elements to the ring with its history back into the earlier ages of the world. It’s all great stuff and much of what makes The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) the story it is.

The disservice is that such a setting is not a requisite for a good fantasy book or even a long running series. Especially for those of us who come to writing through refereeing fantasy roleplaying games, it can be a time-consuming pitfall. You see, having enjoyed Tolkien’s appendices, The Silmarillion, and other assorted bits, it is easy to take this level of detail as a requirement for a good fantasy setting, when it isn’t. It worked for Tolkien but let’s not forget he was a philologist and university professor: he created this great world as much as for a hobby as for his novel.

You can tell the setting only matters so much because Tolkien actually put very little of it into LOTR. Certainly some is present, but only enough to serve the story. There’s even less of it in The Hobbit. Granted that was an earlier book but it is interesting how little of his great setting shows up in the Hobbit, yet we still love it.

It is easy to forget that and dive into creating an elaborate setting for your own D&D campaign or novel. If you like creating settings, go to it. I love it myself. The thing is neither your D&D players nor your readers are really going to ever appreciate an intricate setting because it won’t matter much to their enjoyment of the game or book (unless you happen to become the next Tolkien but, while fun to daydream about, that might not be a great goal for allocating your time.) These days, most readers seem extremely reluctant to read even a word  of appendix, and who can blame them after so many tedious examples of ones, post-Tolkien?

If you want to be a successful fantasy writer, you certainly do need a good premise. But beyond that, elaborate setting history is dangerous. A the very least, it is a distraction, keeping you from spending your precious time on writing your fiction. More insidiously, if you do create all that wonderful history, you might find it sneaking into your book as unnecessary backstory, sapping the very life from your novel.

So, enjoy Tolkien’s world for the wonder it is but have a care before making one yourself.

Reading Novels Aloud

English: Created by modifying this image Itali...
English: Created by modifying this image Italiano: Creata modificando quest’immagine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the pleasures of parenthood is reading to your children. Most children’s books read well out-loud. The Hobbit (a children’s book) is a great read. The Lord of the Rings, despite it’s length does pretty well, too. The early Harry Potter is also nice verbalized but, unfortunately, its suitability falls off near the end of the series. It isn’t that the novels get longer (LOTR isn’t exactly short), it’s that as they progressed, there gets to be too much plot filler (oh look, Ron and Harry are fighting like teenage girls again, we all know how that will end) and reading some of the dialogue with a she/he said plus adverb on every single piece of dialogue gets a little ridiculous (said the blogger, snarkily.) Even so, the Potter series was an enjoyable read through book 4, passable for another book but I gave up mid-way on book 6.

After not quite finishing book 6, it was time to find something new. I loved Dragon Riders of Pern (DRoP) as a teenager and still enjoy it, plus it’s on my kindle already so I decided to try that. Ouch. It takes a novel not very suitable for reading aloud to remind you of what makes a good one. DRoP had setting elements that proved a challenge: try distinguishing N’tol from Nytol when you are actually speaking it. It can be done but it’s a good way to trip you up. Then there are a lot of names with the same starting letter (F’nor and F’lar, neither of which really roll off the tongue.) But I think the real challenge is that the story flits around a lot in the first few chapters, both in scene and POV, making it fairly hard to follow as the listener is nodding off to sleep. I gave up on it as a bed-time read and went back to LOTR. It’s been a few years since I read that to my son and, for better or worse, it’s long enough to be the last thing I’ll read to him (most likely). He’s getting all growed-up.

Having wandered into a tough one and thinking about why it didn’t work as well, it seems it’s a combination of things: distinct and easy to pronounce setting names, places and terms. Clear POV is a huge help, preferably with only a few changes or at least a good while between changes. Same for settings: walking from one place to another is one thing but hopping from city to city, each with a different POV, can make it rather hard, especially when there are several per chapter.

As a writer, I do find reading my own scenes aloud helps both find problems but also produces better prose. Writing a book that is suitable for being read out-loud isn’t an explicit goal but I would be happy if folks found it suitable.

I suspect most YA and younger makes a good read-aloud book. Any thoughts on what makes a good read-aloud, be it a specific book or general observations?

Norse Myths, Tolkien, and Fantasy Worldbuilding

Cover of "The Norse Myths (Pantheon Fairy...
Cover via Amazon

It’s no secret that J. R. R. Tolkien was very familiar with Northern European mythology. After all, he is credited with a seminal lecture on Beowulf and was a professor of middle English literature. Still, it’s quite entertaining to actually peruse the Northern world and its myths. For me, they seem cleaner and more raw than those of the Mediterranean world, part of why they are the underpinning of my Calyx world where my last story took place and where I hope to write more.

Recently I returned to two great sources for this period, The Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland and Gods and Myths of Northern Europe by H. R. Ellis Davidson. The former consists mostly of translations of the available myths- sadly, there seem to have been many that are now lost. The introductory chapter is a great survey of the culture and available sources. The end-notes also add quite a lot (more on that in a bit, but think “dwarf names”). Davidson’s work is more scholarly and a bit more dry but fascinating all the same. She quotes from the myths but focuses more on the culture, gods, and worship, including especially interesting sections on shamans and seers.

Cover of "Gods and Myths of Northern Euro...
Cover of Gods and Myths of Northern Europe

The Norse gods, such as they come down to us in the fragments we still have, seem more human to me. You could imagine almost any of the warriors in The 13th Warrior revealing himself as a god in disguise, something it is a little hard, for me at least, to imagine with the Greek or Egyptian or other mythos I’m familiar with. The Norse gods are both more fallible and more friendly– except perhaps for Odin. And their cosmology of multiple planes linked by a world tree seems especially romantic (talk about high fantasy 🙂 ). Even the dichotomy of Aesir and Vanir hints at ancient battles ending in stalemate, a fascinating relic to find in the myths. It’s a great place to look for inspiration when creating a fantasy setting.

If there is interest, I’ll start posting about the Norse myths. For today, however, I’ll just end with dwarvish names as listed in the Creation myth. This myth explains the origin of the current world starting with Ymir, a giant who formed in the rime in Ginnungagap, the space between searing Muspell and frozen Niflheim. It continues through the three worlds and the various races. Among the people of the Norse world were, of course, the dwarves. Not to be confused with the un-magical dwarves of D&D and the like, the Norse dwarves are masters of magic, creators of much of the gods’ special items. They tend to be misshapen, small, dwell-underground, and above all, covetous. Tolkien capture much of this sense in The Hobbit and his other works, although he softened them somewhat because in the myths, they tend to be relentlessly dark. Speaking of dark, there’s reason to be believe dark elves and dwarves are the same beings, at least in the Norse myths, if not in D&D 🙂

In the end notes (p. 183 of the paperback edition) on the creation myth, Crossley-Holland gives the names of the first dwarves. You might recognize a few of them, especially if you allow for alternate spellings:

Nyi, Nidi, Nordri, Sudri, Austri, Althjof, Dvalin, Bifur, Bombor, Nori, Oinn, Mjodvitnir, Vig, Gandalf (!), Vindalf, Thorin, Fili, Kili, Fundin, Vali, Thror, Thrain, Thekk, Lit, Vit, Nyr, Nyrad, Rekk, Radsvid, Draupnir, Dolgthvari, Haur, Hugstari, Hledjolf, Gloin, Dori, Ori, Duf, Andvari, Heptfili, Har, Sviar, Skirfir, Virfir, Skavid, Ai, Alf, Ingi, Eikinskjaldi, Fal, Frosti, Fid and Ginnar

I used to think the dwarves in The Hobbit had childish names because it was a children’s book but when you remember that these myths were entirely oral traditions until they were transcribed in the Christian era, you can appreciate that many of the name pairs (Dori and Ori, Bifur and Bombor) were meant to aid recollection. I always get a kick out of seeing Gandalf’s name among the dwarves, as well.

Dark Ages as a Setting

Arthurian knight
Arthurian knight (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s a healthy near-future apocalyptic genre but it’s more rare to find this as a fantasy setting. This is unfortunate because a Dark Age scenario has a lot to offer the fantasy worldbuilder: the struggle to preserve the old, or just to survive, small warbands with plenty of scope for heroes, limited world knowledge that means your readers learn about the world as the characters explore it.

The term is out of favor with historians. Before more modern research and archaeology, the post-Roman to early Middle Ages period was very little known, thus the appellation “dark.” It is still a poorly documented era but between more thorough archaeology and review of existing documents, it doesn’t appear quite as unknowable as it used to be. Lesser known (and still much more ‘dark’) are other periods following a collapse of civilization, especially the famous one at the end of the east Mediterranean Bronze Age.

Interestingly, historical Dark Ages give rise to some of the greatest stories of all: in a time of decay and hard-scrabble existence, people seem to need heroes more than ever. Thus, out of the British Dark Ages, we get the Arthurian stories. And from the Bronze Age collapse, we get the Iliad and the Odyssey. Although, it’s rather curious that the Bronze Age heroes are the very pirates who probably played a role in the collapse whereas King Arthur, of course, is cast as a defender against the darkness. Odysseus wasn’t called “sacker of cities” for nothing: the Greek kings were raiders.

There are two sub-genres for a Dark Age setting: the onset and the aftermath. Both offer rich opportunities for writers but let’s treat them separately.

Keuninck (Coninck) Kerstiaen de - Fire of Troy
Keuninck (Coninck) Kerstiaen de – Fire of Troy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Collapse of Civilization

The details of this situation depend on the cause of the collapse. In most fictional cases, it is the clash of civilization and barbarians, although in a fantasy world the latter could be anything from orc hordes to undead to a witch-queen and her evil minions. However, it could also be the result of some sort of environmental or magical catastrophe. In the event of the latter, you lose the opportunity for a stark, sentient foe but depending on the cause of the catastrophe, this might provide a great premise, for instance: what happens when magic is overused? Or, what if the gods disappeared? Or, what if magic ceased to function?

In both cases, you still have characters dealing with their world falling apart: how do they protect their own, how do they even find food, where can they find safety and shelter. This is the story of people who have everything suddenly having to deal with the most basic needs in a world made exceptionally harsh by too many people fighting over the scraps. This basic premise of what happens to the civilized person thrown into the uncivilized world is at the root of many stories from Lord of the Flies to Mad Max but it is not as common in the fantasy world.

In the case of a foe of some sort causing the collapse, now you have the chance to have your protagonist face a horrible, alien foe. There’s a lot of drama potential in the clash of two incompatible forces, wonderful scope for sacrifice and heroes, loss and despair.

While King Arthur is more commonly depicted in modern fiction as occurring in the Dark Ages, rather than at its start, the sources are actually about a warleader (in the earlier records, not even a King) at the collapse of Roman civilization in Britain trying to hold back Saxon invaders.

In the Dark Age

The second type of story occurs after the collapse. The old world is gone, except for ruins and stories of ancient glories. A fraction of the old population remains, barely able to scratch an existence. In the struggle for survival, with the loss of so many books and scholars, knowledge and literacy are either gone or remembered by a very few. Order has broken down and people turn to local strongmen for protection. These strongmen will in time become petty kings but early in the period they are simply men (and possibly women) violent and ruthless enough to hold off other strongmen who would plunder and murder. For this protection, the bulk of the population offers food and services, usually willingly at first but in time, often coerced. Of course, these strongmen cloak themselves in the mantle of old heroes and new gods to give themselves legitimacy.

The advantages for this setting is that populations are low so armies are tiny, probably just warbands. This means your heroes are much more significant: a god-touched warrior at the head of a troop of 80 will have a lot more impact than at the fore of an army of 80,000. There are also lots of these strong men in close proximity: grounds for incessant conflict, such as you find in Beowulf. The characters also know little of their world, which makes it easy for you to explain your world as the characters discover it.

In this setting, you have the option of the other type of Arthurian story: the beacon of hope, honor, civilization arising from a morass of despair. Or you can have the “travel” story: your characters set out into the big, unknown world, discovering all the different ways in a fantasy setting that pockets of people might deal with the collapse of civilization: theocracies and undead kings, elven enclaves, amazon queens, the list is endless because in this setting, you have the equivalent of endless islands with limited contact with each other.

For those of you who don’t like overarching premises, or aren’t comfortable creating a big world, the travel-in-a-dark-age-world setting provides an excellent setting: you need only describe the next bit that the characters visit and when they move on, there’s not much need to worry about what they left behind.

You may recognize this type of story: both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings can be considered travel stories where the characters go from island to island, figuratively. I’m pretty sure when Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, that’s really all he had in mind: you go from the shire pocket to the elven hidden realm, to the goblin mountains, the bear-man’s dwelling, the enchanted forest, the forest elves, the lake people, the dragon mountain. Except for the last few, there really isn’t that much connectedness to it all. These are mostly just independent discoveries until they are tied together in the last battle. (Just last night, I finished reading The Hobbit to my son for the second time 🙂 )

LOTR has a firmer history to it but it also has strong elements of characters traveling in the ruins of a once greater world visiting little pockets of this and that: Tom Bombadil and the Barrow Wights, Rivendell again, Moria, Loth Lorien, Fangorn, Minas Tirith, Rohan, Mordor. These are all places with mostly minimal interaction with their neighbors, let alone a larger world. The story even has a strong element of these neighbors discovering each other: the Ents are essentially forgotten until their attack on Isenguard. So little is known of Loth Lorien that Galadriel is more of a witch-in-the-woods to outsiders. Rohan and Minas Tirith seem to have little to do with each other until one needs the other for help against a greater foe. The Shire is very much a quant English shire plopped down in the middle of a harsh wilderness.

This isn’t a criticism of LOTR, it’s one of the things I and probably many people like: the sense of adventure and discovery as you get to each new place tied together by a world-shattering quest. Just think: you can do the same with your own Dark Age setting, whether or not you end the book (or lucrative multi-volume series!) with a new golden age.

As a personal note, my first novel was set in a near-future apocalypse but I have to confess my appetite for such settings has evaporated now that I have children. A real fall of civilization is horrible; the resulting population collapse would be heartbreaking on a truly mind-numbing scale. But a fantasy world is far enough from reality that I don’t mind writing Dark Age settings there.

Fantasy Stories that Inhabit the Setting: Settings that Matter

The Chronicles of Amber (omnibus)
The Chronicles of Amber (omnibus) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ash’s excellent post on good fantasy settings got me thinking about fantasy settings, which made me realize that while I like a well constructed setting, it is not the most important aspect for me. In fact, constructing a detailed setting can be a trap for the fantasy author.

What really works for me is not a setting where every last detail has been considered nor one that takes advantage of the latest theories in history, science, sociology, etc., although, I must confess, that is my own personal tendency. What works for me as a reader is a unique setting with a story that illustrates and inhabits that setting.

I look back on some of the fantasy classics that I love and what stands out for me is a story with a great setting-premise where over the course of the story, the setting comes to life. Here, I would put Dragonriders of Pern, The Amber Chronicles, and The Lord of the Rings. To be honest, these stories vary in quality and include some cringe-worthy moments (yes, even LOTR) but I still come back to them year after year. Why? Because they have a fascinating setting that is well illustrated by the stories.

I read fantasy to experience stories I like to dream about. That’s probably why I don’t care for gritty stories, low-fantasy stories, political intrigue, etc. Actually, I do like that type of story, but not in the fantasy genre. When I read fantasy, I want to experience a place that, sorry GRR Martin, isn’t inspired by sordid Earth history. I want to read about something that is very different from Earth and, then, I want to get to know that special place.

So in Dragonriders of Pern, we have a world of telepathic, bonded dragons. How cool is that? Who wouldn’t want a taste of a world like that? Frankly, the time travel has always rubbed me wrong for the obvious reasons of paradox and the science fiction under-pinnings I don’t find terribly satisfying. I wouldn’t actually characterize it was a well constructed world but the setting is adequate to the story and the stories are wonderful. The stories are all about the dragons and  how the bond works. By reading them, we learn about everything that is important about this setting. Of course, the characters are memorable and lovable, too.

From inside on of the hobbit holes, on locatio...

In The Amber Chronicles, here is another story where you have a wild premise and a modest amount of detail to that premise, yet it works for me, although not my wife who found it horribly edited 🙂 Again, we have memorable characters whose story explores a fantastic setting. Who wouldn’t want to explore a multiverse of possibilities in the company of the princes of Amber?

Lord of the Rings, is in a bit of a different class. Middle Earth is a very well-defined, intricate world but I think it resonates for me, not just because it is well-defined and has memorable characters but because the LOTR novel explains and resolves that setting. The ring and Sauron go back to the roots of the world. The elves and their role again are very much a part of the history. The story is essentially the climax of the entire  history of Middle Earth. I  guess as proof, I would offer that I was very disappointed with the recent Hobbit movie. I think it is because while it has all the cool Middle Earth setting and characters, nothing really important happens. It’s just about some fairly foolhardy guys going off on a treasure hunt, which leads me to a rule I have for evaluating fantasy settings:

If the same story could take place in another setting, then it’s not a great fantasy story premise.

The Hobbit, both book and movie, could take place in 90 out of a 100 D&D campaign settings without any major changes to the story. This means, for me, it isn’t in the same class as the other stories mentioned, even though, I would venture that both the writing and the movie making are top-notch. (Before your hackles rise, I do realise it helped set off the genre. It’s on my short-shelf. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it. But it’s good, not great.) )

Maybe this is also why I like faerie tales and Disney stories so much: these stories are all about illustrating a premise with great characters. The fantasy elements aren’t just tacked on almost as an after-thought.

In conclusion, I’d have to say an intricately crafted setting is not the most important aspect for me as a reader.

Before the stones and arrows start flying, I come at this more as a matter of self-realization. You are reading the blog of someone who spends six months defining the setting for D&D campaigns that typically only run only 18-24 months. I love creating detailed, intricate settings. I don’t think it hurts in the least. But I’ve also come to the realization that in books, movies, and fantasy role-playing games, it is not required for an enjoyable experience. And for the budding fantasy writer, I would caution spending too much time on intricate details. I think premise and characters matter far more than knowing where the gods came from or what was happening 3000 years ago. That can be a bit of a trap.

Look at it this way, your premise and characters will be in your agent-pitch or on your cover blurb. Your intricate, detailed setting will not. Start with premise and characters, add a plot that illustrates both, add setting detail only as needed. Add more setting detail as you like, for personal enjoyment, but if you are spending six months on setting, that’s six months you could have spent completing a first draft.

Fantasy Novel Openings

My current book has flying mounts and floating castles. But how to establish that without losing the reader?
Flying mounts, floating castles, how to establish that in the first chapter?

Novel openings matter. As I reader, I judge a book by the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first scene and the first chapter. If it passes all those bars, it has to really screwup for me to not finish it (which does happen but not too often). From discussions with other writers, workshops and craft books, most writers appear to agree. The beginning is the author’s chance to “close the sale”, get the reader to commit to a purchase.

Speculative fiction like fantasy has a special challenge because the story is not set in an existing, well-known world, or at least it deviates from reality in some way, such as vampires in the bayous. This sets a special challenge for authors of speculative fiction. The reader needs some idea of what the speculative elements are but won’t tolerate a lot of exposition.

In my own experience, this balancing act has caused wild oscillations as I’ve tried to balance disclosure of the world with an engaging story hook. My third attempt at an opening chapter is currently in the critter queue this week (all you critters out there, I’d love your feedback 🙂 ). As I worked on this draft, which is a complete re-write for those who may have seen the earlier version, I’ve tried to mix a small amount of tells to set the stage with an action scene that shows the protagonist doing what he does best, which is flying griffins. I’ve also had Red Circle Ink critique a few intermediate drafts, extremely helpful feedback as always.

As I finished this version of chapter 1, I came across a very useful book by Robert Qualkinbush, How To Improve Your Speculative Fiction Openings,  that really helped clarify why it was proving such a challenge for me. It’s a very short, focused book at 100 pages. I’d call it a bargain at the eBook price of $3 and a bit steep in paper at $10 but well worth a look. After reading it, I did not change my chapter because (I think / hope) I blundered on to his suggestions.Speculative Fiction Openings

What Robert did was analyze over a thousand successful speculative fiction openings to see what worked. Like me, he began this analysis thinking a successful opening must start with a scene. What he found is that roughly 5 out of 6 start with some exposition, some tells to set the scene. There are successful ‘scene’ starts but most often a bit of exposition to set the stage works. This isn’t to say pages and pages of exposition are justified. Sometimes the tell is just a few lines, sometimes it is interspersed with some action, often if it is a bit more than that. This could take the form of a few sentences explaining that the character is in a starship that is under attack with some clues as to the level of technology in the process. Or it could be something bald and straight forward like Tolkien’s opening of the Hobbit where he explains in a few deft sentences what a hobbit is.

Where a scene does seem to work is when it is a passive scene, with a character interpreting something that serves the purpose of establishing the speculative elements.

All of this works much better with examples and Robert provides copious ones, from snippets to multiple pages of opening dissected line by line. This is certainly a narrow, “specialist” work but I think it is well worth the money. If the chapter currently in the queue falls flat, I plan to re-read the book more thoroughly and try again.

My wife, who is also a writer, was wondering if I am focusing too much on the opening. I did spend more than two weeks revising the chapter before moving on to the full draft 2. After the critters feedback, I will probably return to chapter one again. That’s a lot to spend on one chapter but by analyzing my own way of browsing books and what I understand of others’ process, at this point in my writing career the first chapter seems the thing to get right. Fail at the opening and no one will read anything else. Succeed and there’s a good impetuous for the rest of the novel. The rest does matter but, at least as a yet to be published author, almost everything seems to be riding on the opening. Most readers will set a book aside at some point if it fails to sustain interest but after it passes the initial hurdle, readers seem to be a bit more forgiving.

Cover text and artwork can also explain much, of course, but if you can launch your story with just the text, you’ve got that much more of a leg up.