So, on to travel—like families, one of the most-used but least-developed concepts in fantasy.
1) Animals are not machines.
This is the one that, if I could only emphasize a single point about fantasy travel forever, would receive top priority. Most fantasy authors do use animals of some kind—horses most commonly, but also donkeys, mules, oxen, camels, dragons, unicorns, giant birds, and others—for transportation in their worlds instead of machines. However, they forget that there are at least four fundamental ways in which animals are unlike machines:
- Machines don’t need rest or food or water.
- Machines don’t have independent wills.
- Machines can stand up much better to the elements and to rough terrain.
- Machines don’t get sick.
a) A horse foundering from weariness or hunger might seem an overused obstacle in fantasy stories, but it’s almost never used where it needs to be—say, when the author has acknowledged that the heroes have been galloping for three solid days. The heroes are tired. The author acknowledges that. But what about those horses? Wouldn’t they be on the verge of collapse?
Why, yes, they would. A gallop is a horse’s fastest pace, and not normally one that can be maintained for very long. Soon, in spite of a rider’s repeated urgings, a horse would start dropping back from sheer physical inability to keep up. And without food, it would collapse. Horses need a lot of food—and a lot of water—to keep going. The author needn’t spend pages on acknowledging this (see point 5), but some mention of it would make it seem as if the heroes actually are using horses and not army transport vehicles in disguise.
b) Camels are probably most notorious for having nasty personalities, with donkeys and mules right behind them. However, any animal is going to be more of its own creature than a car. A horse might take a dislike to a rider who handles it roughly and shy at the exact wrong moment. A giant bird might get distracted by another of its kind and veer off course, or take shelter in a storm despite its rider’s desire to keep going. And I wouldn’t want to be the fantasy hero who wakes up, shouts at his steed, and slaps it when that steed is a dragon in the mating season.
c) Start riding a horse across the mountains, and you are going to have trouble, including but not limited to slippery footing, the horse’s inability to see in driving snow, cold, the push of the wind and what it does to horses on slick, narrow mountain trails, and, again, lack of food and fresh water. A four-wheel-drive vehicle will climb an icy road without complaining, and if it does slip, the rider has a good chance to correct the course. A horse can slip, and that can mean a broken leg or worse, leading to a need to kill it. Other animals, like mules, might simply refuse, or take a trail that they can navigate but which isn’t one the humans want to use. A dragon can soar over mountains, but if its wings are thin leather and vulnerable to the punch of an arrow or spear (very common), how well will they stand up to icy rain and driving hail?
d) Sickness in fantasy mounts isn’t really very common. The other hazards of travel are more apt to carry them away. Keep it in mind, though, especially if sickness shows up in other places. If the author carefully describes the usual dying fantasy landscape, including animals perishing of disease, then the reader might start wondering why only the horses the heroes ride are immune.
2) Fudge time and distance if you have to, but leave a REASONABLE amount of both for travel.
Yes, there are anal-retentive people who will plot every league you claim the horses have traveled, who will want to know a dragon’s speed and then calculate how fast it could have flown, who will point out to you that there’s a bog in the way and the heroes really should take longer to cover that immense distance. But there are many others who are willing to forgive you for things like this, or just sit back and enjoy the story…
…as long as you don’t march on them with a chainsaw and hack their suspension of disbelief apart.
Covering 2000 miles in ten days on horseback? The Pony Express managed it—by using fresh horses every 10 to 15 miles, charging for it (and providing a service that people were willing to pay for), and using pack mules in winter, while adjusting the time to twelve days at the very fastest for that winter route. Your heroes racing madly across 2000 miles of mountains in ten days, in the dead of winter and in blowing winds and blizzards, on the same horses all the way? Unlikely. This is one of the places where your reader is likely to become caught up in the minutiae, because you have brought that minutiae forcefully to their attention. Tone down the drama and add a little realism. You can still have the flavor of a mad dash by adjusting relatively minor circumstances.
On the opposite side, don’t insist that a dragon can fly five thousand miles in five days in a hurricane, and then say that the dragon the hero rides to the final confrontation takes five days to cross one hundred miles in good weather. This smacks of what it is, clumsy authorial manipulation to make the ending more exciting. Most parts of that can be forgiven, but not the “clumsy” one.
3) Try using the landscape as a “bad guy.”
Need to prevent your hero from reaching the Council leader in time to keep him from being assassinated? Send down a storm as he’s crossing a broad dirt plain. Then you get to have the ultimate fantasy fun: mud! And the storm doesn’t even need to be sent by the Dark Lord, either.
Need the hero to cross a meadow in good weather on a fast horse but still be delayed somehow? Infest the meadow with gophers or other hole-digging critters that fit the ecology. Horse steps in gopher hole, horse breaks leg, down goes horse. The rider has to mercy-kill the horse, and then you can have a nice little angsty scene while still depriving him of speed.
One great thing about using the landscape in this role, at least as long as you don’t start insisting all storms and gopher holes are tools of the Dark Lord, is that it eliminates the blame game. The hero stops looking less like the “Woe is me!” target of the whole universe and more like a victim of circumstance and bad luck, which is much easier to relate to.
4) Respect the seasons.
Why do so many fantasy expeditions to save the world set off near the end of autumn or the beginning of winter?
No, “Because Tolkien did it” is not an excuse. Besides, that only happened because Frodo was an idjit and waited until almost too late, they had to wait for scout reports to come back in to Rivendell, and Tolkien had the Fellowship leave on December 25th as Christian symbolism, which is not something that most modern fantasy authors go out of their way to invoke.
The reason’s the same as it is with almost any other “reasonless” fantasy cliché: drama. It’s so much more fun and exciting to write about people struggling through blowing winter winds and blizzards and nearly getting frostbite—note the nearly part—and scrambling across icy mountains.
However, in terms of the way the author sets the story up, it often makes no sense whatsoever. The quest needs to reach its destination, and it needs to do so with the chosen victim of destiny intact. That is imperative. You’d think that would mean the group would start traveling in spring or summer, or, if winter travel was a must because of a deadline in a prophecy, that they wouldn’t take the mountain route when there’s a perfectly nice ancient sorcerous empire road lying a few miles to the north. (See point 7).
“But,” says the fantasist making this assault on taste and good sense, “winter is so much more exciting!”
Spring and summer offer their own attractions, believe me. You get to wax poetic about the leaves and the flowers, which are easier to wax poetic about than bare branches or snow. Spring, depending on the climate, involves mudslides, thunderstorms, rivers swollen with snowmelt that are just begging to be used to sweep fording travelers away, friendly peasants that will be more likely to open their doors in spring than in winter, and more chance of finding food in the wild. Summer, again depending on the climate, offers the excitements of heatstroke, lots and lots and lots of rain, more abundant food than ever, clearer skies for purposes of stars that the hero and heroine can meet under, and dryer footing for horses and other mounts.
I’m surprised that it’s usually only the hero’s dramatic meeting with his love interest that’s set during summer. You’d think fantasy authors, since most of them are in love with description, would only write in that season. But, no.
5) Use small details.
This is the best way to strike a balance between making it seem as if your heroes are traveling in cars that your have chosen to call horses, and overwhelming your readers with such dense description that those readers will start complaining or you will become Robert Jordan. Dense, sticky paragraphs of purple prose don’t need to occur every time your heroes enter a forest or encounter a new carriage. Find the one or two details that strike to the heart and notice them instead.
As opposed to describing endlessly the coach’s gilding, ornamentation, wheel angles, age, horses, reins, driver, and so on, have the heroine notice that it jounces much more uncomfortable than other vehicles she’s used to, and that the sun flashing off its decoration hurts her eyes. For that waterfall that your heroes come upon unexpectedly, give a confusing, overwhelming impression of noise and height; it’s unlikely they would be able to trace the course of every drop of water. Instead of making the horses indistinguishable from each other or machines, mention that one pulls on its tether, one nips her rider constantly, one likes to blow out its belly so the girth won’t tighten properly, and so on.
6) Know what kinds of travelers will suffer definite disadvantages.
Fantasy authors occasionally show a decided preference for sending children, babies, pregnant women, and wounded and sick people along to save the world, or incapacitating them en route. Well, okay. But remember that they’re challenges at all times. They shouldn’t be there when the author wants to add a dash of excitement to the story and then vanish when the party has to get up a harsh cliff face that would otherwise be a trial.
Remember that most children can’t walk as far and fast as adults, especially if they’re children who up until now never left a sheltered village. They’ll need extra transportation of some kind, such as mounts or a cart or an adult’s arms. And they’ll need extra attention and/or diversion, too. A boy of five might be content to just walk sturdily along at his father’s side every day and never do anything else, but it’s unlikely.
Authors don’t appear to forget that babies have to be carried. I think they underestimate how much of a toll that takes on the person carrying them, though—especially if there is no convenient way to just sling the baby on the back or around the neck, and especially if many other things need to come along, like extra milk or other food supplies, diapers of some kind, blankets or clothes to keep the baby warm, toys, and possibly a bed to sleep in. If the baby is still at the stage where he or she doesn’t sleep through the whole night, this will also cause problems for the other travelers.
Pregnant women, especially in the latter stages of pregnancy, suffer enough when they aren’t being asked to scramble over mountains, climb sheer cliff faces, take tough sea voyages, and face dragons in their lairs. They’ll probably have trouble riding, walking, carrying equipment, bearing pain, getting enough to eat, and relieving themselves. Severe danger or injury could cause miscarriage or premature labor. Now, if the pregnant woman comes from a tough group of people where, say, the women regularly ride and fight while pregnant, some leeway could be allowed. But if she comes from a sheltered village or castle and this is her first time abroad, just like the children’s, I’d say the author is shit out of luck and has set herself a very hard task.
Wounded or sick characters can be carried, yes, such as on a cart or travois. Once again, though, the impact on the other travelers may be greater than the impact on the wounded or injured themselves. Someone breaks a leg, and the other characters have to drag him? Sure, all right, but what if the guy who breaks a leg is the heaviest one in the party? It’s not going to be easy. As for crossing a flooded stream or going up a thousand feet vertically with such a burden, forget it. There would have to be a bridge, or someone who had climbed the cliff face and could string up a system of pulleys to lift the invalid, first.
There may be perfectly sound reasons to have protagonists like these. Just take into account the difficulties they present.
7) Leave some paths impassable, some goals unconquerable.
Remember that point I made about the party deciding to go straight up through the High White Mountains of Deadly Cold which other travelers have never come back from in the heart of winter for no apparent reason? It does more than destroy the audience’s suspension of disbelief and indicate a lack of mountain knowledge deadlier than the cold. It takes away what could otherwise remain a part of the background for the world.
You yourself may know every secret of the terrain, know the trade routes inside and out, know the legend behind every quaint little village name, and know that the reason the High White Mountains of Deadly Cold are so deadly isn’t the cold but the man-eating monster on the peaks. Consider not introducing some of that knowledge to your readers or your characters, though. Consider not having your heroes visit every place on the map. Consider letting some parts of your fantasy world remain quiet, like a dream, there but unexplored.
The urge to explain everything and leave no stone unturned is an admirable one when dealing with central plot concerns, like why the Dark Lord wants to murder the hero. But explain everything, and your world can come to seem harsh and mechanical in the wrong sense—a soulless creature with no life of its own. Places in your fantasy world that the characters don’t visit or conquer are perhaps your best chance to leave a sense of mystery and wonder and life and time in there, a sense that this world was here before this one story and will be there when it is gone.
And next, island life.