This is pretty much a grab-bag, not in any particular order but as the points caught my attention.
1) If your world is low-technology, you might make it feel that way.
Many, many fantasy worlds seem to simply have invisible high tech. Among the things that should receive more notice than they do:
- How people preserve and transport food.
- Burial of the dead.
- Disposal of waste.
- How houses get cleaned.
- How insects are dealt with.
- Care of animals (see point 2).
- Healing of wounds and disease.
- Heat/cold and resisting them.
- Shelter/protection from weather.
- Finding/use of water.
- Where the smoke from fires goes.
- Aftermath of weather (including fallen branches, mudslides, and blocked trails).
- Making of ‘basic’ products (metal, fabric, paper, glass, furniture, vehicles).
I’ve heard authors complain that they can’t possibly attend to every detail of how characters pick their noses and shit, and it’s true that it’d be boring to read a novel that consisted solely of that. But I get irritated when the author a) attends to some details and not others, b) makes the point that magic is not used for simple everyday tasks but then doesn’t explain how the simple everyday tasks actually get accomplished, and/or c) doesn’t even think about these issues because we, ourselves, are so cocooned within high tech.
Has it rained in the night, towards the end of autumn in a temperate climate that has deciduous trees? There will be wet leaves on the ground to deal with, wet grass, mud—which means slick footing for horses—branches dripping on you if you’re in a forest, puddles to splash through, sudden low-lying wet depressions you don’t see and simply stumble into, and many, many other things. This is one of the no-brainers, really, since we can see this even stepping outside after a storm on Earth (in a temperate climate at the end of autumn that has deciduous trees). Ignoring it in a fantasy world simply because we get in cars in our own is stupid.
So is just assuming that characters will have fresh food available whenever they need it without explaining how it got there, that there are invisible high-functioning toilets, that no insect ever bites anyone in hot climates, that a wound sheds a bit of blood that’s cleansed immediately when a healer happens along and gives no more trouble, that a hut with no air conditioning and no fire in the middle of winter is somehow the warmest thing on the planet, that a fire lit in the middle of a cave would not spread its smoke out and fill the cave up, and on and on and on.
These are the kinds of details you need to consider. Or they will bite you on the butt and make your fantasy world neither fish nor fowl—not attending to its needs with technology or magic because that would be “cheating,” but not true to the apparently hardscrabble way of life you’re proposing in the place of “cheating.” You’re certainly welcome to take solutions from history, or to do throwaway references or nods to practicality. No one says you have to make the preservation of food the focus of your story. But don’t mention it at all, and your twenty-first-century prejudices are showing.
2) Animals don’t take care of themselves.
I’ve already ranted about how many fantasy societies, according to their level of technology and casual mentions on the authors’ part, should depend on animals more than they do. I think everybody knows how I feel about that by now. So we’ll just accept that there should be real horses, and not cars with four legs, in your fantasy, and concentrate on something nearer and dearer to my heart: how those horses vanish when the author isn’t focused on them.
If you have important nonhumans in your story—“important” defined here under the category of “plot device” or “plausible explanation” as well as character—you need to get used to keeping track of them. This applies to telepathic companions as well as ordinary animals, by the way. I’ve lost count of the number of telepathic cats or dragons or wolves or birds who just seem to wander off when the author isn’t paying attention, then show up miraculously in the nick of time to rescue their owners or soothe their wangst. Never mind that they got left in the last town sixteen leagues behind when their owners rode off on horses and haven’t been thought of since, and I’d think a cat, at least, would have a little difficulty making up that distance in a few hours. There they are, away and appearing again at the author’s will.
Then there’s the horses who get brought into a city and vanish. There’s no record of the characters even dismounting. “Where did the horses go?” I think, and flip through the book, wondering if they have headed off to a secret horse convocation where they will complain bitterly about how their owners treat them. (Reading about that would often be more interesting than reading about the main plot). Large animals need care, particularly in a city. What happened to them?
Even smaller animals need to be paid attention to. Say the protagonist Wuvs Her Kitty. Then she gets attention from her love interest. Why, then, can she never think about the cat for the rest of the book? Was it just a convenient way to get the reader to sympathize with her? Why, of course it was. Kitty can starve to death when he’s served his purpose, and good riddance to him.
Yes, we often tire of animals and dump them out or give them away or think they need less care than they do. In a fantasy world where someone is actually sharing his tiny hut with an animal or depends on it for food or to get him from place to place, that is not an option.
3) If you play merry havoc, actually illustrate the havoc.
One way of saying, “My, the Dark Lord is evil” is to have him screw around with the seasons. Suddenly there’s blistering heat where there should be cold, or vice versa. Or he withers the harvest the moment it appears. Or the harvest does that itself because the wrong king is on the throne—‘scuse me.
That plotline is officially the second most clichéd plotline in existence right now. Only the secret heir seeking his heritage is worse.
(Yes, I feel better now).
Yet no one and nothing ever takes lasting damage from this in a badly-constructed fantasy world. No one starves because they were depending on the crops for food. Birds don’t migrate the wrong way or try to raise extra broods. Invading species don’t wander in from other territories because they’re hungry, or because the screwy weather is nicer to them in the protagonists’ home ground. The flooded river doesn’t destroy the home of anyone important. The drought is set right by a few rainfalls, never mind that cracked, dry soil is a bad, bad sign, and one storm is not going to cure it. (I want to see someone write a fantasy set in the kind of clay country that’s common in Kentucky, particularly where I live. Sure, it grows good oaks, but let it go too long without rain, and then get a doozy of a storm. It turns to mud as thick and clinging as, and exactly the color of, dog shit. It does not smell as bad, but that’s its only saving grace).
Want to screw with the seasons? Screw with them, and then show how they’ve screwed with the rest of the world.
4) Remember that not every climate is temperate.
Pretty obvious, this, but that means that if you’re writing a fantasy set in, oh, a desert, and you have weeping willows and orchids planted there, it’s going to look, um, kind of funny.
It’s actually not that hard to do research on species native to the kind of territory you’re wrting for. I think that, if someone wants to base a fantasy culture on a certain nation or land on Earth, they would do well to adopt more than the human culture wholesale. A human culture is formed by and reacts to the ecosystems around it, particularly in a world without global travel (see point 5). If you write an Aztec-themed novel, and yet the only real connection is a god who demands human sacrifice, with your typical medieval fantasy culture built around it, you’re missing out on an awful lot. Hummingbirds, for example, and a city built in the middle of a lake.
Short point, because I don’t see why I should have to argue this. Grabbing at random tree names and animals one is already familiar with, like crows in a lot of fantasy novels, is so much less interesting than a place that actually appears to have a functioning ecosystem.
5) Human culture should not always be completely separate from nature.
There are a number of reasons for this:
- It doesn’t always make sense. If these are people represented as living in harmony with nature, then why does the author show them as fearing it or ignoring it? (“Harmony with nature” is easy to say, hard to do).
- The specific nature surrounding the culture will influence it, sometimes down to the linguistic level. If a language has a word for “wolf” and not “raccoon,” that should give you a clue right there about where the language evolved, where wolves evolved, where raccoons evolved (even if it’s just “not here,”) and where the culture began.
- Metaphors and similes are a wonderful thing. They are far easier to develop if you’re not just saddling everyone with tired clichés like “as the crow flies.” What other phrase might refer to distance in this culture? What other kind of bird? What other species of animal altogether?
- Why does the culture/nature divide need to be present? Why aren’t there more animistic fantasy cultures, for example? They certainly existed in our own history. I have no clue why more authors don’t use them. Wait, yes, I do: twenty-first-century prejudice against letting nature have any place of importance showing again.
Think, please, before you make every character either a peasant who hates and fears the natural world, or a “hardened traveler” whose notice of nature extends to miraculously lighting fires from wet wood.
6) Nature provides a neat place to exercise your physical description muscles.
And yes, I am prejudiced. Hi. *waves little prejudiced flag* I find well-done descriptions of natural scenery far more fascinating than endless descriptions of clothes or lists of who is related to whom.
People tend to sandblast Tolkien for this, to say his writing is bloated because he spends a lot of time on trees, on mountains, on forests, on volcanoes, on the plains of Gorgoroth. Yet these same people happily read fantasy novels that waste pages on history infodump that can be easily worked into the story with more grace and swiftness. Forgive me if I don’t always prefer the umpteenth rehash of how the gods made the world to the description of Ithilien’s greenery.
I don’t think it’s description itself that’s the problem. I think it’s a) description that’s just plan bad (poorly-written, hard to visualize, snapping the constraints of viewpoint) and b) description that doesn’t need to be there.
What does need to be there? Your setting. Because, hello, we are often creating whole new worlds here. And yes, that does mean history and culture and mythology. It also means ecosystems, geographies, biospheres, the native terrain, the crops, the natural resources.
Paying attention to only the sociocultural aspects of a setting detracts from the whole, and is often more a reflection of the author’s own prejudices than a true mirror of how the characters think. Please to not be doing that.
7) You can create new species. You can also not do that.
It amuses me how many fantasy authors think magic is “cheating,” even when it’s highly restricted and elaborately defined, and yet think nothing of just slinging made-up names of plants and animals and geographical formations into the story. Once again, magic matters because it might affect the humans. But nature is seen as not affecting the humans (oh bloody fucking ha bloody ha), so making up any old shit you please is fine.
Why not go and find out an exotic real-world species that you can use in this context? You might have to change the name—maybe “elf owl” doesn’t make sense because this world doesn’t have elves—but you can do enough research that it fits well into your story’s environment and matters to the characters.
Is it silly to change the name? I don’t think it’s any sillier than just creating “mudra wood” because you’re too lazy to research mahogany—particularly when mudra wood really is a random reference and ceases to matter to the story after that. We’re never going to see any mudra trees. We’re never going to visit the country that exports it. We’re never going to know why it’s highly-prized, for its rarity or the expense of shipping it or its beauty or something else. We’re never going to know whether mudra trees are really as common as dirt and the merchants who pretend it’s rare are laughing up their sleeves at everyone who buys it for fantastically large prices. It’s no more than an author’s brain-fart.
If fantasy authors really are intent on working within limits and not cheating with magic, then I don’t see why cheating with nature is any better.
Extroverted characters next.