And the island life rant is here. These are general pointers, since I don’t know how many fantasy authors base their islands directly on Earth ones (other than the obvious candidate of the British Isles).
1) Find a source of fresh water on the island.
Yes, ocean islands without a source of fresh water may still be habitable by humans. But they won’t be habitable for very long.
Thirst is—or should be—the first and most overriding concern for any castaway, or anyone who’s come to an island for another purpose, such as setting up a school or a prison. A human can last far longer without food than without water. I believe that the record for waterless survival is about 11 days. And that assumes that the person doesn’t have some pre-existing condition that will hasten death from thirst, such as already being dehydrated or needing more water than most other people due to body size.
Can your characters drink salt water? Maybe; some experiments conducted by scientists at sea show it may be true. However, there’s also evidence to suggest it’s not. Even if salt water is safe for whatever reason, your characters may well not know it, and will search for another source of drinking water anyway. This leaves them with:
- Rain; collectors will need to be built to hold it.
- Snow, if the island has a mountain or is cold enough. However, trekking up a mountain may put them farther from the seashore and possible rescue.
- A stream of fresh water, probably the best bet. If your characters are going to spend a long time on the island or establish a permanent settlement there, it steadily ascends towards a must. A permanent settlement of many people, such as an academy or town, will use a lot of fresh water and thus require a lot.
Possible suggestion for a plot twist: Have a mage who can purge salt from water. This isn’t a flashy, showy gift the way that throwing lightning is, but why does magic need to be flashy or showy? One thing I’d like to see more of is mages with small gifts using them in interesting ways.
2) At least mention how the islanders get food.
If they were shipwrecked, they might find supplies from the ship. Note the “might?” Now pay attention to it and slim down the chance more the more dramatic the shipwreck was. Masts smashed to kindling, people pulped, and so on will reduce the chance that crates of food, jugs of water, and so on could have survived. Even if the castaways find them, they may well be contaminated; a cracked jug that let all the fresh water merrily flow out and the salt water in won’t do them any good.
Possible food sources include fish; migratory birds; wild animals on the island itself, such as goats; fruit, if the island is tropical; nuts; berries; wild vegetation; insects; and honey. Your castaways will have to rough it, especially if they came from the upper levels of society and are more used to roast swan and larks’ tongues. Food can’t be taken for granted, consumed without consequence, or passed up if it isn’t poisonous or contaminated. An island is often small, its resources limited. And even if it’s large, there will be the limits imposed by the sea itself. No convenient boatload of servants sailing across the sea with those roast swans and larks’ tongues, hurrah.
If you’re going to have a permanent residence on an island as opposed to visiting castaways, those food needs have just skyrocketed. A typical fantasy adventuring party often has a better than normal chance of including skilled hunters, people in good health, and inventive, clever people who can rig up rain-catchers. A permanent settlement will include people who require special care and food, like the sick; those who can’t fend for themselves, such as children; and those to whom both applies, such as babies. It will want domestic animals, food that can be stored, and a smooth and reliable means of taking the food back to the settlement. An adventuring group might well stay on the beach in a makeshift camp because they expect to be rescued soon. A settlement that has lasted for a hundred years will probably have more permanent structures and concerns that an adventuring group can’t even imagine.
3) Recognize that not all islands are tropical.
One perception I’ve seen in several fantasy books is that survival on islands is rather easy, because, after all, there are coconuts and fruit everywhere, and the weather’s hot and clear all the time, and there’s sure to be a convenient pool of fresh sweet water somewhere, and there are sheltered coves where you can hide from the Defoe ripoffs cannibals.
Leaving aside for the moment that life even on a tropical island can be very far from being a picnic—hello, rainy season—what about a northern island? The food will be much scarcer, the weather harsher, the lack of shelter a desperate problem. If the islands are open to the wind, storms and snow will sweep across them like scythes. Travel between small, close islands can be cut off completely by storms or high tides. The water itself will be cold enough to do murder at many times of the year, which means that the shipwrecked sailors scrambling for a place on the shore might not make it.
Of course, all of this makes for the kind of dramatic backdrop that a lot of fantasy authors would kill for, and the chance that the island will seem like an important, challenging place to visit. If the fantasist becomes complacent, as tends to happen with tropical islands, then the characters’ quest has a higher chance of changing into a quest for Plot Coupons. “Let’s see, go to the tropical island, collect the Stick of Kendar, rest for a day, and it’s on to the Deadly Coast!”
On the other hand, put your character in the middle of a winter journey and send him some place like the Shetland islands. Suddenly he can’t use his fine warhorse. Or his fragile tents, either. He can’t depend on finding coconuts and fruit to sustain him, or palm fronds to build a handy shelter. He may have to battle some deadly ice-beast face to face. Toughen the setting, toughen the story, and it becomes more exciting. And northern islands aren’t an overused setting the way that much of medieval Europe is, while still being northern enough not to require writers to spend all their time in the summer they so seem to dread.
4) If the island is completely and totally isolated, then cultural currents will be different.
This means that the descendants of the people who crashed on this island and made it their home a hundred years ago are extremely unlikely to have kept up with current political events in the visitors’ homeland, unless they have telepaths or mages or something of the kind (there’s that pesky lack of a global communication system again; don’t ya just hate it?) I’m always puzzled why fantasy characters can arrive in a Mysterious Location™ and have the Mysterious People™ smile at them in a creepy fashion and know all about them anyway, but in the case of an island it makes even less sense than usual.
Please don’t overuse prophecies as an excuse for Mysterious Island Knowledge™. For one thing, the prophecy could well include references, such as specific geographical landmarks and ways of counting time, that no longer make sense to people on the island. If the prophecy starts coming true, will they truly know it? For another, extreme isolation could corrupt things as easily as preserve them. One day, the Mysterious Storyteller™ alters a word of the prophecy because he likes the sound better, or forgets, or dies with his successor only half-trained. Bye-bye, crystalline accuracy. Fantasy mainlands often have an acceptable—if barely so—way of double-checking prophecies, such as multiple copies, an extensive oral tradition, reinforcement from gods and priests, and academies of mages that preserve old knowledge, including this. If someone ever has a doubt about the prophecy, he can consult with his friendly neighborhood mage and hear the real thing. Islanders don’t often have that option.
If you have a protagonist who has grown up on an island, your options for giving her a realistic reason for leaving are more limited than usual. Wandering bards coming by to tell tales and stir a sense of adventure? Not across three thousand miles of water. Dreams? Like prophecies, very easy to overuse. Old tales from the time before her people became isolated? Possible, but then there come the problems of actually leaving. It would have to be a story that set down accurate directions preserved in stone, or the protagonist has as much chance of dying at sea as of making landfall.
5) Travel from the island = water = research.
Take the amount of knowledge most fantasy authors have about horses, as discussed in the last rant. Now take half that knowledge. Now halve the half. This seems to be about the amount the average fantasy author knows about ocean-going, pre-twentieth century ships without doing research.
I mean, at least most fantasists know the approximate size of a horse. They know that writing a horse as squeezing into a gopher hole is insane. Yet they write about roomy ships that apparently have dozens of cabins for rich passengers, and all the room for horses that those passengers’ hearts could desire, while the crew turns invisible when not needed and violates the law of conservation of mass when present.
Wind-powered ships aren’t all that big, and so neither will magic-powered ships patterned on the wind-powered ones be. They have to use the room they do have for the crew, for cargo, for the necessary food and water for the sailors, for equipment, for ropes, for the masts and sails (stories where the characters have “complete freedom” to roam the deck make me wonder where the masts are standing), for weapons if they have cannon, for helm and/or rudder, and for rooms that are far more necessary to the crew than rich cabins, like the galley. A captain might agree to take on paying passengers if the price was high enough, but that isn’t the only consideration he has. Food for the knights’ warhorses alone is going to take up a hell of a lot of room.
Lighter boats are even smaller. Yes, you probably knew that, but it’s another inconvenient fact that fantasies make vanish when they want their characters to take a long sea voyage in one of them. There’s not a whole hell of a lot of room for food, fresh water, clothes—especially ones like gowns that wouldn’t provide much shelter from the elements—horses, or any of the accessories that fantasy characters would naturally accumulate on land. This doesn’t mean they will automatically die on the waves. It does mean they’ll have to travel light.
And it appears that I’ve done all the rants that were listed on the poll, which means I’ll be posting another one sometime tomorrow or this evening.