One of the things that makes really well done fantasy and scifi so enthralling is the bigness of the world building. Not every story needs to do this — Arrival doesn’t and it’s one of my favorite scifi movies; many of the best Star Trek episodes have nothing to do with exploring the galaxy. They’re engaging, but engaging in a different way. I loved Arrival, but I’m not hoping they make a series of heptapod extended universe novels. But, some stories do need to be sent in an expansive universe, and it’s a challenge very few writers have managed to accomplish. GRRM is of course one of those few.
A problem writers sometimes run into with world building is that they don’t conceive of a world beyond the story they’re writing. The only people that exist are the ones in the story, the only places are the ones the characters visit, and the only action is whatever’s in the story main plot and sub plots. The setting for their story is just their story; they don’t set the story in a larger world.
As an example of failing to create a larger world, take The Last Jedi. It seems the entire First Order fleet is pursuing the Resistance ships near Crait. I guess there’s no other combat going on anywhere else and that handful of ships is the biggest enemy the First Order has left. In that film, the Star Wars universe has shrunk to a tiny patch of space. In the Canto Bight prison cells, there’s apparently no other prisoners except the one slicer they (un)luckily encounter. Nothing exists on Crait but the rebel base set piece. We get a similar weakness in Avatar. The Generically Evil Mining Corp only has one mining operation on the entire planet, and the only thing going on for the Na’vi is dealing with them. There’s not a dozen different mining operations across the planet working without incident and no competing corporations; the Na’vi have no inter-tribe conflicts, or trading, or marriages, or reports of where else on the planet is being mined. Until the end of the film, we didn’t even know there are other tribes on Pandora.
Now compare this with the World of Ice and Fire. The Night’s Watch is not just Castle Black and the few people Jon and Tyrion directly interact with. There’s two other castles. There’s stewards and builders. There’s crabbers and hunters. There’s rangers that have gone missing. There’s deserters. Dareon did not need to exist for the rest of the plot in A Game of Thrones to happen, but yet there he is in several chapters, complete with a backstory about being falsely accused of rape and sent to the Wall for a crime that never happened, and after taking his vows he’s assigned to East Watch by the Sea to aid in negotiating better quality goods because, Mormont assumes, his time at court as a singer has given him finer taste than Cotter Pyke, another character inconsequential to the plot.
In Winterfell we have much of the same. The location is not just the castle, but there’s the winter town as well, and the winter town is currently deserted because everyone is out in the fields farming since it’s still summer. There’s other people, and they’ve got better stuff to do than stand around and monitor whatever Robb Stark is up to. Same in King’s Landing. To the tart vendor pushing his cart down the Street of Flour, Arya is nothing. This isn’t A Song of Ice and Fire, it’s A Song of Lemons and Apricots. Mirri Maz Duur has her own agenda other than just facilitating Daenerys’s quest to reclaim the Iron Throne, and the story is so much the richer for it.
It’s All An Illusion
We know what a big, well-built fantasy world feels like, but the real question is how this is accomplished. If you don’t like seeing how the sausage is made, or if you hate knowing how a magic trick is done, stop reading.
It really is a magic trick. A magician has three bricks on a table and hands one of them to you to inspect. It’s heavy like a brick, has the texture of a brick, it doesn’t come apart, and there’s no obvious tricks to it. So, how many bricks are there? Just the one he gave you. The other two are prop bricks, probably compressable or with a hidden compartment inside. He handed you the only real one to make you think all three were real.
Our brains are amazing inductive logic machines. The sun comes up three days in a row, and we pretty quickly figure out it’s going to come up the next day as well. Sometimes this works against us as we make false assumptions, and it makes us prone to stereotyping. But, with writing it allows an author to pack more content into a book than the physical pages allow.
Quick detour over to Harry Potter. How many houses are there at Hogwarts?
If you answered 4, you’re not paying attention. There’s about one and a half. There’s Gryffindor and about half of Slytherin. Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff are just a facade. But, because we see so much of Gryffindor, and get a fair taste of Slytherin, we assume there’s just as much going on with the two remaining houses. That’s how the illusion works. There’s enough real stuff going on in the foreground that we don’t realize the background isn’t real, and is instead just a matte painting.
Make no mistake, this is a good thing. The illusion of depth to the world allows the author to focus on the main story. We don’t want GRRM adding another 300 pages just to discuss the backstory of every member of the Watch at the Shadow Tower and Eastwatch by the Sea (…okay, maybe we do want that, but as a side book, and not until A Dream of Spring is finished). We want to get on with the main plot, but we want to do so in a world that feel robust and diverse. We want a 7,000 page world to fit into a 700 page book.
The trick works by giving us some three dimensional characters, a few Dareons and Slytherin-ish half-fleshed out side characters, and then a whole bunch of uncredited extras in the background. But, our experience with the main characters and the side characters causes our brains to put their inductive reasoning engines to work, and we assume everyone in the background is just as real as the characters we spend more time with. We can easily imagine what the smallfolk eating bowls of brown in Flea Bottom are like. We can picture the Eastern Market in Vaes Dothrak, even though we never visit it. In A Game of Thrones we think the seven kingdoms are seven kingdoms when in fact they are just four; the Iron Islands, Stormlands, and Dorne are just a matte painting until the later books. But, because of how rich the locations we do visit are, those places feel just as real to us, and the result is that in our minds there is a lush fantasy world that exists far beyond what’s actually on the page.