Note: This should’ve gone up Friday. In fact, it would’ve gone up Friday – was all ready to go up Friday – when my computer experienced internet connectivity issues. So, you get to enjoy it today instead!
A major part of writing fantasy is world-building – everyone agrees about that. What’s the point of setting your plot on another world, if everything that happens could’ve occurred in the very city you live in without anyone blinking an eyelash? Characters have to act in a realistic other world, a world that is somehow different than the world we live in.* This is the fun part of fantasy, but also one of its pitfalls.
And not just the realistic part. It’s tough to think up another world all on your own, and not even Tolkien’s world is without its flaws (Tolkien, by the way, admitted once or twice that the geography of Middle Earth was sadly unrealistic). Another pitfall is, after putting all your effort into dreaming up a wonderful alternate reality, you want people to know how much thought you put into it.
“Shown their work” is one name for this, and don’t get me wrong, this can be done well. But everyone’s heard of historical novels where characters spend pages explaining the political situation of their time to each other, just so the reader knows how much effort the author put into this. And, you know, the exact same thing can be done in fantasy novels, and is definitely one of the reasons non-fantasy readers find them boring. Because there is usually a LOT of back story about the setting, characters and society that somehow has to get across.
I’ve certainly got the feeling before, while reading fantasy novels recommended to me as “good,” that these particular characters are chasing this particular MacGuffin into this particular country, just so the author can show off the fact he/she actually INVENTED another country/society/setting in their fantasy world. That their world has breadth and depth, just like the real world. But in reality, those scenes could be cut from the book and the only result would be that the plot would move along a little faster.
Or, the feeling that a particular fantasy series is going on forever because the author wants to explore the outer edges of his world, while the reader would be perfectly satisfied for the plot to just get on, already!
In these cases, the reader feels like the world was created far more for the author’s own pleasure than for the readers’. That we are just being dragged into a very long trip into someone else’s imagination – someone who is very proud of their imagination, and thinks the sheer scope and force of their imagination will convince everyone else it’s good too. When, in reality, the story is lost behind dense layers of self-indulgence.
I’m speaking here as a reader and not a writer, obviously. I know it’s a tricky balance, getting out everything you need to say in a story without destroying the illusion by saying too much.
Anyway, I’d just like to point out at the end, instead of listing off every terrible fantasy book out there (which would really just be tearing other authors down, rather than saying anything useful), one author who does not fall into this pitfall. You can pick up any of her books and feel the full force of disorientation of falling into a fully realized world in the first chapter. Very little is carefully explained, but none of it feels like it was hurriedly thought up at the last minute. She’s done her world-building, but she doesn’t tediously show it off.
I’m talking about Diana Wynne Jones here, of course.
According to her, the reason she doesn’t feel this urge to precisely describe every aspect of her world-building is because she spent so much of her career writing for children. In her own words, here’s a brilliant quote that explains why this is:
“When I was asked if I’d like to try my hand at an adult novel, I most joyfully agreed… I found myself thinking as I wrote, “These poor adults are never going to understand this; I must explain it to them twice more and then remind them again later in different terms.” Now this is something I never have to think when I write for younger readers. Children are used to making an effort to understand… I can rely on this. I can make my plots for them as complex as I please, and yet I know I never have to explain them more than once (or twice at the very most). And here I was, writing for people of fifteen and over, assuming that the people who read, say, Fire and Hemlock last year have now given up using their brains.”
This is, perhaps, why I have such trouble finding new fantasy books to read, despite my love of the genre. I don’t mind if every little detail isn’t explained – as long as there’s enough details for me to put things together. I don’t need every book to be a doorstopper. So I often find myself reading children’s fantasy, and I’m not ashamed of it. I still hold out the hope, though, that I’ll find more fantasy novels that I truly enjoy.
* I recognize many fantasy novels are set in our world, but by this sentence I mean in those novels our world has to be our world but different, for it to truly be a fantasy novel. You know, like in Harry Potter, where wizards and witches live hidden under our very noses. And so on. In this case, using our world as a setting is using it as more of an alternate fantasy version of our world.
** After complaining about the above at length, I realize it’s almost hypocritical of me to still love Lord of the Rings. But I’m willing to make an exception for Lord of the Rings. Because it’s – well, it’s Lord of the Rings.