I believe that one of the aspects of writing fantastic fiction lies in the fact that you often have to conjure up a setting to go along with it. While setting-creation does provide another means by which you can stretch the fantastic element of any story, I figure that it simply allows us more room to fit the more integral elements that we want.
That is not to say, of course, that we have to create an appropriate setting for each instance of fantastic fiction we write. If we can write a novel about a young magician student and set it in the modern world without changing any of its current aspects, then so much the better. What I say, however, is that such a story will most likely be enriched by the addition of background elements: a hidden wizards' academy, a dark sorcerer villain who killed the protagonist's parents, and an invisible Platform 9 3/4 at the local train station.
You can think of it in terms of a playground, if you may: We can probably house a bunch of kids inside a small two-story house, but they'll probably be better off in a large sandbox somewhere, pushing each other off the swings and twisting themselves into pretzel-like shapes on the monkey bars.
Tabletop Role-Playing Games (RPGs) are probably the best testament to this subtle form of inspiration: They give you the setting and the background events, then invite you to supply the characters and the stories. You can pass on the same setting to thousands of RPG players in this way, and literally get a unique experience from each and every one. (Of late, computer games and interactive novels have also experimented with this ability to have readers create their own sequence of events.)
The importance of background and setting has increased significantly in the past few years, if only because there are now so many forays into the fantastic that each of them has to be distinct from all the others. Settings help make a difference there: a coming-of-age story in a medieval fantasy world will most definitely be distinct from the same relative coming-of-age story in a post-apocalyptic "Mad Max"-type scenario.
This situation has raised some odd problems with writers, I think. I feel as though we're depending more and more on setting and background than before, if only to provide a sort of logic to a story's events. Sometimes the setting even goes beyond that, and ends up being absolutely relevant to the given tale. And sometimes the story doesn't even come to fruition at all, leaving us with a beautiful, well-thought-out background that has absolutely no use anymore.
I've run into the latter situation numerous times, and the situation always transfixes me. What does one do with a perfectly workable setting idea that doesn't have a story to go along with it? Is it plausible to write it down, register it for copyright, and then file it away in hopes that we'll know what to do with it eventually? Or does it make more sense to disclose it to other people and expect them to visualize the tale themselves? Interesting ideas are something of a premium nowadays, and I think I'd like to see more exchanges like this.
Something in me, however, loves nothing more than to throw a little doubt into the equation: Are we, perhaps, placing too much emphasis on background and setting? After all, a number of critically-acclaimed works openly exhibit fantastic stories without bothering to make any effort to explain them. More than a few authors, for example, have thrown their efforts into the realm of "magical realism". Maybe the need to introduce logic into a story is more of a human failing than it is a step in the right direction. Or maybe the critics simply have no idea what they're talking about, and maybe the general public really can't stand the notion of fantasy without logic.
Hmmm... "fantasy without logic". That sounds all too ironic, doesn't it?
What I do know, however, is that you either have the logic, or you don't. Explaining some aspects of a fantastic story while purposely leaving others vague, for example, doesn't seem to work. It's as though the presence of logical explanation in some areas magnifies the lack of plausible reason in others, and you end up with a work that only confuses the reader. Either everything has to be logical, or everything has to be familiar enough to seemingly work without logic.
Am I making sense here? I'm starting to lose track of what I'm talking about.
Contrary to popular opinion, that happens a lot more often than people expect.
While the setting/no-setting distinction may or may not actually be a matter of introducing logic into a story, I feel that it's the only possible explanation as to why fantasy writers seem to come up with a lot of new realms off the top of their heads. What I fear, however, is the possibility that it may be a wrong direction to explore. Do readers look for logical stories? Is plausibility an important factor with regards to the quality of a tale?
The most frustrating part, perhaps, is that this could be more a question of mindset than it is a question of taste. We either notice some underlying order within the world, or we simply don't. In addition, the consideration of mindset would most likely cause additional problems for writers who are willing to experiment: How does a logical man, for instance, find a way to write a story that keeps logic loose and capricious? I think that it would have to require a massive amount of effort, or the equivalent of an existential lobotomy.
Yes doctor, I do think of stuff like this in my free time, thank you very much.