by Paula Berinstein
Great fantasy is like a chimera, the mythological beast that’s part lion, part goat, and part snake: it’s based on familiar components, but something is just a little off.
Fantasy isn’t about making it all up. It’s about taking the known and tweaking it a bit. That’s because the best stories are the ones in which we can see ourselves–stories in which the protagonist and his world serve as a proxy for us. When that happens, we care. The more unfamiliar the world, the characters, or their problems, the harder it is for us to follow the story and empathize with the hero. In other words, our engagement depends on our ability to find the familiar in the story, whether it’s the setting, the problems facing the society, the characters’ dilemmas, or even the names.
The great fantasy authors–J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, Philip Pullman, J.K. Rowling, Terry Pratchett, Joss Whedon—base their worlds on places and people that are familiar to us:
- They set their stories in English towns and villages, boarding schools, high schools. We can see ourselves at Hogwarts (Harry Potter) or Sunnydale High (Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
- They present realistic characters with problems we can relate to: Frodo struggles with temptation (The Lord of the Rings); Alice is pedantic (Through the Looking Glass); Lyra Belacqua desperately wants her parents to love her (the His Dark Materials series). Ron Weasley and Buffy Summers aren’t exotic; they’re normal kids in every respect but one.
- Their narrators and characters speak in ways we hear all the time. In Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters, a witch says she can “do” next Tuesday like some Beverly Hills agent. Ron doesn’t talk in thees and thous; things he finds incomprehensible are “mental.”
As you can see, basing your story on the familiar doesn’t doom you to creating boring, mundane worlds populated by the usual suspects. There’s a whole universe out there to use. Here are some guidelines that will help you succeed.
1. Do your homework. If you think writing fantasy is easy because you get to make everything up, think again. Your setting, props, and characters have to ring just as true in fantasy as in other kinds of stories, so learn as much as you can about the environment, life forms, objects, and background on which your world will be based. These things may be real or imaginary, but in either case, there is much to know about them. Find out all you can about vampires, and I don’t mean read Stephanie Meyer. Get as close as possible to the original source material. Find out everything you can about the original vampire myths. If you’re writing about dragons, learn about the Komodo dragon and other real-life analogs. If you can, observe in the real world. Do dragons do pushups like those lizards we see in our backyards? Know more than you’ll ever be able to use. The more you understand the roots of your world, the more believable you’ll be able to make your story.
2. Pick a referent. Author Jane Yolen advises selecting a specific place or thing in the real world as an analogy. If you use a specific English village or Welsh castle or Himalayan mountain as a jumping off point, you’ll be able to create a credible setting. Riffing off of real places isn’t cheating; it’s essential.
3. Create a rich, internally consistent world. Create internally consistent, knowable laws for your universe. Otherwise you risk alienating your reader. Paint the world with specificity and detail to make it stunningly real, but beware: don’t try to use even half of this information in your story. See tip number 5.
4. Create believable characters. Your characters shouldn’t be types, but complex individuals. Give them flaws and contradictions, but in the case of your protagonist, make sure we see something likeable and/or vulnerable about him ASAP so we’ll stick with him. (Not for nothing is Harry Potter an oppressed orphan) And give them names we can relate to. Yes, fantasy worlds are supposed to be exotic, but if we stumble over the characters’ names, we’ll be taken out of the story. Cute names are fine. Unpronounceable and weird-looking names put barriers in our way.
5. Reveal your world slowly. Open with something familiar (London, a living room) and reveal the world to us as your protagonist discovers it. Don’t plop us down in the middle of a place we can’t possibly understand. Dole out small doses of salient details to give us the idea while you focus on the characters and the action.
As the great poet Emily Dickinson said, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” The truth is the familiar reality underlying your story. The slant is your view of that world—the thing that makes the story your own.
Paula Berinstein (Paula B) is the author of seven geeky nonfiction books, including Making Space Happen and Business Statistics on the Web, and numerous magazine articles. She is also host of The Writing Show, a podcast series is designed to help you practice capturing readers’ attention. Inspired by literary agent Kristin Nelson’s two-page pitch sessions, Paula plays agent and comments on anonymous submissions on the show.
Great post. I’d add this 6th tip: read a lot, both within and beyond the genre you write in.
If you need help breaking out of your usual reading habits, check out what your favourite authors read. I’ve never been steered wrong by a recommendation from an author whose work I love.
I’ll just add to Nathan’s comment, try to visit your locale if possible, to capture and retain smells, sounds, the feel of the air, the scrape of the ground underfoot. Experience your setting as much as possible.