368. Fantasy World Building (1)

    Here we have an oddity. I am adding this paragraph after the original post date, but before Westercon. The title of this panel was changed from Fantasy World Building to Of Wizards, Dragons and Klingons: Fantasy and Sci-Fi World Buiiding. That is a bit ambitious; it pretty much includes everything writers do. I will leave these posts as they were, covering only fantasy worlds, but if you look at the rest of the panels on my Westercon page, you will find enough to justify the omnibus title.

I love fantasy, as long as you understand that I don’t include horror. Although all my publications so far have been science fiction, I have actually spent more time writing fantasy. You’ll see it, eventually.
     The first thing I wrote seriously, three years before I sat down to become a writer, was the first chapter of what became a three book fantasy series, Valley of the Menhir, Scourge of Heaven, and Who Once Were Kin.
     Since I began this blog, snippets of fantasy fiction and posts about the writing of fantasy have appeared here and there. Long term followers may recognize the following from posts 240 -243.

When you are ready to build your own fantasy world, you might consider these four things: tone and magic (today’s post), as well as language and the concept of the archaic (tomorrow).


The tone of the prolog to my novel Valley of the Menhir is intense and serious, but it can afford to be. It only lasts eight ms pages; if it were prolonged, such seriousness would quickly become pretentious. Books, like the characters in them, need to breathe. This is true whatever the genre.

J. R. R Tolkien set the tone for fantasy, and not necessarily in a positive way. The feel of Lord of the Rings is a combination of pretension and childishness, a tone that came from the uneasy mixing of hobbits with humans and elves. I liked LOTR well enough to read it twice, decades apart, but I don’t think I could make it through again. To be fair, the hobbits were the best thing in the books. When I tried to read the Silmarillion, the hobbits weren’t there to lighten the mood, so I finally bogged down and quit.

Tone at its best is found in A Wizard of Earthsea, which is, for my taste, and without equivocation, the best fantasy novel of them all. The overriding factor in the tone of Earthsea is humility. Ged is the son of peasants (or Earthsea’s equivalent) and he never loses touch with his humble beginnings. True, his arrogance leads to tragedy, but the bulk of the book is the story of Ged regaining the humility which is his natural state.

The language of the book is simple, matching the tone of the story. The image of a man in a tiny boat, pursuing his nemesis alone across Earthsea, has an almost Ghandiesque simplicity about it — if we remember that Ghandi had the simplicity and arrogance to bring down the British empire.

Tone can take many shades in fantasy, and still work. Fritz Leiber’s Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser stories on one hand and Keith Robert’s Pavane on the other are worlds apart in every way, but each strikes the tone necessary for its story. And yes, I know Pavane is an alternate worlds novel, but it reads like fantasy.

Roger Zelazny’s tone has one foot in science fiction and the other in fantasy. It doesn’t matter what he writes, his tone remains the same, and it works everywhere. Lord of Light is certainly science fiction and Creatures of Light and Darkness is certainly fantasy. Amber, in all its volumes, transcends categorization, but all these works belong in the genre called everything-Zelazny-wrote. I’ve read all his work repeatedly, and will continue to do so, because I get lost in the sound of his voice. And that is what tone is, after all.


Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
                Clarke’s third law.

The universe is full of forces; some of those forces are personalities.
                reference lost

I believe that the second quotation above is from a piece by James Blish, which I read many years ago and no longer have available to me. If anyone recognizes the source, let me know. In that same piece, as I recall, he spoke of Black Easter as an experiment in which he treated the Book of Revelation as simple fact. Roger Zelazny made a career out of treating non-Western religions as if they were simple fact.

Like stardrives, magic can be highly structured or haphazardly thrown in when the story needs it. Both styles work, depending on the skill of the author. The most organized magic I recall is Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy stories. For disorganization, see any new author.

A primary, underlying question in any presentation of a fantasy world is, “Where does the magic come from?” Is it a dispersed, readily available natural resource like The Force in Star Wars? Does it reside within its wielder, as a natural consequence of his being? Or is it owned by other powerful beings, who must be supplicated or bargained with to obtain a portion of their power? This choice has a huge effect on how dark the story is likely to become. we continue magic tomorrow

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