What makes good fantasy? Believability. That may seem counterintuitive, nevertheless it’s true.
Everyone understands that fireballs can’t actually be summoned, and the monsters in Dungeons & Dragons don’t actually exist…well…most people. But we accept it because it feels possible for that world, as though being able to cast fireballs follows a certain set of laws of nature, and physics. What doesn’t feel possible? Driving a limo through a toppling skyscraper in Los Angeles as the world crumbles into complete and total ruin, with exploding volcanoes, magnitude 20 earthquakes, and tornadoes large enough to swallow entire states; a 95 lb girl fist-fighting a 300 lb special operations veteran with 50 combat tours under his belt, and kicking his ass; single-handedly facing a horde of hundreds of goblins, wielding a weapon nonstop for hours upon hours. Brandon Sanderson is great at creating magical worlds that follow certain physical laws that fit those worlds. A fine example of this is The Stormlight Archive series.
As a writer, you want to take your readers to the edge of believability, but as soon as you step past that line, you’ve lost your audience. They’ll throw their hands into the air, and with an exacerbated sigh, say, “Well that’s just crap!” To avoid that, your characters and world needs to be within the realm of believability.
Which brings me to traveling…
As I outlined The War of Ages, I’d gone map crazy and created maps for each the main characters: Makayla, Kael, Jouler, and Katima, detailing their movement across the continent, annotating how long they spent at each location, measuring the mileage between points, calculating how long it would take to traverse the distances. I feel that doing so made outlining the story much easier, and mitigated a specific annoyance that seems to infect some novels—characters that seem to be able to travel extreme distances over a very short period of time. There have been many ways that fantasy authors have used to get around it, like Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera, but one thing remains constant—the speed at which people walk.
When I was in the Army, training to be a scout, I had to compete a 20 kilometer march with all my gear (over 70 lbs of equipment, thankfully no ammo). The march ended up being over 29 kilometers (about 18 miles), and we did it in a very short amount of time (a little over 4 hours). As we made the last bend, Metallica’s “Don’t Tread on Me” was pounding from a wall of speakers, an enormous sense of accomplishment welled in my chest. I’d made it! How did I feel after the forced march? Like someone had beaten my body with a bat, over, and over, and over, and over again. That march is the scout rite of passage, and it is so physically demanding that we are given menial tasks the next day to help us recover.
The average person can sustain about a 20 mile/day pace indefinitely. That doesn’t seem like a lot, because it isn’t. At that pace, it would take me three days to walk from my home in Peoria, AZ to the front gate at Ren Faire! I love the Ren Faire, but if it took me three days to get there! But why only 20 miles? Because walking long distances takes a physical tole on your body. You burn a lot of calories, especially when traveling across undeveloped land, like hilly forests. If you want to sustain travel across a long distance, then 20 miles/day is about what you can expect the average person to be able to travel. At a forced march, a person can cross about 50 miles, but they will need a few days for rest afterward. Traveling horseback proves to be much more efficient at ~50 miles/day, sustained travel, and ~100 miles forced march. The problem with a forced march is that the person or animal needs at least two days to recover, or they risk severe injury, and even death. Travel by wagon proves to be about as efficient as walking, but far less taxing on the feet. Be very careful when you are designing your world for your book/series. Many new writers want to make their world BIG, like United States big! But, according to Google, it would take about 38 days to walk from LA to NY, if you walked nonstop, no rest, no sleep.
When you’re creating a world that is filled with mystical energies, magical creatures, it is imperative to adhere to the laws of nature that remain unchanged, e.g., the speed at which a person walks.