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.