Have you ever wondered why countless fantasy books offer little more than bland descriptions of a “dense forest” for elves to dwell in? If you’re lucky, the author may throw an extra bone into the pot by describing a few dangling vines. If you’re unlucky, a few fairies may fly through the dense forest. If the author is really good, you might even read about lichen or moss infestations adorning the “dense” forest. A top notch author might even describe a tap root here or there. Even scary forests tend to offer time worn imagery: “craggy” or “twisted” branches that often fail to conjure any imagery beyond American scrub oak (hat tip to Snow White and the Huntsman’s haunted forest as a notable exception). In short, absent an extraordinary author, most world building in fantasy novels sounds like a traipse through an American or European forest. Personally, I don’t get it. Doesn’t that seem a little boring for a genre that is supposed to be exotic and require you to suspend your disbelief? When reading fantasy novels, should we really get stuck imagining canyons we’ve hiked dozens of times? Sure, they’re beautiful … but they don’t make you feel like you’re on some exotic trek across a mysterious world where anything is possible. If nothing else, it seems a little odd to me that fantasy fans don’t ask for more. Why require authors to properly develop alien languages and then ignore iconically generic vegetation descriptions? It takes far less energy to search the net for exotic vegetation than it does to learn linguistics and create a viable language for each of the races you’re writing about.
Our gorgeous and diverse planet has so much more to offer. Sure, maybe we can’t all take a trip to Costa Rica or China just to jot down some notes on local vegetation but with the internet, we authors have no excuse for lazy descriptions of trees. We could talk about Weeping Willows, Banzai trees, Sequoia trees, or any number of American favorites but why not be adventurous and describe more exotic rainforest species that boast buttress roots? Imagine a chase through a forest full of tree roots that slithered like eels hunting at the bottom of the ocean – like these:
Better yet, imagine a troop of soldiers trying to find a child in a labyrinth of trees with roots shaped like these:
Scratch that – imagine trying to get out of a forest with a complex root system like these where predators lie in wait to devour you at every corner. Somehow, that sounds a little more interesting than getting chased through the forest by a pack of wolves – unless perhaps, they are dire wolves … Writing about Ents? Our imagination has to stretch pretty hard to envision a tree hiding its legs until the last second when it suddenly comes to life but with swirly feet like these, who needs legs? I’ve seen octopodes crawl through complex terrain with fewer legs than these.
A word of caution: if you’re writing about forests in the mountains, be careful when writing about buttress roots – they only grow in nutrient poor areas of the rainforest. The roots help stabilize the tree against strong winds and they help collect nutrients that are not found deeper in the soil. If the soil was better (like it usually is in the mountains), the roots would grow deep into the ground so there would be no need for buttress roots.
What do you think? Am I getting too nit picky here or would you like to see more vivid descriptions in fantasy books?