Guest Post by JD Byrne
Good fantasy has to be realistic.
Wait, what? I mean, that’s pretty counterintuitive, isn’t it. The whole point of fantasy is that you can make up anything you want. Whereas its close relation science fiction has to deal with, well, science, fantasy is only limited by the imagination of its writer. So why worry about it being realistic?
One reason is that it’s practical. Unless you’re writing something really avant garde and creating a different world from the ground up, even the most fantastic stories take place in a world that looks a lot like ours. Middle Earth may have hobbits, dwarves, and orcs, but it still has a world that works basically like ours - people need to eat and sleep, have to figure out ways to get from one point to another, and figure out how to get along with each other. All of those things are rooted in our experiences of our real world. After all, you can’t have a second breakfast without a concept of breakfast, right?
Another reason is that details matter when it comes to the most important part of speculative fiction - suspension of disbelief. In fantasy, more so than science fiction, the author is basically asking readers to trust them, to come along with whatever weird stuff is going to happen just because. Still, there are things, little details, in any story that can kick a reader right out of a state of disbelief (I’ve written before about what I call “flying snowman” moments, after a John Scalzi blog post). Maybe your fantasy heroes are riding horses into battle after they rode 100 miles in two days without any mention of food, water, or rest. For some readers that might kick them out of the story.
It’s not that you can’t have something in your fantasy world that does the job of a horse but doesn’t need rest or nutrition, but you have to build that up on its own. There’s a difference between getting a fantasy element “wrong” - if such a thing is possible - and getting mundane real world details that are still relevant to your world wrong. A two-foot tall pixie probably can’t wield a five-foot long steel sword, but who says the sword has to be made of steel? It doesn’t, but you need to lay the foundation for that. It’s sort of like the old saw about learning the rules before you can break them - you need to know why you’re doing it differently and consider whether it’s worth it.
While research is necessary to write good fantasy, it doesn’t have to be a chore. In fact, sometimes doing the research can open ways to deepen your world and help make the story better. Let me share a couple of examples where that’s happened to me.
In my novel The Water Road a pair of characters are out in the woods searching for a mythical city in the trees when they’re set upon by bandits. One of them, Rurek, takes an arrow in the leg from the bandit leader, Spider. I never intended the wound to be fatal, so once it was in Rurek’s leg I had to figure out how to get it out. I’m so glad I did some research rather than just going with my gut. Turns out how to deal with an arrow wound is largely dependent on the kind of arrowhead is involved and there are some really nasty ones out there, ones designed to inflict maximum damage if taken out incorrectly.
That made me think - what kind of arrow would a guy like Spider use? It made me drill deeper into the character than I had initially. He only shows up for this scene, after all, and was hardly that important in the grand scheme of things. But using an arrow designed to do maximum harm, particularly to someone who would react as I had (pull the damned thing out!), is precisely the kind of guy he was. The research allowed me to complicate Rurek’s situation even further (and allow a new, important character, to show some knowledge and skill) and give some idea of just what an evil person Spider was.
In my short story “The Destiny Engine” (which you can only get by signing up for my mailing list), the main character has a massive steampunk contraption that, he says, can see a person’s other possible futures. He has to input data into the machine at some point, so I initially had him sitting down at a typewriter-style keyboard. A beta reader wondered whether such keyboards were in wide use in late 19th-century Wyoming where the story was set.
I looked into it and, as it turns out, keyboards were a thing back then, but they hadn’t standardized into anything like we know today. Instead, there was a wide range of size, design, and functionality. I found a picture of one that was basically a brass globe with keys sticking out the top on long stalks, so typing on it looked kind of like giving a robot a scalp massage. So while it wouldn’t have been wrong to put my main character in that story in front of something that looked like a typewriter, how much cooler was it to have him manipulating a brass robot skull!
Since research is important for writing fantasy, what’s the best way to go about it? There are several options, depending on what it is you need to know.
First, you can draw on your own knowledge of whatever area it is you need to research. That’s kind of cheating, but a knowledge base is a knowledge base, regardless of where it comes from. When it came time to write the battle scenes in The Endless Hills (the second part of The Water Road trilogy) I fell back on the reading I’d done my entire life about battles from various conflicts in the 18th and 19th centuries. I looked up a couple of things, but it was to confirm more than learn from scratch.
This is as good a place as any to amplify a piece of advice I’ve heard almost every writer give - that to be a good writer, you need to be a serious reader. I’d expand that to say it’s important for writers of fiction to read a lot of nonfiction, too, to learn about the world around them. Not only do you broaden that internal knowledge base you can use while writing, sometimes history or science or whatever can provide some pretty good fuel for future stories.
A second good place to go for research is other writers. Writers each bring their own experience and knowledge to the table, which can be a powerful resource to tap into. The example I gave above of needing to know how to get an arrow out? When I went to Google to find the answer the first result it returned to was to a subsection of a writers’ forum where people shared their expertise. Writers tend to be a helpful bunch, so make the most of what those around you know.
Third, you can take advantage of the knowledge of experts in whatever field you’re looking into. Sci-fi writers routinely consult with physicists, rocket scientists, and the like in order to get the science in their stories right (or at least plausible). Fantasy writers can do the same. Setting a story in a world that’s based on feudal Japan? Find the nearest college or university that teaches Japanese history and reach out to the professor. They might be happy to talk to someone about their subject who is writing a novel about it.
Finally, when it comes to research, there’s always the option to hit the books, whether literally or electronically. Google is great, but be skeptical of sources and weigh competing information carefully. Books are even better, if you’ve got access to a good library somewhere close. You can even go and spent time in places that inspire the world you’re building. Want to set a story in a castle - go visit one! It’s easier said than done, of course, but it can be done.
Research sounds a lot like work and sometimes it is. Sometimes you’ll find out things that torpedo an idea or a particular story element. More often, you’ll shore up your own world, deepen you characters, and maybe even find something to spark your creativity even further. It’s worth the effort and your readers will thank you.
JD Byrne was born and raised around Charleston, West Virginia, before spending seven years in Morgantown getting degrees in history and law from West Virginia University. He's practiced law for more than 15 years, writing briefs where he has to stick to real facts and real law. In his fiction, he gets to make up the facts, take or leave the law, and let his imagination run wild. He lives outside Charleston with his wife and the two cutest Chihuahuas the world has ever seen.
The first Dragons, Zombies and Aliens blog was started in 2015. Somewhere between college coursework, paying rent with door-to-door sales, and keeping up with my sorority sisters, I wrote reviews, rants and commentaries on books, TV shows, and movies. Now, this blog has moved, improved, and the sky's the limit!