Have you ever read a book or a series and felt totally immersed in a fictional world so detailed it felt more real than real life? I had that experience when I read Tolkien as a teenager; now I’m in the midst of living in a fantasy world again because I’m reading George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the series on which HBO’s Game of Thrones is based. Dragons, medieval battles, lords, magic…it’s all in there, and it makes me see how boring plain old life is.
Martin peppers his prose with exciting, complex characters, and that’s the real reason that they work. You want to know what happens to Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf with a rapier wit and a taste for common yet spirited women; Dany, the Mother of Dragons who actually hatches three of the beasts in the middle of a funeral pyre; or even Joffrey, the sadistic heir to the throne who loves nothing more than fresh heads on pointy spikes. That in itself would be enough, but when you read these behemoth books you realize how much back story has gone into the development of them. Martin had to have written the complex history thoroughly before he even started committing words to paper (or pixels to screen, I guess.) Such world building requires not only research and imagination but also great tenacity; I honestly think I would lose my way if I tried to write something like Game of Thrones.
I have to admit that I have been skipping some of the pages, though; Martin’s books are 800-plus pages each, and after reading the tenth agonizingly detailed description of capons and pigeons pies and spiced wine, I got tired of it. There can be such a thing as too much detail, in my opinion. Others may disagree, but I find battle scenes tedious. How many different ways can you kill somebody, and why does it matter? They’re still just as dead at the end. I also don’t need to know in detail the banners and sigils of each and every one of the thousand or so houses in Westeros (his mythical land). But I have to give the man credit: he has built a world that is so detailed, it absolutely feels real.
I’ve written some books (on a much smaller and more manageable scale) where I had to do a bit of world building, and it’s quite a task. Keeping all the details straight is daunting, and when you change the rules of the world to anything other than what we normally accept as “reality”, consistency is key. In Martin’s work, he lists detailed appendices of all of the families involved in the complex fantasy world of knights and lords, and he follows so many distinct story lines that it’s almost like reading ten novels at once. They do intersect here and there, though, which is why it works so well.
I have to admit that as much as I wish I could write a work like this, I am not up to the task. I envy Martin his amazing talent and perseverance and passion for his world. This also makes me admit my shortcomings as a writer. I am good at some things, I think. I have a good ear for dialogue, a good sense of humor, an interesting turn of phrase and a love of good characters. I think I write from the heart. But when it comes to something like a detailed, complex world like Martin’s, I fear I would be lost.
What has been your experience with world building? Success? Difficulty? And what are your favorite fictional worlds?