For all the world-building and lore, I realise Fantasy is no different from any other story structure. All genres contain world-building and lore. Except in other genres we call it setting and history. All stories have it, even contemporary ‘real-world’ stories. Because they’re not real. ‘Real worlds’ in stories are edited and highlighted fictional versions. The author decides what to include and what to leave out.
So why do we get so hung up on world-building and lore in Fantasy? Those are just two ingredients of the genre. Important ingredients, but not all-defining.
Going back to our previous definition:
Fantasy is a genre of speculative fiction involving magical elements, typically set in a fictional universe and sometimes inspired by mythology and folklore.
Note the key words: involving; typically set; sometimes inspired by.
Beyond that, it’s all about the setting the author chooses to present, wrapped around the characters.
You think that magic schools, dragons and enchanted forests are any different from contemporary fiction? Think again.
All genre settings contain only those elements the author chooses to filter and focus on.
Pride and Prejudice and Tunnel Vision
Lizzie Bennett’s world (collect a sticker) consists of Longbourne, Netherfield, Meriton, Rosings and Pemberly. Five narrowly defined and not that specific settings. Pride and Prejudice takes place in the middle of the Napoleonic wars, but you’d never know it. Despite the presence of the army, no one in the novel ever talks politics, or war, or economics. The threat of invasion is imminent and real. Political divisions are as deep and as bitter as anything in today’s febrile and angry environment. We get none of it.
More than that, there’s little description of houses and places. Austen relies on the reader to fill in the blanks while she concentrates on character and story. Local society is brought to life in quick, light brush strokes. The wider world beyond doesn’t encroach. The high society of Darcy and the Bingley’s doesn’t feature. Unlike, say, Emma or Mansfield Park, there aren’t even any poor people in the book.
Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple is one of those curiously ‘timeless’ characters. All of her stories from 1930 to the late 1940’s are set in a roughly contemporary Britain. Marple lives in St Mary Mead, a small English village with a local pub, a handful of shops, the vicarage and the Gossington Hall estate. She makes a few trips to other Country House locations. The world Christie presents is darkly cruel and complex, but there’s barely any mention of tumultuous world events unless it leverages a plot point in a particular mystery.
The Wild Frontier
True Grit exists in the equally timeless ‘Old West’ of the frontier, with it’s own definitions of what passes for law and order. The Western Frontier existed only for around ten to fifteen years following the American Civil War. Call it 1865-1880, when modernity, industry and the railroads swept it away.
There’s little about post-war reconstruction, the swamp of Washington politics, the aftermath of slavery and nothing at all of industrialisation. Unlike Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, concerned with nothing else.
Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus inhabits a near-contemporary Edinburgh (given the series began in 1987). It’s the Edinburgh of dark alleys, basement bars and grimy tenements, far from tourist traps and arts festivals.
Life through a lens
All fiction, including all genre fiction, is shown through a lens of the author’s choosing. In Epic Fantasy, that lens may be wide-angle. In Romance, it’s usually very tightly shuttered.
The Wheel of Time describes kingdoms, empires, magic and fierce creatures. But it doesn’t discuss fashions in ladies’ underwear, or how to make a chair. We assume underwear exists and carpenters make chairs using that carpentry ‘magic’ that most of us recognise but don’t understand.
What’s the difference between Historical Fiction and Fantasy? In Fantasy, the events and societies depicted never happened. In Historical Fiction, events and societies may not have happened as described. For all the richness of research and detail, there are gaps. Some details are held up as defining a period. Others are discarded, not for importance, but for relevance to the specific story. How much of an historical author’s research goes into a book? Why is the rest left out? And what happens when the author draws a blank on a line of research? Fiction; they make it up. Along with the inner motivations and desires of any historical figures which we can never know for certain.
Agatha Christie doesn’t need the Labour landslide of 1948, Mao’s Long March or the start of the Cold War to tell a Marple mystery story. But Poirot did crucially discover a Russian spy in one of his.
Poirot’s London is a small slice of a large, rapidly growing metropolis. Not all life is there, just the parts Christie needed to colour her stories.
Two types of people
The world consists of two types of people. Those who can interpolate from incomplete information and…
The human brain excels at interpolation. When given an incomplete picture we automatically fill in the blanks. Authors present us with what we need, when we need it. The rest they leave to readers to fill in.
Arthur Golden gives us very specific culture and behaviours in Memoir of a Geisha. Tolkien gives us very little of the culture of the Rohirrim or the Gondorians in The Lord of the Rings; just enough to distinguish the two.
Fiction is all about filtering the setting and focusing the reader’s attention. Fantasy is no different.