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Fantasy World-Building

Genre author Jeff VanderMeer‘s blog has an interesting entry on building fantasy worlds. [Link via Solar Flare]

The post, seemingly contradictory, says that fantasy worlds should be consistent (to provide an anchor point for the reader) but not too consistent (so it’s interesting). Hmmm…this has me thinking again about what it is that makes me like fantasy less than sf.

I think I would lean toward the consistent world rather than the in-flux world. One of my beefs with fantasy is that it is oftentimes Anything Goes. Seemingly, an author will pull something out of the air (say, some magical action) with the reader having no prior foreknowledge of the ability of the character (or the world) to do so. Thus, to me at least, it can come across more like a writing trick (and pulling me out of the story) than magical world building. I would rather the world play by a consistent set of “magical rules”, if you will. I want that anchor. I need that anchor. Gimme consistency, baby!

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

5 Comments on Fantasy World-Building

  1. I would venture to say that any story, fantastic or mundane, that pulls a solution out of thin air is a bad story.

    The point of hard science fiction is to make a rational extrapolation from known scientific principles (such as the time-dilation paradox of relativity) and work it into a good story that has all the elements of good story-telling (Heinlein’s TIME FOR THE STARS and also LeGuin’s LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS tell what it would be like to stay young at near light speed while your family ages back home, for instance). Soft science fiction does the same things with that special class of ideas that are products of the scientific veiw of the world, but are themselves unscientific (time travel, telepathy, hyperspace).

    Fantasy has a slightly different point. It is a celebration of the pre-scientific world view, a nostalgic look back to the way things were for the audiences of MORTE d’ARTHUR or the ILIAD. The crucial point is that the prescientific world had rules of its own, as rigid and demanding as the rules of science, and the literature could not step outside those rules, not and tell a good story.

    An example of a good fantasy: LORD OF THE RINGS. The magical elements follow a logic of their own, but it is a mythical, dreamlike logic. The magic ring makes you vanish not because a force-field is bending the photons around you, but because the signant-ring (the symbol of identity) is a corruptive power that merges you with the wraith-world, the unseen Otherworldly dark land where evil spirits dwell.

    In a good fantasy, as in good science fiction, the author plays fair. He tells you right up front what the abilities and limitations of his magic is. (Magic ring corrupts anyone who wears it, and draws the Lidless Eye toward you. Use with caution.) He says in the first chapters how to destroy it (Throw in volcano). In order to be a good fairy-tale, there is only going to be one way to destroy it, and that will test the powers and the resolve of our plucky hero.

    Even a good fantasy that breaks this rule of fairplay will have a bad scene. With profound apologies to all Oz-lovers out there, the scene where Dorothy kills the Wicked Witch of the West with a bucket of water is not-playing-fair because no one told the reader in chapter one that the only way to kill the witch was to splash her with water. The resolution is unexpected and utterly arbitrary.

    Science Fiction can have heroes solve problems in unexpected ways, because Science Fiction is the literature of the mind, the playground of engineers. Fantasy is the literature of the soul, the playground of theology and myth; where breaking the rules is not usually an act of innovation, but an act of moral corruption. Finding an imaginative way to build a flying machine is very different from finding an imaginative way to avoid obeying a rule of morality.

    If Frodo, after experimenting, had discovered that he could turn invisible by placing the One Ring on the finger of Gollum’s severed hand which he held by the stump, but that the corruptive effect would not touch him, and the magic of the Ringwraiths would send them hunting a frantic one-armed Gollum, not him, that would have been a satisfying bit of engineering, but not satisfying as a fantasy myth.

  2. SF is literature of the mind (the playground of engineers) and fantasy is literature of the soul (theology and myth)…

    That’s an excellent description and distinction. I’m not well versed in theology or myth, so maybe that’s at the heart of my on-again off-again relationship with fantasy.

    SF Signal…A place where you can discover your true inner self. Like Dianetics, but without the crazy people!

  3. Hey, we got lots of crazy people, but we are much cooler crazy people. I definitely think John points out key elements that draw me to fantsay. I like both genres, but there are times where I think that fantasy really appeals to my hero versus the hordes of enemies view. Now I know you can get that same feeling in a sci fi book, but thats where fantasy shines for me.

    And let me repeat, we have plenty of crazy people. Its just that we are much cooler about it and dont have to have some fancy shmancy name for what we are…

  4. Jeff VanderMeer // July 14, 2005 at 8:17 am //

    I think you distort the meaning in my essay just a bit. Just as in good characterization there is “consistent inconsistency”, so to a real-life city is consistently inconsistent. When you examine real cities you find all kinds of discrepancies and illogical things. So when building a fantasy city, why would you be totally “consistent” if you wanted to be realistic and believable? You wouldn’t. But the same applies to a futuristic SF city.

    There’s really no difference between good fantasy and good SF.


  5. Jeff makes a good point. At least if you’re looking at it from the point of view of a writer, not a reader. The skills and elements that a writer works with to create a believeable city would be the same whether it was fantasy or science fiction.

    The world is not a neat, rational place and any story which creates an entirely neat and rational world will ring false.

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