Short version: Do you have to love world building to write epic fantasy?
It feels to me that of the fantasy genre is more focussed on setting (as opposed to the other two pillars of storytelling: character and plot) than any other genre*. So, do you have to love that part of writing to be an author of epic fantasy?
I see evidence of a clear love of world building in two of the three epic fantasy authors I've read recently. Scott Lynch (of the Lies of Locke Lamora) can't help but add anecdotes to his stories that allow him to expand on his descriptions of his world. Patrick Rothfuss (of the Name of the Wind) obviously loves building the mythology of his world and has clearly thought a great deal about the cosmology and monetary systems as well.
Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn) seems much less focussed on setting than many other fantasy authors. That said, he is still well known for his intricate magic systems and he has tied in world history to the plots of all his novels that I've so far read. Maybe he loves to world building as much as the others and it's just that he has a firmer hand when editing. His prose is much more straightforward than the other two authors I mentioned as well, so perhaps his world building doesn't read as well as theirs and so doesn't get extended sections dedicated to it print.
I ask this because I quite frankly find world building tiresome. I enjoy writing plots and characters, but as soon as I check up on some historical details to make sure my setting works I get profoundly discouraged by how much research it would require to get, for example, the economy of my world functioning sensibly.
So what do you think? Is it easy enough to write successful epic fantasy where setting is secondary to plot and character, or does the genre demand more than that from its authors?
*Ok, maybe hard sci-fi wins but it's a close fight and the two genres share lots of the same readers anyway.
Keep in mind that much fantasy tends to take place in universes that probably don't exist. For comparison it's relatively simple to write, say, a thriller, since the audience likely already has enough background to understand what's going on. In fantasy by way of Tolkien and company, you're effectively starting from square one. You have no history to draw upon and no mythology to evoke; it's just you and your imagination.
I'd say you don't have to love it, and you don't have to go to the extent some fantasy authors do... but having read some rather difficult* fantasy works over the years I'd say it's definitely necessary to do some of it, even if it's primarily there as a platform for your characters and their actions.
It's one of those things that ironically enough I think makes fantasy hard to write and yet, simultaneously, get looked down on by some people as not being 'serious' since you can make the world whatever you want. The amount of effort involved in starting from square 1 is often drastically undercut.
That's my take anyway.
*I don't mean difficult in an academic sense, I mean difficult as in hard to read because the world building is lacking and thus you have no frame of reference to a lot of the touchstones the author is trying to lay down.
For instance, you tell me of a character in a modern-set story that they're a "veteran of the Second World War" then I can infer a lot of things about that character. I absolutely cannot do the same about a "veteran of the Second Succession Crisis" however, unless you've told me about it beforehand or are prepared to explain it in depth at some point in some (hopefully subtle) way.
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A fantasy story is a story that has one or more fantastic elements. A lot of the time, especially for epic fantasy, one of the major elements is that it takes place in a fantastic world. If this is the case, then it generally helps to have some amount of world building to help define the fantastic world- how it works, what makes it fantastic, and how the characters are affected by it. I suppose that you don't have to actually enjoy this process, but a story in a secondary world works a lot better if the world has been fleshed out.
Now, it's not always necessary to show all of that to the reader. Take the Bas-Lag world of China Miéville novels (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, Iron Council). New Crobuzon, the city at the center of the novels is fairly well fleshed out, but the rest of the world, while Miéville claims to have developed it further, is largely mysterious. What was the Ravening that wiped out Khepri culture? What's the Witchocracy of the Fire Straits like? Remember that country whose laws are determined by gambling? What's up with that? There's a school of thought that says that the right suggestions of a larger world can be more intriguing than dozens of appendices.
You've also got the option of not setting your works in a strong secondary world. Could you write an Epic Fantasy set in Historical Rome? The trenches of World War One? The Mongolian Steppes during the rise of Chingis Khan? I don't see why not, although in this case, I'd advise a decent amount of research into the relevant era.
Or drop a bunch of people from your preferred era (including modern day!) into a fantasy world. Then you need only define the setting insofar as they interact with it.
There are two approaches to writing stories (and RPG campaigns!) for settings you made yourself:
1. Build the whole setting in detail, then set the story in it.
2. Establish just the barebones of the setting, focus on the story; new setting elements emerge as they become relevant.
While a lot of authors seem to go with #1 at a first glance, there's nothing wrong with approach #2. In fact, I prefer it; it leads to more interesting, tighter plots. After all, you're writing a story, not a guide to a fictional setting.
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