If you write a novel set in the real world—whether it is historical or modern—you don’t have to worry so much about “creating” a world as “researching” your setting. But if you are writing science fiction or fantasy, you very often “create” a world from scratch. There are a couple of approaches that you can take to this.
The first approach is to say, “I’m going to set my story in a completely imaginary world and there will be no rational explanation for it.” In short, you can say, “In my world, pigs can fly. They huff up air and expand until they float like hot air balloons.”
Sure, you can do that, and it sounds like you could have a wonderful world of make-believe, but it is all rather limiting. Algis Budrys used to say that there is a “one impossibility limit” to the human imagination. Most readers will allow that one impossible thing can happen in a story. Okay, so pigs can fly like hot air balloons. What next? Well, if you decide to add elves and dinosaurs, your one-impossibility rule is broken, and it progressively erodes your reader’s faith in the story. Ultimately, what you’re left with is meaningless glop.
If anything can happen in your world, then who cares what does happen? There isn’t any meaningful conflict, because it can all be magically resolved.
Now, I’m going to hazard a guess that Algis Budrys was wrong. He ignored the fact that there are plenty of people who find it impossible to enjoy a story that has any degree of impossibility. I don’t know what the exact figures are, but I suspect that if you put a single fantasy element into a story—flying pigs—many adults will be unable to enjoy it. Such people will tell you that they literally detest fantasy, and they’re being perfectly honest.
I know authors in my field who might want to hurl insults at such people. They’d say, “Well, they’re just too stupid or unimaginative to enjoy my work,” but the truth is that these are often intelligent and creative people in their own right who find that adding fantastic elements to a fictive work simply undermines the emotional power of the piece.
As the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggested, we need to get our readers to attain a “willing suspension of disbelief.” The more suspension of disbelief that you request from your audience, the more readers you will lose.
I’ve never seen a study done on this, but I have spoken to a lot of readers, and I’ve long held to a guess that adding a single fantastical element gives you a drop-off of about 25%. If you add two fantastical elements to your story—let’s say that you have flying pigs and vampires—I believe that you get about another 30% loss on your audience. If you add a third fantastical element—say talking dinosaurs–, you get another 40% loss. After that, I believe that your audience becomes negligible.
Now, there is a value in adding the fantastic to your stories. As William Shakespeare showed us in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” adding fantastical elements to a story draws the audience’s attention. It gets them to wonder what is going on, and it can even evoke a sense of wonder, but it is the realistic portrayal of the human drama that really allows us to touch other powerful, universal emotions.
Thus, eventually a fantasy tale needs to have strongly depicted realistic moments in order to be profoundly moving.
Now, let me get down to something technical: All readers require fantastical elements to their stories in order to gain their attention. If I wrote a story about you, sitting down at your computer and reading this email, and I wrote it in a pedestrian style, and it depicted your life exactly as it is, you’d be bored out of your skull. So I need something to grab you. That something might be the use of heightened language—so evocative and beautiful that it almost seems to be sung. Or I might overwhelm you with the power of my observations. I might make a person different from you reading the email, a person so different in her thoughts and style so that she enthralls you. I might place my character in a place that you’d never imagined—say a Catholic school in Africa. That’s the level at which a realist would approach this task.
Me, I prefer to read stories that have some fantastical element, and the truth is that most other people do, too. That’s why EVERY movie on the top ten bestseller list for this year is likely to have a strong fantasy or science fiction element.
So as a fantasist, I don’t feel the need to insult people who tell me that they’re not in my audience. That’s okay. They like vanilla, I like chocolate. I even understand their feelings. I don’t like too much fantasy in my tales. Personally, I never could enjoy Alice in Wonderland¸ even as a child. There were too many bizarre things going on, none of it made any sense, and ultimately I lost interest and fell asleep at the movie theater.
So here’s my lesson for today: If you want to create a powerful fantasy, you need to understand that imagination alone won’t make your work powerful. You need to understand and use the writing approaches used in the Realistic movement (the ones you learn about in writing classes in college). Sure, you can write a vampire novel that will attract a wide audience, but as you add werewolves, space aliens, and flying toasters, more and more of your readers are going to respond by saying “What the hell?”
I recall years ago reading a manuscript for a large writing contest that was very well written. It opened with a young elven princess racing through a forest, trying to catch a pixie in a net, when she trips over a log. As she gets up, the log begins to move, and she recognizes that it is in fact the tail of a dragon, which begins to huff as it prepares to breathe fire. The elven princess grasps her magic wand in a huff and ZAP! she turns that nasty old dragon into flower petals.
Well, regardless of how fine a stylist the author was, there was just too much going on. I hate elves. They’re over-used. Pixies and unicorns too. I don’t even like dragons very much. Put them all together and throw in magic wands of ultimate power and I guarantee that you’ve got a groaner of a story.
Yet some of the greatest pieces of fantasy might seem to violate the one impossibility rule. Tolkien of course had dragons, elves, dwarves, and all kinds of impossibilities in Lord of the Rings. So how does he do it?
The answer is quite simple: when introducing your impossibilities, link them together at the onset. Tolkien links all of his impossibilities under one heading: alternate world. If you as the author simply say, “My story is set in the world of Gonrathen,” you can get away with a great deal. Magical powers might be commonplace, and we need no explanation. Strange creatures might exist there, too.
But these days it seems that contemporary fantasy set in our world is all the rage. So how do you create it? Stick to the one impossibility rule, but then link ancillary ideas to your main idea.
Thus, you might for example set your story in a forest in the Ukraine where a race of “elves” have lived in hiding from the rest of the world for a thousand years, fearing persecution for their pointy ears and strange powers. They’re humans, we might learn in an early paragraph, but they’ve evolved differently from us, and thus have telepathic powers—which make humans fear them, because the elves can “whisper” thoughts to the human minds and take control of others.
Do you see how I just linked elves and telepathy? So long as you do the two together, it’s no problem. But if you created elves and then suddenly tell us in book three of your series that they have telepathy, the reader will cry foul.
So now we link some possible consequences of the whole telepathy angle to our core idea: since our elves can read minds, they are able to learn with startling quickness and master all forms of human technology simply by observing another at his craft. They can master languages in minutes. More than that, they can look into the minds of animals and thus learn from birds if any humans are wandering near, and so on. They can look into the hearts of mere humans and judge them, to learn if they are good or evil.
Okay, so you have two possibilities that are linked early on—a hidden race of humans and telepathy, and you’ve linked secondary concepts about telepahty to the major idea.
Now, you can expand on these elves by making more links. Among the elven telepaths in the Ukraine is an even newer strain. They’ve been breeding for intelligence, strength and speed for a hundred generations, and perhaps a new breed has evolved, a class of warriors called the Sharr who believe that it is time to come out of hiding and take control of the world. Thus, the elves have become involved in a civil war that is sprawling out across Europe. See how we’ve moved from “magic powers” to exploring social conditions among our elves?
Do you see how you can take one main idea and build upon it by linking secondary concepts so that the audience accepts a great number of impossibilities?
Yet you have to be careful. It’s easy to get carried away, to try to cram too many fantastical elements into a story.
Readers love having fantastical elements in their story, but you have to establish a set of rules early on and then adhere to it. I recall years ago listening to a science fiction writer crabbing about “all of that fantasy crap,” with its magic mumbo jumbo and complete disregard for things like logic and physics. A couple of years later as fantasy became more popular, his agent suggested that he write a fantasy. I saw him a few months after he had published his first fantasy and asked him how it did. He said, “You know, writing fantasy is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I had no idea how difficult it is. You have to establish your own logic and rules and then stick with them!”
Yep, that’s the key: establish the rules of your world early and then stick with them to the end.