Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Worldbuilding, in fantasy long and short

This is going to be long.
As readers of this blog might have noticed, I have sort of a personal interest in worldbuilding – both for professional reasons (building worlds pays mt bills) and as a sort of hobby of mine. I like imaginary worlds, which probably explains why I read and write imaginative fiction, or the other way around.

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Now, as I was browsing the web in search for some documentation, I chanced upon an old article from The Guardian, whose title caused me to pause and take some time reading.
The article, that was published in May 2015 and you will find here, is called Fantasy cannot build its imaginary worlds in short fiction.
To which my basic reaction is, really?

The piece in the Guardian is the reaction of the author to another article, which claimed that fantasy is being submerged in 600+ pages book series basically because of corporate greed.
Why sell 200 pages for five bucks when you can sell 600 for twenty?
In response to this, the author of the piece I linked claims that the big books are a physiological need of the genre, because, as the title says Fantasy cannot build its imaginary worlds in short fiction.

To write short fantasy is very difficult. If the usual big-fantasy detail is taken out and you only sketch a plot, you get a fairytale. If you write real high fantasy in 4,000 words, details and all, it tends to be a snippet, not a story. If it’s something set in a basically real world but with a fantasy element, it’s not fantasy so much as speculative fiction, or alternative history, or a ghost story. That means that there is an incredibly narrow taxonomical window in which short fiction can be recognised as fantasy at all. What we recognise as fantasy is long. Sometimes really long.

The fantasy series, and the mega-novel, may have been encouraged by market forces. But they are, above everything else, the natural format for anything so sprawling as a fantasy universe. There’s rubbish, of course; there’s also some properly good writing, and some of it isn’t by Tolkien or Martin. So I hope they keep coming. As long as possible, please.

What peeves me first is the fact that only highly-detailed, high-fantasy blockbusters set in a secondary world are considered fantasy.
The bit about speculative fiction and alternative history and ghost story sounds to me as a not-so-neat attempt at rhetorical sleight-of-hand.

“But look here, most of Conan is short stories, and the readers love that world! The Elric tales, too. And Jirel of Joiry! What about C.A. Smith?”
“Ah, but that’s not really fantasy, that’s psaeudo-medieval character-driven speculative fiction. Whole different thing. You lose.”

So, if by fantasy we stick to some general definition, like Miriam Allen de Ford’s (which I rather like)

Science fiction consists of improbable possibilities, fantasy of plausible impossibilities

then a ghost story by M.R. James, a Conan short by Howard and any Brian Jacques story about armor-wearing, sword-wielding mice qualify as “fantasy” just as the works of Tolkien or Martin.
Hence, there’s some pretty solid fantasy that comes in the short form, and its world-building is just as fine, thank you, than the sort shown in doorstop-sized tomes.

Which leads me back to worldbuilding and what is currently one of my major, all-around pet peeves: worldbuilding is not about the map and the appendixes and the long expository paragraphs about historical backgrounds, culture and rituals, religion and traditions.

And as a basic example, let me quote Robert Howard from my favorite Conan story…

220px-weird_tales_1934-09_-_the_people_of_the_black_circleTHE King of Vendhya was dying. Through the hot, stifling night the temple gongs boomed and the conchs roared. Their clamor was a faint echo in the gold- domed chamber where Bunda Chand struggled on the velvet-cushioned dais. Beads of sweat glistened on his dark skin; his fingers twisted the gold-worked fabric beneath him. He was young; no spear had touched him, no poison lurked in his wine. But his veins stood out like blue cords on his temples, and his eyes dilated with the nearness of death. Trembling slave-girls knelt at the foot of the dais, and leaning down to him, watching him with passionate intensity, was his sister, the Devi Yasmina. With her was the wazam, a noble grown old in the royal court.
She threw up her head in a gusty gesture of wrath and despair as the thunder of the distant drums reached her ears.
“The priests and their clamor!” she exclaimed. “They are no wiser than the leeches who are helpless! Nay, he dies and none can say why. He is dying now—and I stand here helpless, who would burn the whole city and spill the blood of thousands to save him.”
“Not a man of Ayodhya but would die in his place, if it might be, Devi,” answered the wazam. “This poison—”
“I tell you it is not poison!” she cried. “Since his birth he has been guarded so closely that the cleverest poisoners of the East could not reach him. Five skulls bleaching on the Tower of the Kites can testify to attempts which were made—and which failed. As you well know, there are ten men and ten women whose sole duty is to taste his food and wine, and fifty armed warriors guard his chamber as they guard it now. No, it is not poison; it is sorcery—black, ghastly magic—”

There, world built.
Only, just part of it is happening on the page, and very little of it is being explained.
And yet, anyone that read People of the Black Circle knows that the story setting is all there already.
The names build a certain expectation, we are informed of the political structure of the nation, of the court. We are given enough backstory to navigate what’s coming, and magic is called upon as a real thing, that does real damage.
Nice and smooth.

Because worldbuilding in the end is not about building a world and using it to clobber the reader, but about setting your story in a coherent setting, hinted at through the characters’ actions and attitudes, functionally to the telling of a plausibly impossible story in the most effective and economical way.

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The trick, with short fiction – and nobody is saying it’s an easy trick, mind you – is to provide color and detail, and stick to it in a coherent fashion, so that the world sketched by the details goes on to influence and color the character’s personalities and actions.
In this way, the story will hold, and the reader will acquire more information that the simple sum of the parts we as writers provided.

In other words, the reader does not need to be explicitly informed of all those world details, as long as the characters act accordingly, and events develop in tune with those details.

Quite recently I’ve been exposed to a number of writers claiming that “writing fantasy starts with a map”, and that without a few appendixes, a timeline, a few family trees etc. you really can’t cut it.
Which is quite fine, but the guys seem to think all this stuff needs to go verbatim into the narrative, it has to be part of the book.
It needs not be.
Granted, it’s lots of work for a single short story, which probably explains why short-story-dominated sub-genres like sword & sorcery thrive on series: once you’ve done the work, it’s a good idea to milk it for all it’s worth.

But about there not being room for worldbuilding in short fantasy stories, no, this is just plain wrong.
End of long-winded rant.

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Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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