Algebra for Fantasy Writers |

Algebra for Fantasy Writers

There are days—horrible, dark days—when I end up doing more algebra than writing. You remember those word problems from high school?

If Valyn is flying west on a Kettral, covering 300 miles a day, and Ran il Tornja is riding north-east on horseback, covering 100 miles a day, and Gwenna is running due south, covering 50 miles a day, will they all actually meet where they need to meet at the end of the damn book, or will you need to rewrite the whole ass end of the thing? You idiot.

And that’s actually a pretty easy one. When you start thinking about the nuances of travel, there are all sorts of variables: terrain, vegetation, injury, oceanic currents, weather, war, laziness, bowel movements, wrong turns… It’s not unusual for me to have twelve tabs open on Google, all researching some aspect of travel. How fast is a trireme? A quinquireme? What about in a crosswind? How much do those Mongolian steppe horses eat, anyway? How long did it take to navigate the length of the Erie Canal?

At a certain point, you can forgive Robert Jordan for deciding that every major character in the Wheel of Time could just cut a hole in the air and step directly into whatever place they wanted to go. In spite of all the odious algebra, however, there are narrative and dramatic opportunities inherent in the necessity of all that travel.

Most obviously, travel is fun. We like to go new places in our own lives, and we like to follow characters as they do the same thing. Imagine the loss if, in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo et. al. stepped directly through a portal into Mordor. No Bombadil or Rivendell, no Mines of Moria or Lothlorien. For a certain type of story, the voyage is the adventure.

More than that, travel gives the characters some down time. Compared with sword fights and orc-icide, down time might sound somewhat… less than enthralling, something to skip over, even. I think such skipping would be a mistake. For every ten minutes of regicidal bloodbath, the characters need hours or days to actually absorb what has happened, both what they’ve done and what’s been done to them. Stories that leap from climax to climax miss, at least to my mind, some of the most valuable opportunities, those quiet moments in which characters grapple with what they’re about to do, or with what they’ve just done. There are other places to find this time, of course, but travel offers the perfect opportunity, removing the characters as it does from a set scene for a set period of time.

On a more global level, the brute necessity of travel will affect almost all aspects of world-building. It’s not for nothing that the Romans built roads all over Europe: the speed with which armies could reach different borders informed the size of those armies, and, of course, the tax base necessary to support them. The politics and trade of a fantasy kingdom with easy access to shipping lanes will look radically different from those of one without.

Of course, when we come to war, this plays out dramatically. Authors who focus on the battles while neglecting the necessary build-up—build-up that involves the travel of troops and transport of material—sacrifice golden dramatic possibilities. In General Barrow’s famous words, “Amateurs talk tactics. Professionals study logistics.” The best part of the story might not be the battle itself, but the struggle to get the cannons to the battle on time.

Finally, authors of pre-technological fantasy can—in fact, they almost must—exploit for dramatic effect the informational asymmetry resulting from the difficulty of travel. Even in our modern world of Twitter and Instagram, not everyone has access to the same information at the same time. The problem is compounded many times over in a world that requires a woman to sit her ass in a saddle for a month in order to get a message from one place to another. A war could begin and end on a distant border before the capitals involved have any knowledge of the violence. The misunderstanding, terror, and acrimony that result from such knowledge asymmetry and uncertainty make ripe territory for exploration, not to mention dramatic irony. The brute facts of travel can become, in the right hands, the ingredients of human failure, triumph, or betrayal.

Of course, to do that requires a lot of math, so I’ll leave the next generation of aspiring fantasy writers with this bit of advice: write all you can, but don’t give up on the algebra.

This article was originally published in March 2016.

BRIAN STAVELEY has taught literature, religion, history, and philosophy, all subjects that influence his writing, and holds an MA in Creative Writing from Boston University. He works as an editor for Antilever Press, and has published poetry and essays, both in print and on-line. He is the author of the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne—The Emperor’s Blades, Providence of Fire, The Last Mortal Bond—and his latest novel, Skullsworn, is set in the same universe. He lives in Vermont with his wife and young son, and divides his time between running trails, splitting wood, writing, and baby-wrangling.


Back to the top of the page


This post is closed for comments.

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.