I don’t often focus on setting but I recently read a post from J.C. Hart on Creating Depth in Fiction where she discusses the idea of world building and its importance to the story. As a fantasy writer I know that setting is really important to the stories success and world building takes an enormous amount of time and energy and given I don’t write epic tales and describe every blade of grass in the field most of my planning for my worlds never actually appears in the story. That doesn’t make the planning any less important or necessary.
Stories have three main parts – plot, setting and characters. All three are completely vital and while some authors argue for plot driven stories and others go for character driven stories, I have only ever read one article about setting driven stories and I do not remember the how or the why it worked. That doesn’t mean that setting is not equally important and that you can get away with doing minimal work on it.
In fantasy particularly, setting can nearly be seen as its own character. It is something totally new and different that the reader has never encountered and you need to introduce your reader to it and then get them to feel some kind of connection to it. They also have to believe in it which means that it has to be consistent within the rules you establish for it, much like your characters. People will accept floating islands in the sky as long as you give them a reason to believe it and then don’t directly contradict yourself later in the story. The question is, do you really need the floating islands?
If you were to ask people what their favourite fantasy world was a large number would say Middle Earth. Why? Because a large number of people have read Lord of the Rings, which always helps, and because Tolkien laboriously breaks down each and every setting and describes in vivid detail. That actually explains my dislike for the books, too many details that simply slow down the pace of the story. But it does create a really believable and realistic world. Even before the movies you could close your eyes and imagine the world and see it clearly and you knew that it would work.
Personally I would list David Eddings’ Eosia from the Elenium trilogy as my favourite fantasy world. Admittedly, the resemblance between these ‘western’ kingdoms and Europe in both dress and demeanor is at times overdone but the world makes logical sense and there are enough variations to keep it interesting.
Interestingly enough both Tolkien and Eddings focus on the quest and so end up wandering all over their respective worlds and so it is really necessary for them to make sure all the little towns and kingdoms line up and match together in order to create one believable world.
Final thoughts on setting:
- Places have history but that history does not need to be dumped on the reader in one go (particularly in a prologue that goes for multiple pages)
- The setting will influence the characters in dress and food and demeanor and it is necessary that the two work together logically
- The setting needs to be brought to life for the reader but does not need to be explained at the expense of the story.
Share your thoughts on setting – if you read fantasy, let me know what your favourite fantasy world is.
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