There's something to be said for the backdrops that the great authors create in their fantasy worlds. A big part of that is the architecture used in those worlds, or in different parts of those worlds. Today's post helps us relate to the important role that architecture plays in our favourite fantasy books. But before I get to the good stuff, here's a little bit about the author that brought us this fantastic post.
James Tallett is the author of a seven book series of fantasy novels set in The Four Part Land, the first of which was published in 2011 by Deepwood Publishing. In addition to his novel writing, he keeps up a steady stream of short stories and flash fiction, much of which can be found online. Aside from writing, he can be found on ski slopes across the world.
Here's what James has to say about Architecture, Fantasy Style.
You've all seen Lord of the Rings, right? (If you haven't, go watch all three, and come back tomorrow. You'll thank me). Now, most people think about the story, the sweeping epic tale of victory through perseverance. I'm not going to talk about that. I'm going to talk about something a little duller: Architecture. Specifically, Fantasy Architecture.
In Lord of the Rings, it mostly lives in the background, created through the use of brilliant fantasy art and CG. And in fantasy stories, that's all too often where it lives - the background. And if it's not in the background, it's architecture that looks Asian or European, architecture that draws on landscapes and vistas taken from the medieval world.
In both cases, the author is missing out on a wonderful opportunity to create a mood, a feeling that carries throughout the novel. Take modern architectural design - a well traveled person can look at a city and see exactly where he or she is. And that's how architecture should be used in fantasy as well.
Here's some fantasy art that conveys much of what I'm looking for. Yes, I know, it's a boat, not a building. But it's unique, and different, and I bought that book (and read it) based on just the cover. And while the architecture of your fantasy society might not sit on the cover of your book, once the reader turns to the first page, you can be damn sure it's going to make an impression.
Okay, great, you're saying. Architecture matters. But I'm not an architect and I haven't got a clue how a building is designed. And it doesn't matter. It's called fantasy for a reason. The construction process doesn't need to be described in detail, the building doesn't need to pass contemporary safety codes, and the author shouldn't let fine detail cramp a good story.
So, you want to do that. You want architecture that fits the story without taking too much space. First step - for each culture, pick one or two words or phrases that describe their architectural design. As an example, I'll use 'Open' and 'Windy'. (I'm cheating, by the way. I already built this culture). 'Open' - most contemporary architecture uses this to mean open plan, but think a little outside the box - remove walls. So every building has no exterior walls, aside from some grass mats that can be rolled down in a storm.
'Windy' - This one's a bit harder. Doesn't really seem to fit a structure. But maybe it can. Make the building from bamboo, or something similar. A hollow material, anyway. And then carve some notches into it. See where I'm going with this? It's a building that's a giant set of Pan Pipes. The central core and corner struts play music that lulls the residents to sleep. It's fantasy architecture, it's outside the box urban design, and all it took was a couple terms and some thought.
The second step in architectural design is pretty easy, too. Do that for every culture. Give each one an architectural design it can be proud of.
And that's the end of the easy part. Because now you, as an author, need to work that into the story, without overwhelming it. The plot cannot be put on pause while this beautiful architecture is put on display. Instead, it needs to be interleaved throughout the story. If the main character sees something that captures them, spend a paragraph on it, maybe two, and never describe the architectural design fully. The biggest gift an author can give a reader is to spur their imagination without forcing it.
It's the old saw of 'Show, don't tell'. And this time, it really matters. Architecture isn't critical to the plot, but a European castle isn't going to fire the imagination. The Whispering City of Niam Liad just might. And that's why you need to pay attention to architecture, fantasy style.
Brilliant, James. Just brilliant. Reading this reminds me of all the books I've read, and the various architectures used in them. Anne McCaffrey had the Weyrs of Pern, and Weis and Hickman were brilliant in describing all the various settings in the DragonLance setting, most notably the Tower of High Sorcerery in Weyreth, which was just downright creepy. Even in my own writing, I'm reminded of the Ardan villiages high in the treetops, and the Fioraden huts crafted on the sides of sheer cliff faces (you won't know these yet, they are in Book II of The Time Weaver Chronicles).
Architecture isn't just about man-made constructs either. When building a world, you should consider the architecture of the land as well. How mountains look, significant features that you can have stand out in a reader's mind, and what you can add to your landscape to make it unique.
I'd like to thank James for taking part in this event. You, and all the others who agreed to write for me are what is making this event a success. And to everyone else who had come to read these wonderful posts: tune in tomorrow when Harper Jayne talks about bringing something unique to the fantasy genre. Don't miss it!
Thanks for reading!
I'm always interested in hearing what you have to say. Contact Me, I'd love to hear from you.
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