Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Authenticity in fantasy

It’s easy to immerse yourself in magic, other worlds and the paranormal if the background and setting are realistic. But how to do that if the background and setting are unreal to begin with? Some of the techniques I use are :

Evoking the senses

No matter how bizarre or mystical a world is, it still has sounds and smells. Characters can hear the sandpaper rasp of giant flies compulsively “washing” their front legs together, or smell the sharp chlorophyll odor of green plants crushed underfoot.

The best example of this I’ve ever read is Ray Bradbury’s short story “The City”, where astronauts land in an alien city which appears deserted and dead – but which is, in reality, very much alive and aware of them.

Unusual details

I didn’t realize, until I read Robert T. Bakker’s Raptor Red, that flowering plants were unknown in the Jurassic period and still new in the Cretaceous. Information like that goes against what we take for granted, but if it’s woven carefully into the narrative, it becomes part of what makes the world unique.

In Sharon Baker’s Quarreling, they met the dragon, races distinguished mainly by their size are either slaves or masters. The slaves are the smaller ones.

Senruh flexed his chest and arms. Their breadth and his clogs made him more the size of a tall ruler, he thought. All the half-breeds developed their strength as he did, and saved for the high sandals.

Numbers and specifics

The giant shark slammed into the ship.

The giant shark’s forty-ton bulk slammed into the schooner.

The second sentence is more evocative to me. And slipping little details like that into the narrative is a good way to establish the setting without doing an infodump.

I wouldn’t overuse it – e.g. “the hundred-and-eighty pound hero drew his four-foot-long sword” – because it’s a story, not a police report. But when the technique is used well, readers can tell the writer knows what he or she is talking about.

What techniques do you use to make a fantasy world realistic?


Maria Zannini said...

I've become an ardent student of people-watching. I'm paying attention to the nuances of when people get angry or about to laugh or cry. Those telltale details before the 'big' event.

Marian Perera said...

For more ideas on nuances, I recommend The Bookself Muse's Emotion Thesaurus.

Volataire said...

It's because of you that people are becoming better fantasy writers. :)

Thank you very much for the tips, I'll be sure to incorporate these in my stories.

Marian Perera said...

Thanks, Volataire, that's one of the nicest compliments I've been paid. :) Glad you find the tips helpful!