Downsize your Fantasy Setting

Бородатая змея
Бородатая змея (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What? It’s not enough that I have to worry about the calories on my plate, now I need to worry about my setting, too? There are perils to a “fatty” setting but that’s for another post. Here, I’m talking about scale.

As I mentioned in Can Dragons Really Fly, the absolute size of things (scale) solves a lot of problems with fantasy tropes. There’s no real way to have flying dragons on anything Earth-like of the same scale as our home world. Sure, you could lower gravity and thicken the atmosphere but if you do that we’d be bouncing around like lunar astronauts and a light wind would pack the punch of a hurricane. However, if we were suddenly perfectly scaled to 1/3 or 1/2 our current size, things are entirely different. Why? Because we’d weigh 1/27th to 1/8th, or about 8 to 25 pounds and a dragon the size of Quetzalcoatlus , a pterosaur from the Cretaceous, would look quite dragon-like and be able to carry us on its back (or in its jaws!)

But who wants their heroes to be pygmies? Have no fear, they won’t think of themselves that way. Think back to when you were six. Did you seem small or adults seem big? I’m guessing it was the latter because as part of our sense of body (the part of our brain that tells us our bodies end at the tip of our fingers and toes), there’s also a sense of scale that adjusts our perceptions of the world to our body size. In fact, if you wrote a fantasy book about a world where the people were half our size, it would be pretty hard to convey that to the reader because size is relative and if everything in the book thinks half-sized is normal sized, what difference does it make? Then why bother, you might ask?

Scale would not be one of those things “on the page” in your story. Readers will likely never see it unless you somehow brought humans to that world and they were perceived, as giants as in Gulliver’s Travels. But the concept can aid you, the writer, in two waysOne is behind the scenes, when you are populating your story world. The other is when you’re casting about for new ideas.

We all have built-in consistency checkers. It comes from way back in our evolutionary tree when our earliest mammalian ancestors had to determine if that thing floating in the water was a log or a predator. We use it today when we unconsciously assess whether a strange man on the street is a danger and, more benignly, whether a plot is preposterous or not and a story worth reading. For those of us who are a certain type of geek (especially prevalent among us engineers), we check a whole range of parameters without much thought. This means, that for me as a fantasy writer, it is sometimes hard to put down fantasy tropes on the page without automatically cataloguing the list of implausibilities. This is an affliction most writers thankfully do not suffer from but most of the problems actually go away if you just scale your fantasy world. Dragons too big to fly? Not in a scaled world. Giants too big to live? Not if they are simply human-sized in a world of midgets. Trees too tall for capillary action to take water to the top? Think redwood tree at 3x the height in a scaled world. Even things like the vast mines of Moria are easier to stomach when scaled.

Hydroids the size of a human
Hydroids the size of a human

Granted most people aren’t really going to worry about this but using this scale trick can actually help you with your world design. For instance, if you have a scale factor in mind and you are wondering how tall to make that giant, you can just work it out from Earth analogues. For example, let’s say I chose a 3:1 scale factor. How tall should my giant be? Well, if my giant was average human size (-ish), we could go with an 18 foot tall giant (that’s 6 feet average height times 3). Some humans are taller than that and you could imagine a race evolved to be somewhat taller still so maybe you could go with 24 foot tall giants: pretty good size giants (and perfectly in-line with D&D giants, BTW) and no laws of physics are broken. The same can be done for the girth of an ancient oak tree, the height of a mountain, the size of monsters. You can even scale it for object properties: your 1/3rd size people will make doors and walls 1/3rd as thick: imagine how easy it would be for a creature the size and power of a bull to smash through those!

And, again, while most people may not consciously worry about scale, everyone has some level of consistency checker. If you use scale to make your fantasy world hang together, it might make your word self-consistent enough to keep your reader from setting it aside as too ridiculous.

The other place scale might help is creativity. Our media is flooded by fascinating images from Avatar’s lush forests to Guild Wars 2’s exotic seas. Those of you who have a bent for biology probably recognize that many of those fantastic creatures are scaled up from small reef creatures and other organisms. Look-up Serpulid Worms (aka Christmas tree worms) before you watch Avatar again or look-up hydroids before swimming beneath Guild Wars 2’s waters.

Fantasy artists have been stealing concepts from the world of the small for ages and so can you as a writer.

The nice thing about scale is that if you scale everything, it is unnoticeable to the denizens of your world… except for one place. If you put 1/3rd size humans on earth, the surface of the world is going to seem nine times bigger. It’s going to feel like a huge planet. Of course, you can shrink the earth and maybe give your world a bigger iron core to compensate for gravity if you don’t want your people bouncing around like Neil Armstrong on the moon. On the other hand, if you play MMOs, you may have noticed that your characters get a lot more air time with a jump (and take a lot less fall damage), which might suggest that you aren’t playing on an Earth-gravity world. Might work for your stories as well.

Next, I’d like to dig into the other meaning of scale, i.e., scope: as in, you don’t need a detailed Tolkien-like world for a successful fantasy novel. Nor do you need a world with in-your-face magic or a monster around every corner. In fact, it can be counterproductive.

Can Dragons Really Fly?

Could a dragon really fly? If evolution had taken a different path on earth, would it be possible to have something like large dragons soaring through the air?

The most straight forward approach to analyzing this is by analogue. What is the largest flying creature in earth history? That proves to be, as far as is known, the impressive Quetzalcoatlus from the Late Cretaceous, estimated at anywhere from 150 pounds to as much as 550 pounds. It was quite the hefty creature with a wingspan of nearly 40 feet. That’s a large creature but it is far short of dragon proportions.

Dragons such as the ones in the picture above would weigh several tons and a dragon like Tolkien’s Smaug might weigh tens of tons. There seems no way to get such a creature airborne on Earth.

What about the Pandora solution? A lower gravity world, perhaps with a denser atmosphere? Turns out that that helps but a little lower gravity and a little thicker atmosphere only makes so much difference. To really loft even a griffin of maybe 1000 pounds, you would need something more like the Moon’s gravity and maybe 10x denser atmostphere. You could call it good at that but did you notice the humans in the movie Pandora hopping around like the astronauts on the moon? And 10x denser air may not seem like much of a difference but it is no small matter. I live where it is a short trip to the Columbia River gorge where you can experience 50mph winds frequently. It’s hard to move in such winds. Imagine a 50 mph wind with 10x denser air: it would be the same as a 500 mph wind on Earth. Of course, the winds wouldn’t be that fast, it would take too much energy. Instead, the thicker air would mean both wind and aerial creatures would move slower. And while the thicker air increases lift for a given speed, it also increases drag. On net, it doesn’t really help all that much because your flying creature would stall and fall from the skies.

One thing often overlooked, however, is scale. What if your humans were smaller? Remember how much larger the world seemed when you were a child? Your perception of the world around you matches your size. So if everyone in the world was 50% smaller, then to those people a Quetzacoatlus would seem much bigger and just as importantly a world peopled by fellow small folk would look to them much like our world looks to us, except they would have (to them) taller trees, bigger animals, etc. Our half height humans would weigh one eighth of a normal human’s weight since weight is a function of volume which scales cubically. So instead of a 200 pound rider (maybe 160 pounds for the person and 40 for the riding gear), you would have a 25 pound person and harness. That’s certainly carryable by a Quetzacoatlus, especially if you tweaked gravity and density a little bit. And the wingspan would appear to be 80 feet to the mini-human. That is getting to be dragon sized. You would have to posit human intelligence in a brain of one eighth the mass but that seems feasible (more efficient neurons?) At least it pushes the problem farther down the road.

So can dragons fly? Not for us, but maybe on other worlds in our universe with smaller sentient creatures. And in the realm of fantasy, there can certainly be dragons: it is all part of the suspension of disbelief.