An Overlooked Aspect of World Building (as exemplified by War Horse)

Alas, it is finally here, the third and final piece in my Shit I Learned in NaNoWriMo 2015 series! This piece kinda piggybacks off of a previous post (which I link to later) and basically I blather on about the relevance of world building in fantasy and how fantasy novels that feature horses fall almost comically short in this area.

*gets on soap box*

World building is an integral part of any story, but especially high fantasy. The world in which a high fantasy story takes place is oftentimes just as much of a character as the characters themselves. My NaNoWriMo MS is high fantasy, no doubt, but it challenges much of what I think of when I think of high fantasy: it’s based around a desert society similar to ancient Egypt.

Honestly, I think that’s the crux of the problem with high fantasy these days. So much high fantasy is European-based, with mountains and forests and castles, that “high fantasy” is automatically equated with knights in shining armor and the big, powerful horses that carry them into battle.

That’s not always the case. In high fantasy—in any story with horses, really, whether fantasy or not—there are several things that factor into whether a specific breed of horse is appropriate: environment, work load & type, and cultural values.

Perhaps the most important of those is environment. Environment has an intrinsic effect on everything else, from what sort of work a horse is required for to what a culture values and how those values affect the traits the culture breeds for.

Related: Horses in Fantasy: Which Breed is the Right Breed? 

When you’re building the world in which your novel takes place, whether fantasy or not, knowing things like the weather, the terrain, the high and low temperatures, and how long a typical day lasts are important. Those are all things that help ground your reader in your story. Additionally, they are all things that affect how various types of horses are going to survive in your story’s world.

Take, for example, War Horse, set in Scotland. In the beginning of the movie, the protag is sent out to buy a plow horse, but rather than pick something strong and sturdy like a Shire or a Clydesdale, he comes home with a Thoroughbred. Thoroughbreds are athletic, no doubt, but in very different ways. The movie details really well how the horse has problems plowing the rocky fields because he’s just not strong enough to break through the ground the way a Shire or a Clydesdale would.

To really help y’all out, I came up with a series of questions you should ask yourself if you’re planning to include more than just a basic mention of horses in your novel. As with much of the world building you’ll do, very little of this may make it into your novel (unless you’re doing like I did during NaNoWriMo & writing about a culture that revolves around its horses), but knowing the answers to these questions will still help shape your world and give it a sense of depth that your reader will appreciate.

*steps down off of soap box*

Let me know if you find these guidelines helpful, and if you have any more questions about horses in fiction, shoot me a quick tweet and I'll help out as much as I can.

Happy writing, sugar!