Fantasy Literature: Creativity Run Amuck: When The Details of Your World Bewilder
I am currently reading Brandon Sanderson’s “The Way of Kings.” It’s an interesting book; so far, I don’t think I like it quite as well as I like his Mistborn series, but it’s still interesting. There is one thing, I’ve noticed, though that I would describe as a weakness. I won’t review the whole book here (partly because I’m not finished yet), but I do wish to address this particular defect. Basically, I think Brandon Sanderson is suffering from too much creativity. Seriously. I really do.
He’s invented a whole new world, which is not unusual for a fantasy author. But the problem is he’s populated it with so many things specific to that world, the reader cannot keep track. I’m sure when he plotted the details out beforehand, it made perfect sense… and I’m sure it’s all internally consistent. But I can’t keep track of it all. And I’m a reasonably intelligent person. It’s not just as simple a thing as throwing a few extra moons orbiting his world. No, it’s deeper than that. To be honest, I don’t know how many moons he has. I know there are at least two, but more probably three or four. He refers to them by name, which is not uncommon, but not frequently enough for the reader to really get a feel for them. But that’s just moons. Everybody has multiple moons on their worlds now. He goes further, though. Our standard earth week is replaced by a different one—again, in itself, this is a small detail. There is an abundance of plants and animals unique to his world. Again, no problem there. He even went so far as to develop specific plant materials for clothing that are unique to his world.
Looking at it from a world designer’s viewpoint, it all makes sense. It’s just that it’s a bit overwhelming. I can’t keep all the details straight, and to a certain extent, that is detracting from my enjoyment of the book. I remember when I read “The Lord of the Rings,” and there was a reference to “October 3rd” in the first book. Of course, it makes absolutely no sense that a completely alien world would use the same month and date as we would now (of course, Middle Earth was supposed to be an Earth of an earlier epoch—but I digress), but at least that made it easier to follow. Fantasy tales taking place on alternate worlds shouldn’t share some of the things we take for granted on this world. But how far should you take that point? Should we write like this:
It was the erp of Echma, in the sel erp-thann-quiat. “Asglick morlack” Vitr said. “Gunth gwit creyl.”
What does that mean? I dare you to figure it out. It’s all perfectly logical. “Erp” is a numerical value, because you know an alternate world wouldn’t use the same names for numbers as we do. “Echma” is the name of the month, or month equivalent. “Sel” means year, though I can assure you, it does not consist of 365 days, each lasting 24 hours. “Erp-thann-quiat” is the numerical value of the year in question. “Asglick morlack. Gunth gwit creyl” could just as easily be “Good morning. It’s been a while.” as anything else. The important point is that they are not speaking English. Like I said, it all makes sense, but it doesn’t make for entertaining reading.
Good fantasy writers will know how to strike a balance between realistic variety in the description of their worlds, and keeping the work as a whole readable. Another example of creativity gone too far happened in Tad Williams’ Shadowmarch series. In that series, he made the mistake of giving multiple names to each of his deities. The justification was, of course, that different cultures would use different names for the same deity—kind of like how the Greeks and Romans named their respective pantheons in our world. This makes perfect sense from a logical point of view, but it makes reading the book a little more difficult. There were four books in the series, and I think I only had one or two of the deities figured out by the time I finished, and that’s not a good sign.
Of course, Brandon Sanderson and Tad Williams are both excellent writers; but even the best of us make mistakes. But I think this mistake is serious enough to be worth pointing out.
Anyway, those are my thoughts for today.