Thursday, March 26, 2009

Fantasy and realism

On one of the Absolute Write forums, a writer asked whether fantasies had to be realistic.

"I also think sticking by rules limits the imagination if writing, for example sci fi of fantasy and to say either of these needs to be realistic doesn't make sense."

Realism as grounding and a foil

If you paint a picture full of exploding supernovae and Technicolor comets, and add a small flying saucer to it, the UFO will not stand out. It’ll be part of the general wildness and vividity of the whole, and while that’s not entirely a bad thing, no one will pay it any special attention.

But if you paint a picture of a quiet countryside, detailed to the last blade of grass and the cows grazing, and then add the UFO… that’s different.*

To me, that sums up the relationship between realism and fantasy. The countryside isn’t boring in comparison to the alien spacecraft; it’s as beautiful, in its own way, and as necessary.

Portraying the realistic and doing so well lets the audience know you’ll do as good a job with the unrealistic. And more importantly, it tells the audience that you know the difference between the two. If everything is fantastic, nothing is special. But the realistic elements ground the story and serve as a foil to the fantastic, making them stand out that much more.

Realism as part of communication

A fantasy world (or a SF one) has to operate with some level of realism no matter how much magic or technology permeates it. If a character rides a horse at a gallop for days on end, the story has to either explain how this happens – and make that explanation good – or risk losing readers.

Why would readers lose interest, when they know they’re reading a fantasy? Well, partly because there’s an unstated contract made between reader and writer. The writer says, “Here’s a world that’s normal except that werewolves exist” or “Here’s a medieval city where golems do much of the manual labor, various guilds operate and the City Watch tries to keep order”.

It’s difficult to go beyond the bounds of the contract later – to say, “Oh, the world also includes magic horses which never get tired” – and still keep the reader’s confidence. Since the reader’s default assumption is of normality, the fantastic elements have to be added to that normality, and the latter can never be ignored in favor of the former.

*I actually did that once in an art class where we were supposed to paint a meadow. My picture showed a meadow in the foreground and the Starship Enterprise in one corner.

It didn’t get an A.


fairyhedgehog said...

Your art teacher was an idiot.

Anonymous said...

I like the sound of that art project!

Anyhow, when it comes to realism in fantasy or sci-fi, I've always believed a writer must make the reality of *that* world, real. The world of ST differs from the one in Farscape, which differs from LOTR, which differs from SW, etc...But they are believable in themselves.

Unicorns and faeries can be quite real in some fantasies. But it would totally ruin a viewer's sense of belief if one suddenly appeared on Battlestar Gallactica.

Tara Maya said...

I have one beta reader who doesn't read fantasy (other than my stuff). Sometimes, when I'm trying to discuss, "Well, how can I have the characters confronting the villain on the other side of the river when in the previous scene the bridge was destroyed?"

And she says, "Can't you just do anything you want? It's fantasy?"

Or I say, "Wouldn't the Ghoul King suspect the heroine is lying? Nobody is that stupid."

And she says, "Can't you just do anything you want? It's fantasy?"

This drives me crazy. NO, I CAN'T JUST DO ANYTHING I WANT!

Fantasy and sf have to follow rules! True, I make up those rules. But nothing is worse than violating your own rule.

Tara Maya said...

I love your examples, gypsyscarlett.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Tara! :)

Anonymous said...

On your first point I would say that the farther a field you go into the realm of the fantastic the more you have to grounded in the "real". As a writer you are asking your reader to accept that which is beyond the scope of their experience.

Suspension of disbelief is critical. Without some kind of anchor to the "real" it will be hard for reader, even the avid sci-fi/fantasy fan to relate to the story in any meaningful way.

Madison said...

Starship Enterprise. Beam me aboard, Scotty!

Marian Perera said...

Fairyhedgehog - True, but I was probably a bit of a trial when it came to coloring within the lines. :)

Tasha - I think that project taught me how to be surreal but subtle. Maybe I should have painted some cows in the meadow, but given them black patches in the shapes of world maps or Mickey Mouse ears or something.

Marian Perera said...

Tara - I've heard that from other people who don't read fantasy. What's interesting is that once they actively start reading speculative fiction, they soon realize that fantasy and SF need rules too.

You don't violate your own rules and you don't ignore internal consistency because the stories just aren't fun if you do. Part of the thrill of writing is setting my protagonist a challenge and seeing if he has the skill, courage, experience, etc. to overcome it. Where would be the fun for me if he could just, say, make a wish and take care of the problem?

JH said...

And she says, "Can't you just do anything you want? It's fantasy?"

I think this might be a wry comment on the quality of a lot of commercial fantasy where yes, the author could and did do whatever in order to resolve the plot - sudden magical changes, plot devices functioning in spontaneous and fortuitous ways - because the author was bad at plotting.

writtenwyrdd said...

The quote you started with (albeit taken out of context) sounds like it comes from someone who hadn't yet really thought about the genre with his or her critical thinking hate on. :)

If the world doesn't feel real, it fails. so there have to be clear rules that the author obeys so that the reader feels grounded in that reality. Without it, the reader is on constantly shaky ground and cannot become immersed in the book.

Personally, the thing that always ticked me off and set me to book tossing were glaring and illogical inconsistencies.

Good post!

writtenwyrdd said...

Jeez, I hate typos! That should have been 'critical thinking hat'