“For in the end it is Middle-earth and its dwellers that we love, not Tolkien’s considerable gifts in showing it to us. I said once that the world he charts was there long before him, and I still believe it.”
Peter S. Beagle, 14 July 1973
When it comes to any work of fiction, but particularly to speculative fiction and fantasy writing, there is an agreement between the writer and the reader. The reader has agreed to drop his/her understanding of the real world, and allowed the writer to dictate the terms of what is real. And while there are surely countless ways for an author of fantasy or science fiction to establish a novel’s reality, often referred to as “world building”, there is a test that the reader applies to the writing that determines how successful the author has been: the reader tests the plausibility of what is revealed in the story, given both the spoken rules of the fictional world, and unspoken assumptions, usually based on the reader’s own personal experiences if the author has not provided specific reasons to deviate from them. It is this test, applied continuously through the reading of the story, which will help determine whether the reader has fully enjoyed the experience.
The quote that started this article comes from the introduction to the Lord of the Rings Silver Jubilee Edition (Ballantine Books, 1982). For the purpose of this article, I’m going to use Mr. Beagle’s words to discuss one facet of speculative fiction writing that, to me, is often critical to a successful fantasy or science fiction story. That facet is the sense of history or permanence that the reader gets while reading. I have had some reading experiences where it honestly felt that the writer was simply “making it up as he went.” Now, this is perfectly acceptable as a writing style of course, and the author very well may have “made it up as he/she went.” But that’s not the way the reader should be allowed to perceive it.
The true mark of a skillful fantasy writer then is to set the reader in the midst of a world in motion, where the waves of history have clearly worn down and shaped the reality wherein the characters have been set. However, this is definitely more art than science, as it were. I’ve read some fantasy where the author seems to feel that the way to convey history is to simply dump lineage after lineage on the reader, or to cram a quick history of some ruins or a castle out there. But there’s more to it than that, of course. As with this world we, the readers, live in, there necessarily has to be unspoken history. In other words, there is the world that is revealed to the reader, but there is also the sense that there is so much more that might not ever be unveiled. And if done well, the reader will be just fine with that. In fact, it will ensure the reader thirsts for more stories in that same world.
The most powerful works make you feel, as Mr. Beagle states, that the world you’ve been allowed to glimpse through the novel has existed before page one, and will exist long after you close the cover for the final time. The Lord of the Rings is only one example. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire did this quite well too. So I’m wondering, what other novels do you think have been successful in revealing worlds that exist outside of their covers? There are other marks of great science fiction and fantasy, of course, but I think this characteristic is often critical to the best works of the genre.
Great post. Another one that immediately comes to mind is Harry Potter. The wizarding world that Rowling created is full of rich history and I’m sure there are so many more stories we could uncover within it. The talent exhibited by these writers is certainly hard to find.
Thank you for the comment! Great point. “Talent” is that key ingredient that makes history and setting work. An author who is able to weave in this kind of detail without hitting the reader over the head with it is definitely gifted.
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History is still applicable when it comes to making the setting plausible. In my current fantasy, The Brotherhood Of Piaxia, I set the ground rules for my world based on ancient Greece where the country is divided by city states joined in an alliance but still having their own identity. I deviate by having a king ruling all but the strength in the world building is more identifiable at the local level. Of course, providing a map at the start of the novel is very commonplace and serves as a reference guide to help entrench the new world in the minds of the readers
Sounds like an interesting setting! And I agree that a map can add to that sense of reality and history. Some books I’ve read have had these elements (map and relayed histories) and still fallen short in selling their world…that would be where the artistic skill of the author is critical in delivering. Thanks for the comment!
Great post, and I’d say this is probably the one thing that makes most fantasy books fall flat. Too many people have tried to imitate Tolkien and his world building (I read a book on fantasy writing that said after LOTR was printed, publishers were inundated with shoe boxes containing several dictionaries for made-up languages, runic alphabets, guides to the places of the fantasy world and then, at the bottom almost as an after thought, the actual manuscript). Most fantasy books that run to 700 plus pages do so because the writer spends paragraphs detailing the history of everything – that tribe there, this ancient town, that collection of spoons – which does nothing for the story. If the history of the world somehow affects the story, it should be there, and sprinklings of details are fine, but in the same way that in literary fiction excessive detail just comes across as the writer showing off their knowledge, in fantasy too much history really does kill the story for me.
Wow, that is an interesting illustration. I can easily believe it, too. The ability to provide the “right” amount of history is definitely a skill. I agree that this talent is not the norm, and there are far too many people who put those types of details front and center, rather in the background. This causes the story to languish, and all too often the result is dull. Thanks so much for the great comment!
I think this is actually true of all storytelling, not just fantasy and sci-fi, although there is perhaps more extensive world building to do in those media. Your post made me think of the short stories of David Malouf, which are not even slightly fantastic (in the sense of fantasy!), but do drag the reader right into the situation and world he portrays. You can almost smell it. Not only that, but he manages to do it with an economy of words.
I wish I could do it half as skillfully! 🙂
Thank you for the comment! I definitely agree that all authors have a responsibility for world building. After posting this article, I started thinking about follow on articles around various related topics like that. I know that I have room to grow in this critical skill!
Great Post! Not only am I a huge Tolkien fan, huge, huge, but I couldn’t agree more. I have spent the last several years not only discovering my world but also building it. The longer I work in it the better I am able to fit things into the history of it. I find that one of the things Tolkien did was not worry about whether you know someone he mentions or not. Unless you read the Silmarillion you will never understand the depth of Lord of the Rings. And Tolkien is fine with the fact that many fans never read Silmarillion. Its leaving things unexplained and that is fine. A little mystery goes a long way.
There will never be another Tolkien. Someone who is British, survived a World War, studied linguistics and loved old Viking myths…I think he was one of a kind. Instead of trying to copy him, more fantasy writers need to write to their life experience and their interest in order to have their work ring true.
Tolkien was certainly one of a kind. A lot of writers would do well to take your advice and quit trying to reinvent Middle Earth. There are plenty of worlds out there for readers to explore, and it’s the job of the writer to help point them out. Thanks a lot for the comment!