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.