Welcome to the first guest post here at Infamous Scribbler, this from author and friend Jim Reader, who holds his own over at the Central Texas Home for the Terminally Twitchy. It is thanks to a bet-slash-dare from Jim that I wrote the first short story I ever had accepted for publication, and his discerning eye has cast its improving gaze over many subsequent manuscripts, including Soft Target. I have enjoyed reading his pieces in return, and hope to do so again in the future. Without further ado or introduction, ladies and gentlemen, I give you…
Putting a Little Realism in Your Fantasy
– Jim Reader, Curmudgeonly Old Fart
Disclaimer: Of course, this is all proffered with the proviso that it is my humble opinion, and that I’m as likely as anyone else to be full of shit. Just one writer and reader’s opinion…
A writer with no knowledge of how medicine is practiced, or police work is performed, or how the legal system works, or the political system, can’t write a believable scene involving those elements, no matter how inventive they are. Readers are smart, they can tell when it’s fake.
Yet a lot of authors seem to believe they can write any mess of half-assed, impractical bullshit, call it a fantasy world, and their readers are going to go with it because of that magical term “fantasy”.
Reader’s First Law of Writing Realistic Fantasy – The more fantastic the fantasy elements, the more necessary points of realism are to anchor the story. No matter how big a fan, readers respond to the familiar.
This even pertains to worlds created with no relation to human history whatsoever. Readers want to put themselves in your story. They desire motives and outlooks they can identify with, characters – whether good, evil, or indiscriminate – that they can empathize with. With every flight of fancy you take, the need for something recognizable increases. It’s a trade-off between your imagination and the likelihood that a reader will put your book down in the first chapter or so and never pick it up again… and never buy another of your books.
Reader’s Second Law – Within the confines of your world, things must make sense. Otherwise your world will feel hollow, and no amount of gibberish will save it.
Even if your readers aren’t history buffs, they want a sense of order, a world in which there are rules. Anarchy may be fun, but it quite often doesn’t make for a coherent story line.
Or, alternatively, you don’t have a fantasy, you have a faery story, in the vein of the ‘Oz’ series. (As opposed to a ‘fairy story’ that involves the Fey, or a fairy tale.) Sometimes there are reasons for why things happen, other times it’s just authorial convenience. Continuity is the boggle of small minds, and nobody nowhere is much for logic or the predictable boring humdrum of cause and effect. And all that’s great… in a faery story.
When things happen “just ’cause” in your fantasy novel, do not be surprised when readers roll their eyes. If you want them to ‘live’ in your world, build them a world they can live in.
Reader’s Third Law – Historically, societies evolve the way they do for reasons, and wishing doesn’t change that. If you want to change the outcome, change the society.
A recent article illustrating this very point, and a better written one than this mess, can be found here: http://worldweaverpress.com/2013/05/28/female-warriors-in-fantasy/
And like anything else, you need to have a basic idea of how the society you’re writing works and why it works that way. Then you need to find some grumpy asshole who’s a fan of history and ask them to break it for you. Then you patch it up and let them try again. Before you break the rules of societies, you have to know the rules, and where they can be broken, and how. I’m not talking a doctorate in “Whatever Era” History or anything, but a good working familiarity is essential.
Reader’s Fourth Law – War is a goddamn ugly thing, and even uglier things happen in its aftermath. It ain’t easy, it ain’t cheap, and everybody ends up paying.
Troops cost money – not only to train, but unless your civilization has a surplus of people, raising an army takes important cogs in the functioning of the society out of their places. That means the economical outlook and social structure are paying for your war as well.
Violence doesn’t end on the battlefield, unless the army is a group of highly trained professionals – and sometimes not even then. A leader’s mandate may avoid some of it, then again, how well trained are the troops? A barely trained mob, out of sight of their officers – who are likely doing some looting of their own – can get very nasty. Combat, fear, anger, adrenaline… combine these and there may be no civilian population in the soldier’s eyes – civilians are mere targets for rage and frustration. This leads to very predictable results.
Reader’s Fifth Law – ‘Cinematic’ writing may be considered great for action scenes, but it’s a shitty way to world-build. Know the reality behind the scenes. You don’t have to show it, but you do have to know it.
The cinematic style that some writers use is, big surprise, based on the cinema. In movies, there are wondrous creatures called ‘technical advisers’, whose job it is to keep the movie maker from stepping in shit too often, hopefully keeping things accurate enough to have a passing acquaintance with the way things work in the real world, but not so bogged down in the actual minutiae that it slows the pace of the film.
In other words, movies ain’t reality – most films ain’t even close. It’s all varying degrees of authorial convenience. Modeling your society and story on a system only loosely akin to reality leaves you with something even further away from anything approaching ‘realism’. Save it for your action scenes if you must use it at all.
Reader’s Sixth Law – Magic can do a lot, but it cannot do everything. Decide very carefully where you want to have its influence manifest.
If you write a story where everything is magical, then magic loses its ‘specialness’ – and if that’s your goal, fine. But if you want to preserve the wonder of magic, the mystery, the enchantment (no pun intended), use moderation in using magic. Especially if you’re using magic to explain authorial conveniences. “It happens that way because it’s MAJIC!” is some of the laziest world-building you can do.
Reader’s Seventh Law – Passive races die, and aggressive races prosper. Don’t blame me, blame Mother Nature.
In anything approaching the real world, Tolkien’s hobbits were somebody’s slave race, or somebody’s pets. You want to tell me that Gandalf made a career out of keeping everybody else from conquering the rich farmlands of the Shire, I’ll buy that. Otherwise, in somebody’s language, the word for ‘bitch’ is ‘hobbit’.
Human history has showed us there’s always somebody out there who wants what you’ve got, no matter how much or how little it actually is. You either defend it, or lose it. Si vis pacem, para bellum. “If you want peace, prepare for war.”
If you want your tribe/clan/country/nation to survive, you expand, and damn the diplomacy until you run up against someone you can’t easily and immediately beat into submission. Then ‘diplomacy’ becomes polite speak for ‘keeping them quiet until we can club them in the head – preferably from behind… in the dark’.
Now, why are you still here reading this? Go write some realistic fantasy.