An imagined world will only feel as large as you make it appear. By focusing on a limited part of the world, you make a world feel small and cramped. It’s easy at times to forget that the Harry Potter series takes place on Earth, since all you see in the first book is Hogwarts and a stretch of England from 4 Privet Drive to the train station. You don’t even “see” much out the window on the train. Middle Earth, however, feels vast, with more places than you could explore in a lifetime (at least in the lifetime of a lesser man, not an elf or a descendant of Numenor).
So how do you give that feeling of vastness? You can give multiple perspectives from all across the world. That certainly works for some stories. You can also have people travel widely, but travel (and the associated reader boredom with it) is a major pitfall, especially in fantasy. The compromise is a ship.
Ship (n.) – A movable setting that provides a place for interesting things to happen while protagonists travel.
What can a ship be?
The two main types of ships are sailing vessels of various sorts, and starships. You can posit alternate ship analogs, anything from a flying aircraft carrier to a village on the back of a giant turtle. The two main characteristics that are required: it must be able to travel from one place to another; it must allow for scenes to take place there.
Why a ship?
For travel on foot or on horseback, you’re limited in the things that can go on between characters. By necessity, much of their effort during the trip is focused on locomotion. You can have conversations, you can have interruptions of the trip, but you’re always bounded by the fact that what your characters are doing is “traveling.” With a ship, the vessel is generally doing the work for them (maybe not the case for an oared vessel, but at least in the general case). This frees up characters to do other things. They can drink, gamble, pursue hobbies, perform maintenance, have sex … basically anything you could think of people doing in an isolated town with a population the size of the crew plus passengers. By removing the need to plod onward to their next destination (the ship is doing that as a background task), you open up your options for interaction.
How big should a ship be?
Unless you’re Hemingway, you’re going to need it large enough for at least two people. Generally you’re going to want at least a handful, to be able to explore interpersonal dynamics. The larger the ship, the less intimate it will feel. A pirate ship might have a dozen named characters in a crew of eighty; on a private yacht, you’ll probably have a name for everyone aboard. The same applies to starships. The Enterprise D had a crew of 1200+, while the Serenity had a crew of nine (and not a redshirt to be found). My personal preference would be to avoid the middle ground, where there are nearly as many nameless crew as named characters aboard; either name everyone or make the named cast a small fraction of the ship’s complement. It gets around readers wondering why those few others don’t get named.
How writing about ships can build your world
There are two ways.
First, a ship is representative of the technology of the world. It doesn’t have to be cutting edge, but it gives a reader an indication of he time period and what to expect technologically in the world. Is the ship using a compass, navigating by the stars, or using a quantum computer to navigate among the stars? Is it wooden, steel-hulled, or build from nanopolymer composites? The amenities aboard serve the same purpose, from weaponry to accommodations.
Secondly, scenes aboard ship are interspersed with scenes ashore (or planetside). These stops can be at far-flung locations throughout the world you’ve created, and they should be. A ship that never goes anywhere is just a funny-shaped building. Give readers a sense of adventure by bringing them to all the interesting places you’ve cooked up in your head.
Are you ready for a ship?
See the world! Meet interesting people! Experience strange cultures! Get into heated arguments with your fellow crew mates because you’ve been cooped up together for too long! World-build yourself a ship today!