As you well know Tolkien’s majestic creation of the world of Middle Earth has inspired many other writers to come up with fantasy worlds of their own. Some acknowledge their debt to him, and to the mythologies that inspired him; some don’t. Some have written great books. Many have written utter dreck.
My question for other fantasy fans: What makes you stick with a world that an author has created? What will ruin it for you? What keeps you immersed in the fantasy?
Is it the amount of detail? Dragons, or the absence thereof? Strong female characters?
I just finished the Obernewtyn Chronicles series by Isabelle Carmoody (or at least the 3 books readily available in the US). I fell into her created world completely, but I can’t put my finger on why. This is the first time this has happened for me in a long, long time. Pullman’s writing style and child heroes and “daemons” turned me off to “His Dark Materials”. Religious imagery killed Narnia . Likewise the dopey names ruined the Wheel of Time series. I did like the world of Gormenghast, and at a far end of the fantasy spectrum the children’s “Septimus Heap” series.
It’s hard to get a really good fantasy world. It has to be deep and convincing, you can’t just throw a bunch of neat ideas in a pile! And lame names are bad. Snobbery gets to me too.
So I find Rowling unconvincing and thin; she’s just thrown some neat ideas into a sort of partial extension of our world. I agree about Pullman’s HDM; daemons are neat at first, and when you think about it, they fail. (Also the 3rd book is mushy and incoherent.) I like Narnia, but it’s not heavyweight fantasy to me.
My personal favorite is Diana Wynne Jones. She makes you work. There’s a lot of depth. She never explains a whole lot, but you know that there’s a whole coherent world in the background and you try to figure out as much as you can. And she writes about real, serious issues of choice, moral responsibility, power and the abuse thereof, all that stuff. I like an author who has something to say.
dangermom makes a key point – there’s not a whole lot of exposition in good fantasy. The writers plop you down in the midst of their world and it’s up to the reader to figure it out.
If there’s too much explanation, it feels like you’re reading a history or sociology text. That’ll work if the POV is that of a historian, or an aging character reliving an adventurous life, but it fails otherwise.
Same with descriptions of landscape and life forms – don’t tell me that the country of Zygg’nakk is bordered by mountains on the east and oceans on the west and that it’s rampant with three-horned carnivorous Umlaks unless all that is relevant to the story.
For me, the worlds in Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, Erickson’s Malazan Empire, and Hobb’s Six Duchies are particularly successful. Also Simmons’ Hyperion Saga, but that’s SF.
First, it has to be consistent. I can’t deal with a fantasy world where the rules are changing all the time. By the time I’m halfway through the book, I want to feel like I understand the world where it’s taking place – at least as well as the denizens of that world do.
Second, I like unique twists, not just Tolkien rehashed (that’s why Shannara didn’t work for me).
On the flip side of that, don’t change familiar stuff just for the heck of it. We all have a mental picture of a goblin: gnarly little fellow that lives underground. If the world has nine-foot-tall four-armed, six-eyed, blue-skinned creatures with snake tails, don’t call them goblins.
-Can’t try to be Tolkeinesque*, or exhibit obvious thievery from Star Wars.
-No unnecessary use of apostrophes/consonant combinations unless fully realized alien language also established
-Story must obviously require a non-reality based setting; in other words the characters must do something with the fantasy world other than admire it and interact with it in very familiar ways (ie substituting dragons for plane travel)
Since I’ve just excluded about 98% percent of what’s out there you might guess that while I am a fantasy fan I’m a harsh critic.
*Not even in parody. Done, done, a thousand times done.
Writing a great fantasy world is fairly simple, and obviously a lot of authors follow the method–get a copy of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, by Dianna Wynn Jones, and follow it religiously.
Actually, I agree with Bosda. Good worldbuilding is actually a minor part of a successful story. Characterization, plot, tone, and so on are all much more important. Most of my favorite fantasy novels do not have the kind of history, sociology, and linguistic background that Prof Tolkein created, but they have stories that I want to keep reading.
This is very important. I think this was a shortcoming of Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud. It was hard to care about whether the commoners managed to overthrow the magicians, because we didn’t spend enough time with the commoners. They didn’t seem all that oppressed, from what I could tell.
I think a huge part of what makes a successful fantasy world is believability: I can believe that this world could actually exist somewhere.
Things that contribute to believability are
consistency (as Invisible Wombat explained) (anything that doesn’t add up, fit in, or make sense in the context of the world is going to wreck my suspension of disbelief),
depth (wealth of detail, well-thought-out backstory, etc.) (one reason Tolkien’s Middle Earth is so vivid is the vast amount of time he spent developing its geography and history and languages and etc.), and
originality, so that it doesn’t feel like a ripoff or bad copy of some other fantasy world(s). (The reason for everything that exists in that world is because that’s how things actually are there, not because the writer thinks he’s supposed to throw them in because that’s how things are in the other novels he’s read.)
And, this is just a personal preference, but I like my fantasy worlds to have some natural beauty and wilderness in them. I like things like deep dark forests, vast mountains, underground caverns, etc.
It’s been a looong time since I’ve read them, but at least from the point of view of high-school-aged me, the best thing about Stephen R. Donldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant was the Land that he created has a setting. I was genuinely affected and shared Covenant’s dismay to see how the Land had been “wounded” in the first volume of the second trilogy.
You probably shouldn’t read E. R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros, then. It’s populated by “goblins” and “demons” and “witches” who are not what I think of when I see those words. I eventually reconciled myself to Eddison’s terminology by thinking of those names as like the names of sports teams that the characters were on, so that a character might be a “demon” or a “witch” in the same sense that a football player might be a “cowboy” or a “viking.”
I think the setting matters to me only so far as I have to believe that Character X is a product of Environment Y.
I think the person who does this the best is Lois McMaster Bujold.
I also want a system of magic that has rules and isn’t just a way to get the main character out of a tight corner. The best example of the good kind of magic system is Brian Sanderson’s Mistborn. There are rules, dammit!
Sociology and economics are the big deal breakers for me. There’s a general rule in fantasy fiction that the people who hold modern liberal ideas are the good guys while the people who actually act like they’re living in a substance farming driven feudal kingdom are the bad guys. That kind of thing drives me crazy…
But it’s what this whole thread is about, right? The OP didn’t ask about the writing skill or character development.
Size/scope is another issue I didn’t raise in my previous post. It always bothers me when a fantasy world is supposed to encompass an entire planet’s population, yet it seems like everybody knows everybody else and you can get from anywhere to anywhere else in a week or two of walking.
In real feudal societies, I wouldn’t even expect people to know the names of towns hundreds of miles away (unless they were capitol cities or major trading sites), much less know the farmers there.
Saying that is like saying the meat and vegetables are much more important than the spices and stock in a stew. True, without the former there’s not much point, but without the latter you’re eating fish stew, not bouillabaisse.
Just the right ratio of description vs plot for me. I don’t need three pages on so and so’s wedding garments, as well as those of all the guests at the feast. Likewise, I don’t need a long overblown examination of every aspect of a character’s romantic relationships, or his or her financial dealings. What I would like is a plot that moves along without lengthy interludes that seem only to fill our the book page wise. If i’m going to invest time in reading a hundred pages of that sort of thing it BETTER have a direct bearing on the plotline.
What makes a Fantasy World work for me has changed over the years. I used to like Moorcock’s settings – now trying to slog through them just leaves me tossing the book aside in disgust. In my younger days, I never would have liked A Song of Ice and Fire. I think it’s the writing style, mainly, how the world is presented in the text. Moorcock’s setting is almost incidental to his favorite characters getting to preen and show off. Martin’s setting is almost like another character in its importance to the plot.
However, I’d agree that it has to be original – can’t stand a pastiche of others’ works, or the same old clichés trotted out once again.
And it also has to be clever. I’m quite familiar with the Hero’s Journey by now, thanks, so if I glance through your book and see a map labeled with all and only the locations that the hero will be visiting, in succession, it’s going back on the shelf.
Consistency is another big one for me, but more in terms of characterization I think. Changes to the characters need to be believable, and explained.
For me, the criteria is: could I envision living in this world and getting by without much trouble?
Jordan’s Wheel of Time setting is one such. There’s arguments for it being unoriginal, but it’s fleshed out very well. No aspect goes ignored in the books (mainly because they run so long, but hey): noble life, commoner life, politics, farming, the culture and language of one nation versus another, etc. There is a history and evolution in sociopolitical terms. It’s one setting where it seems that every aspect of civilization has been accounted for. The fantasy aspects such as the magic and the society of mages and their servants are fairly well thought-out, as are the few non-human races. It’s a believable world.
Contrast that with stuff like the various D&D settings, where if you aren’t an adventurer, then you don’t really exist.
I am more traditionalist than most others here. I LIKE a Tolkienesque setting, except with more dragons and more readily available magic than Tolkien had. To me, the storytelling is what sets it apart, although I prefer Europeanesque names to the apostraphe laden ones.
That said, the current fantasy series I am enjoying the most is Jim Butcher’s stories about Tavi of Calderon.