Step outside on a Virginia summer day, and a variety of sensations engulf you. The distinct rise-and-fall of cicada song, a multi-layered cacophony, forms the backdrop for every other sound. Strong, damp heat hangs thick in the air, a sauna formed by nature. Scents of grass clippings and honeysuckle and sun-warmed earth and leaf pervade the air, and you cannot mistake this is the season of living things.
Just as real life settings have a strong, distinct presence, I also prefer a clear sensation of unique time and place in a fantasy novel. Sometimes fantasy worlds serve as more of a backdrop to the main thrust of the story, other times they’re as vivid and personable as the characters themselves, but whatever role they play, they’re most effective when they immerse a reader in a distinct reality. So what helps a fantasy worlds transport readers?
Pervasive wonder. When the nature and structure of the world waken a sense of awe, it’s immediately compelling–as when Aslan sings Narnia into existence and a new world begins to live and breathe before our eyes. Or when we see the unfolding of Rivendell and Lorien, hidden elven fastnesses that hint at greater realities beyond the ken of small hobbit folk. Whether in large matters or in small details, a fantasy realm that rouses wonder is one that lives long in the imagination.
Sparks of life. Some fantasy worlds brim over with a unique sense of their own reality, something that lifts them off the pages and gives them depth. This springs in part from the blending of fantastic and realistic in a way that rings true. The vinegaroons in DM Cornish’s Monster Blood Tattoo series illustrate this point. These sea-roving men remind me in some ways of the sailors of old–hard-edged and strong-willed–but their occupation comes with an additional hazard that shapes their lives. Surrounding the Half-Continent, the seas are highly corrosive. So these vinegaroons dare not hope for a long, healthy life, as the acrid spray of the sea leaves their skin scarred and damaged, and any unfortunate soul that falls overboard will likely pay with his life. The vinegaroons feel real and fantastic all at once, as does the rest of the Half-Continent world Cornish created.
A sensation of otherness. Sometimes this sensation comes from a small aspect of the world’s construction, a turn of the phrase or unique point of view that could only be held by the inhabitants of the realm in question. Yet in the large scale, I believe this often springs from capturing the spiritual element in a meaningful way, drawing on “the other world” that truly exists. For more thoughts on this aspect, see The Spiritual Element.
By no means are these the only components that contribute to a compelling fantasy setting, but many of my favorite fantasy worlds share these things in common. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. What draws you into a fantasy realm? What are some of your favorite fantasy settings? And if you write, how do you seek to capture a sense of uniqueness and realism in your world-building?
Image credit: abi84