My all time favourite genre has to be fantasy, and one of the things I love most about it is its otherworldliness. Reading for me, and I suspect most other bookworms, is a form of escapism, and there’s no better way to escape than to go to a completely different world!
The other day I was thinking about fantasy worlds and some of the most famous examples – Middle Earth, Narnia, Westeros etc. – and started to wonder what it is that makes them so captivating. What is it that makes a fantasy world seem as if it could actually be real? And to the extent that we are willing to read hundreds of pages about it, and in many cases devour entire series set in it?
Here’s just a few of my thoughts, and I’d love to know what you think makes a good fantasy world!
- A history and mythology
The absolute king of fantasy writing, J.R.R. Tolkien, spent years of his life crafting his imaginary world, complete with a full history spanning from its creation (in The Silmarillion) to the beginning of the Fourth Age (the end of LOTR). No other fantasy book has ever had such a well-explored world or complete history, and I think this is partly why Middle Earth seems so vivid, and is so well-loved by many.
Another world whose history seems to bring it to life is George R.R. Martin’s Westeros (well, technically it’s a continent, but whatever!), as Robert Baratheon seizing the throne from the Targaryens before the beginning of the first book sets into motion the events of the series and gives the story an interesting back drop. Before the story even begins the many families of Westeros have various alliances or conflicts with one another, and it’s interesting to see how they play out throughout the series.
As a lover of history, I am always fascinated by these kinds of fictional histories, and for me they are essential for a good fantasy world.
- A range of cultures, languages and races
A fantasy world should, by virtue of being a world, be absolutely huge, and therefore have lots of different types of people living in it, all with their own cultures and histories and languages (kind of like our own world!). Therefore, for a fantasy world to work, for me it has to have variety, whether the different races are all human, or a variety of non-humans (eg. dwarves, elves etc.).
However, I do find the whole elf thing leads to a lot of LOTR rip-offs, as Tolkien seems to have been the inventor of the tall, ethereal and inherently good elves, so I think fantasy authors have to be really careful if one of their races is elven.
One author who I think puts a good spin on elves is Raymond E. Feist in his Riftwar Saga. His fantasy world Midkemia (apparently based on a Dungeons and Dragons game) is inhabited by two different and opposing types of elf. Whilst there are the classic Tolkien-esque good elves, there are also the moredhel, AKA ‘the Brotherhood of the Dark Path’ who are dark, evil elves. The only thing that separates the two types is the path they have chosen, good or evil, and there is a whole history behind how the different races of elves came to be (and I think there are actually more races of elves in Midkemia, eg. the Glamredhel, or ‘Mad Elves’).
- Distinctive geography
For a fantasy world to have the kind of scope to seem like it could actually exist, for me it needs to have a varied landscape and a host of interesting places for the characters to explore. One thing I love about the fantasy genre is that you often get maps at the start of the book, and I always enjoy poring over them both before reading the story, when you know nothing about the world, and after, so you can see all the places you visited with the characters.
- A ruling body
In most cases this is a monarchy, but it isn’t always (Harry Potter’s Ministry of Magic, for example). However, whether the ruler(s) are benevolent or tyrants, I feel like a good fantasy world needs someone in charge, because let’s face it – a world with no one in charge and no rules would just be anarchy!
Whether the main characters are the royal family/household (which happens a lot in fantasy – for example, Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy, Joe Abercrombie’s Half A King, and Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar Saga) or evil oppressors who must be thwarted by the hero/heroine (eg. The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson, ASOIAF to a certain extent), I kind of feel like they have to be somewhere, and they have to be interesting.
- A logical magic system
Whether a fantasy world has very little magic (as in ASOIAF) or lots (eg. Harry Potter), I feel like there has to be some kind of rules surrounding its use to make the story seem convincing and consistent. If magic has no rules and no limits, then all the problems that make up the story could just be solved in the blink of an eye – and then there’s no story.
- Fantasy creatures
One thing every fantasy world needs is magical creatures, and extra points to authors for original inventions! One use of fantasy creatures that I particularly like is the daemons in Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights, who are animal embodiments of people’s souls. I just like how original it is, and it gives the world a unique twist (plus it leaves me wondering what form my animal-soul counterpart would take!).
So what do you think makes a good fantasy world?