Realism in Fantasy

This may seem like a strange topic, at least on the surface. Realism in fantasy. Isn’t fantasy, by its very nature, supposed to be unrealistic? Isn’t it supposed to have all the things that mundane modern life just doesn’t have? Why even approach the issue of realism in a story that you know from the beginning isn’t supposed to be real?

Okay, now that I’ve gotten some of the cynicism out of the way, I can get right down to the meat of the issue.

Maybe I’ve just been looking in all the wrong places lately, but I see a lot of people writing fantasy and assuming that because they’re writing about magic and dragons and a world that doesn’t exist, all the rules can go out the window. And I’m not just talking about laws of physics that could legitimately be handwaved by magic (though that brings up its own unique set of challenges and issues), but things that basic research could have avoided. Like the language patterns of toddlers. Or how someone who’s had a couple of lessons on knifefighting can suddenly take down veteran guards. That sort of thing.

It bothers me. A lot. For one thing, it’s sloppy. It’s sloppy research on the author’s part, and it makes for sloppy storytelling when any reader knows better. For another, I find it rather arrogant in that these writers may legitimately think that the rest of their story will be so good that readers will overlook glaring errors and inaccuracies.

But the real pain in the butt comes in when people will use as their defense, “It’s fantasy. It’s not supposed to be realistic.”

Here’s the thing. Reality has laws. It’s how the world as we know it exists. Even if we don’t know the laws, they’re still there. The sword-wielding hero is so good with his weapon because he has muscles and training and experience. Dragons soar the skies thanks to the laws of physics and biology. There are still rules that have to be obeyed in order for the fictional world you’re creating to even make sense.

If I may use a really obscure example here, throwing the rules out the window is one of the things that made the movie Baby Geniuses so bad. I can suspend disbelief enough to follow the idea that babies have a language that only they understand, and that certain factors can influence the intelligence of developping children. However, when it comes to a kid not yet out of diapers drop-kicking a fully-grown man, that’s there the disbelief comes crashing down. No matter how smart the kid is, they still don’t have the muscle tone or coordination to do that. But the movie handwaves it by going, “They’re genius babies, highly developed, so of course they can.” No logic to it. No corresponding change in physiology. Just throwing the rules out the window.

And you know, that’s actually the biggest complaint I hear about that movie.

The same thing follows for fantasy worlds. Even if it’s a world that doesn’t really exist, even if it follows different rules from this world, it still has its own rules to be followed. Handwaving the issue does not get rid of it. And not paying attention to things like that is the mark of a lazy storyteller.

Magic, as I said before, brings in its own set of problems. Typically, magic can be used to do many things that can’t be done in normal ways. Healing the sick, throwing fireballs at people, long-distance communication, you name it. The difference between bad magic and good magic is, 90% of the time, this: poorly-written magic will have the mage be able to do anything, at any time, with no preparation, increase in fatigue, or other adverse effects. Well-written magic has a balance; nothing comes without a price. If you’re using energy to heal someone, the energy has to come from somewhere and be worked by somebody, which often produces a drain on the caster. Or wounds them somehow. Or kills plants for half a mile around. Something. Anything. The magic works with rules and laws unique to itself, but within its own rules, it’s very realistic.

People often assume that fantasy and realism are completely mutually exclusive. If you’re dealing with fantasy, there’s no need for realism, and nothing realistic could have fantastical elements. And this simply isn’t true. Whether it’s got to do with magic or sword-swinging or language skills or simply unrealistic character behaviour, make it real.

What’s truly sad is that there’s a very easy set of questions you can ask yourself while writing to avoid half of this kind of mistake. “Could I do this thing? If I can’t, what would it take for me to be able to do it? What would need to happen for me to do this at the same rate that my character did it?” If you can’t even answer those questions to your own satisfaction, and realistically so, you can’t expect your readers to overlook the issue either.

Part of the problem could also be that if we all wrote only what we knew, we’d all write boring crap most of the time, so we always throw in things that we think we know, but that maybe we don’t know as well as we think. Someone may think it’s perfectly fine for a boy of two years to say, “Mommy, I’m really tired and I want to go to bed,” and honestly not know better because they haven’t heard many kids talk. Knowing what we don’t know can be hard, especially when we know a little but don’t even realize that we don’t know enough. This is what proofreaders and editors are for, half the time. Another set of eyes and another mind with different experience, who can do wonders for adding the realism that you didn’t even know was missing.

But writers, do your best to make that easy on the editors. Don’t be like a certain author who will go unnamed and write about the sensei of a fencing dojo. If you can tell me what’s wrong with that concept, good, and I know that I won’t be seeing that mistake in anything of yours. If you don’t know what’s wrong with that concept, then I suggest doing what neither the author nor the editor must have done and Google just what you call someone who teaches fencing, and in what place they teach it.

“A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.”

5 comments on “Realism in Fantasy

  1. I really loved this post and agree 100 percent with you. Its one of my biggest pet peeves about fantasy novels right now. I had a writing professor tell me once that when it comes to writing fantasy novels, if you're going to write something that really isn't believable, even in a fantasy novel, you better be a damn good writer to make the readers fall for it. So my theory is…if you aren't sure if you can pull it off..omit it.

    Great post!

  2. I also agree with your post. Love it! I've been noticing in fantasy books how the author has what might be a good idea, but they lack the skills to aid me in suspending my beliefs enough for the magic to work.

  3. “The difference between bad magic and good magic is, 90% of the time, this: poorly-written magic will have the mage be able to do anything, at any time, with no preparation, increase in fatigue, or other adverse effects.”

    Too. Bloody. True. There are a lot of works out there with the theory of magic as “the great unlimited.” It's unlimited in power! It's all around you! Perky young so-and-so shall use it to fight the evil warlock who's only going to win (until the very end of course) because he's found a loophole in that boundless existence that lets him get even more raw pow-ah! (pow-ah, not power, because power 'clearly' isn't adequate to describe it).

    Fantasy may be about the suspension of disbelief, the embrace of worlds and creatures reality could never house, but the imagination craves – yet it should not be the absence of all things logical. Plus, things without limits just seem so…flat. I like my magic with limitations. Certainly you can do a lot with it…but you're going to suffer for it. Exhaustion? That's the lesser end of the bad things you can heap on yourself in carelessly engaging it. What's more, I tend toward the exchange (I suppose we would call it the “alchemy” rule of magic) side of things. I.E. having to give something up to get something else. But that's me. I like rules. I like limits. I like to be able to see, in some sense (don't need to write me an encyclopedia) for why it would likely work, in the context of the world it works in. How it functions.

    Great post. Really enjoyed your points – and certainly tend to agree.

    Also, as an ending note: “Or how someone who's had a couple of lessons on knifefighting can suddenly take down veteran guards.” ~ I believe we call that the “montage” effect. Cue montage, and suddenly character = amazing. Or at least, that's what I would call it, when they don't even seem to get A. rattled or B. injured in achieving these take downs of veterans…

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