Tiers of Fantasy Setting Development

Today I wanted to talk about a topic that I brushed upon briefly in my last post about fantastical entities in Wheel of Time, and that has to do with how much the author allows their world to diverge from the real world, most particular in high fantasy. As is the case with most of the artistic choices surrounding the genre, it’s not a matter of right and wrong; in this case, more does not necessarily mean better.

If this topic sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because I did a blog post on it back in August, a lifetime ago, discussing how more present or less present settings can affect how much the characters or plot stand out as a whole. Today, I would simply like to discuss its affects on the reading experience.

Low-Level Development

High fantasy is still high fantasy, which means the book takes place in a setting that is not earth-like. The names are almost always fictional. But in books with low-level development, the setting aligns with reader expectations. The details are more generalized, the setting-specific cultural elements are relatively few in number, the feel of the setting relatively familiar.

Fantasy readers may consider this a bad thing; the definition of the genre is based wholly on its setting, and if its setting is not breath-taking, then what’s the point? Well, the point is that fantasy is not wholly about setting. That is its foundation; a piece, not the sum. It’s not just that anywhere is possible in fantasy; it’s that anyone and anything is possible too. There are certain storybeats told best in the fantasy genre. There are certain character archetypes that shine in fantasy in a way they don’t shine elsewhere.

And when such possibilities are written about, a certain amount of care must be tended to when it comes to the flow of information like what I talked about in the Prequel Debate, though on a smaller scale. With a finite amount of page space, the development of the setting must come at a cost to something else. Sometimes, somehow, less information is more information.

Consider point of view. First person narration is focused completely on the mind of the narrator. The reader’s knowledge is restricted to whatever the narrator sees, hears, knows. But that restriction in perspective does not necessarily prevent the reader from seeing the character growth of the non-PoV characters. It does not prevent a reader from getting attached to those other characters. And, obviously, it allows them to be better connected to the first person narrator. Low-level setting development can be the same concept; by being choosy with what specific elements gets developed in regards to the setting, the author can highlight those parts that do get developed, or can spend that time instead giving more attention to the characters or the plot.

Mid-Range Development

Whether intentional or not, the bulk of fantasy novels fall in the mid-range setting. The cause is pretty obvious if you think about it: fantasy can’t all be Tolkien or Martin or Jordan. There are so many different facets that make up a setting, and balancing enough of them to make the whole setting feel real is incredibly difficult and in some cases even impractical.

In some ways, this ability to pick and choose what information the reader recieves–information not confined to the narrator’s own knowledge–is why third person limited omniscient is so popular in fantasy. In both cases, it goes back to being careful with what setting information the reader receives. Characters need a believable backdrop to be set within, and the more details a reader has, the more believable it feels.

Mid-range allows for certain relevant historical, geographical, or political information to be fed to the reader even at times when the narrator would have no way of knowing the truth of things. This is important, especially in fantasy. Often there are bigger forces at work, and to prepare the reader for any unexpected interactions between those forces and the main characters, the author has to hint at it before the narrator has any reason to suspect anything might be amiss.

Functionally, mid-range tends to be the most comfortable to read. Presumably, most fantasy readers do like to dabble in fictional worlds. So long as it remains relevant in some way to the plot, the flow of information around the setting rarely feels dry and boring. It also has enough information to feel distinct, maybe like a country you’ve heard a lot about but never had a chance to go visit in person. You’d never confuse England for France, but neither can you really picture walking down the streets of either country.

Upper-Level Development

These are the behemoths, and honestly, it’s worth beginning this section by saying that the worlds with the most development are almost always part of an extensive series. It is truly unfair to expect a Robert Jordan level of development in a standalone or a series that was only ever meant to be a duology or a trilogy. Wheel of Time can have as much detail as it does because it has fourteen books in which to explore its setting. Lord of the Rings can only have the detail it has because Tolkien never meant the series to be the start and end of the world; hence, the Hobbit and the Silmarillion. Middle Earth was Tolkien’s literary legacy, a feat that would be near impossible to replicate in the modern day and age.

The closest modern authors get to that kind of epic delving into of setting are the series or multi-series set in the same universe. It’s not particularly surprising when an author spends so much time developing a setting and finds that they want to write more than one story in it. It makes things easier for the reader, too; to cram so much information into so few books would require too much blatant exposition to be enjoyable to even avid fantasy readers.

Regardless, no matter if the world-building spans a single book, a series, or multiple series, the way the information is presented tends to be different. It involves the same amount of detail, not always relevant, that a reader might get from third person omniscient narrative style. More than that, because such levels of development quite often mean various perspectives, various “truths,” the reader is better able to comprehend the roundness of the setting, the whole universal truths of it.

It’s worth mentioning that even with an extensive page count to allow for space to explore the world, the books in this level are still going to be the least accessible fantasy has to offer. Not just because of the length of the narrative that usually accompanies it, although that can play a huge factor. In my aforementioned post about mythical creatures in Wheel of Time, I said that it’s important to ground readers in your fantastical setting with something familiar and expected; a world cannot exist with many different nations, governments, fashions, languages, and so forth without weaving in a lot of otherness to contrast the different cultures. But although it gives the world its own flair, it also alienates the reader to some capacity.

It is in this that fully-developed fantasy settings can still be problematic. In contrast to the easily-grounded settings of the less-developed end of the gradient, there will be more elements that serve to alienate the reader. This is good, to a certain extent. Otherness in fantasy isn’t the same as it is in other genres. It’s expected and enjoyed, so long as the author remembers familiarity must serve as a base. Some fantasy readers would say they want to see something completely unexpected and new, a fantasy book that doesn’t have monarchies or democracies or… etc, for example, but it’s impractical and makes it harder for the reader to envision it.

The reader shouldn’t have to work hard to make the setting realistic in their minds; if they are, they can’t focus on the character and plot. Setting should instead help the reader make sense of the plot and the actions of the characters. That does not mean an author has to follow trope after setting trope, but it’s imperative to realize that just as too little world-building can negatively influence many narratives, so too can too much world-building.


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