Before I begin the actual post, I want to quickly apologize for the lateness of this post, but I’ve been bedridden for the greater part of this last week and – to be completely honest with you – didn’t even think about missing a blog post. I didn’t have the energy to think about it. But here it is now, so please enjoy (and pardon any moments which feel like I’ve still got a head cold and am trying to describe something while under the influence of said head cold…)
How many fantasy books have you read?
Myself, I’ve read dozens and dozens and dozens of them. If I haven’t read the book, I’ve at least heard of it, and it’s on my list of “to be read” books. That list is… exhaustive, I don’t know that I’ll ever finish it. Exciting, isn’t it?
Now. Of the hundreds of fantasy novels (this can be any kind of fantasy novel which isn’t Urban Fantasy or Contemporary Fantasy, which you’ll understand why in a moment), how many boast of a History?
Some are more in-depth than others, but very, very few fantasy novels are without their histories. A few are like Tolkien’s’ with entire series of books dedicated to describing the history that comes before the two stories your average reader will know and love.
Others will be more like Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, in which the history is detailed, but it can be summed up in six pages, rather than six thousand.
Most fantasy histories will go back two-five thousand years.
That’s a wide range, yes, but in the grand scheme of fantasy novels, a thousand years is the blink of the cliché eye in the life of an elf or dragon or evil dark lord.
Of the fantasies you know – the fantasies with many thousands of years of history – how many show signs of advancing technology? How many have doctors who are beginning to understand how the human body works? How many have scientists and philosophers and inventors?
Off the top of my head, I can only think of a few.
Today, I want to address the issue of fantasy worlds that never change, never advance. They feel stale, in many ways, because they are similar to the pools of standing water in a marsh.
The Problem with Stagnancy
It took people in our world several thousand years to figure out how to harness electricity – the power of lightning. It took us (including the Chinese) thousands of years to understand how gunpowder works and the many uses it has.
Even now, as we probe the deepest and most complex parts of the human brain and body to understand then, we don’t know everything.
So. Why do I find fantasies that don’t have technological advancement wrong?
Because it’s unrealistic.
A world that never changes – that never makes breakthroughs in science and medicine – isn’t real. It’s a copy, a farce.
I’m not saying your fantasy has to take place in a world where skyscrapers are sprouting everywhere and telephones are in common use (although that would be interesting), but I am saying your world should be realistic in fantastical ways.
Every civilization of the past was known for some particular advancement. The Assyrians used advanced military tactics; the Egyptians were fantastic healers and architects. The Babylonians and Greeks were philosophers and warriors and poets before it was cool to be all three at once (the little hipsters). Romans built sewer systems and aqueducts and laid out cities and roads and an empire so efficiently that it took decades of corruption and outside attack to bring them down. The Chinese built the largest wall in the world – a wall so large it can be seen from orbit – while most civilizations were discovering that sticks floated (I exaggerate, okay?).
The point is, technology happens. Advancement and invention and learn happen. If a fantasy world never, ever changes, then how can your reader see it as real?
The Vibrancy of Change
Now there are many fantasy stories told quite successfully wherein no real technological or medicinal or philosophical or scientific achievements take place.
And that’s okay.
At the same time, however, we don’t want to settle for “okay”, do we?
The “stagnant world” has been done before. A few hundred fantasy worlds have been created which involve total Dark Ages. Lord of the Rings, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and many others come to mind.
We want to be different, do we not? Each book should stand out from others. “I’m different,” your story should say, “I’m special.” That’s how you grab the attention of a reader, an agent, a publisher.
For example, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy takes place in a fantasy world that has been kept under harsh submission by a foul Lord Ruler for a thousand years. It has a slight steampunk feel, if steampunk was covered in ash and permeated with magic.
A follow-up trilogy that takes place 300 years after the events of the first book illustrate the exact point I’m trying to make. In this next trilogy (the first book is Alloy of Law), technology has leapt forward as discoveries are made. The first skyscrapers are being built, electricity is being harnessed, motorcars are being invented, trains crisscross the world, and everything is changing. Sanderson’s world reached – as our world did – the industrial age.
It’s a beautiful world, with a wonderfully intricate story told within.
It can be hard to overcome a “stale” history, the stagnant tale of an unchanging world. But at the same time it can be liberating to do so. I want to give you three simple things to consider. It’s often best to pick one or two areas for your world to advance in, so as not to overwhelm yourself, and so as to avoid distracting from the story.
-Advancements in medicine.
Perhaps your world has discovered the theory of bacteria. Some doctor realized that people get sick when they interact with other sick people, with things sick people have touched, things sick people have coughed on, and so forth.
Or perhaps doctors have learned how to sterilize their instruments. Or surgery has replaced amputation.
Medicine is an easy route to go for, because it doesn’t take much time and can often have an effect on your character’s potentially life-threatening wounds.
It’s an easy way to show a gentle advancement of a world into a modern age. Worlds don’t stay in the Dark Ages forever.
-Science and technology.
Perhaps people have learned how to use steam to work for them. They have begun to experiment with pistons or gears or pulleys.
Inventors play with fire and lightning and chemicals and fry their hair.
Science is a fascinating subject. Our world changed drastically when science leapt forward. Every day, now, science is changing. It’s advancing so quickly we can’t keep up.
Even if your world is just beginning to enter that stage of “oh look, science is a thing”, it’s a worthwhile development.
-Education and Philosophy
Does your world have universities?
I talked about education a while back, and showed how much of an impact education can have on your story. This is true in this case as well.
As knowledge increases, more and more people will attempt to learn, if it is made available to them. When you let people learn it allows your world to become colorful in new ways: intellectually, artistically, philosophically.
Much as religion and government should be diverse, so should the advancement of your world.
Just as your characters vary widely from one another, let your world be difference from those other worlds out there.
Let your story and your world be different.
What do you think? Do you have any fantasy worlds that are beginning to enter that “industrial” age? Leave a comment and share!
Emotional Outlining (Brandon)