Emergence of setting and secondary-worlds

Even in the fantasy book blogosphere there are sometimes big debates sprawling between the many blogs.

This one is about the design of the setting. An argument I obviously like and agree with the observations being made. In fact some key arguments were already in those two forum threads where I asked suggestions of fantasy books that would deliver what I was looking for.

Being tired of the Hero’s Journey I was looking for a story about a world. Not about one character. A setting where the world outlives its characters. Because people make history, but they are also expendable. Things move on no matter what one does, and the true relevance of actions and choices of some is revealed by the influence they have on others. So there’s a need of story changing hands to make this concept surface. A story that can be emergent from the characters, where characters are plot devices, important, but not the finality. No real story is about one or few people, things are more complex and intricate. I wanted a story with that approach, less naive, something that zoomed in to the close perspective, for the emotional impact and empathy with the characters, then zoomed back delivering the grander scheme of things. The sense of history, continuity and consistence.

I wanted a secondary-world that worked like a sandbox. That would hold many stories within. That made emerge a complexity.

From the other side instead I wanted a world made of rocks. That felt like stone. Something visceral, something where the story came from those stones. A world with a strong feel of “place”. Again not characters moving on a blurred, mutable, interchangeable background, but places that told a story themselves, about those people who lived there, passed by, fought there. Places that could be traveled one day by one group of characters, and later by others. Places as witnesses. Places as the founding pillars of a world. People come and go, but those places would stay, maybe changed, but still there. Witnesses of what happened there, a demonstration of history, bearing its signs, its scars.

Both these aspects are well outlined in that article I linked:

Epic fantasy requires us to build from first principles — vision, sound, touch, taste, scent — and make a physical place in which the action plays out that’s compelling and immersive.

Tolkien also wasn’t making his living writing fiction, and so could afford to take a very long time (commercially speaking) to refine his visions of the Mines of Moria and Rivendell and Mordor. You can find the proof of that in the reimaginings of his settings by visual artists since The Lord of the Rings first came out. Even more than the characters or the plot, the places in Tolkien are memorable.

Those of us who toil in Tolkien’s shadow have that to match, and it’s not a bad measure to judge second-world fantasy by whether you remember the places. I would go so far as to suggest that George’s success with A Song of Ice and Fire maps to the number of memorable places in the world. The Wall, Winterfell, the Aerie. When I think back to other fantasy series, I can remember characters and events, dramatic moments in the plot, and sometimes the general feel of the story even without specifics. I don’t think anyone has drawn as many powerful places as Tolkien and George, at least for me. Back when “novel” was closer to its original meaning, this was what it was all about — being someplace new and amazing through the collaboration of the author’s language and reader’s imagination.

The other concept he describes, aside the idea of memorable places, is “Setting as Milieu”. That also connects to my ideas.

Often in fantasy a setting lives by its characters. You follow the story of someone, in a secondary-world, as “fantasy” can’t preclude from it. But when the character is done, the setting also disappears with him. The setting lives as long the character. As if it was theater, after the piece is over the scenography is disassembled, taken away. The writer has a story to tell, and created a setting to contain that one story.

But if that’s the goal then the fantasy setting is superfluous. Because a story can be adapted to every setting with very minimal effort. Being “fantasy” is entirely a quality of creation and consistence of a secondary-world. So you look at fantasy when you are looking exactly for that device.

The article says that once you made an effort to create a setting as milieu, then the setting can outlive the single story. You created something emergent with its own life. And it doesn’t matter if the main characters die or disappear, because the story can move on, to completely different people, but still in the same world. This gives continuity and consistence. And this is something unique that fantasy, as a genre, offers to writers.

This is the quality of fantasy.

Setting is also milieu. Stories set in the same fictional universe support one another, and generate a sense of the familiar in the readers — a sense of returning.

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