How Big a World Do You Need?

How Big a World Do You Need?One important question when writing fantasy: how big a world do you need? Cast around for writing advice in the fantasy genre and you’re told of all the ‘essentials:’

  • world building
  • magic systems
  • fantastical races
  • religions
  • governments
  • maps

These are all good. They serve the story. But they aren’t the story.

It’s the characters.

Where to start?

When I started my series, I didn’t have time for all of that. I don’t want to reproduce Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Malazan or Wheel of Time.

One, I don’t have the time. Two; that’s not the scope of story I care about.

I want to get on with things. Two years and a five-book plan later, I still want to get on with things. Story-things not fantasy-compendium things.

Feel the Width

Book One is a Western with Swords.

I have a protagonist and two helpers. On the run. In a wilderness. No elves. No dragons. The softest bit of soft magic you’ve ever read, and a smattering of religion. Things I don’t have to explain too much.

And no maps. My wilderness is a big blank space on the map. So I don’t need one.

Yes, I refer to far-off lands, an Empire, three or four cultures. There’s reference to a ruinous civil war that ended badly (as most do), but no much detail that anyone wants to talk about.

What I do have is a struggling protagonist, a big, hostile landscape, some scary bad guys and a chase.

It’s a Pursuit Western. Small world, big conflict. Intimate setting, broad themes. High stakes, important choices.

If you need a map…

I didn’t start by drawing a map. I started with the characters in a tight spotlight and gradually widened the light around them to illuminate the parts of the world I needed.

Book Two crosses the Great River back to civilisation. New bad guys arrive. New lands and cultures light up. The soft magic remains soft. Social mores and prejudices firm up. But it’s still a pursuit Western. We’re riding the trail acquiring found-family. It’s still about the characters. Still no elves or dragons.

Book Three goes to the capitol, to the heart of Empire. Now there’s some work to do. Big city, new bad guys, new threats, but all very close to home. The city, the Empire, those are backdrops. And I only need certain parts of them. There’s no massive war to fight, no fellowship to break apart across multiple plot lines.

Plenty of fantasy novels go down that route. Sure, if you have a neat idea for a magic system, a culture, a religion, a landscape, write it up. But those only provide new twists. It’s character that drives story, not the drapes and the tea cups.

So ask yourself; how big a world do you need?

6 thoughts on “How Big a World Do You Need?”

  1. Pingback: Japan

  2. Is this like Sanderson’s iceberg method? Vast amount of material below the surface, only glimpses of it at any point in the story?

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