I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write something that doesn’t involve some kind of world-creation.
I think it’s the worlds more than anything else that makes fantasy what it is. It’s not the magic or the quests or the hundreds and thousands of tropes. To me, a good world is a character, and getting to know that character is one of my absolute favourite parts of enjoying any fiction. That one all-defining character who wraps literally everything else up inside herself is fantasy to me.
There’s a definite sliding scale of fictional worlds. I want to talk a bit about two very different fantasy worlds that I adore for completely different reasons, and how it applies to building your own.
The first is the most extrinsic I’ve ever read about: Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight universe. I can’t even describe the joy I feel reading his books in this world because every moment is wrapped in the wonder of discovery. The pace of the actual story in the Stormlight Archive moves like a drugged snail, but it works, because every single page is jam-packed full of exploration into the wildly alien landscapes and cultures of the setting. Almost nothing in the Stormlight Archive has anything in common with our own planet. This world is racked by constant hurricane force storms, which has made the entire planet evolve to protect itself from them. Almost all organic life is able to retract inside of shells to hide from the storms. As a result, each individual blade of grass comes with its own worldbuilding, as characters step into a grassy field only to have it all pull itself under ground in fear of the interloper. There’s a certain awe that I can’t even describe in this, the feeling of being somewhere utterly unrecognizable, where almost none of my stored knowledge can be used to inform what’s going on. I get to experience the entire universe as something completely new.
The second fantasy world I want to talk about is one of the most familiar to me. I’ve always been a lover of 18th, 19th, and early 20th century history, so I went into Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series armed with full period knowledge. There wasn’t much I could learn about the Victorian era that I didn’t already know. And she counted on it! Carriger’s work lies on the opposite side of the sliding scale from Sanderson’s, where she’s expecting her readers to have a certain understanding of the period and the mythology she’s writing about, which she uses to subvert expectations. Italians use garlic in most of their dishes and vampires hate garlic. So: the Italians invented pesto and put it on all their foods to make sure that vampires couldn’t stealthily sneak into their social gatherings. The wonder of Carriger’s world is in these details, where she takes us to familiar places and retells familiar history, through the lens of the supernatural steampunk version of our own world that she’s created. Seeing how she’ll adapt each new locale to her internal logic is a huge part of the fun in reading her books!
These two different worlds are living on opposite sides of a huge chasm, and they’re great examples for the extremes of the different kinds of fantasy worlds for one major reason. The Way of Kings is 1009 pages and Soulless is 404! This definitely isn’t a coincidence. More actual story happens in Soulless than in The Way of Kings, but Sanderson has to slowly and gently immerse us in his totally esoteric world, while Carriger relies on knowledge she expects us to already have and is thus able to skip details that don’t diverge from a norm. For example, Sanderson has to describe in exhaustive detail what his characters are wearing, because there’s no basis in reality for the fashion his characters wear. Meanwhile, Carriger is counting on a specific image being invoked by the idea of a “Victorian Lady,” so while her books are a lot more concerned with what the characters are wearing, many less words are required to deliver that information to the reader.
The less of this “world-building shorthand” you can use, the harder it is to describe and explain your world. One version isn’t superior to the other, but they’re very, very different, and I think that the most important question to ask yourself when you start building your own world is what side of this spectrum you want to be on.