Tags

, , , , , , , ,

One of the things that has struck me as I read fantasy is that when an author aspires to create an Epic Story, almost inevitably the story will involve lots of travel that will span the fantasy world, taking us between settings that are wildly different from each other, the better to convey that sense of yawning scope that we are looking for, and to showcase the depth of the story’s world (not to mention the cleverness of the author for creating such a world!).

As always, I hasten to note that this is not inherently bad. When such stories are done well, the vast distances traveled and massive shifts of setting will help to build a truly impressive story. (Off the top of my head, George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire does a good job here—as does, in a very different fashion, Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.) It seems that as far back as humans were telling stories, we associate physical journeys with spiritual ones, so that a character’s changes take on special emphasis when he or she is also journeying.

Still, there are perils to this approach. The most common one is that in our haste to create big worlds, we skip past the minor detail of making deep worlds. To take a ludicrous example, imagine a story in which there are several continents, each of which is ruled by a monolithic empire which is only distinguished from the next one by the color of its clothing, or the shape of its people’s ears, or somesuch. For a more concrete example, David Eddings’s Belgariad series features a series of countries each with overpowering national stereotypes, so that all Drasnians are cunning spies, all Sendars are plain country folk (including the king!), and so on. To be fair to Eddings, he was in part doing a send-up of genre clichés that date back to Tolkien at least… but still. My objection is this: in our haste to have vast worlds, we skimp on the details that actually make things interesting.

For myself as a political-science geek, one of the things that galls me is how often writers imagine that their fantasy kingdoms have no actual politics. Oh, sure, you can have your treacherous nobles or devious advisors, but what is their power base? Why are particular groups of nobles in one faction and not another? Where does each of the nobles live?

Consider, for example, The Wheel of Time. Robert Jordan, may he rest in peace, at least had the decency to include rebellious nobles in his story, which puts him head and shoulders above some other authors I could name; but the treatment of politics was boring. In each country, there were Loyal nobles, and Disloyal nobles, all of whom seemed to float in midair without any particular ties to geography, or concrete interests that might pull them toward one faction or another. And none of these conflicts ever spilled across borders! The factions that opposed our heroes never formed a broader alliance with each other, in stark contrast to all the rules of war and politics from time immemorial. No, they remained in their neat categorical boxes, country by country.

One ridiculous consequence is that no noble in WoT ever switches sides unless being faced with naked force, and even then only rarely. (In real conflicts, players are constantly trying to play both sides against the middle; for an example, just read up on any major Afghan warlord. James Clavell’s Shogun is a good fictional example of such maneuvering, albeit not a fantasy one, and notwithstanding the other objections you could make about it as historical fiction.)

For a while now, I’ve been toying with a move in the opposite direction: to have a fantasy story that takes place entirely within a single village. The characters no longer have the option of fleeing from their problems across the continent; the focus of the story would be on the intricate social conflicts between the village peasants, all of whom would naturally have to be identified by name and social position. I haven’t done it yet largely because it would be hard to pull off; all those family trees to work out, who’s married to whom and why it matters, the tangle of petty jealousies and feuds that mark village life, and so on. The biggest conceptual difficulty, I think, is how you could make a story of such constricted scope still have that vast fantasy feel. My current thinking is that the large-scale problems at work in the country as a whole would create fault-lines in the village, so that we still feel connected to the larger conflicts.

The attraction of such a challenge would be that the setting would have to be steeped in detail; indeed, only by having a rich texture in our setting would the story even be interesting. The characters would have to be well fleshed out, their relationships with each other would have to be compelling, the material facts of life in a fantasy village would have to be hammered out and establish the rhythms of the story. Compared to yet another world of flimsy cardboard countries, I think such a story could be a breath of fresh air.

For my readers, I would say that you have other choices besides a vast fantasy world stapled together from clichés. You might try a smaller canvas, with more care devoted to the individual brushstrokes, and see what that gets you.

Advertisements