April 12, 2015
Building a believable fantasy world is a challenge. There is no precise recipe, but there are ingredients. One of those ingredients is a sense of an economy, the suggestion that in the lands the characters live in, visit, or simply pass through there are people farming, building, manufacturing, and trading. This doesn’t require a treatise on local coinage or an exegesis on the bailment laws. But a writer who wants the world to feel lived in and vibrant will hint at activity occurring at the margins of the action, that daily life goes on even if the hero isn’t present and that that daily life is of the mundane, work-a-day sort we all experience.
Some writers do this exceedingly well. J.R.R. Tolkien sits at the head of the table of world-builders. MIddle-Earth feels real. He mentions dwarves passing to and from their mines. He builds inns and fills them with travelers. He describes roads and highways and indicates their decay and growing disuse, both suggesting a dwindling of trade and hinting at a time of greater commercial activity. He builds a world of increasing provincialism, of commerce becoming increasingly localized, of long-distance trade growing ever more hazardous. It aids tremendously in making Middle-Earth seem an actual, historical place, and the inhabitants as real as your Aunt Joan.
Robert E. Howard pulls off a similar trick. I’ll write at some later date about his strengths and weaknesses as a world-builder. But the Hyborian Age of Earth, when Conan trod the jeweled thrones under sandaled feet, does seem alive with ships, caravans, and traveling merchants. The cities appear to bustle with buying and selling. Often Conan is in some hinterland or other, but the reader still gets the impression that somewhere there is a core of nations whose inhabitants are constantly trading, squabbling, and intriguing. The sweat of the laborers, the goods exchanging hands, the clinking of gold coins, all seem real, adding to the verisimilitude.
Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Land never seemed believable to me. I never got the sense that his communities could actually function. They seemed facades, Potemkin villages, or sets thrown up in the desert for a Western. I never got a sense of a working economy, how these people could live, where their stuff came from, how they exchanged goods and services. Now that might have been deliberate on Donaldson’s part. He may have been trying to reinforce the suggestion that this was all a hallucination. But once he introduced a second point of view character from Earth, that red-herring slipped out of the net and swam off.
This isn’t to say that a realistically portrayed world is essential to quality fantasy literature. E.R. Eddison’s Mercury doesn’t require a mention of trade routes or the types of crops the farmers grow in Demonland. But what Eddison is writing is akin to a fable. Like Lord Dunsany and William Morris, what he wrote were long form, adult fairy-tales. With these writers you always have the sense that someone is telling you a tale, you never fall into believing it to be a story told of a real place. You don’t get the immersiveness of Middle-Earth (a fairy-tale, perhaps, but one with solid foundations), or Westeros, or the Malazan Empire. You can almost imagine yourself falling through the pages into Hobbiton or King’s Landing.
And if you did, you just might be able to get a job.