The Laws of Fantasy

KATIE WRITES: Hello everyone! I’d like to formally introduce you to Alex Costello! As you may have already guessed from the tell-all sidebar, Alex has joined us as a regular contributor here on Vaguely Circular! That means you’ll be seeing at least a post or two from her every month. Like today’s post? Be sure to let her know in the comments and follow her on twitter afterwards!

4703157957_33732b7ff8_zToday, I will be talking to you about rules.

Yes, you have my permission to groan. Rules can be frustrating sometimes, especially to writers. Creatives have a natural inclination to avoiding them, because we believe that they will stifle our creativity or confine us in a small box with no escape. Our ever unpredictable muses will be locked away and inevitably suffocate.

As is with most things, writing does have some unbreakable rules. Always end sentences with punctuation. Begin them with capitals. Don’t make vampires sparkle. Et Cetera.

But those are a different sort of rules then what I’m going to talk about today. I’m going to be talking about rules in Fantasy, and magic.

The kind you get to make up.

Sound fun? It is. But it’s also really hard.

From years of being a writer and a reader, there is something about this genre that I’ve come to realize: Fantasy is incredibly hard to pull off. It’s hard to write Fantasy novels.

Actually, let me rephrase – it’s hard to write them well. I’m not going to say it’s harder than any other genre – all of them are challenging, certainly. But Fantasy presents some very difficult problems that are unique to itself. Because in Fantasy, anything is possible.

Literally, anything.

Because it is centered primarily around things that do not and cannot exist, Fantasy can explore many things that most other books can’t. Readers go in expecting to be taken to some other magical world or time, or perhaps take a peak of what this world might have been like if it was a little more on the magical side.

It opens up a world of impossibles and imagination.

This, I believe, is one of it’s greatest strengths. It can also be one of its greatest weaknesses.

Readers delve into a world without expecting it to be bound by our laws of reality. In fact, they expect the complete opposite. They want to be dazzled by your creativity, sucked into a place that is both beautiful and strange.

But, while they don’t expect the rules of our reality, they do expect rules. They do expect consistency. They do expect it to make sense.

This, I think, where a lot of Fantasy novels fall flat. Because when you are dealing with a genre that is limitless, it is our job as authors to create limits. We create worlds and establish their laws. Other genres have rules that are already in place – if you’re writing a story that takes place in Medieval Europe, your main character cannot have a cell phone. It must be era-correct. If you’re writing a contemporary romance, all people are bound by those pesky laws of physics, and your main character’s ex most certainly cannot have a pet miniature polka-dotted dragon. In Fantasy, all of those limitations are erased.

It is our job as writers to invent those laws ourselves.

This is really hard, and an area that I feel is often overlooked. I know this because I used to be in the camp that thought Fantasy was easy to write, because I got to make everything up. I didn’t need to fact check. I didn’t need to look up scientific explanations. I was free to do what I wanted.

Lately, I’ve been discovering that this is not what makes Fantasy easy – in fact, this is exactly what makes it hard.

I’ve been looking into some old writing of mine (Yeah, that’s never any fun for any writer. Kill it. Kill it with fire.), and I have discovered that this is an area that I often overlook. I’m so eager to delve into characters and plots, that I don’t take the time to flesh out the world. Looking back, I realize that those stories are worse off for it. (Time to bring out the revisions and the red pens.)

If the Fantasy writer doesn’t take the time to flesh out the world and systems, establish the limits of that particular universe, it’s laws, customs, and quirks, then ultimately we’ll be missing something critical. The world the story is set in, the one where your characters live and breathe and interact in on a daily basis, will lack depth. It will be hard to convince your reader that it exists.

This element, I believe, rears its ugly head the most in one the defining aspects of the genre – magic.

Now, obviously not all Fantasy novels have magic. A book doesn’t have to have magic to be Fantasy, any more then it has to have dragons or elves. But many – if not most – do, at least in some way or another.

Many of them don’t feel real or convincing, and often times it shows up as a convenient way to get the characters out of (or into) a pinch. Simply a plot device. It’s free pass, an easy way for the author to accomplish what they’re trying to do. Most of the time, the magic systems in a Fantasy world don’t stand out. They’re not original or unique or interesting.

Many authors spend time talking about avoiding stock or generic characters. This is extremely important – characters are the centerpiece of a story. However, I also believe that authors should avoid writing inside generic or stock worlds. In addition to giving our characters depth, we should try to remember to give depth to our universes. These worlds are our character’s playground, and we should strive to make them as real and interesting as we possibly can.

This is why I think many Fantasy novels don’t quite hit the mark. Obviously, there can be many reasons why a novel doesn’t quite ring true. But often I think it’s because an author didn’t invest enough time into developing their worlds, or to decide what can happen and (most importantly) what can’t. What does exist, and what doesn’t. What a protagonist, villain, or polka-dotted pet can accomplish, and what they can’t. Everything from their laws of reality (if they’re different from our own) to their history.

World-building is really hard – in fact, I’ve only recently started to get into it. But I do think that it’s something that’s worth investing one’s time in. And obviously, some stories in some worlds will take more time and energy then others – it really all depends on the type of book you’re writing, and the scope of that world that the novel is covering.

So let’s go build some worlds, shall we?

What about you? Have you noticed this in books? Or other genres, too? What do you do when you’re developing your novels? Do you disagree?

headshotAlex Costello born and bred Coloradan girl who really, really stinks at writing about herself. She’s currently driving around the country in a full-time band, a pen in hand and characters who won’t leave her alone. She’s a Christan, a reader, a chocolate lover, and a traveler. She loves cats and turning her hair purple. When not writing or playing music, she can be found poking her nose into graphic and web design, watching anime and Doctor Who, and wasting far too much time on Tumblr. Twitter: @TheWaywardAlex


The Laws of Fantasy — 6 Comments

  1. Exactly. It is not a matter of easy or hard, but what kind of work you want to do.

    Do you want to research, or invent
    You have to do a large amount of either or both of these if you want to make a book that your readers can feel. That goes for any kind of writing.
    Even history writing, where the invention is in how you present what you know. Thus, even if you know next to nothing, you can tell history in a way people will be moved by. Or you can make it so true to life that people can taste it.
    I think we will always need a certain amount of both, even with a heavy emphasis on only one of them.

  2. This is wonderful, got me excited to world build once more.

    I’ve found out that world building is very vital. I used to throw in races without tihnking what’s the difference between the two. When I read somewhere to visualize how everything looked. So I began little by little and it has set me in a good writing pace.