The Edges Of World-Building: The Scale Of Things

Sometimes it is a bit too easy to forget how much smaller modern technology has made our world. Modern air travel makes it feasible to travel halfway around the world for a holiday and modern communications makes it easy to socialize with people all over the world.

But this wasn’t always so.

To a very large extent, how far you can easily travel is strongly defined by your world’s society. It is not just the technology, but also the economics that have made air travel affordable for many people. Go back eighty years and it was definitely a luxury exercise. Go back further and it becomes the purlieu of the enthusiast. The world was much bigger for most people.

Most Fantasy works define for themselves a kind of homage to the European middle ages. Sometimes it is a bit later: recent Discworld novels are tending towards Georgian in style, for instance. Sometimes it is a bit earlier: Red Sonja‘s setting is more dark ages than middle ages.  And sometimes it is an anachronistic mix from several eras. Most  Dungeons and Dragons settings are like that.

For most people in Europe in the middle ages, any sort of  travel meant walking. And long distance travel meant lots of walking. Weeks or months of walking. It was normal for many people to be born, raised, married and to die pretty much within sight of their village’s church spire. The next village might only be six miles away, but that’s typically two hours’ walk. In our modern world, that might be only five minutes’ drive in a car. But even moderate distance travel was uncommon. It is known that village churches often developed unique takes on their church doctrine simply because people didn’t travel much between villages.

With this kind of scale, the size of an island nation like Britain becomes much bigger. Pride and Prejudice was set largely in the south of England. Jane Austen put the Bennet’s estate of Longbourn in Hertfordshire from which I would guess people nowadays commute daily to London. But in Austen’s day, that wasn’t possible. If you went to a neighbouring estate to visit, such as Netherfield, you didn’t go for half-an-hour: your visit tended to last for many hours, or even overnight, or several days. It is an interesting contrast that the Bollywood modern re-telling of Pride and Prejudice, Bride and Prejudice, has scenes in Britain, the US and in India. If they hadn’t done that, the story simply wouldn’t have worked.

It is important to remember that some ancient societies managed to buck this trend. Ancient Rome was built around the Mediterranean Sea. The nature of Roman society made long-distance travel by sea possible for many. The apostle Paul obviously took full advantage of this. A modern fantasy setting that mimics this is Raymond E. Feist‘s Midkemia. There are many major seaports on both the Bitter Sea and the Kingdom Sea and the obvious advantages of a sea-journey versus going overland is played up many times in his novels, even so far as acknowledging time zone differences between the eastern and western extremes of the Kingdom!

Creating a fantasy world many thousands of miles across can be fun and many writers do it. But if your story needs your characters to get from one side to the other and back again, you need to factor in either a lot of travelling, or come up with some suitably magical way to transport them. And then you have to remember the cultural differences.

Maybe it is better to stay in a smaller scale.

One final example: Jerusalem is less than forty miles from the Mediterranean coast. Yet you’d never know it was so close from reading the stories in the Bible.


Filed under Jane Austen, Raymond E. Feist, Terry Pratchett, The Edges Of World-Building, world-building, writing

6 responses to “The Edges Of World-Building: The Scale Of Things

  1. I find myself anticipating these sorts of problems when I read fantasy novels… When it takes the majority of a book for a group to travel from Point A to Point B, I’m just waiting for the deus ex machina that will conveniently transport them to the next plot point.
    It’s interesting that you bring up Rome and the Mediterranean. That’s what I did in my novel. I modeled the world after the Ancient Mediterranean world– much of it being seas– making it more conceivable that characters have been able to travel long distances and not, as you put it, live their entire lives within sight of the same church spire. (I had no interest in magical teleportation, super-speedy flying creatures or any other such tropes). Cool post!

  2. I think this is why I enjoy writing Spec stories. The real world is far too ‘known’.

    Great post.

  3. Thanks for the great post. I loved the point you made about provincial cultures and cultural differences relating to distance (and short distances at that!). We expect differences in culture from kingdom to kingdom, but it truth, they could vary from village to village depending on how much communication is available from beyond their borders.

    It’s a wonderful perspective to keep in mind.

  4. Very similar in science fiction stories, usually having to rely on faster than light travel to get from one star system to the other.

    • Good catch! It has been argued that the problems Faster Than Light travel solves are unique to the SF genre. But you’re right: they’re not! They are the same problems Fantasy genres have but at the other end of the scale. 🙂

      Niven’s Motie novels (“The Mote In God’s Eye” and sequels) are one of the few good examples of an original solution to FTL travel that deeply influences the world’s history.

  5. Pingback: The Riftwar Cycle comes to an end with MAGICIAN’S END | J. Keller Ford ~ Young Adult Author

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