Among the multitude of differences that separate the practice of reading from the art of writing, especially when it comes to the fantasy/science fiction genres, one of the hardest to reconcile is that of world-building. For a reader, the setting cannot take center stage. Even for someone like me, who loves to explore new settings offered by the genre, I do not pick up a book to read pages and pages of descriptions and explanations. The setting, ultimately, is just the vehicle for the plot and characters, nothing more.
As a result, when an author is in that new project stage, trying to determine just how much world-building they should allow themselves to get into, it’s difficult to straddle that line of “how much is enough?”
Enter: opacity, stage left.
In graphic design, opacity has a multitude of functions. But, as Canva–a graphic design platform that I actually use for most of my blog banners–so poignantly wrote in a post about transparency and opacity: “Transparency creates a sense of depth in design.” By making certain elements of a piece more transparent than others, it draws the viewer’s attention to the more opaque parts of the design.
How, exactly, does that relate to writing fantasy? Well, transparency isn’t a yes or no question. It is a gradient, marked by a percentage. And, if we look at some examples of established fantasy novels, we’ll see that some of the world-building of those novels have more presence than others. Unfortunately, it can be rather difficult to pinpoint what, exactly, elevates a setting’s presence. This is primarily because creating an entire world leaves a plethora of avenues one can take to develop it. My setting study blog posts explore just that: how much information has been included into the text, and overall how well the various elements work together.
So, as we delve into and compare some of these works below, recognize that there is no single element of world-building that will automatically make a novel’s setting have presence.
To Have A Present and Distinctive Setting
One of the best examples of a present and distinct setting would have to be Wheel of Time. A series spanning fifteen books including the prequel, it’s really no surprise that Wheel of Time has the space to fully develop a uniqueness to its setting. Even so, much of the development happens early on in the series, and as the main characters wander the known world, it’s incredibly easy to distinguish between the various nations. Whether it’s the Illianer pattern of speech, the Cairhienen’s Game of Houses, or the immodest neckline of the Domani dress, there’s always something that stands out, something that, if a character randomly finds themselves in a location, they can usually figure out relatively quickly where they’re at.
Of course, it’s not just how in-depth the setting is. Rather, it’s how it interacts with the other elements of a story. Always with how it interacts with the other parts of the story. With Wheel of Time, it’s very obvious that the characters rise up out of the distinctiveness of the setting from which they came. Their uniqueness relies on the uniqueness of their home, their cultural background. Aviendha reads as a very different character from Elayne because Aviendha is Aiel. Their sense of humor, their septs and societies, their thoughts on polygamy, all set the firm foundations for the type of character that Aviendha ends up being. Same goes for Elayne.
To Lower the Opacity
It may seem counter-intuitive, but a fantasy book does not necessarily require an opaque setting. This lesson came to me in the form of the Graceling Realm series. In contrast to Wheel of Time, most of the nations in the Graceling Realm could easily be mixed with one another, with the sole exception being Lienid, with their obsession with rings and with gold earrings. The countries are named based on their location on the map–the Middluns in the center, Nander to the north, Estill to the east, and so forth–and it is very much based on a typical medieval Europe. The only setting element that distinguishes it from any other possible fantasy novel is the concept of Graces, and, east of the Great Grays, the concept of Dellian monsters.
There is no real concept of history, little concept of culture, and yet the lack of these kinds of elements barely detract from the narrative. To give Robert Jordan the likes of the Graceling Realm would ultimately take away from the narrative because the characters would get swept away behind all that detail. Again, it’s a matter of focus. The characters are so loud, so vibrant, that the setting’s lack of saturated detail puts the characters at the forefront.
If you think about it, with the Wheel of Time, the setting is so culturally rich–from the various cultures to the magic systems to the alternate worlds and how they interact with the real world–that its characters can get lost in it. When I think “Wheel of Time” my first thought isn’t Rand or Mat or Egwene. It’s the general feel of the setting, of Aes Sedai and channeling, of its kings and queens, of its mountains and its Blight. In contrast, when I think “Graceling” I think of Katsa, of Fire, of Bitterblue. And part of that can be attributed to the fact that Cashore writes with a single point of view character, and Jordan employs countless point of view characters, but really, the Graceling Realm’s distinctive characters are distinctive primarily because they are not overshadowed by the setting.
A Setting’s Opacity is Linked to How Well it is Woven into the Text.
But. That’s not to say you can do away with world-building altogether, even with a story focused more heavily on character development. However culturally deficient the setting of Graceling was–and with the kings engaged in constant squabbles over borders, it’s really unsurprising that they’re not exactly culturally distinct–the concept of Graces is never once forgotten in the narrative. It weaves itself into the plot, into the character development, into the setting, everything.
Compare that to, say, Three Dark Crowns, which does manage to check off boxes dealing with history and religious/superstitious beliefs and even some cultural details based on the different magical abilities. Yet the only characters whose eyes we really get to see through are the three extra-magicked queens of Fennbirn. The various cultural elements never seem to clash beyond simple politics, and we never get a sense of the layman’s life–something that Cashore does on a few different occasions as Katsa and Po travel across the country.
Without properly understanding how the different elements of a setting’s culture can affect the rest of the setting, the characters, even the plot, the setting cannot fulfill its primary function: to highlight the two elements that are responsible for making a story compelling. A well-developed setting that is not also well-integrated simply becomes background noise, a distraction. In Three Dark Crowns, we never really get a sense of how the stakes will impact those without abilities, we never really get a concrete sense of the extent of Jules’s legion curse or the power of Katherine’s dead queens. In Graceling, we cannot forget the extent of Leck’s Grace or just how horrifying and dangerous it is to our protagonists. So, in the end, TDC’s finale failed because the character and setting elements clashed with one another, rather than blended with each other, creating a climax to the plot that was more messy than it needed to be. Graceling’s finale succeeded for the exact opposite reason.
Drafting Up Your Own World
The question of how much is too much ultimately falls to you as an author. I don’t even necessarily mean that in the traditional “only you know what’s best for your world” sense. I think that, as a fantasy author, you either love the genre for its endless possibilities when it comes to setting, or you love the journey you can take your characters on that just isn’t as possible with the more realistic fiction. Ultimately, world-building can be incredibly tedious, more so for people who do not enjoy that part of plotting.
What I would ask myself, above all, is how much I love generating settings. For me, the answer is, I love it a lot. In fact, when working on my current project, I found it difficult to stay interested in working on it until I started cultivating the uniqueness of its setting, delving into this world my characters would find themselves in. I have confidence in my characters because I have confidence in the world they live in. But, should you find yourself the type who considers the world-building elements dull, there’s no reason to chase the likes of Wheel of Time when something more akin to the Graceling Realm will do.
Canva, “How to use transparency in graphic design”: https://www.canva.com/learn/transparency-in-graphic-design/