Readers and writers of ‘fantastical’ literature (Progression Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, Gamelit/LitRPG, you name it!) all encounter and contend with the topic of world building.
Questions like How much backstory do we need? and Will this story ever stop growing? pop up like mayflies. Most agree that considering world building is necessary to meet the expectations of the ‘fantastic’ genres.
I won’t grapple with how much time should be spent setting up a world in which a story will take place. I won’t waste our time arguing if pace and action should take precedence over back story. I want only to mention two small insights into how some of our favorite authors manage to make their imaginary worlds feel real.
Consider Tolkien (Please, read my words in as stuffy a manner as possible).
The maps the man drew have become a vivid and lasting focal point for Tolkien’s fans. I’ve spent hours staring at them…
Don’t lie, you have too.
Not just for a long time once when I was tired and probably a little sad, but a glance or two—for reference or plain old fun—hundreds of time!
That got me thinking: the Map can be seen as a piece of evidence that the world you’ve been spending so much time reading about truly exists.
Now consider the Map as a symbol to represent all of the minutia an author loads into a fictional world. The names of people, places, and even items in a story all lend a sense that elements of this created world are established as facts.
The second symbol I’ll have you consider is of the Mage.
While the Map makes a story world seem tangible, the Mage works to mystify and obscure it reality.
Do you remember the part in Fellowship when Gandalf faces down the Balrog?
Of course, you do.
“You shall not pass,” has become an iconic line that refuses to die.
But what of “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor”? Remember that one?
What the hell was Tolkien talking about?
Feel free to visit any LOTR wiki page and debate with the best. There are many good interpretations. But MY point is that the Gandalf’s ‘Secret Fire’ can be considered a world building technique that shades in for the ‘unknown’ aspects of reality that exist in any world.
While the Map makes the world feel more concrete, the mage lends the world as much depth as it has width.
Whether or not your favorite writer relies more on the Map or the Mage, it seems both can be appreciated in all they do for stories. I love when an author gives us both.
As for my own books?
I’ll continue to grind away at the creation wheel each time I start a new series. I love to discover elements of my books as I’m writing them but laying out a groundwork of world building will always be in my process.
Kai hasn’t yet discovered the significance of his surname. Bancroft will never remember every book of poetry his dragon composed. And Rhona is on her way to discovering how her own lineage has molded her to heal their broken world.
Each detail and mystery… they’re gold to me.
What are some examples of Map and Mage that your own favorite author has sewn into the fabric of their book?
If you look, I’m sure you’ll find countless.
If you liked this post and want to check out TJ's writing, look no further:
Check out the RPG Workshop, an AI fantasy generator created by the amazing Paul Bellow!
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