Writing Believable Fantasy

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If fantasy writers heeded the advice, “Write what you know,” we’d all be out of business. But it does raise a tricky question: How can you write believable stories about imaginary people living in an imaginary world? Which, of course, is just what a fantasy writer does.

People who don’t like fantasy usually say the reason they don’t like it is because it’s so full of rubbish. The rubbish is the stuff in the story that they can’t believe in. And speaking for myself, that would include needlessly complicated names, names that sound like popular pain relief products, and unbearably predictable stock characters–the invincible female warrior, the crusty but benign wizard, buxom tavern wenches, lusty barbarians, know-it-all elves… enough already!

And then there’s the fantasy which anyone can see is a thinly-veiled exercise in self-glorification, in which the writer’s personal stand-in is the hero and all the other characters are just thrown in to make him look good. This is even worse than know-it-all elves with names like Mylanta and Feenamint.

So how can anyone write a fantasy that the reader will be able to believe in as he’s reading it? (If he continues to believe in it after he’s done reading, that’s a problem beyond the scope of this little essay.)

Without writing a book about it, I think the fantasy writer needs to do something that good writers do no matter what kind of fiction they write.

Watch what people do and listen to what they say. And above all, be interested in them!

Character is the key. If your fictional characters act and think and speak and feel like real people, they will draw the reader into your imaginary world.

If they’re one or two-dimensional nothings, because the writer is always interested first and only in himself, and not in other people, your imaginary world will suck no matter what else you do with it, fill it with castles, monsters, and fantastic beings as you will.

It’s not just fantasy writers who have to pay attention to what other people are like, and try to do them justice, even if they’re fictional.

It’s all writers in all genres, all the time. The writer who can’t be bothered to look into another human heart, and feel at least some kinship with it, has nothing worthwhile to say.

6 comments on “Writing Believable Fantasy

  1. Having never written any fiction, I can only imagine that when an author asks the reader to suspend disbelief there is a fine balance with regard to how much the reader is willing to cooperate in that suspension. Ask the reader to suspend disbelief beyond a certain degree and they might quit cooperating entirely.

    I recall this happening to me at a movie. It was a farce, of sorts, abut a guy that made a very poor real estate investment, and all the hilarious things that happened as he tried to fix this house. At a certain point, the shtick became too much, to unbelievable, and I got up and left.

    Ultimately, if the reader cannot feel sympathy for at least some of the characters in a book, they will lose interest. Likewise, if the place and character names are belabored there is a risk that the reader will tire of it all.

    One trap I see, would be trying to write under the shadow of a well known author. I’d rather read someone’s effort to be themselves than read an imitation of Tolkien or Lewis.

    The same thing happens in music, BTW. There’s a Sirius XM channel called Watercolors which plays a sort of Jazz Lite music. Probably half of the guitarists on that channel sound like a poor imitation of Wes Montgomery. Wes was a musical hero, but listening to a gaggle of Wes Montgomery wannabes gets old in a hurry. Whether in music or in writing, we must speak with our own voice.

    1. It took me a long time to grow out of trying to write like Tolkien. Guilty as charged! But I was, after all, only 18.

      Trying to imitate C.S. Lewis is a fool’s errand. No one has ever done it successfully.

      Was that movie “The Money Pit,” by any chance? I thought that was pretty funny. But I don’t watch Tom Hanks movies anymore, not since I found out he’d gone over to the dark side.

    2. You obviously did grown out of it. I find your writing very natural and without nuance.

      It was, indeed, The Money Pit. There was a point where it went from believable to pure vaudeville. Had it been a Lucille Ball skit I would have bought it, but as a full length movie, I found it a bit much. (It was a long time ago, but I seem to recall an entire exterior wall falling, maybe when Hanks opened a door.)

      I admire Hanks’ talent and ability. He’s done some great work, but he’s definitely aligned with political goals I can’t support.

      I was recently quite disappointed to see a clip of Tom Selleck appearing on a daytime show. He didn’t exactly disavow his conservatism, but he was definitely kowtowing to the liberal audience. My confidence in him was certainly reduced after seeing that.

    3. I read the hobbit and loved it. but the Lord of the rings? Nope. Too dark and complicated. astounding amount of characters too.
      I prefer Bell Mountain.
      Once I tried to count the characters of the Bell Mountain Series and lost count by 115th.
      The difference is that you Introduce the characters with ease, not just crashing them all suddenly at the reader.

  2. An elf named Feenamint — I burst out laughing when I read that, but now I won’t be able to read about any elves (even Keebler elves) without waiting for Feenamint to show up. Come to think of it, I won’t be able to see a Feenamint ad without waiting for an elf to show up.

    You’re right about having real-seeming people in any kind of fiction, including fantasy fiction. I think Chesterton once said that the best fairy tales were about ordinary characters facing extraordinary situations, and he added that, conversely, making all the characters extraordinary made their adventures seem ordinary, in the sense of being unremarkable. (I’m not doing his wordplay justice here, but I think I’ve captured the gist of what he was saying.)

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