For some reason, travelling is a huge part of the fantasy genre. Look at Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire and so on. Fantasy authors just can’t help themselves. Someone’s got to go somewhere.
I think one of the reasons for this is that we spend so much time building this world, so we really want an opportunity to show it off. Having your characters show up in new places gives us a chance to describe the world, what’s different, what’s interesting and it helps us identify with an unsure protagonist. We’re both in a new place after all.
In most cases, your characters probably won’t be using cars or lorries – unless of course you’re writing something like urban fantasy. But for the purpose of this post, I’ll mostly be talking about epic, old-world fantasy. The type of fantasy where horses and ships are the main features. The aim of this post is to help you consider all the things you need to think about if you want to incorporate travelling into your novel.
If you’ve built your own fantasy world, no one is going to know exactly how far apart each city or country is unless you tell them. Most fiction like this includes a map at the start, but I might be alone in not constantly flicking back and forth between the map and the chapter I’m on. I certainly don’t if I’m reading on Kindle.
You need to establish how far away everything is from each other, so you can begin to tell journeys that are believable and not constantly provoking questions with the reader.
I want to introduce you to this website that shows you the distances and travelling time in the Roman world.
This is great for me as I’ve loosely based some of my world on the ancient world. But even if you haven’t it’s a very interesting resource that’s worth checking out.
You might also want to look up things like:
- How many miles can the average person walk a day?
- How many miles can a horse cover in a day?
- What is a realistic distance to travel on rugged terrain/in the snow/across a desert?
It might not be 100% accurate, but the main aim here is to avoid making the reader think “that doesn’t sound right”.
It’s useful to work out average travel times between two cities or countries before you start writing, if you know travelling is going to be a big feature of your story. Having those times already worked out and in your Story Bible, will really help you save some time when you come to write.
The distance estimates in the website mentioned above are based on one crucial thing besides distance – technology available at the time.
The level of technology your people are at determines a whole lot about your world. An obvious example, if your characters use sailing ships and horses, it’s going to take you a hell of a lot longer to get where you’re going than a book where the motor has been invented. If you have a fantasy element to your transportation, for example, riding a dragon to work or teleportation – then this changes everything further.
So, when you come to write your journeys, you should have at hand your map but also some details about the nature of transportation in your world.
Make a list of all the kinds of travel that are possible in your world. This could be ships, horses, wagons, mules, dragon-back, other magical creatures, teleportation and so on. You could then divide them into typical modes of travel vs unusual or magical modes of travel.
The next thing you might want to consider is researching how these modes of travel actually work and how they’re built. It might be a bit overkill for some, but more detail can’t hurt.
For example, if your characters live in a climate where horses are not naturally from, you’ll could consider whether your characters should be riding them at all. This is unless there is some clear trading operation. So, having lots of horses in your desert or arctic-like setting might be a bit weird.
Class, species and cultural differences
Another thing to consider when measuring journey times is the class of your characters. It’ll take a poor servant a lot longer to travel across a city than a knight with the fastest horse in the realm. If you want to highlight class differences with your characters, you could do this with transportation. A little detail like this will show you’ve thought hard about this.
The same goes for if you want to use different types of creatures. For example, an elf might naturally travel faster than a human or simply have access to better technology.
Some countries might simply be more advanced than others. Those with a booming economy are likely going to be building better ships than a country that is struggling to survive and feed its people.
We’ve touched on this briefly, but I thought I’d give it a new section.
It wouldn’t be fantasy with fantastical elements woven into every corner of your world and transportation is no different.
Interestingly enough, some of the big players, Tolkien and Martin don’t really talk much about magical transportation. Considering travelling features so heavily in both stories, the majority of the travelling is quite average and simple. A lot is done by foot or horseback, for example. Not that there’s anything wrong with this of course. It succeeds in making Daenerys’ dragon-back rides all the more exciting.
So, you’ll need to decide how much magic you want to put into travel. You could do the approach above and make fantasy travel rare and exciting. Or you could make fantasy travel the norm. This can go a long way in making your world unique and fascinating at first glance.
You can have a lot of fun with this and pretty much do whatever you want. I can’t think of a story that allows characters to ride dragons instead of horses on the way to work. But something like this could really set your world apart from the others.
- Create magical creatures that are used for transportation from scratch
- Use existing creature ideas e.g. dragons
- Change characteristics of real creatures e.g. humans can fly, horses can teleport
Where travel fits into your world
Once you’ve had a bit of a play around in worldbuilding, it’s time to decide how much you want travel to feature in your world. If it’s something you really want, then I’d always recommend planning as much as you can to make your world interesting and believable.
That doesn’t mean it has to be boring. Transportation is probably not going to be the same level of priority as building your magic system, but you can make it an interesting feature of your world.
If all those endless journeys are something you’d rather avoid, you can work around that too. Travelling doesn’t have to be a feature of your fantasy novel at all. Or if it is, you could work around it with time-jumps or even with faster methods of travel like teleportation. However, if this is the case, I’d be wary of making everything a bit too easy and convenient.
Ask yourself: Should the characters really be doing this? Or can you simply not be arsed with writing this part? Overly convenient elements of your world can end up pretty noticeable and jar the reader.
Play around but also try to be logical, is the main advice here.
Do you have any tips on this subject? Share your thoughts in the comments!