Sunday, 9 January 2011

Making And Breaking The Rules Of Fantasy

I'll admit right now that I am a one, maybe two genre guy, depending on how closely related you consider Science Fiction and Fantasy.  Yes, I'll read other genres, and it's even possible I'll write other genres down the line, but this is where my heart is.  Fantasy, especially.

When they say "write what you know," this is what I go to.  It's true that I've never dealt with daemons, travelled strange and fantastic lands or wielded mighty magics, but if there's one genre I know inside and out, this is it.  I know the rules of Fantasy instinctively, the same way I know when a Chinook* is rolling in.  And the biggest rule is?  There are no rules.

Ok, that's a lie.  There are lots of rules, and they're different if you're talking about High Fantasy, Contemporary Fantasy or Urban Fantasy.  Good and evil are more black and white (or at least you know which side a character/creature ought to be on,) magic and fantastic creatures abound, and chances are someone has a Destiny.  The fun part is, even within these rules, you get to reinvent the world each time.  In fact, that's pretty much the point.  While there's only so much you can change about a certain "race" or "species" and still have it be recognizable, you get to take it and make it your own, with your own rules.  For example, there are certain things that make a faerie a faerie or it isn't a faerie, but that can range from sweet Victorian flower fairies, through Tinkerbell right to something downright malicious like Jenny-Greenteeth.  Don't like what came before?  Reinvent it.

Vampire stories are notorious for having a different set of rules for every author, and while each reader has eir own preference, we can (usually) recognize that it is a vampire when you tell us so.  As long as we have drinks blood + immortal/unnaturally long-lived, we'll go "yep, that's a vampire all right," even if the rest of the details get changed faster than topics in an ADD conversation (though some of us still draw the line at sparkles.  I mean, seriously!  He's a vampire, not a disco-ball.)  The upshot of this is, in Fantasy you get to change the rules.  A lot.

One thing you can't do is break your own rules.  Once you've established a magic system in your universe, you have to stick with it.  Your trolls turn to stone in the daylight?  You can't have one suddenly take a noonday stroll.  Your vampires are allergic to garlic?  They probably won't be going out for Italian.  Whatever else you do, you have to keep up an internal logic or the reader with think you have no idea what you're doing.  Keep that in mind when you're doing your world building; consistency is key.

If you're writing a Fantasy story, how well are you sticking to your own rules?  Think I'm full of crap here?  Tell me why.  I'll never learn otherwise.

*For those who don't live just west of the foothills of the Rockies, a Chinook is a warm wind that comes in from the Pacific Ocean, over the mountains, and is known to raise the temperature above freezing in winter.  Also known to cause nasty headaches from the pressure changes.


  1. First, I choked on my tea when I read "disco-ball".

    Second, I don't necessarily disagree, and it's something I've read elsewhere and seems to be one of the guiding principles for the genre... but, I also think it's a bit too simplistic. It's definitely useful for suspension of disbelief and framing the universe simply so it's understood by the reader, but at the same time I think it's unrealistic and limiting in some ways, it almost forces authors into certain traps.

    I'll just explain how I approach world building (as much as I can) first and then discuss what I see as the issues with the simplified approach.

    To me, the understanding of the rules for the universe are divided into multiple systems/layers, which are contained in an overall system. To try and explain that simply, I'd say in general you could apply it in a system of three. The external/overall (or creator) level of the rules, the internal (culture of the charaters) level and the intermediary (reader) level.

    In the external, the creator/author would create the system from the perspective of omniscience, being the creator afterall. Most fantasy I read only has this single layer implemented.

    In the internal, it would be the limited understanding of the characters themselves within their world/of their world. Just to clarify that, I'd compare it to our understanding of the world we live in, effectively we have the culture of believing we understand the world we live in to it's fullest possible extent, even while we constantly evolve that understanding through science (and it's a slow process to integrate the evolution into the culture).

    And the intermediary, would be at some degree between the two, the culture of the characters overlayed with some of the creator layer through the use of literary devices like foreshadowing, highlighting details, etc. (Basically an extension of the concept of plot awareness)

    I think part of why fantasy/sci-fi often gets relegated to the description of "fluff" is because authors don't go to the trouble of creating that complexity/depth of layers. Not to say that other genre authors do, they just don't have the need to, because those layers of depth are already established for them. Even in fantasy/sci-fi which tackles challenging topics I've noticed the disconnect between the complexity of the story subjects, versus the complexity of interaction of/in the world it resolves in.

  2. (had to split post, seemingly I yap too much =P)

    Just to expand on what I mean, it often seems that the understanding of worlds in fantasy seem too complete from the characters perspective. There's no "what the hell was that?", no real uncertainty, there's no "I don't know" (there's very often a character somewhere who does, wise old wizard, elder this or that, etc) even when events are seemingly extraodinary for the world itself. It makes things seem a bit flat to me. And it also means the diversity of characters is limited, there's rarely any deviation from the norms the story establishes internally (not that they can't be diverse, but they're still self-limiting).

    And when there is, it seems to very often be the most used "cop out" to me, that being the "chosen ones". Sometimes an individual, sometimes a group, but it's so very often the quick way to explaining these deviations away. Breaking the rules without breaking them, basically. Which again, would be fine except that it rarely seems implemented fully. The culture very often is incredibly accepting of these chosen ones, often explained away by a "legend of the chosen one/s", but just as often explained by the "they can do this thing, so we have to believe it". It basically makes me think of Galileo and how well his actions/attempts were received, in a fantasy/sci-fi world he'd probably have had a far easier, and definitely quicker, time of it.

    It's definitely easier to go along with the simplified approach and use those outs, and there's less chance of losing the reader or making mistakes. But, to me, it seems like a major benefit of that depth in other genres is that a wider audience can relate to it, or feel the connection to the characters/story more deeply.

    Hope that made sense, the weather has me feeling a bit out of it =P

  3. @TheEchoInside I think I understand some of what you're saying (though I'm also reading through a haze of 'out of it' right now.) I was even considering whether or not to get into when/how to break your own rules without completely screwing the consistency of your world building. And yes, there are a lot of cop outs in that area.

    I wouldn't call scifi/fantasy inherently "fluff" or without depth, however. Admitedly, I am so far within the genre myself that I don't have a clear idea of how the rest of the literary world views us, but I fail to see how the works of Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov could be considered without depth, or why any other genre would inherently have more layers.

    While it does take a certain amount of suspension of disbelief to get through a fantastical setting to connect with the characters that some readers just can't muster, I think the relateability of the characters/story is something that all genres have to take into account equally.

  4. Internal consistency is what I demand. I'll pretty much accept anything the author wants to put in their world, but it has to abide by its own rules and logic (unless the point is somehow there are no rules/logic/whatever, and there's establishment for how things can get changed and broken and whatever--but you need to set up that possibility and availability in the world, or else it sounds 'off' -- and it's hard to regain my reader-trust if the author arbitrarily changes all the rules once established; or in other ways 'cheats').

    I don't buy into the idea there are established 'rules' for subgenres, even if there are a lot of tropes, because that seems to lead to cook-cutter books (for example: most urban fantasy, to me, is indistinguishable). The story itself needs to have an internal consistency and construction, but beyond that, go wild.

    I've often said I like the concept of urban fantasy far more than I like the execution in the majority of what I've read. It's the same for a lot of things--I want to see more stretching and bending and weirding up of high fantasy and other subgenres.

    'S why, for example, I adore Gemma Files' A Book of Tongues: it's a dark western fantasy that blows your mind, eats your brain, f*cks with your head, and has a side order of 'holy crap, wow'. It's awesome, it's weird, and I want to see more like that.

    When writing, I like to play around until I've decided on what the rules ARE, then when I'm satisfied, I make the story stick to them.


  5. @Merc I love the idea of playing around some to figure out the rules, then sticking to them. In my WIP, I also decided to go with just a few simple rules with a lot of scope. In my universe for example, magic in its most basic form is a matter of intent + power. It can get more complex and more precise from there, but that's enough for it to work and for accidents to happen.

  6. @Eric

    Ah, didn't mean to imply that I thought it was "fluff", I think the exact opposite. I think the degree of philosophy in sci-fi for example far exceeds other genres in general. And in fantasy there's incredible considerations for empathy/bridging differences/etc. (And of course, not limited to those things, just used as prime examples). And I love Asimov, he's actually a good example of not skipping the depth. "I, Robot" has the struggle with change for example, and "The Foundation" series is a fully realised world, I think.

    But, yeah, unfortunately much of the literary world seems to regard it that way. And I think part of it, is because of the reasons I cited. I worked in a Chapters for a while and I've volunteered in a library, there's a lot of disregard for it (not dissimilar to how comics/graphic novels are seen as kids stuff). And it occurs in other authors/reviewer circles as well. My favorite example is that a literary work was hailed as being groundbreaking because it had the concept of Gods and their followers migrating... Except, that Neil Gaiman had done that excellently in "American Gods" years earlier =P

    What I meant is that in regards to world building, these two genres start off from zero, it -all- has to be built. Whereas in other genres, it's based on an already established world, (modern day, or in a historical period) that's already built. There's just a lot of authors in the genre I think who don't make up for that difference. I think it's one of the components which makes the distinction between average/good novels and great novels.

    We may just have to disagree on the last bit though =) I think all genres need to take relatability into account, certainly. But, I think fantasy/sci-fi have a tougher job to do in that. Though characters can perhaps compensate for some lack of it in the world building.



    Hell yes in regards to urban fantasy. Maybe for a bit different reasons, but I also like the concept more than I like most of the executions I've read. For me, it's often that they're incomplete worlds, or that they're exactly the same as ours just with vampires (or whatever). As if the entire history of vampires and them being openly present had no affect on anything. Which I just find more unbelievable itself than eternal life ;)

  7. @TheEchoInside Hmm, I think in a lot of ways I'm just so used to being the 'other' in relation to mainstream, that the general view of scifi/fantasy is just another thing I shrug off as 'what do they know anyway?'

    Also for @Merc- If you guys want to check out some Urban Fantasy that I think has some really excellent alternate history style world building, I'd suggest Kim Harrison's 'Dead Witch Walking' series: She really went to town with the question of what would happen if vampires etc. came out of the closet, and how would the rest of the world adapt? Also, what would cause them to need to come out? She also does some excellent things with her characters, so I find it to be a win on many levels.

  8. @Eric

    *chuckles* Indeed, the mainstream assessments usually amount to about that much. But, I still try and figure out why perceptions exist, often it's ignorance. Sometimes I find what I think is an underlying cause, such as this. Of course, it's not the cause they state, but their states cause/s and what they get exposed to leads me think it's something akin to this. (And they usually get exposed to it via other mediums, like movies. Avatar comes to mind, it was neat and all, but the world system was a wading pool)

    And hrm, neat, thanks for the suggestion. Added to my wishlist, will check it out for sure =)

  9. @Eric

    Thanks for the rec--a series I'm liking so far, also, is Harry Connolly's Twenty Palaces novels (Child of Fire and Game of Cages). He has some awesomely disturbing monsters and also a protag with a non-annoying voice, which I like.


    Yep. It's like alternate history--even a small change is going to have huge ripples, so I really would like to see more exploration of how things would change and be different if supernatural things suddenly came out. Some books, it seems to start to explore it, then get sidetracked with other things (or romance. Sigh. I am so tired of paranormal romance being indistinguishable from UF and vise versa. If I wanted PR, I would go find PR, damn it).

  10. @mercwriter:

    You mean the pinnacle of writing for the subgenre isn't Twilight? I'm shocked, shocked I tell you!

    (*cough* Yeah, sorry, I couldn't resist that.)