This rant is going to use a few more personal examples than some of the others, because I am vain enough to think that this is something I do well—and I’ve read a few too many fantasy novels where some “alien” customs and weird spellings were supposed to make the world come to life, while the rest of it was dead as a crash-landed dragon.
1) Write from inside the characters’ heads.
This is very obvious, right? Except that lots of fantasy novelists and short story writers can go for entire pages, chapters, hell, whole books like this:
He took up the map and turned it over in his hands. The paper was weathered and yellow. At the top was inked ‘Silent Widow Stream.’ He smoothed his hands on the paper and peered at the faint marks beneath the present names. He bowed his head and stood silent, his head cocked to the side, as though he were listening for something.
What a freakin’ mess. This is supposedly third-person limited, but that last sentence slews right into omniscient, and the ones before that are anything but deep inside the character’s hand. Notice what they describe? Actions, and the map. There are no personal thoughts of the character’s in there. I don’t know what he was listening for, if he really was listening for anything, what his thoughts are about the names on the map, whether the scraped-over names mean anything at all (probably, but without a clue, how can I know?), or whether the details are ever going to be important again. Is the yellowing of the map something he would naturally notice? Does he have a special reason to look for “Silent Widow Stream” instead of the other names on the map? Are any of these things important to the setting of the scene, or was the author dropping pretty much random visual cues into the story?
Maybe good books can be written like this (though I’ve never read one). But it’s death to introducing the fantasy world on the level of details of daily life, as someone who is living in it interacts with them. It restricts the author to large clumps of mostly omniscient detail, such as when cities were founded and long interior monologues where characters “notice”—not even talk or think about—the people around them.
2) Set up names on a pattern.
I have read fantasy stories before that mix personal names like “Jon” willy-nilly with names like “Elsheera” and “Tomás,” while the place names are on the order of “Grugnaak.” This hurts me so badly that I must drop the story like a hot potato.
One of the least-noticed but most-important details of daily life is what the names of people around the main character are like. Not all readers are as sensitive to names as I am, obviously, but a set of personal names constructed on similar rules can set up an interior world to the fantasy world, and, even more valuable, help distinguish fantasy cultures from each other or show where they blend.
Show names that have similar sound patterns. For example, if most female names in the book end with a vowel, having the heroine be called Edreldir is going to look a little strange. Similarly, if you’re drawing names primarily from, oh, a Spanish cultural background, the hero introducing himself as Marco may not make anyone blink an eye, but his best friend, born of native parents, living in the country all his life, and still called Aamalosterian? There had better be a hell of an explanation, right there. And even if there’s an explanation, sometimes it’s not worth it to have that strange name, because it keeps jolting your reader out of the story.
Think about the way that generations, immigration patterns, and cultural trends influence names. For example, in one of my worlds, the vast majority of personal names come from a language rather like Latin that most people no longer speak, but consider “pure” and “elite.” One generation in one city had rather a fashion of naming young boys poetic words in that language, and doing it with names that used double r’s. So I wound up with Irrall (singing darkness), Herran (eloquence), Quirrin (complexity of soul), and Dorren (defender of the settled land). Names like that can provide a comfortable, consistent basis for your reader, and show off your culture.
3) Describe the foods that the protagonists eat.
Too often, the protagonists consume (when the author remembers to make them eat at all—but that’s a rant I’ve already done) what I call “fantasy staple food.” If they’re at a feast, meat pies, spun sugar confections, whole roast birds like peacocks or swans, and wine are likely to make an appearance. In village inns, it’ll be mutton and sometimes stew. In the wilderness, it’s bread and cheese, which are often white and yellow, and the cheese is always in a wheel.
Yes, these could be reasonable foods in the situation. But the problem is the descriptions (see point 5) that make these from meals that those particular protagonists are consuming in that one particular world into a generic fantasy meal. I can’t picture that cheese, because it’s yellow and in a wheel, just like every other fantasy cheese I have heard of. Show how it tastes. Show how the protagonist really hoped to buy sharp-tasting Guruar cheese, but because they didn’t have it in the market just before they left the city, she had to settle for the stinky, crumbly, Feldoror cheese instead. Show what happens to it in the packs, especially if it gets battered to bits or acquires mold. Show how the protagonists are so happy to eat something in an inn other than that stupid smelly, crumbly cheese.
Also, it really is okay to have different foods sometimes. If your protagonists come across a village in the middle of a forest, they’d probably be more likely to have pork than mutton, since they might be able to feed hogs on acorns. (I always wonder how village inns with no sheep nearby, and which are supposedly too isolated to have trade, acquire “mutton.”) Don’t jump to stew because it might be a staple. There’d be delicacies too, sometimes.
4) Choose important details.
I loathe infodumps with all the passion of my soul. And yes, I count the big, heavy, weighty, wooden description that I get slammed with when a protagonist enters a city or meets a dragon or steps into a palace as an infodump. It does many other things, but in the context of this rant, it completely snaps the illusion of daily life for me, and reminds me that I’m sitting outside the story and listening to the author push information about the world at me.
There are three criteria to apply here:
- What does the reader need to know, and what would it be fun for her to know, and what is extra padding?
- How likely is the protagonist to notice such details?
- How familiar is the protagonist with the person/setting?
The first question can be answered any number of ways. I tend to answer it with: She needs to know what is absolutely essential to plot or character development, and it would be fun for her to know the cool things, and the padding are those things that don’t actually matter to the character. I might be fascinated with who founded the city, but if I’m writing someone who’s focused on entering the city and rescuing her brother who’s been sold into slavery, I shouldn’t force her to pause and reflect on that. She should notice things like the high walls (important plot detail! She will have difficulty getting her brother out) and it might be cool for her to note with disgust the pictures of happy slaves smiling and bowing to their masters (hypocritical sons of bitches, aren’t they?) But is it essential or cool that I have a paragraph describing the city’s founder, how long ago the founding was, and what changes the city has gone through since? No. She might not even care.
That’s the second test. My nameless heroine wants inside the city. She wants to rescue her bother. She is paranoid of being found out. She is angry and disgusted at what she sees around her. Nowhere in there is anything about the city’s founder mattering. If it doesn’t matter to your character, or it’s information that your character probably wouldn’t know anyway, it should be suspect. If it fails both tests, then I don’t think it should be there.
The third test is probably the simplest, yet lots of authors still fail it. The protagonist pauses to look out over a city that has been her home all her life and reminisces about it for five paragraphs. Why? I mean, it’s her home, right? How many of us walk in the door of a house we’ve lived in for five years and pause to admire and count off all the knickknacks in the house, number the rooms, think of the way that the sunlight falls through the windows at various hours of the day, and remember the person who founded our city?
The best way to insure lots of description is to have a protagonist who has time and reason to be interested walking through an unfamiliar setting. If it’s common to her, then fleeting details are the ones to go for. Perhaps she notices the knickknack when she knocks it off a shelf. Perhaps she numbers the rooms because she’s expecting guests and needs to know where they’ll all sleep.
Anything but another pointless infodump.
5) Avoid the most cliched descriptions.
This takes work to become aware of, and yet you’ve probably become aware of some of them, repeating from book to book. If you haven’t, then I recommend Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. She sets up a lot of the clichés in travel guide format and attacks them vigorously. It’s great fun, as well as instructive.
These are some descriptions that don’t give me a flavor of daily life because they’ve been used so often:
- raven hair (what, black and raggedy and covered with bits of decaying corpses?)
- silvery voices (surely someone sounds bronze or platinum once in a while?)
- warm lamplight (would it be cold for some reason?)
- foul evil (where’s the nice evil?)
- staring eyes (when characters have just died—doesn’t anyone ever die with closed eyes?)
- emerald eyes (eyes are NOT JEWELS. Get over it).
- sparkling eyes (I have yet to be able to visualize this).
- mysterious smile (yes, we know by now that most characters in fantasy have secrets for no good reason. No need to tease us).
- flawless skin (in a world without lots of skin care products?)
- flowing hair (the lack of people in fantasy with curly hair is really quite astonishing).
- colorful crowd (I want to know where the exotic people are who dress in dusty grays and browns).
- howling mob (I’d fear the silent, intent ones more. Besides, I want to know what they were howling).
- noble face (how can a face be noble?)
I’m sure you’re thinking of others by now. Of course, there has to be a balance struck between being so clever that it distracts the reader and being so bland that it irritates the reader. Using metaphors and descriptions that have some historical resonance in your fantasy world can work wonders here. “Swift as the wind” can become “swift as a Dunrab steed.” “Hair dark as a raven’s wing” can become “hair dark as her robe.” “Flawless skin” can become “skin scarred with the ravages of pox.” Make it more specific, and it’s more interesting, and I bet you can slip in quite a lot of detail about your fantasy world along the way.
Wow. There will have to be a second part to this rant. I didn’t think there would have to be.