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Don’t forget your eyeball warmer: Believability in fiction

guest post by Kellee Kranendonk

I was watching an episode of an old show from the ’70s the other day. As a writer, I find it difficult to watch a show without noting its flaws or to read a book without trying to critique it. But I manage. This show reminded me of one of the rules of writing, particularly for writing fantasy.

Quite often people—both writers and non-writers—think that fantasy is easy. You just make a bunch of stuff up, throw in a dragon/fairy/elf (or all three) and you have a great story. Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. Everything you write has to be believable. Yes, believable. You may be thinking, but it’s fantasy. Even in fantasy things have to make sense. You can’t just have a jumble of scenes, characters that jump out of nowhere and a plot that meanders down a dead end road.

When you write in most genres, you have to do research. If you’re writing an historical novel you have to research your time period. You don’t want a car in a horse-and-buggy era, or a television when radio was all they had. If you’re writing science fiction, you can get away with stretching the truth but not the laws of pĥysics (unless you’re in the Matrix). You can have your character flying a FTL ship in space, but not with its top down. Do your research to put the science in sci-fi.

Fantasy can mean a lot of things. Alice in Wonderland starts in this world and ends in this world, but it’s all fantasy world in between. And there’s not a fairy, elf, or dragon in sight. There is a Cheshire cat, though. Knights slaying dragons with magical swords and rescuing damsels in towers is fantasy based on our own medieval period. This would require some research. Did the knight wear boxers or long woolen underwear with a button flap? Would he come upon a beggar carrying a pumpkin as a light or a homeless person carrying a placard that reads: Will work for chocolate? To make your story feel like it’s really taking place in said era, you need to get some facts right. You can of course create a fantasy in our modern world. It depends on the flavour of your story.

Finally, fantasy can mean you’ve created your own world or universe. Now you can do any willy-nilly thing you want, right? Wrong. Yes, in fantasy you can create a world where people burn in water and drown in flame, where water runs uphill and trees grow down into the ground, where men get pregnant and women pee standing up. Lots of fun. But in a world where people burn in water, what do they drink, bathe in? How do plants grow? If trees grow down into the ground, what is their purpose? Do they sprout beans from their tops? You can’t create a world on “that’s just how it is” or “just because.” There’s a reason for everything: We can’t survive without water. Trees clean our air, gravity holds us down.

There’s more.

I have a huge list of questions that I got from an internet site. Answering these questions helps you build your world. They cover everything from plumbing to governmental structure. If your world hasn’t discovered indoor plumbing, where do they go? If water runs uphill or burns, think of all the things it’s going to affect. Everything you create has an effect on something else, just like in our own world. So your story has to make sense, be believable.

Of course, there are things in this world that are unbelievable. But they’re unbelievable because they go against the things you believe in. You have to believe before you can disbelieve. If you haven’t set up your world properly, haven’t given your reader a sense of values, structure, development, and beliefs, they can’t understand the mistrust or revelation that you may have happening.

One final thing. And this works in any genre. Don’t forget introductions. If there’s a unicorn with a spinning horn or a magical capybara in your story, you have to at least mention this creature before you throw him into the mix. If your character is walking down the street and decides on the spur of the moment to pop in for a beer, she can’t just walk into “the” tavern. Your readers will wonder where this place came from. You have to mention the tavern, or have your character discover it for the first time, in which case it would be “a” tavern. “The” almost always suggests a previous introduction while “a” denotes something new.

If your character is going for a picnic on the beach, have him remember his swimming trunks, rather than explaining, after he gets there, that he’d put them in the car earlier. Your readers will know this is a cheat. You could use a blanket statement like, “He put everything he needed in his car,” then have him conveniently pull out anything that pops into your mind. This can work, depending on your circumstances. Everyone knows what’s needed at the beach and it’s easy to assume trunks, flip-flops, towels, or whatever was included in that statement. But if your character is going to the Little Alien’s Ball you’d better mention that he brought his eyeball warmer before you have him taking it out to use.

So, use your imagination. Have fun. Create worlds and stories. But in order to make believable fantasy, don’t forget to use a good helping of Vulcan logic.


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