I’m thrilled to have Chrysoula Tzavelas on my blog today to talk about crafting believable fantasy. Chrysoula’s novel Matchbox Girls is available now. Take it away, Chrysoula!
1.) The first, easiest one is to use well-known tropes as your foundation. Once people have been exposed to an idea enough, they stop questioning it. Anybody reading a vampire novel isn’t going to question that vampires can survive on blood; anybody reading a novel about modern magic isn’t going to fuss about wizards fueling magic with their emotions. As long as you don’t try to go into detail, you should be safe! Remember, werewolves are moon-called, vampires need blood in order to thrive, and magic requires a Gift. Write well, and you’re good!
Oh yes, writing well is required for this approach. Start by making sure all your basic English skills are in order. Sentences are sentences, not clauses. Commas are where commas should be. Spelling! Grammar! These are your hammers and wrenches. Get a professional’s help. You don’t want anything to knock your reader out of the story, because what you’re selling them is a good story, not original, believable ideas.
I call this the Write Really Good Bad Fantasy method. I found this method extremely educational when I wrote my Trashy Fantasy Novel (which came way before Matchbox Girls). You may too!
2.) Okay, so you want to do something a bit more original than Gifted wizards, vampires, and werewolves. Let’s talk about the I’m With Her method. Write characters who believe your fantastic idea and your readers will follow along. This is more complicated than it sounds, because first you have to write believeable characters. That can be hard!
I’ve got a trick for you. Watch the people around you. Think about the people you know best. How would they react when an elf walked in the door? Or if an angel started talking to them? It’s important to think about the people you know well and not let yourself be blinded by fiction. Fiction is about pretend people. Writers like to make them react in stereotypical and clichéd ways. That can be useful in its place, but it won’t work for this method.
Sometimes it can get hard to see past the stereotypes and clichés we’re all used to. Here’s another trick. I learned it from drawing class. When you’re learning to draw, you’re also learning to see what’s really there. That can be hard to do, because we all have ideas that aren’t quite aligned with reality. One of the tricks my drawing teacher taught me was to take a source image and put a grid over it, then draw the picture one grid at a time. This divorces the image in our heads from what’s really there.
This can also be useful in figuring out how realistic people would react to fantastic things. What you do is, you take apart the fantastic thing. What’s an elf or an angel? A strange humanoid wearing odd clothes (with some fantastic props) and making strange claims. Most real people don’t scream and run away or fall to the ground if something unfamiliar walks through the door. They fall back on habit and manners (or lack thereof). They offer the elf sweet tea. They growl at the angel to get out of the way of the game. And maybe when the new creature is gone, they lock the door and try to forget it happened.
If the angel is holding holy fire, well, what would that surly TV-watcher do if something was on fire in his house? And so on. At some point, you’ll figure out when your real-life people will Believe What They See. Take your characters through a similar evolution of acceptance. If your characters have been believable about realistic things before they accepted the fantastic ones, you’re good! You win!
3.) You don’t particularly like people and you don’t have time to watch their behavior closely. You have an Idea and you must work on that idea. No problem! There’s a method for you, too. This method is the Actually Science Fiction method. It’s a lot of work, but it can be really rewarding if you have a Great Idea you don’t mind dedicating yourself to.
Basically, it can be summed up as Do The Math. Or, in a more familiar example, Create The Language. The goal here is to have answers for every possible question. Believable answers. Answers that compute. You’re allowed one, or maybe two, freebies as foundations to build your new model of physics (or your new culture), but otherwise, as much as possible should follow understood sociological and physical rules, as modified by your freebies. This is a ton of work and might require earning a professional degree along the way. If you’re a physicist or a linguist or a chemist, you’ll love it! And when you’re done, you’ll probably have created the stuff of legend. But will you ever be really done…?
4.) All right. You want simple characters with dramatic reactions in a simple setting with some strange concepts. There’s still a way for you! Try the Once Upon A Time method. Teach yourself to write in a style that gives you some leeway. In fairy tales, readers don’t sweat the details. There’s a princess and a witch and a wolf and the witch eats the princess and the wolf eats the witch and marries the princess’s sister. Simple!
Usually a novel tries to pretend it’s not a novel. It invites you inside and does its best to make you forget about pages and covers and a writer behind the words. But you don’t have to do that. If you write in a style that embraces the nature of a story, you have a lot more freedom to spin wild ideas into tales with sparse details and stock characters. You don’t have to write fairy tales, either. You could write camp, or pulp, or hardbitten fantasy noir.
Make sure your skills are up to the task, though. Long-form fairy tales tend to be lyric and beautiful. Camp needs to be funny. Read a lot of what you’d like to write. Seriously. Drown yourself in the style of your choice, then practice a lot. Then make sure your first sentence informs the reader what they’re about to read (directly or indirectly). Stay consistent through the rest of your story and—okay, it’s possible nobody will ever call it believable. You may not win that way. But you’ll have written a damn fine book that people enjoy reading, and very few of them will complain about the believability, because that would just be silly.
This concludes my thoughts on how to write believable fantasy. Go forth and write wonders!
Thanks, Chrysoula. Now check out Matchbox Girls.
Marley Claviger is just trying to get her life together. Stumbling into an ancient conflict between celestial forces is going to make that a whole lot harder… When Marley wakes up to a phone call from a pair of terrified children, she doesn’t expect to be pulled into a secret war. She rescues them from an empty house and promises to find their missing uncle. She even manages to feed them dinner. But she barely feels competent to manage her own life, let alone care for small children with strange, ominous powers… And when a mysterious angelic figure shows up and tries to claim the girls, it all falls apart… Plagued by visions of disaster, Marley has no idea what she’s gotten herself into, but she knows one thing: magical or not, the kids need her.