I’ve been re-reading recently one of my favourite fantasy novels, A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay, and it got me thinking about something that’s very important in good, satisfying fantasy novels like that one, but that’s often taken for granted. And that’s setting and atmosphere. Setting and atmosphere are always (at least to me!) an important part of a novel, but in fantasy they are often much, much more than just background or wallpaper for your story. In fact they can loom very large indeed, almost like characters in their own right, whether major or minor. In my own fantasy writing, I’ve focussed very strongly on setting and atmosphere, and I want to pass on some of what I’ve learned.
Atmosphere comes out of setting, which itself is a mixture of the physical and sensual (both natural and man-made), the cultural (history and society) and the psychological and imaginative (beliefs, stories, the magical). Before setting out on the journey to create your world, ask yourself:
*Do I want to use the basic fantasy setting template?
This is basically the world of the medieval Arthurian romance, which in my mind is the true fore-runner of most modern fantasy: a Celtic-flavoured feudal, agrarian society, with only small cities, villages set around fortified castles and vast tracts of wilderness. It’s standard, but there’s still lots of unexplored territory there.
*Do I want to go for a completely different setting?