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  1. #1
    GemQuest Moderator Gary Wassner's Avatar
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    World choices, what the f... Medieval, modern, victorian???

    I've been having a few interesting discussins on some other forums about labelling and categorizing within our genre. It seems to me that much of this boils down to the world we choose as our platform. I'm not sure that the labels are too helpful. In fact I think they hurt many authors more than they help. But that's another topic totally.

    What I'm interested in talking about here is why you might choose one world over another in which to tell your story. Why choose a pre-industrial world? Why choose a futuristic urban world? Why a medieval hierarchy? Do the worlds determine the scope of the story? Do they dictate the themes or enhance or limit the author's ability to deal with the particular issues that he/she may wish to deal with? What characteristics give you the freedom and flexibility you need to accomplish your goals? Is the world a tool? If so, why choose one over another?

    Why do you as a reader or writer prefer one world setting over another? Do you avoid stories told in certain worlds, and if so, why? Which worlds? If Epic Fantasy is defined in part by its worldbuilding choices, can a book be an epic fantasy and be set in the modern world?

  2. #2
    Fulgurous Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    Oh now you’re just taunting me.

    I've been having a few interesting discussions on some other forums about labelling and categorizing within our genre. It seems to me that much of this boils down to the world we choose as our platform. I'm not sure that the labels are too helpful. In fact I think they hurt many authors more than they help. But that's another topic totally.
    True, but in short, marketing sub-categories are largely helpful. They are used to connect fans with works they might otherwise miss, help new authors secure fan audiences, and get booksellers to provide more shelf space and make bigger purchase orders so that they have a full variety of fantasy. It’s when sub-categories are used as weapons that it gets problematic, IMO. Fans who see sub-categories not as general organizational labels, but representing differences in substance or quality. Publishing folk who are chasing trends and so ignore a whole category as not worth their time, and the like.

    The choice of world is a tool and it’s not so much the world as the time period of the world’s setting. The later you go in history, the shorter the time divisions get, much like humanity’s development: there’s pre-history (millions of years,) ancient and tribal history (thousands of years,) medieval period (a thousand years,) the Renaissance (two hundred years,) the Englightment period of the 1700’s (one hundred years,) the Empire of the 1800’s (one hundred years,) reaching the 1900’s where it gets down to decades: turn-of-the-century, WWI, 1920’s, 1930’s, WWII, 1950’s, 1960’s & 70’s, 1980’s, 1990’s-present day, followed by the near future and the far future. A fantasy writer can set their story anywhere along the timeline. A writer can also create an alternate, imaginary world and use any time period or mix and match time periods. There are no requirements for any time period chosen, and no rules for how you have to use that setting. Similar themes can be pursued in any time period.

    Nor does the time period limit the scope of the story. Epic Fantasy got that name because High Fantasy was too vague and Sword & Sorcery was deemed too derogatory. The term indicates the setting – pre-industrial, not the substance of the stories, which vary considerably. There are Epic Fantasy stories that are not really epic in nature and Contemporary Fantasy stories that are quite epic in scope – Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods,” China Mieville’s “Iron Council,” Anne Rice’s vampire books, etc. The medieval period has the advantage of being the familiar world of fairy tales and fables, and so is frequently chosen. The contemporary period has the allure of leaner world-building and modern props.

    There are also issues of tone, as well as setting, though. Comic fantasy might be set in the present day or a later time period, and might mix and match time periods. But its intent is humor and satire. Dark fantasy also, but its tone is spooky and despairing.

    For me personally, I love reading fantasy in all time settings and tones, and I have an interest in writing both what is considered Epic Fantasy and Contemporary Fantasy. The choice of time setting is going to effect what props I can use to tell a story, but in terms of theme, scope, cast size, and such, there’s not a lot of real difference between them in what potentially can be done.

    But, people are effected by the factors of the world in which they live, and so those props can be used to flavor a story a certain way. The tale of a man who is part of a nomadic tribe with no guns and machines, might be quite different from the story of a man who works in a modern office building at a computer. On the other hand, they might be eerily similar. Caitlin Sweet and Scott Bakker, our two Canadian fantasy gurus, for instance, have both written works that are set in pre-industrial time periods, but some fans see parts of these stories as parallel to modern day issues. Your books have a great many environmental issues that also fit with current debates. Fantasy – and sf too -- lets you create tandem worlds where you can run thought experiments, or you can just examine common events. For me, it usually comes down to what character I want to play with.

  3. #3
    GemQuest Moderator Gary Wassner's Avatar
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    Very informative as usual. Thanks.

    For me, I work with the ideas. The world I've chosen to write my current series in allows me the flexibility I need. If my world was a modern one, then my environmental concerns would be too blatant and specific. My ethical concerns wouldn't seem as universal as I want them to be. If I chose a time period too close to my own, the reader would presuppose more than I would want them to. A preindustrial world is a blank slate as far as I'm concerned. We assume the social and political heirarcy to an extent and i don't need to spend time detailing it. Mention a Lord and we understand where we are. Modern weapons, even simple guns, change the tone drastically. Gunpowder takes the magic out of explosions.

    If ideas are my concern, I want an environment that's going to be most conducive to discussing and expressing them. I wonder sometimes if it reflects a lack of creativity on my part or a laziness of some sort. I utilize the time period that works best for me, a quasi out-of-time period in fact. But that it right there! It's out of time, so history doesn't impact the story or the ideas. I feel almost pigeonholed if I use more modern environments. Technology makes the world so real. I don't want my world to be real, I want the ideas to resonate out of time.

  4. #4
    Fulgurous Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    Well there're all sorts of choices, and reality versus flexibility is a big one. For instance, if I pursue one contemporary fantasy idea, I want an urban landscape because it's that sort of story. So do I chose an existing city that will be very familiar to readers and ground them in reality -- New York, San Francisco? Laurell Hamilton chose St. Louis for her Anita Blake series as she lived there and knew the city. Or do I invent an imaginary city that is much like real ones but gives me more flexibility and less demand for research? Charles de Lint ended up inventing a Canadian city that doesn't exist.

    A pre-industrial setting has the same issue. Do you write about Earth in some particular time period as historical fantasy, or do you make up an imaginary world, "out of time" as you say, that reflects a time period or mix of time periods. One of the reasons "magic kingdoms" are so popular with pre-industrial settings is that blank-slate effect -- you can reconstruct society as you like. But doing so is a lot of work and can add greatly to the length of a story.

    I do know readers who can't take magic kingdom books. For them, a fantasy story has to be in the contemporary world and as real-based as possible. And I know readers who don't see the point of fantasy set in the modern world, and want their princesses and sword battles. But I think most fantasy writers get interested in a particular culture or particular historical events and start playing with that.

    Most fantasy stories whatever the setting break down into: "what if you had this and then had that happen." What if you had the Napoleanic wars and it had dragons. What if Galveston, Texas gets flooded with magic instead of just water, and so on. SF does this too, which is why the two types are mirror reflections of each other. So the setting does become an important player in the story because it's where you start from, then get funky with it.

  5. #5
    GemQuest Moderator Gary Wassner's Avatar
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    Agreed. Take Gaiman and Duncan today, to name a few. Modern worlds and fantasy worlds. It's a trend for sure.

    But the bottom line is that the world doesn't necessarily dictate the type of fantasy you write. Or should I say, it doesn't dictate the ideas you write about. It either supports them or enhances them, but it doesn't rule them.

    My choice, my preferance for now, is to lose myself in a world that doesn't resemble this one in any way at all. Yet when I write children's books, children's fantasys, I always ground them in the present. I'm not sure why. Maybe kids are just more real to me than I am to myself.

  6. #6
    Give me liberty! Ouroboros's Avatar
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    I think its important that we recognise the connections between ideas or memes and the historical contexts in which they emerged. World-changing ideas don't just spring full-grown, Athena-like, into being. They're contextually rooted in the historical circumstances which brought them about.

    Take the notion of universal sufferage, for example. What are our best guesses about what enabled it to occur in the west? Historical processes such as industrialisation, for a start, which allowed the majority of us to raise our heads from the back-breaking labour that was necessary to eke a living from the earth in the old days.

    What I'm getting at is that if we're going to draw from our history for inspiration, then yes, certain themes and elements are naturally going to suggest themselves, and be more in keeping with our choice of borrowed subject matter.

    I imagine a possible rejoinder: "This is fantasy, not historical fiction! My brain hurts- why does an idea like feudalism have to be any deeper than guys in conical metal hats pushing peasants around?"

    Fine, a valid point. But my personal opinion is that if we're going to borrow and plunder, then we might as well do it intelligently. Our history is a rich treasure trove- If we only draw on a period for the equivalent window dressing and costumes then we're short-changing ourselves.
    Last edited by Ouroboros; June 8th, 2006 at 11:06 AM.

  7. #7
    GemQuest Moderator Gary Wassner's Avatar
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    Much of what you say is valid. But there's so many more levels to the impact of a chosen world. And the impact, the emotional impact, will necessarily vary tremendously from culture to culture and generation to generation.

    What feelings are invoked by thinking about middle earth? as opposed to Mieville's world? Just look at them from a purely descriptive POV and forget content. A reader begins by envisioning the world. Our first sentences take the reader to that world and our first descriptions are enormously important.

  8. #8
    Give me liberty! Ouroboros's Avatar
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    Double post
    Last edited by Ouroboros; June 8th, 2006 at 02:34 PM.

  9. #9
    Give me liberty! Ouroboros's Avatar
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    Much of what you say is valid. But there's so many more levels to the impact of a chosen world. And the impact, the emotional impact, will necessarily vary tremendously from culture to culture and generation to generation.
    Sure, That's part of my point, really: To borrow again the feudalism example- if it's about more than princesses, knights and downtrodden peasantry, then what can we squeeze out of it beyond that? If we take one of the narrative strands of this period of our history- the crusades, for example, then we can see that this is a subject that has the potential to evoke radically different responses dependant on our woldview.

    Something that also occurs to me is that there needs to be an awareness that when we talk about 'medievil' or 'pre-industrial' we're really talking in sort of pop-history shorthand. We're dumbing down- these are useful linguistic tags that shoe-horn our best guesses into convenient boxes. These are not 'worlds' as such, although bad pastiches of these things are generally what passes for people's idea of world-building in their writing.

    What feelings are invoked by thinking about middle earth? as opposed to Mieville's world? Just look at them from a purely descriptive POV and forget content. A reader begins by envisioning the world. Our first sentences take the reader to that world and our first descriptions are enormously important.
    Tolkien's vision does make me emote in a different way than Mieville, but the reason for this is more complex than any one thing. I'd be wary of oversimplifying the process of how someone responds to what they read ...
    Last edited by Ouroboros; June 8th, 2006 at 02:36 PM.

  10. #10
    GemQuest Moderator Gary Wassner's Avatar
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    But that's exactly why one book may appeal to one person and not another. It's not simple at all, but it's relevant.

    We emote yes, just like we respond differently to different colors and smells. That doesn't mean that you and I will emote the same way to the same stimuli. But I create a world in my books that appeals to my sensibility and provides me with the canvas that is most comfortable for telling my story.

    History is just a retelling after all. So even when we assume that what we read is accurate, we interpret it according to what we bring to the table.

    For some a world is more than a canvas, more than a backdrop. For others it may not be. It depends upon the nature of the story and the concerns of the author.

  11. #11
    Give me liberty! Ouroboros's Avatar
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    I think I see where you're coming from Gary. To each their own.

    But can you elaborate on what you mean when you say that for some 'a world is more than a canvas, more than a backdrop'. This sounds not dissimilar to what I said in my original post, that we must be wary of thinking we can pick and choose elements from our own history without missing necessary interrelationships between times, places, people and ideas. However, I think you're saying something quite different. What do you mean, specifically, when you talk about 'worlds'?

  12. #12
    GemQuest Moderator Gary Wassner's Avatar
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    I guess what I'm getting at is that the choice of a world to write in can serve many different functions for an author. For me, the idea of writing in a world that has any modern elements detracts from that fantastical aspects. For me. I use my world as a metaphor - the world and what's happening to it. The story plays out in its own time, but I use the circumstances to deal with other issues.

    In some ways, an entire book is a canvas and the reader's interaction with it determines its value. Each of us brings so much to the table after all. In other cases, the setting is just that - a place where things happen, like the props on a stage. They may help with the mood but they don't tell the story.

  13. #13
    Give me liberty! Ouroboros's Avatar
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    Interesting, Gary.

    When you say 'setting', what does that definition encapsulate- places? People? Mass movements? Governments? Religions?

    When I look at our own historical narrative(s), we have seen various academic fads, various interpretive modes. There have been schools emphasising the history-making ability of men like Napoleon et all, as though they were figures who remained apart from the march of events and influenced them but were not influenced by them. More recently, however, we have seen a trend towards the belief that history is a bundle of narratives which none of us stand outside of, "made", if you will, but a complex tapestry of events- a given age as whole, if you like. It would be difficult to write a cogent biography of Al Capone, for example, without it being, in large, a study of prohibition and the history of Chicago during that period. These things were more than a simple backdrop against which Capone's life played out: There was, as is the case with all our lives, an interplay.

    The question then becomes whether a fictional narrative is somehow of a different order.
    Last edited by Ouroboros; June 8th, 2006 at 03:24 PM.

  14. #14
    Master Obfuscator Dawnstorm's Avatar
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    Interesting. This thread coincides with me writing a fantasy-novel. If I had to tell you a real world period It's based on, I'd argue early rennaisance to late middle ages on the northern continent, mid rennaisance for the southern one. But there are elements taking shape from ancient Greece and Egypt, as well as models from modern oddities such as Monaco or Hong Kong.

    I know the story; the world is entirely decided by it. I'll have to make the setting more consistent after the first draft is done.

    The historical confusion arises because of different ways "magic" has been handled before it started disappearing (magic still exists in that world, but barely; just enough that nobody can doubt it really existed.)

    I'm afraid that, no matter what I'll end up with after the setting edit (after I've finished the actual story), if you model your reading after real world history, you'll find anachronisms. That's because I scavange from history what I can to make the story work. I will try my best to make the setting seem coherent, but that's not the same as corresponding closely to a specific period.

    I'm still unsure on how this will play out.

  15. #15
    GemQuest Moderator Gary Wassner's Avatar
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    If I understand you correctly Dawn, we're in agreement here. The story for you comes first and you create or adapt the world to suit what you want to tell and what you want to accomplish.

    For me, the world doesn't dictate anything. I conceivably could discuss, pursue, examine, play out all the ideas I desire to in almost any world. I chose a pre-industrial one because I'm most comfortable there. It's my fantasy, always has been.

    To a certain extent it represents things for me personally, and I'm sure that's why I choose it as a stage for my books.

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