Since Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, world building has become a mainstay of fantasy fiction, gaining a resurgence among budding novelists after the release of the film adaptations. Much of the love lavished on George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire has a great deal to do with world building. But this phenomenon is unique to the genre. You’ll never find gushing praise for world building in the literary, romantic or horror fields. This sets Sci-Fi and fantasy apart, but it can also stigmatize those genres, when story gets lost amid an author’s fervor to create a convincing universe. If we look at world building from the perspective of another genre, the glut of details becomes needless exposition. Take Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. While considerable history is provided for the Catholic Church, Brown does not bog his novel down describing the rise of Christianity. Of course, this has more do with the fact that readers know basic human history. Nevertheless, should aliens want to borrow The Da Vinci Code, adding the history of Earth would not improve the story. Good fantasy needs just two things: characters we care about and a plot to invest us. It’s basically the same for any genre. Whether it’s fantasy, Sci-Fi, horror, or romance, the fundamentals are the same. Aspects of genre, like world building, are but set dressing.
That being said, world building can be of great value to a novel, if done well and if it enhances the story. Fantasy is about escapism, a way to step out of the mundane, every day world and into another. There are few better experiences than that momentary lapse from reality when you feel transported to a different time and place. But for fans of fantasy, if the leaves don’t change on the trees, the book is just a book, and you are just sitting on a couch staring at letters. If done properly, world building can be the icing on a cake, but when poorly executed, the world the characters inhabit seem hollow, like the cardboard scenery used in old Hollywood films.
So, what makes a fantasy setting believable? There are many factors, and even the best of us stumble. J.R.R. Tolkien is considered the father of world building, and his Middle Earth the gold standard by which all others are judged, but his setting is not without flaws. Looking strictly at the map, Middle Earth is less of a “world” and more of an island, no bigger than New Zealand. There are only three or four major regions to speak of: Gondor, Mordor and Rohan; the Elvish kingdom of Rivendell; the dwarven mines of Moria and the Shire (a small village). Now before any Tolkien fans send me hate mail, I realize there are many more places I could name, but with regards to story, these are the hot spots, and it feels rather minuscule. Things start to feel less convincing when you consider Tolkien’s mythology, as told in the Silmarillion, where the “sun” and “moon” are described, in literal terms, as fruits fallen from trees.
By now, you may think it best to avoid secondary worlds altogether and go with what we know. After all, Earth is a convenient backdrop, complete with every historic and geographic element an author could want. But mixing fantasy with the real world comes with its own set of pitfalls. In the Harry Potter series, Rowling balances story, character and setting with finesse, but she paints herself into a corner in her later books. How is it possible that hippogriffs, dragons, giants, and all manner of magical creatures exist on Earth, yet no scientist ever finds trace of them? I can understand wizards wanting to hide their existence, but hippogriffs? Why go through all the trouble to hide every fossil, egg shell and nest? Erasing every photograph and video? Just to keep a half eagle, half lion a secret? It’s obvious Rowling didn’t plan on the success of her books spilling over to the adult market. At least Piers Anthony sets his magical world in a separate dimension. In The Hunger Games, we learn that Panem is made up of what was once the United States, but what the hell happened to the rest of the world? Do they even still exist? After three books, Suzanne Collins leaves us wondering. In Stephen King’s The Stand, 99% of the human population is wiped out by the flu, but we learn nothing of the world beyond the U.S.. This might be acceptable if the book dealt with a limited perspective, but when King brings Satan into the mix, and an apocalyptic war, you have to wonder where the fuck Europe went.
For me, the most convincing fictional universes are the ones you cannot see, because they continue to exist off the page. Imagine Earth as a fantasy setting. How many nations, cultures, races, religions and species exist? How infinitely complex is human history? I have visited Greece, France, Italy, Spain and Morocco on a number of occasions, but can tell you only little about them. This is what a reader should be, a tourist in the author’s world. A believable setting gives the illusion of reality by mirroring it, so that, just like Florida, Fictional Florida can never be explored in its entirety, even if the author writes a hundred books about the same place. Frank Herbert, creator of Dune, manages a convincing interstellar society by referencing things the reader can only guess at, while Michael Ende, author of The Never Ending Story, simply concedes Fantasia has no boundaries. George Lucas, of Star Wars fame, made world building his films’ most standout feature by hinting at the enormity of his universe, which has to be enormous considering it involves an entire galaxy, most of which he never shows us.
When Emma retrieves an ancient tome, The Ages of Aenya, she finds that there are simply too many kings and queens, and empires come and gone, to process in a single night of studying. Despite this, Aenya has definite, geographic boundaries, because it is based on real world science, thanks in part to the Hayden Planetarium. But while Google Earth can show us a complete picture of our world from a distance, we cannot hope to experience all of it. My intent with Aenya is to mirror the one model of a world that we know. I reveal major landmarks like the One Sea and the Pewter Mountains, and major empires like Hedonia, but there will always be more to find in each new tale, there will always be gaps and an infinite horizon to explore.