Live in the World

December 3, 2009 at 5:09 am (fantasy, Setting, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , )


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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13 Comments

  1. Corra McFeydon said,

    I don’t write/read fantasy, so perhaps my thought on this are moot, but it seems setting should be paired with the natural story-telling. It should come out as it matter in the telling of the story, and if it can’t be fit naturally into the plot, it never needed to be told?

    I write a lot of historical fiction. One novel is set in Tennessee during the American Civil War. I’m able to describe the town in the third chapter as the protagonist enters it–but only because he’s discovering his location in that chapter, and thus it’s vital to the story. If I were writing a novel about a character who already lived in the town, I likely wouldn’t mention it beyond whatever was important through the protagonist’s eyes.

    I try to never tell the story as if I’m telling it to an audience. I tell it as if it’s unfolding right now, and the audience doesn’t exist.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      I’m with you – particualrly when writing in first person. Why would someone who had lived in a place their whole life be describing it in detail? It doesn’t make a lot of sense. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Corra McFeydon said,

    Forgive my typos. I’m in a hurry. Sorry. 🙂

  3. Elizabeth Spann Craig said,

    I’m not really interested in setting as much…but there are some books where it’s vital–man against nature, for instance. Or Moby Dick or a book revolving around a protagonist’s goal to reach the top of Everest.

    For me, I’d rather my setting stay in the background. A few Monet-like smudges here and there…

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

  4. Kimberly Davis said,

    I enjoyed this post. World building seems especially important in science fiction, speculative fiction and fantasy writing, and my writing students often struggle with this. Best, Kim Davis, Kim’s Craft Blog.

  5. Carol Kilgore said,

    I like to involve my setting enough so that the story must take place there. From a non-fantasy perspective, I think you need to know as much as you can about the location of your setting. All writers are different, but for me I find I can fake some things, but not all.

  6. Juliet Boyd said,

    Some interesting thoughts. I think the trick is to know everything about the setting yourself, but only give the reader what they need for the story to make sense.

  7. Steve said,

    I definitely think there is an art to describing a setting. There is a threshold in which the author must decide how much description is “enough” and when they have gone too far and have gotten too detailed. For me, I tend to side with less detail simply because I think reading should be an interactive process in which the writer tries to engage the reader into the story. I like what Stephen King says in his book “On Writing,” he says writing is telepathy between the author and the reader. Both sides contribute something to the book. The author gives the reader just enough information about the setting to show what’s going on, and the reader can fill in the details. This process allows the reader to be engaged with the book by allowing them to do a little dreaming on their own. Finding this balance between writer and reader is the tricky part.

  8. Cassandra Jade said,

    Thanks all for the comments. Thanks for the Stephen King example, sounds about right.

  9. joshuadmaley said,

    I love fantasy stories in whatever form I can ingest them. Personally, I’ve found the Four Lands in the Shannara series to be my favorite – which is a little ironic since the lands are purported actually be part of some future Earth.

    I tend to agree that the setting needs to be painted somewhat organically. If a detail isn’t intrinsic to the story, it need not be mentioned. I’ve run into a similar dilema in filmmaking – what details need to be displayed on the screen, and in what way, to maximize impact? How much attention, if any, do we give to certain elements? It’s a bit different – on the page, the world is largely open to the reader’s imagination, whereas on the screen its depiction affords little room for imaginative interpretation. But the core issue is the same – how much is too much?

    I’ve found that fantasy is sometimes a little easier to get away with because there is no frame of reference (or very few such frames). So long as your internal logic is accurate, as you said above, people will accept it. There are certainly plenty of miniscule details to work out if it’s necessary, and fantasy worlds can be richly layered and wonderfully complex. Yet in such worlds, you have more freedom to move about and bend the rules according to your story logic. And even the most outlandish details can seem very natural and simple when they grow organically from your people and your story.

    Painting a scene of some place that is familiar to the reader (or the viewer) demands a keen eye for detail in the real world – a lesson hard learned on my part. People have expectations for “real world” places, whether they’ve been there or not (and whether those expectations are even accurate or not).

    Both beg the same questions, however, and each are uniquely challenging to answer whilst crafting your scenes. Excellent post! Great read.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Thanks for your visit and I agree, the Shannara series was incredible (been a long time since I read it which is probably why it didn’t come to mind while writing the post).

  10. Margot Kinberg said,

    Cassandra – No matter what the genre, I agree that setting is crucial. If the reader doesn’t feel a sense of place, it’s hard to feel invested in a story. You may be right that it’s especially important in fantasy novels, though, since frequently those settings aren’t everyday settings that people can already imagine. Important to think about – thanks!

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Setting is crucial, but it is easier when people have some sort of reference point. If you tell people that you are in a hospital they automatically come up with a vision of what the place looks like.
      Thanks for the comment.

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