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Grounding Fantasy

Recently I was asked – by a long-time fan of one of my fanfics, which I am re-writing to be published as original fiction, as it was 97% original everything to begin with – how I manage to make the magic in my fantasy so realistic, subtle, and grounded. This had two results.

The first was that I had a moment of panic because the story they had been referring to is gaining some more …obvious and explosive magic in the re-write.

The second was the realisation that I didn’t actually know how I did it. So, I thought about it for a while and I realised the answer was goldfish. (No, I have not gone mad.)

You see, when I watch or read other works, I cannot turn off that part of be that acts like a belligerent toddler or a particularly sarcastic goldfish. Although I suppose I should specify that I mean a pop-cultural hypothetical goldfish, rather than a real one, as science has disproved the ‘fact’ that they only have three second memories. But I digress. Imagine that this stereotypical toddler is forever asking “Why?” and the stereotypical but snarky goldfish is always asking “How?” and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what goes through my head when I’m observing other fictions.

For example, back when the Lord of the Rings came out in film, I was watching the scenes in Moria and idly noticed that the characters must have superb balance to avoid falling off because there were no handrails in sight. That set the Sarky Goldfish off. Why are there no handrails? What kind of idiots make giants cities over ravines without handrails? Were they made of wood and simply disintegrated? NO dwarves wouldnt have used wood and if they were stone some of them should have remained. Do dwarves just have perfect balance? No elves are stated to have better balance and THE ELVEN CITIES HAVE FREAKING HANDRAILS. Besides, even if adult dwarves had epic balance skills and never, ever fell, dwarven children (you know, the ones who are always portrayed as rare and precious because ever since Tolkien did it dwarves do not reproduce quickly has been part of the Standard Fantasy Setting) would, because all children, in all species, are reckless idiots. Could it be a point of honour? Honour VS Practicality, City Planning Edition, Round One: TOTAL KNOCKOUT, PRACTICALITY WINS.

And on and on it goes. For every “it is this way” that does not match reality, the Sarky Goldfish in my head wants to know How and Why and won’t rest until it has a solid answer. For every “that can’t happen/be done” the Belligerent Toddler wants to know Why Not and will find a way if a suitably reasonable answer is not produced …or even if it is, because if it took too long the Belligerent Toddler will want to prove the answer-giver wrong. “It’s traditional”, by the way, is not a solid or reasonable answer. Nor are “Because” and “Just don’t think about it”. “Why Not”, on the other hand, is – so long as the question was “Why” and not “Why Not” or “How”.

So, you could say – if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like goldfish – that the answer is really just to think about it. Now, I’m sure some of you are shaking your heads and saying “But it’s fiction! It doesn’t have to be realistic! I shouldn’t have to think about it!” and I have one thing to say to that:

When you played with your blocks as a child you had to think about where to put them or they’d all come tumbling down on your head.  When you paint a picture you need to think about what you’re doing or you end up with a mess of squiggles and badly mixed brown. When you create new music – even if it’s jazz and improvised – you need to think about what you are doing so that you don’t make noises only deaf cicadas would love. And when you write fiction you have to think about the way the world you are creating works or it falls apart on you – but whereas child!You got a bruise when their blocks fell and some adult came to kiss it better, no one is going to tell you it’s okay and not your fault if your fiction falls apart because you didn’t construct it properly. Why? Because if you’re old enough to put it out in public, you’re old enough to take the heat for it.

Writing is hard, guys. Writing is WORK.


But I digress.

The reason fantasy authors like George R.R. Martin and Glen Cook (if you don’t know who that is LOOK HIM UP) can produce such high-quality writing, writing which is praised for being top-notch fantasy, is that the ground their fantasy in realism.

“Great,” you may say, “but not all of us have a goldfish living in their heads. What do we do?”.

Well, there are two things that work to ground fantasy – and all fiction, to be honest – in realism. The first is to treat the world you are writing as if it was real. But it’s just fiction? Not to the characters who live in it, I assure you. Not to the readers who want to be immersed in it, I assure you. It’s just fiction is an excuse that those who are too lazy, or too entitled, to put in effort hide behind when their half-assed attempts are not immediately hailed as the greatest thing ever. If you aren’t willing to put in the effort: you shouldn’t be writing. There’s enough crap on the market without you joining in.

The world you are creating may technically be just fiction, but good writing – and good authors – transcend that. Writers are often referred to as the God of their stories’ universe. What kind of evil, stupid god would you be if you created a real world but treated it like it wasn’t real enough to matter? Treat your fictional world as if it was a real one. Imagine you really are a god and you are creating the world. That means that, beyond the scope of the Adventure or Romance or whatever the story you are writing is, your world needs to make sense. It shows when worlds are invented to suit the whims of the plot and add tension. It shows in a bad way. People notice when you, say, don’t add handrails to a place where handrails ought to be in order to add Tension. So, what do you have to do? You have to think about the mechanics.

That’s the first thing. The second thing, which you have to do at the same time as the first thing, is to apply Logic.

I know. I know. It’s a scary Maths thing and it doesn’t seem fair to drag it into the world of Arts where you ran to get away from it, but it does need to be here.

In order to build you own Sarky Head-Goldfish and start grounding your fantasy in realism, you’ll want to apply three specific types of logic: Induction, Deduction, and Abduction (no! Not that kind! Don’t run off with that!). If it makes you feel better about adding something as icky as logic to your creative endeavours, put on a deerstalker cap and try not to think about the fact that, no matter what the original illustrations implied, Sherlock Holmes did not wear one of those.

Got your cap on? Great, let’s go.

Deduction is the logic system in which you reason out the definite specific from the definite general – i.e. Dwarves never build handrails. Moria was built by dwarves. Therefore, Moria does not have any handrails. Deductive reasoning – when used correctly, which Holmes did not because he said deductive when he meant a different sort of logic – always comes to a logically valid conclusion. Use this type of logic to determine what parts of your world must be like (conclusions), based on your previous statements of fact (premises). If they don’t line up, you’ll need to change either the facts (“dwarves never build handrails”) or the result (remove the dwarvish handrails from wherever you had included them).

Induction is the logic system in which you reason out a hypothetical general from the definite specifics. The conclusion reached by properly applied induction is a probable, but not a fact and not a mere possible. The evidence given by the specifics supports the likelihood of the conclusion being correct – i.e. Handrails keep people from falling off high things. Dwarves think the risk of falling off high things is a matter of honour. Therefore, dwarven cities probably don’t include handrails in dangerous places. Again, if these things do not stack up when you look at your work, you need to change something. Or, given that induction is about probability, to show in detail what element logically accounts for the gap left by whatever components failed to pass this reasoning test.

Abduction is the logic system in which your reason out a hypothetical specific from the definite general. It’s basically deduction, but questionable. It is also known as “inference to the best explanation” and is the form of logic we are all most familiar with. Why? Because if it looks like a duck, and it waddles like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. This, incidentally, is the kind of logic that Sherlock Holmes used – as the conclusions he reached were highly probable but not definite. The sheer complexity of human behaviour meant that Holmes was always speaking as certain (a lady of obviously middling means with callouses on her hands from typing is a professional typist) what was merely probable (she could also be a writer or a journalist, you know). This might not seem like a useful form of logic to apply to your fiction, but it’s actually one of the most important, because it allows you to play out the hypotheticals as you try to explain matters to a realistic conclusion – i.e. Dwarves do not build handrails. Dwarves are facing extinction because their children are few and often fail to survive. Therefore, dwarves are probably going extinct because their children keep falling to their deaths.

Then you apply the realism test to your conclusion. In this case: Would an intelligent species – which dwarves have to be if they’re building cities – really wait until they’re nearly extinct to add handrails? Probably not. All it would take would be one human child falling and, honour be damned, a human city council would be under immense pressure to add safety features. If dwarves are building cities they are probably sufficiently similar in psychology to assume that a similar reaction would occur (see that? That’s abduction again).

At this stage you’d do one of three things. Firstly, you could add handrails to nullify the Plot’s Hole’s cousin: Setting Hole (the adventures just happened to pass through the one place where the handrails have been destroyed and note that in text). Secondly you could make it a point that the dwarves cannot add handrails (or do but they keep being mysteriously destroyed) and are trying to keep their children safely away but they tragically keep slipping away and, er, slipping away anyway – in which case you’ve suddenly developed a new and interesting plot which you can write a story around. Lastly, you can nullify the premise which you find most problematic (for example: dwarves are actually facing an overpopulation crisis and breed like rabbits, so the lack of handrails is a deliberate population curbing method).



And after all of this you are probably wondering “But what about MAGIC? You said you were going to talk about MAGIC!”.

I did, and I did. Whatever rules you give your system of magic – if it even has a system the characters can understand, given that magic is a liminal force that exists in fiction to make us question what we are incapable of understanding and how to cope with the unknowable – you need to treat magic as if it is just as real in your world as practical things like handrails.

Ultimately, the way to ground magic – the way to make it seem like it actually exists – is to treat it like it actually exists.

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Posted by on March 21, 2017 in On Writing


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Rant On X-mas’ Assumed Universiality

The “holiday season” as it generally is known is upon us, with the approach of the year’s end, and that got me thinking about how often I’ve seen blatantly misplaced Christmas cheer plonked down thoughtlessly into Sci-Fi, Historical and Fantasy settings where it had absolutely no place being. Fanfiction is especially inclined to fall – or, rather, enthusiastically dive – into this particular pit trap.

You see, as an avid world-builder, it drives me absolutely up the freaking wall to see someone build – or explore, in fanfiction’s case – a beautifully designed, or researched, world and then completely ruin it by shoehorning in a fairly recent Christian tradition – or the trappings thereof by a different name – with no regard for the fact that it does not fit there.

Now, I’m sure that somebody will skim the title of this post or the content and assume I’m out to destroy their holiday. I’m not. I’m just sick and tired of seeing people who claim to enjoy another world where things are different assuming that because Christmas seems universal from their fairly mono-cultural viewpoint; that it must belong everywhere no matter what …and then force-feeding the holiday season to some poor other-world which they claimed they loved because it was different. Heck, the holiday season isn’t even universal on Modern Earth, let alone some other planet or reality (and history, damn it)!

1. If you are writing fanfiction, even seasonal fic exchanges don’t excuse breaking the canon to have Christmas. First step: check if the creator/right’s holder of the fandom you want to write in has issued a fanwork ban. If they have, back away from the keyboard with your hands in the air and remind yourself that just because it’s “Art” and “intellectual property” doesn’t make it any less property than say …the patent for a fridge design or medicine, or an architectural plan, or a painting or piece of music. Free reuse (such as fanfiction) is a privilege not a right. But I digress. There are canons that allow, or don’t disallow, fanwork where it could be believable to have the Holiday Season: I’ll blink when I see the Starship Enterprise throw a Xmas party, but given the ship is primarily human-manned and on a tub out in dull space, I could accept it. What I couldn’t accept is if it went on to show Andorians, Vulcans, and Klingons all having near-identical holidays at the same time of year. That stinks of authorial self-centeredness. Hell, just look at the differences between British and American Christmas celebrations, or Aussie and Kiwi vs Northern Hemisphere, or English speaking vs Continental Europe and you’ll see how absurd it is to assume aliens from other planets would have the same holidays! (See points 2&3.) Then there’s other canons which do allow fanfiction just plain don’t suit the idea of the holiday season at all. The most blatantly inappropriate is in canons set before Christianity existed. I’d like to keep giving examples here, but I’m afraid I have to go forcefully introduce my forehead to my desk now.

2. “Christmas” isn’t even the same in every country that does celebrate it. To give you some idea of how non-universal Christmas is, here’s a quick list of everything I (being a third generation atheist who has lived in countries that do Christmas my whole life) understand about the matter; a tree must be sacrificed and covered in tinsel and tangled lighting wires so that presents can be stored without being tripped over, shops close on the twenty-something-th of December before having several days of sales, people take it as an excuse to be horrid to people who don’t celebrate the Christian holiday, Santa drinks Coca-Cola, reindeer break gravity, snow is required even during summer, presents are exchanged along with biting and passive-aggressive commentary among family members, pudding gets bought and never eaten, something about goodwill to all that’s never practised, and some kid who might not even have existed was born with a glowing egg on his head in a barn a long, long time ago. The point I’m making is that you and your neighbours – assuming you or they celebrate anything Xmasy – may be celebrating completely differently, never mind how much more it will change city to city and country to country.

If it sounds like I know absolutely nothing and that shouldn’t be possible, the explanation is the same as the point I’m making: my family celebrate a secularised version of the Dutch celebration of Sinterklaas, which is basically the Dutch version of Christmas but which is significantly different enough that an author cannot, or – more accurately – should not assume they can be exactly mapped on to each other. Sinterklaas (Sinter = Saint, Klaas = Klaus/Nicolas) is in early December, many adults give each other presents inside of things called “surprises”, which basically means you make something (a model or just a box with “this is a chicken” written on it) and a matching poem to give them a friendly-tease about something amusing they did/which happened to them earlier in the year. Sinterklaas is a tall, thin, man originally from Turkey, but who comes to the Netherlands by boat from Spain and then rides around on a horse, assisted by white chimney sweeps with their faces covered in black soot – this has lately caused a political correctness gone batty scandal by people who call it “blackface and racist”, while apparently ignoring the whitewashing of Sinterklaas himself, and so now some people paint their faces blue and claim that without chimneys the helpers are coming through water-based radiators. And that’s just one example of how a seemingly identical celebration just is not the same when you leave your own culture. The farther you go from the modern, English-speaking world the more you have to consider this. Could an elf or alien culture have a winter celebration about gift giving and caring for others? Sure. But it had better not look a damn thing like Christmas or your audience will rightly call foul.

3. Consider where your culture is, consider CAREFULLY. See what you can find wrong with this scenario; Our rag-tag band of heroes enter the secret Elven society of DefinitelyNotALothlórienRipOff,NoSir and find them in the process of preparing for their Yule celebration …by cutting down pine trees, which belong to a different eco-sphere, and putting them up in their homes which are in trees. Okay, how about this: a sci-fi story in which ice-powered blue-skinned aliens on their ice planet celebrate the first snowfall by riding around on reindeer as all the leaves fall from the trees and HOLD IT RIGHT THERE. Ignoring for the moment the ice-powers (suspiciously fantastical for a sci-fi!) and the fact that habitable planets which are completely one ecosphere are unlikely to impossible: why are these people celebrating a first snowfall when they presumably live in ice and snow year round? For that matter, how the heck do they even have trees if everything else you’ve described implies a single ecosphere of tundra at best? Are you trying to make me use multiple exclamation marks like a crazy person?!? Okay, one last try, a civilization from a Northern, temperate and often snowy in winter society colonise a southern hemisphere tropical to arid continent and insist on transporting their winter (now summer) celebration of lights to the same point in the year because it’s the birth date of someone famous. So they make a joke of it by changing the lyrics of all the carols to represent the ridiculous climate change and make it a celebration of beach-going over a celebration of lights that would never be seen because summer nights are too short. Of the three examples: the first two are cases of really poorly thought through world building and the last is Australia. An Aussie-like situation could work in fiction, but you’d need to make obvious the backstory of a semi-altered tradition from somewhere it had made sense, else your readers will be bothered. (In New Zealand the disparity is slightly less obvious because of the climate difference, but it’s still silly to put up lights given that it’ll be at least nine or ten before they’re actually going to be comparatively bright enough to make an impression.)

4. Consider whether beliefs actually have space for such a celebration: Why the heck would your Klingons, sorry, your Proud and Honourable Alien Warrior Race celebrate a holiday about peace to everyone? Would a fantasy culture which values truth above everything really have a celebration wherein a major event is lying to children about a fat home invader who leaves them gifts? Why would Jewish, or Muslim, or Buddhist, or Wiccan, or any other non-Christian religion feel the need to celebrate the birth of the guy from all the curse words? Would a native people being invaded by Christians in the past have really given a damn about that holiday beyond the fact that all the invaders take the day off to go sit in a conveniently wooden building marked with a cross and therefore easy to identify and set alight? If people live somewhere that is so cold that winter is a time of terrible hardship, why would they waste resources celebrating in the middle with a feast? They’d be more likely to celebrate when it’s over. For that matter: what exactly are they celebrating? Is it light or some historical-religious event? The changing of the year? Why would the year change part way through a season and not at the end of one? Is it peace on Earth? Even if they live in a time before that was even a concept? What use is a festival of lights for nocturnal beings? Question everything.

5. Accept that peace on Earth and goodwill to all people doesn’t require the trappings of Christmas: This leads back to something I said earlier, about how the whole peace on Earth thing is always yammered on about but never shown in real behaviour, because everyone’s too busy screaming at poor shop attendants for “ruining their Christmas” because they ran out of some material item, and screaming at non-Christians for their beliefs, and screaming at everyone who’s even slightly tolerant of not demanding that everyone celebrate one religion’s holiday for trying to “ruin Christmas”. Peace on Earth and goodwill to all are noble goals. They aren’t reliant on presents and trees, on people saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays”, or stocking one religion’s holiday paraphernalia and not another’s. If the “spirit of Christmas” is supposed to be kindness to others then maybe writers could focus on that bit instead of the trappings when they world-build and the rest of the world could, you know, actually try it out for a change.


…I’ve GOT to start making these things shorter. I know they’re rants, but damn, I talk too much.


Posted by on December 19, 2015 in On Writing


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