Welcome to the second post in my series “Reclaiming Fantasy.”If you haven’t read the introductory post, it is available here.
Now, before we get started a brief explanation. I call this series “Reclaiming Fantasy” because I think there has been a major loss – a blurring of all the fantasy books into one story with the same plot, setting, and characters. In addition, I was browsing Amazon yesterday, and saw that many books that have been considered Science Fiction by everyone I’ve talked to are now classified as Fantasy.
Today I will be discussing the most basic element of any story: setting.
Many fantasy novels, whether from new writers or established authors, pick similar settings. These settings include rolling hills, plains, mountains, and forests. Sometimes the ocean is thrown in for effect. But there is a problem here. In too many of the books I’ve read, the setting isn’t important. In too many novels, the plains could be swapped for the desert or the desert for the forest. Setting should be it’s own character and should be integral to the plot. It’s like giving your character a loaded gun, but not using it. The setting needs to have a purpose.
Robin Hobb did an excellent job of giving the setting a purpose in the Farseer Trilogy (Assassin’s Apprentice, Royal Assassin, and Assassin’s Quest). In the trilogy, the main character grows up in a coastal town. The ocean drives the plot forward, as raiders from the Outislands seek to start a war with the Six Duchies.
Another example is in Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith. In this story, it is an element of the setting, the colortrees, that serve to drive the plot forward. When the king ignores the agreements not to cut down the colortrees, a band of rebels in the mountains where these trees grow have to fight back to protect the trees.
Admittedly, both of these stories have settings that could be switched and the plot tweaked to accommodate them. The point, however, is that these authors have taken the time to make the setting important. Just think, in reality our surroundings shape us as we shape them, they are integral to who we are, and what we become. It should be no different in fantasy.
When writing, think about why the environment is the way you’ve made it. If there’s no reason, play with it, make it different, or at least let it impact your character’s lives. In one of my WIP’s, the characters hole up in a fishing village. The village has to be entirely self-sufficient because they are at odds with the governing party. This means that the environment they live in has a huge impact on what foods they eat, what kinds of clothes they make, and how they interact with each other.
Of course, there is more to the setting being important than how it is right now. The way the environment shaped things to get to the present is just as important. There is an excellent post at SF/F Worlds discussing this point exactly. The post discusses how evolution is important even in fantasy, and how there have to be decent explanations for the creatures and peoples of the fantasy worlds – and it comes back to the understanding how the setting shapes everything.
My point is, let’s skip the typical medieval European setting and get something new.
Take care, fellow travelers.