How do your characters get around?
They’re certainly not driving cars and trucks, we know that…right? Because, I’m not sure it’d be fantasy if they did.
So they’re riding horses…right? Because I know if I don’t have a car I can damn-well have a horse. How much do they cost again?
So they’re walking. And hot damn – just about every fantasy novel has characters that walk places. Right on!
See, it’s not too hard narrowing things down when it comes to worldbuilding and fantasy novels. It’s pretty much a degree of subtraction, and taking away modern conveniences and anything that might take money. So you have what God or the Gods or the Deities or whomever gave you.
I want to see people flying around on dragons, in steam ships built by gnomes, and on newfangled contraptions that could blow up at any moment and often do!
I want to see people sailing about on ships and in hot air balloons and even in chariots that zip about on rudimentary roads and while getting broken wheels constantly!
I want to see people popping into the room via spell or teleportation gate or portal of some sort, and I want them to do so with style and panache and the wherewithal to make it appear like they’re not fazzled.
I want all of those things you see, because this is fantasy fiction and that’s what’s been promised to me.
Or is that not the premise we’re talking about when we say fantasy? Maybe your idea of fantasy is a little different from mine. Maybe it’s in the here and now with cars and trains and even planes, and maybe characters do travel about like you and I.
Not in my world, bub, not at all.
So defining what’s possible via transportation is a very early visual and psychological cue to your readers of what your fantasy world is about and is capable of, as well as where your story can go, the physical laws if you will, that are bounding it in.
These are important considerations, the laws that your world adheres to. If you don’t know them, how the hell are you ever going to break them? And that’s another thing that your readers are expecting, for you to break the rules, introduce unfathomable modes of transportation and all the rest of it. It’s what makes fantasy fiction so fantastical!
Speed and Distances in Fantasy Novels
Elfwood has some good information on what people are capable of, transportation-wise. People, for instance, can walk about 30 miles a day. “But it’s hard to keep up that pace for more than a few days,” the article states, and “rugged terrain reduces that distance.”
With a horse you can get up to 50 miles in a day, but “the biggest advantage of a horse is the increase in cargo capacity.” Again, you can’t maintain that pace very long, though a “consistent 10 to 15 miles per hour, sometimes even 20” can be achieved “if you have regular stations to change steeds.”
Now we’re getting into the idea of a long journey, perhaps following a character as they deliver a message over a few days. Usually this would be boring, and you’d reduce that to a paragraph, or even a sentence – “Sir Anthony rode north for 3 days to the king’s castle.” But with the idea of transportation as a part of your story, you can have Sir Anthony stop at way stations or inns, and he can run into problems, or learn of new plots against the king, or even get killed, throwing the plot into a whole new direction.
If you really want to get into the temperament of mounts, how riders should match up against their mounts, and everything else about fantasy horses and travel in fantasy worlds, check out this post by fantasy author Charles E. Yallowitz.
R.A. Salvatore had a lot of scenes where the characters are guarding caravans, moving about slowly. It’s a great way to introduce what your characters are doing after we last saw them, in Book 2 or 3 or whatever.
Armies marching can do 30 miles the article goes on to state, while boats present new opportunities altogether. And perhaps I’m not even mentioning an aspect or feature of transportation that appears in your novel. Let’s press onward.
Features of Transportation in Fantasy Novels
Chariots were a big mode of transportation in my series of historical Chinese novels, books set in 400 BC. They can be a lot of fun in battle scenes, and they kick up lots of dust, which obscures what’s going on. Lots of potential there, oh yes.
When I wrote The Hirelings the characters walked everywhere, because they were poor. The kingdom guards chasing them often did so on horseback.
For my historical novella Ale Quest, characters also walk…and ride mules. At one point they were carrying flaming barrels of pitch on a wagon.
So there’s lots of options – those are some that I’ve chosen to take.
An article appeared on Curse Breaker Series in 2013 that profiled all kinds of elements a fantasy world needs. One of those was transportation, and this is what they had to say:
“You can always tell the strength of a country by the type of transportation they have access to. Do they use airships or airplanes? Horses? Ships? Cars? Trains? Teleporters? Time Machines? Underground drills? If a country is wealthy enough, they’ll have access to most of these things and then some. If the country’s poor then it’ll show in their technology and especially their transportation. Remember, trade and commerce isn’t just about how cheap the product is to make. It’s also about how fast the product can get to the customer. The kingdom with access to teleportation technology will have a great advantage over horse and carriage any day.”