Worlds Without End

25 Apr

This is going to be a sort of companion piece to my recent post One Hundred Realms. In that article I discussed the various genres and sub-genres within the fantasy field. I think that most people would agree that, whatever type of fantasy novel you’re writing or reading, an intricately detailed world is likely to be at its heart. Indeed the very act of world-building – i.e. creating an entire world out of one’s head and putting it on a page – is a defining characteristic of fantasy fiction. Sadly, at least half of those worlds are rubbish – and I say that with the dubious benefit of having read as much of the good half as the bad half over the years! I’m far from the only one who finds this frustrating – no less a fantasy luminary than Ursula Le Guin once vented her annoyance at poorly written fantasy in her essay From Elfland to Poughkeepsie about forty years ago. As a well-educated intellectual as well as a gifted author, her main criticism concerned the style of language employed. For Le Guin, the world that is created is indistinguishable from the words that build it. I personally think that she’s onto something – after all, her fantasy world of Earthsea is a grand example of what J R R Tolkien once called a ‘secondary universe’. But what is it that separates the likes of Earthsea and Middle Earth from the slew of identikit fantasy dross that plagues our bookshelves (and online stores for that matter) today?


In her saga of the wizard Sparrowhawk, Le Guin depicts a vast archipelago supplemented by a satisfyingly competent map. Not that this matters; the seas the hero sails are far wider than that of solid reality, as he goes off the map and into the realms of death itself. Le Guin was born into a family of academics and it is therefore not surprising that ethnography forms the basis of her fiction. Her societies, although sketched briefly, seem solid, and are enhanced by her deep understanding of the human condition. A similarly scholarly bedrock underpins Middle Earth. J R R Tolkien was a philologist (a sort of combination of historian and linguist) and his is a fantasy world built from artful language. The world of which Middle Earth is part has an entirely mythological origin, created by God in the manner of the Old Testament, and re-shaped many times. Whilst its creation may be fantastical, this ‘Arda’ is above all true to itself – and that’s the crucial part. This reflexive truthfulness is the most important characteristic in a convincing fantasy world – not how scheming its royal courts are – and a great many fantasies fall down here. Fantasy worlds that merely appropriate historical settings or, increasingly, refitted historical settings that have become genre standards, without the author seeking some form of inner journey, are plasticky and unconvincing.

That’s not to say that an author has to go to the extreme lengths of Tolkien to make his or her world feel convincing by inventing entire languages, thousands of years of history and enough maps to fill an atlas. Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock is the supreme example of this. It has no secondary world; its geography is entirely of the soul. It is fantasy in the purest sense and one that, brilliantly, impinges upon plain old Earth. If anything, worldbuilding becomes even more important in fantasy that does not intend to transcend our own world and time. The further from the mythological and closer to the mundane we get, the more we at least need to have the illusion that a real place is operating in the background, otherwise the whole edifice of story crumbles away. Harry Potter’s world, imagined by J K Rowling, lies undiscovered parallel to our own in a most unlikely fashion, but it is so intricately detailed that it just feels right. The fact is that the everyday and the mythical are not mutually exclusive – Alan Garner, for example, incorporates both to magnificent effect. His books are set in the actual landscapes of his native Cheshire, England. He will not even change the course of a road for mere narrative convenience; the result is that his stories remain convincing even when heaving with witches, dwarves and goblins.  Michael Swanwick does the reverse, injecting industrial technologies into fairyland in The Iron Dragon’s Daughter with equal success.


The secret, again, is style. Garner’s books are masterfully spare in their use of language, Swanwick’s brilliantly descriptive. So Le Guin had it right, it appears. Some of the most common foul-ups which plague fantasy novels, meanwhile, include the following: maps that make no sense or are just plain lazy (ever had that feeling that the fantasy world of [insert name here] looks an awful lot like Western Europe?); urban fantasies depicting ‘hidden worlds’ so full of supernatural inhabitants that it is hard to believe that they continue to remain hidden; languages full of made up words that just look and sound wrong; characters not adapted in any way to fantasy that could have stepped right out of the pages of a novel from virtually any other genre; worlds full of intelligent species with no real reason to be there other than the fact that the author was (a) inspired by Tolkien, or (b) inspired by that D&D game that was inspired by Tolkien; and so on and so on. On the other hand, what makes the very best fantasy worlds can perhaps be boiled down to internal truthfulness, stylistic accomplishment and a certain, almost academic, rigour. That’s not to say that you need to be an educated intellectual to write a good fantasy novel – far from it. Here, we’re talking about rigour in whatever field – be it geography, mythology, linguistics, industry – interests the author. Whether we’re sketching latter day Valhallas or trying to create a complete Low Fantasy world from the ground up, good fantasy is true, beautiful and rigorous. But then, surely the same applies to all good fiction, right?

11 Responses to “Worlds Without End”

  1. Jeff April 25, 2013 at 2:09 am #

    Like x 1000!

  2. mqallen April 25, 2013 at 3:25 am #

    Very nice post! The world setting matters a great deal to me as reader. Without naming names (and harkoning back a few decades), a few worlds that didn’t come up to snuff for me but had lots of success all the same: a world that used the US map, a world with a huge trading hub a) set at the edge of a desert for no apparent reason, and b) without any apparent trading partners.

    As a writer, I like the Tolkien spirit: a world where its roots and origins are understood, and matter for the story.

  3. ilverai April 25, 2013 at 3:44 am #

    Tolkien believed, as expressed in his lecture ‘A Secret Vice’, that language actaully begets myth, just as myth creates language. The two are inextricably tied. Language, words and prose both affect and form our consciousness of both the mundane world and the fantastic…perception is so bound up in language, it’s little wonder it usually marks the success or failure of an author.

  4. tweetgeistguy April 25, 2013 at 4:35 am #

    Reblogged this on Tweet Geist Guy and commented:
    Fabulous Picture!

  5. Sophie E Tallis April 25, 2013 at 11:14 am #

    Excellent post again, well done!

    I think where so many fantasy writers go wrong, is simply that they don’t do their research. They take shortcuts. They think that taking various elements from other fantasy worlds and merging them will somehow create something fresh and original. It won’t. Again this is one of the criticisms frquently levelled at fantasy writers, that their writing is simply a regurgitation of what’s gone before. Now of course this is unfair.

    Afterall, every writer in every genre is influenced in some way by those that have gone before. With leviathans like Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Asimov, Sagan, Huxley, Philip K Dick dominating the sci-fi genre, it’s hard to find your voice. Every genre has their giant. For us it’s Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, Ursula Le Guin, Anne MaCaffrey, Gemmell, G.R.R Martin etc. Where would crime novels be without the first pioneers in the genre, Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie?

    The same goes for plotting. Every crime writer follows a certain basic formula for their chosen genre, it’s inescapable – every crime novel has a crime, a perpetrator, a victim and a solver of the crime, often a conflicted angst riddled anti-hero. Every romance novel has, yes you’ve guessed it, a romance – often involving obstacles to overcome, love triangles etc. The fantasy genre too, has it’s cliches and well worn characters, dwarves, elves, warriors, wizards, dragons etc.

    The difference is, not merely in how you weave your various elements, but in doing thorough research too so that every area of your created world has a reality and originality to it. It’s rooted in something tangible. Just because it’s fantasy and not the mechanics of a crime novel with actual police procedures, doesn’t mean you can’t do research. If your world is entirely invented, look for real comparisons in nature – rock formation, geology, flora and fauna, animal life both past and present, the mechanics of heraldry, atmosphere, geography (are there countries/areas in the world similar to your landscapes that you could draw from?). Obviously, if your world is set within our own/parallel to it, then research locations etc. But be thorough. DO YOUR RESEARCH! I’m lucky because I’m a writer and illustrator so I’m able to do my own maps convincingly, but if you don’t have the skills, employ an illustrator to do a kick ass map of your world in as much detail as possible. For realistic, original and convincing world building, there are no cutting corners!

  6. aahabershaw April 25, 2013 at 1:08 pm #

    Reblogged this on Auston Habershaw and commented:
    A very interesting bit on world-building in fantasy novels by Ash Silverlock. Check it out!

  7. guayja1 April 25, 2013 at 6:21 pm #

    Enjoyed this post. My tack for world building typically revolves around a core technology, or means of magic, that shapes the science fiction or fantasy world accordingly. Sometimes I get so engaged in the world building I neglect to actually write the story 🙂

  8. guayja1 April 25, 2013 at 6:21 pm #

    Reblogged this on Not-Dot and commented:
    Interesting perspective and inspiration for really well developed world building in our writing.

  9. noorajahangir April 26, 2013 at 11:23 am #

    Reblogged this on Official Website and Blog of Noor A Jahangir and commented:
    From Fabulous Realms . . . .

  10. The World Is My Cuttlefish April 29, 2013 at 1:23 pm #

    A great post which deepens my thinking on setting in general. Looks like more books to find in the library today.


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