I’ve been fleshing out the “world” for my WIP while busting out cardio at the gym these last few days. Key people, history of events, allied and competing factions, the role of magic, that sort of stuff. It’s a lot harder and a lot more involved than I expected!
Additional depth and flavor to a story comes by establishing a setting rich with background detail. I think this is especially true of fantasy lit, since the reader can’t necessarily draw from real world knowledge to fill in the gaps. You essentially have to build the world for them from scratch.
While dreaming up these world elements, I often wonder where the sweet spot is between using familiar conventions for accessibility and coming up with unique ideas to demonstrate originality. For example, is it bad to have Tolkien-esque elves in your world, ones that live hundreds or thousands of years and maintain only tentative, lukewarm relationships with mankind? Or fire-breathing dragons that dominate the sky and instill awe and fear in your main character? Or kind old wizards who are a key source of wisdom, encouragement, and power?
I think the term “unique” is very relative in the realm of fantasy lit, particularly those with a medieval, high-fantasy flavor. With all the Middle-earths and Narnias and Prydains on the shelves already, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with anything truly original.
But there’s a difference between “familiar” and “trite”, and perhaps, the elusive formula involves keeping the amount of borrowed elements low enough that your setting doesn’t slip into that latter category. An original story or perspective also seems to go a long way in excusing the use of less innovative material. David Eddings’ Elenium series is an excellent example, including Crusades-style knights, a poisoned queen, and a powerful sorceress among its key pieces. Yet the author’s tweaking and positioning of these elements make for an enjoyable story that has that distinctive Eddings touch. (I think language/writing style has a lot to do with it as well.)
What do you guys think about borrowed fantasy elements? Does it irk you when you encounter them in your reading? Do you appreciate the familiarity that comes with it? Is there a line that should not be crossed? Do you have examples of books that marry familiar fantasy components with unique elements and perspectives? (That last one is a bit of a solicitation for future review material. I have three books on my reading queue already, but I'm always looking for more suggestions!)