Realism, in a fantasy novel? Seriously, pixies, and unicorns, and orcs, and all? Yeah, in spite of, or maybe because of the fantastic elements, the story requires a strong internal consistency that makes the narrative believable. I’ve put together a few of what I would call Reality Violations that authors and readers should be on the lookout for. Readers? Yes, readers too. When you find yourself thrown out of the story, it just may be that you’ve stumbled across a reality issue.
So, why me? Why this topic? A little background—I’ve spent over thirty years as a designer, planner, engineer, and international port consultant. I freely admit to being a recovering engineer. Left brained, spatial, analytical, I like gears and wheels. Most of my writing has been technical up until about five years, eight months, and ten days ago this August… more or less. That’s when I began writing Historical Fantasy. I’ve loved that genre ever since. My history-nerd left brain slavers over the bits of medieval detail while my right brain, repressed for so long, breaks free with the fantasy elements.
Perfect cue right here to plug my latest effort, “Half Sword” (http://mybook.to/Half_Sword). Set in the late twelfth century, it combines a healthy immersion in medieval culture (ala Ken Follet’s “Pillers of the Earth”) with plausible fantasy elements in the style of Umberto Eco’s “Name of the Rose.” Read the blurb—if it sounds interesting, give it a reality check. See if I can follow my own advice.
I hate it when something doesn’t make sense—within the context of the narrative. That is, within rules of the world the author has created. Still, it doesn’t make me the authority. What does qualify me to write on this topic is perhaps that no one else will. Writers generally do not want to look behind the curtain. They would rather not question the sausage ingredients. But both writers and readers might benefit—even have a little fun—poking into the moving parts of a story.
Perhaps the most egregious Reality Violation that we’ve all experienced is an event, circumstance, clue, or other plot element that appears somewhere in the story, but never gets explained by the end. “The Maltese Falcon” is a classic example. The plot goes around and around without ever resolving who has the real falcon statuette or when it was switched for the fake.
A story hiccup like this is a Continuity Violation, often called a “plot hole.” That is, a plot element that serves no purpose, or one that contradicts other events in the story. “The Maltese Falcon” gets away with it because the actual plot, the murder mystery, is so well presented that we forget to ask about the title object itself. Alfred Hitchcock would call the falcon statuette a MacGuffin, a plot element that drives the narrative, but doesn’t really matter to the outcome. However, Hitch usually managed to resolve his MacGuffins by the end of the film.
A good explanation of the Continuity Violation is the rule of Chekhov’s gun. Russian playwright Anton Chekhov famously wrote, “If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act” (translations vary). That’s the principal of Chekhov’s gun. If you introduce a story element early in the narrative, it must somehow bear on the plot resolution. If your budding sorcerer has only one trick, a disappearing pig, then he must use it in the end to save the kingdom. And so it happened in the 1988 George Lucas film, “Willow.”
This wonderful bit of foreshadowing and plot resolution has a flip side as well. I would put it this way, “If your warrior queen is going to ride a dragon at the end, you damned well better introduce dragon lore in the beginning.” Martin did this splendidly in “A Song of Ice and Fire” (GoT). In the initial book his protagonists wander a crypt among ancient dragon skulls. So, when Daenerys and her dragons appear, the reader is ready to accept them as a valid story element.
Had she simply hatched a clutch of baby dragons without the early introduction, it would have seemed an artificial construct, jammed in there by the author to move the plot in a new direction. In a similar way, Tolkien introduced Bilbo to the eagles early in “The Hobbit” so their reappearance at the end was a natural story progression (I would argue that he didn’t quite get away with it).
A violation of this rule is called Deus Ex Machina, God by Machine. When some event occurs to save the day, and it was not part of the original story arc, it seems like a cheat, like the author couldn’t solve the protagonist’s problem within the world she or he had created—God came along and smecked the villain—meteor landed on the attacking army—that sort of thing.
Another Continuity Violation is the Non-Sequitur, “it does not follow.” Something happens that does not fit into the logical system of the story’s world. Going back to Tolkien, in the second book of his trilogy, “The Two Towers,” Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas are besieged in the fortress of Helm’s Deep by Saruman’s army of orcs. At the high point of the battle, the orcs use blasting powder to breach the walls. I’ve always considered that scene a non-sequitur. It’s Middle Earth, they don’t have explosives. If they did, the entire nature of the struggle would change. Although it is a fantasy setting, the scene includes a violation of reality as defined by the world of Middle Earth.
An issue that is often encountered in fantasy novels is the Character Violation. Wouldn’t Harry Potter simply have taken a sawed-off twelve-gauge and like, blown Voldemort in half? Mmm… nope, doesn’t fit the Hogwarts universe. Harry with a shotgun would be out of character. That is, from the beginning, Harry Potter is more reactive than aggressive. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone—he just wants to protect his friends and himself. Character Violations of a story’s reality are sometimes hard to spot. An effective protagonist grows as the plot develops. But too much growth, too quickly, threatens the reality of the story. Harry’s magical encounters with Voldemort are totally in-character. However, in my opinion Harry is just too damned good at quidditch to be in-character. If you read “Half Sword,” you might spot a similar violation. C’est la vie, both are effective stories in spite of that.
Character Motivation can be another issue in fantasy novels. In too many cases, the protagonist drifts through an incredibly complex and colorful world. All eyes are on the setting, but the story goes nowhere because the main characters simply react to the events and have no personal motivation. This too is a reality violation. Would a person (elf, witch, dragon, orc, what-ever) live in such a world without goals, without problems to resolve? Not terribly real, nor is it terribly interesting. I’ll forego examples, but we’ve all read them.
Physical Violations of reality can be another issue (and as an ex-engineer, one of my pet peeves). Wait, it’s a fantasy world—fantasy, not reality—right? Yes, fantasy stories in fantasy worlds, but it’s not called world building for nothing. An effective fantasy world should be as internally consistent as the world we know. We expect that rocks fall down. That is, unless we are visiting Pandora where certain rocks seem to fall up. That’s a physical aspect cooked into the film, “Avatar.” Anywhere else, say on Roshar in Brandon Sanderson’s “Stormlight Archives,” rocks will always fall down, sometimes with painful consequences.
Sanderson is known for his meticulous world-building. Every physical aspect of Roshar is spelled out in minute detail. The reason his fiction is so immersive is that once you understand his world, everything happens in accordance with the rules he has established. I’ll cite Sanderson’s First Law of Magic: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic. In more general terms, an author can alter the laws of physics only if the reader understands those alterations in the context of the in-story setting. When unexplained violations of normal physical laws pop up, the reader gets tossed right out of the story. Just like with Continuity Violations, a bit of foreshadowing helps to avoid this problem.
Foreshadowing can be a product of the fantasy sub-genre itself. I’m thinking of steampunk, in particular. Arguably, steampunk could be considered science fiction, but isn’t science fiction itself a type of fantasy? Okay, for the sake of discussion, let’s say it is. For both then, steampunk and sci-fi, we have a predefined world that allows otherwise impossible physical elements. Zeppelins support enormous battle cruisers. Faster-than-light travel enables a United Federation of Planets to govern multiple star systems. We don’t need foreshadowing—it’s implied in the genre.
The opposite is true in the Urban and Historical Fantasy sub-genres. Where steampunk implies physics and geometries that do not exist, Urban (present day) and Historical imply strict world-building that adheres to real life, as it could be, or could have been. Some of the best Urban Fantasy is modeled around real cities or real cultures. That means that the fantasy elements have to be encapsulated in their own ruleset that outwardly complies with the real-world. Tad Williams’s “The Dirty Streets of Heaven” is an excellent example. San Judas could be a burg anywhere in the southern San Francisco Bay area. It reads a lot like the actual town of Redwood City, somewhere north of San Jose. And unless you happened to be an angel, like Bobby Dollar, you probably wouldn’t notice anything weird going on. However, the author manages to wedge a whole universe of fantasy weird into the day-to-day life of San Judas without alarming its residents.
If you look, you could probably find as many Reality Violations as there are fantasy novels. An author can’t always avoid them and often, they may actually enhance the story. But I would maintain that continuity, character, and the physical world of a story must work within its own reality system in order to create an effective and immersive fantasy novel.
Christopher Matson is the author of the historical fantasy novel, “Half Sword” along with the upcoming sequels. He also writes Action-Adventure stories with David Wood under the name C.B. Matson. Former incarnations have included mining geologist, commercial fisherman, civil engineer, mess-hall cook, surveyor and international port consultant.
Christopher has lived much of his life in Colorado, California and Virginia, but he has also spent considerable time in Moscow, Bogota, Nagasaki and Dakar. When he is not writing, he enjoys walking, tinkering, and “… simply messing about in boats.” C.B. Matson and his wife live on the water in Hampton Roads, Virginia.
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About Half Sword (Tapestry Codices #1)
Simon the fool, Simon the halfwit, Simon the lost is pursued across medieval Europe by a sinister league of conjurers, the Apostles of Light. Having erased his past, they will stop at nothing to steal his future as well. On the way, he joins the Knights of Palermo, a dubious band of wandering rogues, and attracts a mysterious young woman whose fate is somehow interwoven with his own.
Simon finds himself caught in a struggle for power between the shadowy Apostles, his adopted Knights, and a cabal of powerful women known to a select few as the Weavers. With only a broken sword and his own shattered memories, Simon must thread this maze of warring factions to discover who he was and why he is inexorably drawn to the haunted ruins of twelfth century Rome.