Fantasy Settings: How Much Do We Really Need to See?

Fantasy Setting

Credit: Mehmet Canli. Used under permission of CC BY-SA 2.0.

Everybody likes a good setting. Whether it’s Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, Lewis’s Narnia, or Pratchett’s Discworld, there are some places we never want to leave. By that logic, there are some places we should see even more of, right?

Well, not necessarily.

If you’re writing fantasy, it can be tempting to show every nook and crevice of your world. That abandoned graveyard? Let’s send some people there, just to see it. What about the ancient eagle’s nest atop the mountain? We need to go, just because it’s awesome. And that village of singing trolls out in the west? There’s a chapter.

Before we do that, let’s take a step back and look at our world—not the story world, but the world we actually live in. It’s pretty darn vast, isn’t it? And I don’t only mean geographically—I mean in terms of our knowledge, too. There’s so much going on in the world, so many cultures and so much history. It’s practically limitless.

In order to create an authentic fantasy world, I think we need to keep that same principle in mind. That is, I believe every fictional world, fantasy or otherwise, should have parts on the periphery that we never discover.

A great example comes from The Lord of the Rings. Sure, you remember Mordor and Rivendell. But riddle me this: do you remember who Queen Beruthiel is?

She’s only mentioned once in an offhand comment from Aragorn: “[Gandalf] is surer of finding the way home in a blind night than the cats of Queen Berúthiel.” That’s it. She’s never mentioned again.

At first glance, this might seem like laziness or even a mistake. But that reference is certainly intentional, and one of the many tricks Tolkien used to build Middle-Earth. He created a rich, wholly believable world precisely because he didn’t show us everything it had to offer.

Just like in the real world, there are limits to our knowledge as readers. If we’ve seen every location and every person, the setting ends up feeling awfully small. But if there’s more beyond the borders of the page, then we’ve got a real, authentic setting.

Let’s stick with epic fantasy for our next example. A Song of Ice and Fire is one of the most immersive worlds out there. And it’s a big world—big enough that the story might not even conclude after seven volumes.

In books four and five, author George R.R. Martin decides to show us a bit more of this expansive world. He adds a few characters more or less just to serve as vessels through which we can see the other areas of his world.

…And a lot of fans will tell you they hate it.

Why? Because even Martin, who’s been a professional writer for decades, makes the mistake of showing too much. He has many chapters in which his characters don’t do much except tell you what’s going on in this one place. Do we really need to see what’s going on in Dorne and the Iron Islands first-hand? You could debate it, but a lot of fans will tell you that it distracts from the main plot.

The more we know about a setting, the smaller it gets. Though we might want to visit that cool place we referenced way back in chapter five, it’s often best if we resist the urge.

They say “less is more” for a reason, right?

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3 thoughts on “Fantasy Settings: How Much Do We Really Need to See?

  1. Hey! You’ve mentioned some of my favourite series. I am not sure I agree with you on this though. Take Forgotten Realms for example. In the Legend of Drizzt series Bob Salvatore has taken us to so many places and it’s always an exciting journey. For readers like me this is the only way to travel. And only preferred way really. So I have journeyed through so many places and now I can choose one I’d like to settle in. And I’m still hungry for more. Tolkien has explored other locations in his other works like Silmarillion or CHildren of Hurin

    • Hey, thanks for commenting! You raise a good point; lots of authors have expanded upon worlds that they’ve already shown us. I think the key here is that they still don’t show us everything.

      For example, even though Tolkien goes to different places and times within Middle-Earth in the Silmarillion and the Children of Hurin, his world is vast enough to still leave undiscovered territory. There are still places and characters that are just mentioned and never shown, suggesting a larger world beyond the borders. I’m not as familiar with Salvatore, but from what I understand, he does the same sort of thing. His works are all sort of standalone quests featuring recurring characters, right?

      So I agree with you that authors shouldn’t necessarily limit their settings. There’s nothing wrong with continuing to explore, so long as you never give your reader the sense that there’s nothing left to discover.

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