Fantasy Worlds and Reader Assumptions

A few weeks ago I wrote about those times when there are just enough anachronisms or inaccuracies in a book’s worldbuilding to make it feel a little off. I was talking about a historical fantasy book in that case, but even in secondary worlds it’s jarring to have, say, people riding on horseback while shooting automatic weapons without an explanation for the low-tech transportation (or high-tech weaponry).

But what about those times when it’s not the worldbuilding that’s wrong, but our perceptions of it? I often find that if the book I’m reading features a pre-industrial, Western-esque society, I assume certain tropes and a certain mediaeval feel, particularly when there’s extensive use of bows and swords but no gunpowder in sight. For instance, when I first read the Throne of Glass prequels, I’d concluded in my mind from the first two novels that the series was set in a mediaeval fantasy world, and did a double-take when the book mentioned a beauty salon. I think I actually thought to myself, ‘They didn’t have those in the Middle Ages’ before I realised how incredibly ridiculous that was. After that, I noticed more and more instances in the series where the worldbuilding is far more reminiscent of the 18th- to early 19th-century – not surprisingly, the time period when fairytales like Cinderella were codified – than the Middle Ages.

To an extent, it’s normal to have particular expectations when reading a fantasy book. If the main character’s an orphan, for instance, you can pretty much guarantee they’re the long-lost princess or the child of the world’s saviour from twenty years past. Similarly, if people are fighting with swords and bows you can probably expect they won’t be pulling out a mobile phone to call an ambulance afterwards. However, there’s a difference between expectations and assumptions, and I find myself sometimes falling into the latter. The result is always the same. I feel jolted out of the world, then reconsider my assumptions and enjoy the book so much more now that I can really feel the world as the author’s created it. Obviously, it would be much better to skip the first step or two and just enjoy the book!

I’m curious, does anyone else do this? Or are you good at suspending your assumptions about the world?


14 thoughts on “Fantasy Worlds and Reader Assumptions

  1. This is a great question! Sometimes authors are consciously bending the conventions or combining elements from different eras, and that can be creative and fun. For instance, in Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones the general tone is late Victorian (with magic) — but there are motor cars and some other modern elements. It’s clear the author did this on purpose so it doesn’t bother me. Anachronisms that seem to come out of laziness or unconsciousness are jarring, though, and I don’t think it’s the reader’s problem.


    1. Oh, I love Charmed Life! That said, that’s exactly the kind of thing I’m thinking of here, where I do a double-take and think it’s ‘wrong’ before realising that OF COURSE the author did it deliberately. Maybe it’s just me 🙂

      I have very limited patience for anachronisms that are clearly a result of lack of research, so perhaps that’s why I do a double-take when they’re there deliberately.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I definitely struggle with this! When I read Sabaa Tahir’s Ember in the Ashes, I had such a hard time NOT picturing ancient Rome, because the beginning of the book made me imagine it. But there’s a lot in that world that’s completely different (and very well done). It’s tough to get past my own visualizations.


  3. Hmmm, since I can’t think of instances where something like this has happened to me, I think I’m pretty good at holding off on assumptions about the world? But I’m also just not very familiar with different historical time periods. So I pretty much just accept what the author tells me since I wouldn’t even know what assumptions to make in most cases. But if I do picture something wrong by accident, it’s fairly easy for me to adjust when it comes to world-building (characters are not so easy to adjust, but that wasn’t what this post was about lol).


    1. Yeah, it could be because I studied a fair bit of history at university. I certainly don’t find myself doing the same thing with a fantasy set in, say, a Chinese-inspired world. I think it’s also partly because I was basically brought up on mediaeval-style high fantasy, so I assume that setting for any high fantasy.

      I definitely get this with characters, too! Once I have an image in my head, it’s hard to adjust it when I find out they’ve got blue eyes instead of brown.


  4. Great topic! I never really thought of this much, but yes our own assumptions of the world can be misleading sometimes and when you realize your assumptions weren’t true it can be quite jarring. I can’t remember any specific example, but I do know this has happened to me a few times.


  5. It totally depends on how good the writing is to begin with. Sometimes it’s set up right and it works, but yeah, I find this stuff so annoying I can throw a book across the room when I see it!


    1. See, I find this can happen to me even with well-written worlds. I get to something that doesn’t seem right to me, then I realise I was making assumptions and everything before fits in/leads to that thing I thought was an anachronism. Does that make sense?

      But I totally agree: when it’s poorly done it can be terribly aggravating.


  6. Yes, me too! I read this book where there were lots of modern things (like the Internet etc) but then mashed-up with a medieval backdrop, and it was just so JARRING. I guess this is why things like Harry Potter have the two different worlds set up so you CAN suspend disbelief.


  7. This has definitely happened to me – where you start to make certain assumptions based on your impressions of the world and then you’re surprised when the author veers in a different direction. This can either be really fun or very jarring, depending on how its handled! (And, of course, it’s just plain frustrating if it feels accidental.)


    1. Yeah, some of my favourite books (like Gates of Thread and Stone/The Infinite) go in a completely different direction from what I’d expected, and it’s SUCH fun!


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