A world I grew up loving…Oz!
I fell in love with fantasy worlds in fifth grade. That year, one very influential teacher held a reading contest, and I won by immersing myself in Frank L. Baum’s Oz books, the chronicles of Narnia, Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, all of the Mary Poppins books, and just about everything else I could get my hands on from the tiny elementary school library.
My prize: a boxed set of Tolkien’s works–The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings–which, I am sure, stamped, sealed and certified my enduring love of fantasy.
Decades later, I still think it’s all about the worlds. Even then, I knew the revitalizing power of escaping. I understood there was a real chance of finding my lost self when I delved into a good book.
Who doesn’t love immersing themselves in someplace new? Taking a break from reality? Isn’t that why people take vacations?
I could contend that reading is even better than a vacation, often allowing readers to work out day-by-day problems in a setting that allows for adventure and excitement, and almost always, a difficult but realized success.
Even then, much of the magic is provided by the world the story takes place in. Good plots take into account the setting. So does good character development. Perhaps that’s why fantasy author David Farland, in his book Million Dollar Outlines, counsels other authors to lock down their settings before they even finish the outlines for their books.
So what is it, exactly, that makes new worlds worth reading?
I like worlds best when descriptions aren’t just listed, line by line, in a series of paragraphs long before the action starts. Very occasionally, this kind of description can hold my attention, but most often, my imagination catches on descriptions that are integrated into the plot.
In my mind, the best descriptions wind their way through stories. Good settings wrap themselves around characters, making them take notice and even react to what they see and feel. The best descriptions are ones that characters see, feel, hear and react to. They NOTICE their world, and because they notice it, readers notice it, too.
(Incidentally, it seems I feel the most emotion as a reader when I know a character is feeling something about the environment he or she is in. Emotion sells books. Does it follow that good settings sell books, too?)
I always like my worlds to have rules. These are not necessarily the rules our planet and solar system and universe abides by (otherwise, where do fantasy and science fiction stories fit in?), but rules that form a decent framework for the plot and characters. (Mythic Scribes has a great piece on keeping worlds real.)
Mostly this relates to my ability to answer questions in my mind as they arise–whether or not something could happen, in that particular universe, and why. When I come across a book where worlds feel unstable, which seem to often using Deus Ex Machina for an easy ending, I become an uncomfortable reader. Usually this means I lose interest and move on to something else.
As enjoyable as reading great worlds is, writing real worlds is hard work. I’m still studying it. I probably will be for a long, long time.
This relates only to how hard I want to have to work to read or understand a book. I still really love fantasy, and I love science fiction and a host of other genres. Sometimes I like stories that are really far-fetched, and but most often I like ones that hit closer to home.
These kinds of worlds are strangely comforting as well as refreshing. When I’m looking for a world to escape into, I look for something that has familiar elements that wind through the magic. Then I’m in my happy place. I can put up my feet and disappear into that world for a long time…or at least until the story is finished.
I’m sure there are other things that make worlds great. These are my top three tests for worlds I really love, worlds I mull over in my mind long after I’ve read the book.
What do you think makes a great world?