Imagine a fantasy character. One popular version will be a muscular and athletic person who is wearing only enough clothing or armor to avoid an explicit content rating, but not nearly what is needed to protect against wounding. Much less common is anyone who has gone to seed — or to doughnuts, as the case may be. The times are changing, and dwarfs always look stocky, but when readers and writers picture themselves in a magical realm, they tend to choose to improve things over the real world.
But not in the writing. The prose of the story will all too often be a sprawling dog’s breakfast of worldbuilding that qualifies as a scientific analysis, cataloguing of the contents of the environment, and internalizations to the point of mastication of the reader’s attention. Worldbuilding, description, and internalization are good things to do in reasonable measure, but when the story is bogged down by any of them, the text ceases to be a novel.
One illustration of this is Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. One example will illustrate Jordan’s obsessive attention to detail — and will show that points can be made without looking at every single item in the category to be considered. In The Eye of the World, two of the main characters, Rand and Mat, have to travel from Whitebridge to Caemlyn. Mat has acquired the One Ring, um, excuse me, a cursed dagger, and its influence is worming its way into his mind. Very well, this is thematically interesting, or it would be if we the readers were not made to experience every hay wagon, hay bail, hay field, hay loft, hay fever, and hey Jude between the two cities. Mat’s transformation into an unstable knucklehead is necessary to show, but he starts out as a knucklehead, and rather than show his increasing insanity, the author treats us to mental swimming in place. Even that would be acceptable if we were shown one or two scenes. Instead, we get a major chunk of the book devoted to every step of the sojourn, geographically and psychologically — the latter taking a long time to go nowhere.
The compulsion to describe, however, is not unique to fantasy. What is an inherent risk is worldbuilding, the creation of realistic environments that are filled with locations, cultures, and histories. Andrzej Sapkowsky’s The Witcher series is good storytelling and refrains from describing every square cal of the region, but at times, the novels turn into something like a Renaissance fair with lots of booths to stop in and forget about the plot for a while. The exhibits are worth the time, though, and Sapkowsky does a good job of linking the bits together on the whole, but the ties that bind are here and there thin, and forward motion from book to book in the series can be slight.
Internalizations — the thoughts of the characters that readers are allowed to observe in progress — are a good way to let us know the nature and development of the point-of-view participants of the story, giving them personality and us the experience of what it is to be the characters. But this again must be balanced with the rest of the story’s elements. Return to Robert Jordan here. His female characters in particular chew the same mental cud throughout the series, repeating the same disdain for any man unless they are enthralled by some man, at which point they ruminate on their desire to control him. The primary male characters, by contrast, complain about their ability to deal with women and assume that other men must be better at this. Other things occasionally occupy the attention of both sexes, and Rand cannot stop worrying about going insane to the point of driving readers crazy, but these internalizations are a tic, rather than a window on development. The characters learn little and do less with regard to any personal growth.
Two of the best of the fantasy craft show how to work these elements in ways that benefit the story: J.R.R. Tolkien and Richard Adams. Adams’s Watership Down, for example, includes a passage on the difference between sunlight and moonlight and the effect of each on the landscape that had nothing directly to do with the story, but is a beautiful passage that takes only a page. His digressions into tales from the culture’s mythology mostly do not get involved with the plot, but they give us the intellectual environment in which the characters live. The comparison of a human’s experience climbing a steep slope with that of a rabbit again takes only a short passage, but lets the reader understand a bit of what it is like to live as a part of the environment, rather than as its self-declared master. And above all, the language frequently becomes poetic without adding words just to pad out the length.
And then there is Tolkien. He gives us a fully realized world that has groups with distinct histories and languages. He gives us a world that has meaningful geography — geography that affects what is possible in a given region. Cultures are individual with their own art, literature, and ritual. These elements shape the characters’ understanding of their world and their roles in it. As a scholar of the Middle Ages, Tolkien was able to draw on the literary techniques in creating what amounted to the last work of the period.
I favor a minimalist approach in my own writing, but I get that others enjoy a lot of words. Those words, however, should go somewhere and accomplish something over the course of the novel. Being the equivalent of strip malls and cholesterol stands does not do this.