If there’s one thing I love most about fantasy fiction, it’s the worlds that authors create. From Brandon Sanderson’s sprawling ‘Cosmere’, to the smaller worlds created by the likes of Abercrombie and Weeks, I love them!
But does the fictional world created by the author make or break a novel? Sure, they can add a ton to to the story but can it take away from it? In my opinion, yes, it can, but only when it detracts from the story.
“These stories are about characters, and yet the worldbuilding is what sets us apart” – Brandon Sanderson
World-building is one thing an author – especially in the fantasy and sci-fi genres – needs to get absolutely right. It is the backdrop to the story and has the biggest impact on the characters. It helps the reader to set the scene, the feel, and the general tone of the novel. I mean, there are actual genres defined by the world in which they’re based, like utopian and dystopian novels, that’s how important the worldbuilding is.
Charlie Jane Anders wrote a great article on the 7 Deadly Sins of Wordbuilding and points to the areas that can really stop a story in its tracks and totally detract from what might be an otherwise really enjoyable book.
For a minute, close your eyes and imagine that Lord of the Rings was not set in Middle Earth, and instead took place in a small village set around other smallholdings. Not as good right? I know I’m using an example from one of the best, most celebrated worlds ever created by a fantasy writer but the point is a valid one.
Some of the worst worldbuilding I’ve encountered usually comes down to the fact that it’s totally illogical. You might be sat there thinking, “Really? Of course it’s illogical, it’s fantasy!” But no, we buy into these worlds and the specific ‘rules’ that apply to that world. When there are no rules or boundaries it’s just chaos and the reader ends up lost; the last place we want to be.
I’ll use Philip K. Dick as an example, he builds beautiful futuristic worlds, but they have strict rules. Just imagine Decker chasing down androids using nothing but an enchanted sword. You see what I mean? It’s not good, it doesn’t work. And that’s what we need as readers, the fantastic but believable boundaries.
I view worldbuilding as an essential part of a story but it’s not centre stage, it’s the backdrop for the main players. It’s a scenery piece that explains but doesn’t detract from the characters or their journeys, it enhances the whole piece.
Mapping it out
A lot of the maps we see today in fantasy are beautiful and intricate, but do they actually serve their purpose? When we’re reading a novel that takes place across a huge expanse, you need a map to refer to so you’re not fudging around wondering what the hell is going on. It needs to serve that purpose.
One of my biggest bugbears is when a map looks excellent but it’s just massively overpopulated and too complex. For me, a great map will be specific enough that it actually gives you a sense of direction and you can refer back to it, and doesn’t muddy the waters too much. Oh, it’s also got to be easy to read.
A map that I really like is the one created by Jon Skovron in the Empire of Storms Trilogy. It’s big enough that you know where locations are in relation to each other, but he relies on his ability to detail the towns and flesh them out within his writing, not on the map.
As you can see, the towns and location are not detailed to any great extent on Jon’s map, but you know what the world looks like, and now you can see where the characters are. In my opinion it’s close to perfect and it definitely serves its purpose.
It’s all in the names
The names of different cities, towns, and locations are some of my favourite things about fantasy novels because they’re so imaginative. But it’s easy to get it wrong, and it happens quite often.
One of the biggest pitfalls I find when reading a book is having similar sounding points on a map. How is the reader, throughout a 400-1100 page novel, supposed to be able to refer back to a place when they all sound the same? As an example, say they’re in a place called “Khavan” (as far as I know, that’s not a location in any fantasy or sci-if novel) but they’re referring to another place they’ve been that’s called “Khavna”, when you’re one deep in a novel, you won’t be able to make these distinctions, well, at least I can’t, I’m not be able to. There’s so much going on within a novel and the reader is processing events, backstories, and other wonderful things that being confused by names of locations will only detract from the story and turn them off.
Also, with names, don’t make it too difficult to pronounce, or too convoluted, it’s just unnecessary. If a place is called ‘Stonepeak’ that’s great, we don’t need a 12 syllable Elvish name instead, make it easy for us. This isn’t to say that imaginative names aren’t fun because they really are, and I love them. I just want to be able to recognise it and talk about it without sounding like an idiot.
They’re selling worlds, am I buying? Yeah, sure, but make it worth it.
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