Let’s Talk About Realism in Fantasy, #2

(Part One is Here if you like, but you don’t need it to benefit from this entry)

Our plucky heroes faces off against an ancient, inhuman being, a living weapon of the Ancient and Most High and definitely not an overpowered nightmare-creature ripped directly from the deepest lore of my own fiction, a ruthless entity with a code which knows no remorse, trained for thousands of years in the fighting arts of the elders, equipped with weapons which defy reality itself, which I am able to write this run-on description about because it brutally eviscerated the entire party in about the time it took your eyes to read the first letter of this post.

It, uh, turns out this realism thing has much more horrifying implications than we thought. Now, most fantasy tends to fall apart somewhat on examination. My own writing has its share of plot holes if you care to channel Cinema Sins enough. I hope to correct this going forward, but ultimately there will often be some level of contrivance.

What you want to do is draw the line in a place that works for your story. Let me define what I mean by “realism” here: I don’t mean that a fantasy world works just like our world. What’s the point of having the fantasy world, then? No, I mean internal realism: that the fantasy world works in a way that makes sense for the elements present in that world.

Warning: Horrible text-booky paragraph incoming. This is the only one of its monstrous breed in this entry, so brace yourself and push through:

Things which are the same between a fantasy world and our dear old Earth should realistically have the same effects, unless the fantasy elements in that other world would clearly change those effects. Magic is inherently unrealistic in the most basic sense, but the effects of that unrealistic system on society and the world can still be executed realistically. In fact, refusing to do this or doing it poorly is one of the main worldbuilding faults–not just for magic, but for most fantasy concepts.

Returning to the above scenario: the plucky heroes are human, or on the same rough level as humans. Their opponent kills gods. I cannot possibly have them win this fight; the best they can hope for is survival. Just by accepting that we come to a story we’ve barely seen: the thing that’s supposed to be unbeatable is actually unbeatable. Jeez, how unfair.

Welcome to realism! Rule #1: Reality’s not fair. Rule #2: You’re going to start hating reality for this. So, before I get started, I’ll be using generic-brand fantasy (vaguely medieval, heroes from humble origins, yada-yada) as my talking point for this entry.

For now I’m just trying to get you all to start thinking about the things you take for granted in terms of their implications. One of the biggest problems with realism in fantasy is that every worldbuilding element or idea functions in total isolation from the others. The problem I face personally, trying to discuss realism in fantasy, is that it’s so underutilized in so many cases that I almost don’t know where to start. Well, why not begin at the beginning? So:

Isolated communities. Why does almost every fantasy adventure ever start with an isolated community? This hasn’t changed, and I’ve been reading this stuff for twenty years!  Well, that’s just where fantasy heroes come from. Ignoring prophecies for a second (why does the prophecy always center on/choose somebody with no existing qualifications?!), coming from an isolated place should be a lot more disadvantageous in a fantasy world.

Here’s a brief list of some, but by no means all, things you might find in a realistic major city that you probably won’t in a realistic small town or village:
-Strong centralized authority (order is a good thing, it’s abuse of power you need to watch out for)

-Proper guards or guard-like forces, also a freaking military. I’m sorry that not having the protagonist’s family ambushed and possibly killed in the middle of the night by Horde of Totally-Not-Orcs #109 is such a burden for everybody, but we should probably consider that a real person would want to live somewhere this doesn’t happen as often.

-All kinds of craftspeople with whom an aspiring hero could apprentice or otherwise work and learn from. Also: smiths capable of making good weapons will not be living in some backwater. They’ll be in a large town or city, raking it in, unless there’s a very good character reason why they’re not.

-Possibly higher standards of wealth, wellness and living; I’ll get more into this in a later entry.

-Huge amounts of knowledge about the world and its workings by osmosis. Why is it so wrong for our characters to just know things? Are readers really going to be that offended if we start with someone other than an innocently ignorant bumpkin?

-True teachers of the fighting arts! What, you really think isolation is good for learning how to fight? I tell you from bitter experience: without training against others, no one can ever fight well. Beautifully performing every technique means nothing if you don’t constantly use them against other trained warriors. And the idea that the best masters are going to get bored of teaching violence and retreat into the wilderness is New Age nonsense. They know from the start what they’re getting into, the ones who get jaded and quit will rarely have enough drive to reach the top tier anyway.

-If there’s magic, arcane instruction! Again, a mage who lives in the middle of nowhere and never uses magic will not be a good teacher. This whole idea is based in unfounded mysticism. You need to practice your art to be good at it, and practice it among fellow practitioners to be great.

-Much easier access to all the other relevant parts of the world, including developed roads, transport animals, any kind of arcane stuff, you get the picture.

Corruption Ha, just kidding! There’s totally corruption in small towns. It’s just less common because, well, what kind of ambitious dirtbag aspires to steal the riches of a bucolic farming community?

-Basically any cool elements of the world that might be nice to bring into the story early on instead of hoarding for… what? Is it really so hard to invent cool new fantasy imagery, machines, building types, monuments and whatnot that we need to set-up our starting points to avoid them?

To be clear: if you want to start in a small town or any other kind of isolated community, good on you, go right ahead! I’m not saying that’s a bad choice or that you’re somehow a bad writer if you do that and don’t realistically explore its implications. All I’m saying is that you gain a huge amount of leeway to be a dick challenge your protagonist if you do, for example, consider that maybe the local Sculptor’s Guild are actually really good at their jobs (people standing in my protagonist’s way aren’t automatically corrupt and incompetent? How can this be?) that the protagonist is far from the only farmgirl with heart who’s tried to get in, and that the reason they have to turn her down is simply that a lot of those farmgirls with heart had talent, but just couldn’t self-teach up to the Guild’s standards.

Is that a bit of a downer? It doesn’t necessarily have to be. We’ll get into that next time.

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