Let’s Talk About Realism in Fantasy, #3

And we’re back! For anyone who’s worried that “Dark Helm and Wing’d Spear” may have been bumped from its usual timeslot, that will be returning tomorrow. It’s just been a hectic week and I needed a bit more time to plan that out. Meanwhile: last time I harped on the specific example of problems facing a protagonist from the boonies.

I’m concerned I may have put the cart before the bizarre, misshapen quadruped.

Before I send you all off to craft worlds and then make MCs suffer for your art, I wanted to throw out a few of my guidelines for working internal realism into fantasy. I have far more than these, and ultimately you’ll have to find the right principles for your work on your own. I have to say before I give mine: realism isn’t all or nothing, but it’s not something you can just lightly spoon over your writing. Bringing just a little realism will only highlight all the unrealistic things remaining in your story. You’ll have to find a careful balance with it.

As you’re reading through these, realize all of them have two sides–deconstructing a fantasy trope can be saddening at first, but all of these points have positive implications elsewhere. You just have to let the world exist without your character. Hopefully your readers can still relate to a protagonist who doesn’t have an implicit (or explicit!) god complex that you need to coddle, hm?

-Assuming they’re human, your characters will not always be able to handle, study or train to the point where they can handle the challenges they face. There will never be a point in their lives when they’re so good they can tackle everything. Depending on just how powerful the upper-range entities of your world are, there may always be entities infinitely mightier than your main characters. And folks, that’s okay. They shouldn’t have to be the best or even among the best to be the best characters.

-Self-teaching anything when you don’t have to is foolhardy, and even an exceptional natural talent who’s forced to self-teach probably won’t do as well as a perfectly average person with good instructors.

This isn’t great for self-teaching protagonists, but all those thousands of ordinary people can now become genuinely skilled at things and change the world for themselves instead of waiting on the center character of the plot. Also, hey: you can… you can just start your protagonist out in a position to learn. I think readers will forgive them for not coming from bumfuck nowhere and having Noseless Joe Hannigan for a mentor.

-Isolation not only doesn’t give people superpowers, it tends to make them lag behind the rest of the world. How many times have you read about the weird, isolationist culture who are inexplicably amazing at things? Historically, these cultures don’t do well against peoples who constantly compete and measure themselves against other groups.

Before you say “Mongols”–the Mongols actually skirmished extensively with the Chinese and many other ethnic groups, and had many chances to hone themselves. They weren’t isolated, they just didn’t assimilate. They also overwhelmed China during a divided period in its history–a strong emperor might have stopped Genghis entirely! (I say “might” because it was still Genghis fucking Khan. Dude knew how to conquer.)

-On average, people with jobs will not be divided into a huge number of folks who do just enough to get by and one or two golden children who are hyper-motivated and just the best at everything. Humans can be terrible, but not all of us are that lazy! And besides, is your awesome mentor character really that awesome if they have zero meaningful competition?

-If your character can invent something in the course of three conversations, someone else probably should’ve done it first. There’s a reason most breakthroughs in recent history have come from many years of education and careful study: all the easy stuff got nabbed early on. Natural talents are not this rare, guys–the whole reason people can argue we don’t exist is that we’re common enough we’re always fighting each other!

That, and we tend to get full of ourselves early on and lag behind people with less innate talent but more work ethic. Talent isn’t a permanent boost–it just means you’re better at the start. On the bright side, this means people without MAXIMUM OVERTALENT have a serious chance to succeed. That’s a way better message than “You will succeed if you are born a genius with a prophecy attached.” Obviously this condition changes if your world’s just emerging from some cataclysm or centers of knowledge don’t communicate, don’t currently exist, and so on.

-People your characters like will not always be the best at things, and people your characters dislike will almost never be the worst. If your protagonist is capable, the mere fact that the unlikable characters are in a place where your protagonist can get to know and thus dislike them will usually mean those people are competent.

Now, no meritocracy is absolute, but be wary of going straight for the “bribes and/or nepotism and/or corruption” grab bag. That may be a much weaker story in the end run, and it’s been done a lot. On the flip side, your protagonist won’t instantly be victimized just for being good at things. C’mon, guys, that’s a silly setup for a conflict and you know it.

-Even relatively young people (usually) have a wealth of life experiences already. There’s no reason why you should deprive your protagonist of meaningful experiences before the narrative.

Coming of age stories are all well and good, but they can’t help but feel incredibly artificial when yours is the 1,378,422nd high fantasy adventure to open with, “Richard Nobody was nobody and had always been nobody in spite of being outrageously handsome and destined to marry the most beautiful woman in the village, because those things in themselves wouldn’t result in considerable notoriety in a town where nothing happened or anything.”

Let things have happened to your characters before the narrative proper. Let things happen that you have zero intention of ever writing prequel stories about. I think you’ll find that instead of undermining things to come, a compelling backstory helps grow the main adventure in all sorts of ways.

-Lifelong disadvantages aren’t overcome in the space of seconds. Even if your peasant protagonist is accepted into the Royal Duelists’ Academy, a lot of the young nobles they face have been practicing the rapier from birth. More than one of them will also be a natural talent, and those natural talents have been competing against each other with the best level of instruction since they were children!

Your protagonist would be a borderline inhuman prodigy just to graduate in the middle of the class, and will need a decade’s fanatical training to finally catch up. Don’t shy from that because it’s unfair: harness that unfairness and the frustration it breeds, let them fuel your protagonist and enrich their eventual victories.

-The world should be constantly shaped by people who have nothing to do with your protagonist or their journeys. That’s good! When you become more practiced at thinking about what others should be doing, the achievements they can make outside the plot, you’ll have a much more vibrant world with more beauty and grandeur to it.

My last admonishment for this entry: if you’re using reality to the fullest, it should give you vibrancy. The unfair and depressing things will be more so, but the colors will have more hues and and the world will live on its own. Once you’ve chosen to start a protagonist from somewhere more realistic, you’re free to give them far more fascinating starting points than a simple farm. Do that for enough of your characters, and I think you’ll find those simple farms become pleasant again.

Bringing realism into your fantasy should force you away from the default settings, and that, friends, is a good thing. I believe for now I’ve said all I want to, so we’ll just let this lie. Besides, I have a short story to finish about two Ansethi and a Firascan–you might say I have a
sinking feeling about it
…guys?

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