“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.