For me, there are five elements of a story that can either make or break a novel. In my opinion, these are: character, plot, setting, pacing, and writing. Setting, also known as world building, is one of the things that really helps pull a reader into a book. This is particularly true of fantasy and science fiction, where the reader must allow some suspension of disbelief from the very first page. Failure to build a plausible or enjoyable world can result in losing readers.
When I went to Rhode Island Comic Con last fall, an audience member asked Elijah Wood in his panel what his favorite aspect of fantasy was. Elijah Wood has starred in so many movies and television shows that require an element of fantasy – from Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency where the world itself is pure Douglas Adams and bonkers, to his most known role, Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. His career has spanned so many genres that as an actor, he has to no only suspend disbelief himself, but help others disappear into the story as well.
I thought his answer was really good and thoughtful. It’s been a little while, so I cannot give you an exact quote (and I don’t want to mis-quote) but the basic gist was that world building is the most important thing to fantasy… and I couldn’t agree more. Every book has a story inside, a tale of good and evil or of blurred lines. Every book has characters and these characters could be easily plucked into any setting (there’s a very popular genre in anime called ‘isekai’ that operates on just this premise – displacing protagonists in very different worlds). Any spectacular and supernatural books have to build entire worlds, from the dirt on the ground to the clouds in the sky and all the quirks and rules in-between.
You can pick a good fantasy out very easily from the quality of its world. First of all, is it consistent? This is easiest to track in novels that follow legends and mythologies. Probably the most recognizable myth retellings are Rick Riordan’s, based on various mythologies. Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief uses gods, goddesses, and quest formatting right out of Greek mythology. It works because Riordan has done his research and follows the pre-created rules of these worlds. Books that do not do this – Beyond a Darkened Shore comes to mind – break the illusion. A world must be created, and then the writer needs to stick to it. Inconsistency tarnishes a book.
Retellings, particularly ones that remain in fantasy worlds, have additional rules and requirements. Contemporary retellings, or books like Percy Jackson keep one foot in fantasy and one book in reality. Full fantasy worlds create their own rules, but they still need to follow them.
The best example of incredible world building that I know of is the Lord of the Rings series, and that brings us back to Elijah Wood as well. J.R.R. Tolkien explored every nook and cranny of his setting, characters, and mythology. He wrote an entire history of Middle Earth even as he gave us the trilogy and The Hobbit. Tolkien’s devotion to complete immersion as part of his world building is what brings the story to life, and it draws everyone into his story. Even if you aren’t a fan of his writing style (because he was utterly devoted to detail and that can be monotonous for some readers), Middle Earth and its people feel as real as you and I, and the world we pass through every single day.
In discussing his experience filming the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Elijah Wood mentioned he never felt like he was acting – it felt more like they were building a world and living in it. In fact, the he admitted that he himself has never read the trilogy. I know many people would find that shocking – many actors look at the source material before diving into the project. But Middle Earth is so deeply wound into our cultural knowledge that he knew the story already, and he had the opportunity to live it. Stepping back and reading the books, however brilliant they are, would be a very different experience compared to living the story.
And what an awesome opportunity that was.
Tolkien’s passion and enthusiasm for his world and the careful creation of it is one of the many building blocks that makes Lord of he Rings such a classic. Tolkien isn’t the only author to do this – J.K. Rowling created such a world in her Harry Potter franchise that even now, twenty years after the publication of the first book, children are wistful for their letter from Hogwarts. Successful fantasy stories make us long for these worlds, these altered realities. The world building in them is so vivid and enchanting that whether you are a reader, gamer, or movie fan… you step back and imagine what you would do in these worlds.
In other genres – contemporary, romance, thriller – we fill in the blanks with information we know from he world around us. In fantasy (and some science fiction) we take the author’s lead and let them take us on an adventure. It’s magical. Their world building takes us there. And that’s why a poorly built world makes a book fall to pieces.
And particularly well-done fantasies with incredible worlds?
Those stories become classics.
What are your favorite fantasy worlds? Outside of Middle Earth and Hogwarts, I enjoy Mid-World, Tortall, Orïsha, and Fillory. Let me know all your favorites in the comments!