Everybody says that writing fantasy is easy. You don’t have to do research, and you can create just about anything your imagination conjures. It’s all inexistent anyway, right? As a writer of speculative fiction, both fantasy and science-fiction, I can say from my experience: quite to the contrary. I think fantasy is one of the most difficult genres to write.
While other genre writes can set their novels in known places, fantasy writers have to research everything. To create their setting they need to understand politics, physics, economy, geology, climate … and the list goes on. Of course one could point out, that many of the fantasy settings, especially the ones creating a secondary world, break the rules of our reality, and that is true, but a good fantasy world has its own rules that control it as tightly as the rules of our world.
There is a lot of fun in the world building, but there’s a lot of work too. A castle in the middle of icy wastelands? Wait, what will the people eat there? And suddenly it’s time to read about Greenland. Could people live in a volcanic world? What would they need to survive? Human anatomy, chemistry and physics research are about to start. How about flying people? Can they just be given wings? No, their bones probably would have to be lighter … Would they break more easy? Looks like finding information on birds will come in handy.
And then, there’s magic: the force with no equivalent in the reality (at least scientists have not observed, and measured it yet!), it still has to follow some rules. We might not know it in our world, but for the characters magic should be like physics: they might understand it more or less accurately, but it’s a part of their world. Where does it come from? How is it used? What is the price for it and what are the limitations? Would it behave according to the first law of thermodynamics? Oh my, do I even remember what that law exactly was?
Not all these things, so thoroughly considered and pieced together, will ever make it into the story, but they are in the background, making the world coherent and believable. They add the flavor of “real” to the unique taste of a fantasy world. And even though fantasy requires the reader to give in the “unreal” parts of the world, it doesn’t mean a writer shouldn’t strive to make it plausible. A great story might carry few questionable plot solutions or aspects of the world, putting showers in the primeval village in the desert might stretch the reader’s willingness to accept the created world a bit thin.
I write fantasy and science-fiction, because the speculative fiction not only carries me and my readers to the unexplored worlds, but also encourages me to learn more and more about our own reality in all its aspects. Did you know Mayans were lactose intolerant? I didn’t know either until I had to research their ancient culture for a story. I probably won’t pick up wood carving as my additional hobby, but I do know which wood is the best and all the steps of preparing it, because a character happened to carve wooden sculptures. I admit to have cheated a bit, adding magic powder for quick-drying the logs, since she couldn’t wait for months for it to dry … but I kept the rest real, for the readers to believe my world makes sense.
And this is how well-written fantasy should be: unreal, otherworldly, amazing, mind-blowing and … still believable. Seasoned readers of the genre will instantly know whether the author did their research, and thought not only their plot, but also their world through. So if you still think writing fantasy is easy, try to plan a diet for those biologically adapted people who live on the volcanic planet with little oxygen and a lot of sulfur in the air…
Come to think of that, I might do so to. In the end, being a fantasy writer means I’m excited how the worlds—all the worlds my imagination can conjure—work, because there are so many stories hidden there, still waiting to be told.
This post was initially published on Katharine Grubb’s 10 Minute Novelists site as a part of her “Why I Write” series.
This Post Has 12 Comments
Writing is not easy, period. Try to write a readable cooking book or instruction manual. Fantasy is really special, though because you not only need to be creative, you need to have a lot of self-discipline and a well-ordered, logical mind. Yes, you can invent your world but everything has to make sense and click seamlessly together, to make your readers forget they are reading about a completely artificial construct of somebody’s mind. If you call it easy, I call you…inexperienced (and it is the language of diplomacy).
Indeed, no writing is easy, but for some reason, you hear it about fantasy the most often. “It’s fantasy, you can do anything you want” (even if it offends basic logic). It drives me insane.
Small wonder. It’s such a blatant untruth.
Absolutely, I had to research trees that would grow in a mountainous environment. It was tricky and I’m still not sure if I got it right. But I now know the best skin to use for armour, how to preserve meats, and info about different types of weaponry.
I can relate. For a short story, I spent hours researching wood carving to get it somewhat right and there weren’t that many articles on it that would cover what I needed to know. 🙂
After a certain point you just have to hope you’ve learned enough and run with it.
I completely agree! Braiding the political, commerical, religious and everyday customs of a non-existent world into the fabric of the narrative arc via characterisation requires a high degree of technical skill – which is, I believe, why there is so much snobbery surrounding speculative fiction. It is easy to do badly and difficult to do well…
I’m not a fan of an eliticist approach to any genre, but I can definitely understand snobbery when we’re faced with people who write fantasy and sci-fi without understanding what the genres really are, how they work, and cover lack of research by “you can do anything in fantasy”. 😉
Whew. Your post about all the research fantasy might need made me tired! I usually have my stories set in our worlds with some supernatural elements, but I wouldn’t shy from a fantasy if the right idea hit me.
Research really is part of the fun of creating the world: it doesn’t have to hundreds of books read, sometimes a book or even an article can do a trick and give just enough knowledge to make the world believable. Much of the research is also based on our common knowledge, things we’ve learned at school (and only need to broaden a bit) and general common sense.
Still.. Did you know Mayans were lactose intolerant? It was just a bit of knowledge I got when I did research for a short story, but it stayed with me until now.
I still remember when I was in my late teens and decided I wanted to write a fantasy novel, mostly because “I don’t have to research that much.” Was I ever wrong. *lol*
This is a fantastic post, Joanna, and right on point about the challenges of writing fantasy. All the magic and madness of our secondary worlds needs to be grounded in logic and realism of some kind. And if it isn’t, it can throw everything about our story – even the world itself – out the window. I’ve researched a bunch of things for my WIP: archery, medicinal herbs, horseriding, the width of mountain ranges (if you’re going to cross from one side to the other), the types of trees and flowers that grow in certain climate regions, etc. And I hope those details, as well as the general rules of the story world, will make that world believable to readers in the end.
I can relate. For my first sci-fi “novel” I wrote (don’t judge me, I was 14 back then 😀 ), I created a solar system: put a bunch of planets on a page and named them. And that was it.
Now I’m much smarter than that, though most times I try to do my research “as I go” – read articles online about cultures, biology, science, etc. so that I have general idea about things I’m going to use. Of course, there’re always those bits that need deeper research. I’m currently working on urban fantasy set in Dublin and I still have to dig information out, even though I’ve lived in that city for over 8 years. But I think it’s worth it, even if our readers won’t get to taste even the half of the knowledge we’ve gathered while researching.