Saturday, May 12, 2018

Holes in the Literary World Part 1 - Realism in Fantasy

Thanks to the response on the recent Beautiful People post, we're launching another blog series! This one is on five of the holes in the literary world that I'd like to see filled. (Credit goes to the lovely Arielle of The Splendor Falls on Castle Walls and Intuitive Writing Guide for suggesting this.)

The first point we're tackling today is realism, specifically in speculative fiction. "Wait just a dragon-blessed minute," you might be thinking. "The very reason I read speculative fiction is to get away from boring reality. If you make fantasy or sci-fi realistic, will you obliterate every dragon and spaceship entirely?"

To that I say, "No."

Because I agree, one reason we love speculative fiction is the otherworldliness of it all! I love dragons! I love superheroes and tech that doesn't really exist. I love quests and kingdoms and new worlds and magic and everything else that comes with these genres. And I love these things so much that when I read about them, I want to be able to suspend my disbelief long enough to fully enjoy the story. I want to forget that Narnia's not really at the back of the wardrobe. I want to forget that superheroes aren't actually blazing over New York. I want to believe just for a few hundred pages that elementals can shape lightning with their hands, dragons rule the skies, and a portal could suck me into another realm at any minute.

That's what I mean by realism. Not an absence of wonder, but a means of grounding a story so that my mind is free to wonder.

Here are just a few ways that can be achieved. Keep in mind this is opinion time--these are things that help me personally to connect to a story (regardless of genre, actually), but your list might look a bit different!

1. I want all my senses engaged.

This is particularly important for fantasy, or any book that introduces a new world. Fantasy readers want to be immersed. For the duration of the book, they want to live and breathe a new place. But even the most amazing worldbuilding falls flat if the reader feels like a spectator, rather than like he's inside that world right alongside the characters. Using the five senses is one of the easiest ways to make such a connection.

I want the story details to be deftly painted--neither overwritten to the point of eyeball exhaustion, nor skimmed over with barely a glance. I'd rather not wade through pages of exposition on what a single setting looks like, but neither do I want to encounter "White Room Syndrome." It's a bothersome thing when visual details are so lacking that it feels as if the characters are talking heads floating in a white room.)

[via Pinterest]

I want to see the thunderclouds roiling, the sun beaming through a dusty windowpane, the moss growing like skirts around massive oak trees, the unraveling hem of a peasant's cloak, the dents and scratches in a knight's shield.

I want to hear the characters' voices, the ambient background noises, the clamor of battle, the patter of rain on the roof, the snap of a log in the fire, the rush of wings.

I want to feel the aching muscles after a long day's ride, the damp rock of a cavern wall, the electric tingle of portal jumping, the swaying of a precarious rope bridge, the blistering flames springing from my hand with only a word.

I want to taste and smell the rain in the air, the smoke of a burning building, the butter melting into fresh bread, the acrid scent of a witch's brew, the coppery blood when I'm punched in the teeth.

In short, I want to feel like I'm there.

Some books that succeeded in this:

  • The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater // I can't recommend the entire series due to the amount of language and some worldview disagreement, but she is marvelous at conveying setting and atmosphere.
  • The Tales of Goldstone Wood series by Anne Elisabeth Stengl // Incredible depth and scope! Even though it's written in an omniscient point of view, I can see and feel everything.
  • Wither by Savannah Jezowski // Part of the Five Enchanted Roses anthology. Very immersive and engaging.

2. I want the emotions to pop.

This is where so many books fall short. Maybe I'm just particular about how I like my characters, but the number one thing I look for is connection. I don't want to just feel like I'm walking the same dusty road or smelling the same ancient library as they are--I want to smile with their joy, weep with their sorrow, cringe at their pain. I want my pulse to race. I want my breath to catch. I want to feel a laugh rising in my chest.

In fact, I think the lack of realistic emotions is one reason speculative tropes feel so . . . well, clich√©. Like two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs with little more than tradition to prop them up. But that also means there's an incredible opportunity to breathe fresh live into those well-worn tropes with grounded, relatable emotions and reactions!

[via Pinterest]
You're the chosen one? Great. What does that feel like? Actually? The crushing pressure, the crippling self-doubt, the spine-tingling excitement . . . You're alienated from your friends and family. You're elevated to a spot of high publicity, usually in very short order. A whole kingdom, or perhaps a whole world, is riding on your shoulders. You're probably not ready for the task ahead of you. Oh, and guess what? You're probably sixteen and haven't even figured out high school. I want to experience that chaotic spectrum of emotions!

You're a superhero? Love it! Let me feel what it's like to discover your powers, to live a double life, to save the very world that critiques and condemns you, to accept a role you never asked for.

You're fighting an epic fantasy battle? Okay, put me on the battlefield. Let's hear the chaos and see the carnage, utterly stripped of the soaring musical soundtracks and nicely choreographed movements. Let's feel the desperation, the animalistic actions mixed with startling humanity. Do it tastefully, but show me the heartbreak of war. And don't forget to show me the damaging emotional aftereffects.

I could go on and on! Basically, what I'm looking for is real humans within the strangeness of spec fic. I'll believe your dragons are real if I can believe in the living, breathing, thinking, feeling people in their midst.

Some books that succeeded:

  • A Time to Die by Nadine Brandes // I felt Parvin's ups and downs so deeply. One of the most thought-provoking books I've read.
  • Eye of the Oracle by Bryan Davis // Despite the fact that this sweeping story covers entire centuries, I felt all of the major characters' struggles.
  • The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer // Every character is well-drawn, and each point of view is arresting and immediate. Cinder in particular offers a deep perspective.

3. I want to the world to be beautifully balanced.

Yes, I want some fabulous worldbuilding! Give me convincing cultures and subcultures, populated by believable people, anchored in a world that's so tightly woven it seems as if it's always spun on its axis. Give me realistic politics where nothing is as black and white as we wish it were. Give me geography that makes sense. Give me history that builds upon itself and affects the current storyworld. Give me realistic prejudices, worldviews, values, fears, and desires that spring naturally from the world you've created. Give me something that has meaning, something nearly as textured and intricate as our own planet earth.

There are books, particularly in fantasy, that feel as if they're checking off a series of worldbuilding boxes. Like the author took a template* and divided everything into little boxes. Each individual box is cool, but none of them work together cohesively. They're cogs on a wheel, but each are different sizes, so when the wheels start turning, the story jolts. And suddenly I'm a spectator again--or worse, a critic with a red pen.

*By the by, there is absolutely nothing wrong with using templates! I've done it! They're great for helping a writer beef up the parts of their storyworld they tend to neglect.

What I'm looking for is a story where all the moving parts fit together, and each element affects all the others. For example, if we look at a fictional kingdom's geography, that aspect alone should play a crucial role in:

  • natural resources, exports, and imports
  • political position
  • global influence or lack thereof
  • culture
  • dress
  • food
  • history
  • wars
  • etc.

Are they landlocked? Do they have access to other countries? How rich are they in resources? Which ones? Are these resources scarce in other parts of the world? How does the climate affect what the people wear, eat, and do? What parts of the country's geography are strategic advantages or disadvantages? How has that impacted wars fought on their soil? Who are their geographic neighbors? Are they on good terms? Do mountains or oceans separate them from each other? There's so much to delve into based on a single aspect of worldbuilding!

But the book doesn't have to show all of this "on screen." That would get rather dry and boring pretty quickly. And because the book is a work of fiction, the author could spend the rest of his or her life developing a single world and never getting around to writing the story that's supposed to take place in it! So I'm certainly not asking for a set of encyclopaedias about every made-up world. I just want the slice of the world I see on the page to be cohesive and natural.

Some books that succeeded:

  • The Tales of Goldstone Wood series by Anne Elisabeth Stengl
  • The Auralia Thread series by Jeffrey Overstreet
  • The Bright Empires series by Stephen Lawhead
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark

In short, I'd love to see more speculative fiction that immerses me in a believable world and makes me truly feel with the characters.

There are many, many wonderful books that do some or all three points on this list, and I've shared only a few of them! I hope this literary hole continues to be filled in the future. Yes, it's a pretty tall order. But it's possible.

And as a side note, it's important to take into account that not all books are trying to do the same things (which could be a whole 'nother post on its own!), so not every book will hit all of these points with the same amount of gusto, nor do they automatically need to.

But at the end of the day, if a novel can make me feel deeply connected to the characters and solidly anchored in their world, I will probably scream my happiness from the rooftops! That's the kind of fiction I'm hungry for!

Okay, your turn! What's something you see lacking in the world of books? Is there anything you'd add to this list? Oh, and hit me up with your realistic speculative fiction recommendations! (That's a mouthful.)


  1. YAAAAY!!!!!!!! I was so, so hoping you'd do this series. I'M SO EXCITED ABOUT THIS! And can I just give a big AMEN to this post? Good gracious, YES!

    I absolutely LOVE your point that if you engage the senses, bring in the emotions, and build the world up so deeply, it will ALL feel real. We won't think twice about dragons reigning the skies, because all the emotions and senses make US feel things. Wow. Such a powerful thought!

    And yes to ALL THE THINGS. I feel like fantasy DOES often lack in the five senses. It seems like with contemporaries and historical fiction, these senses are much more engaged than in spec-fic. Not always of course, but I do tend to really FEEL what the character feels in real world tales more so than fantasy ones. We're so often told that the characters have been walking for days and are exhausted and hungry or whatever, but I rarely actually FEEL it, you know? That's something I need to work on more myself.

    And the emotions! YES. So, so, sooo important. Honestly, to me anyways, really bringing out the emotions is the most important part of storytelling. Plot twists and amazing worldbuilding is good and all, but if it doesn't make us FEEL, what's the point? I 100% agree that the A Time to Die series, the Lunar Chronicles, and Eye of the Oracle excelled at this. A Time to Die also really, REALLY brought out the five senses. Almost too much. Lol! Parvin's suffering felt so real. My word. o.o

    And of course worldbuilding is a biggy. It's one of the most important things in fantasy and, like you said, it often feels like the author is just checking off a box, making everything so straightforward and not nearly as complicated as the real world is. Except...this is where I fail a lot too. But I absolutely live for books with deep, intricate, well-thought out worldbuilding.

    I'm just soaking up this whole post and taking mental notes for my OWN stories. This was golden advice and I couldn't agree more. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us!

    (P.S. Your "dragon-blessed minute" made me laugh. XDDD)

    1. YAYYY! I was really looking forward to starting this series too, so I'm glad you like it so far! :D

      Exactly! I think Robert Liparulo taught something like that at Realm Makers last year--that if we do a good job painting a picture of ordinary, relatable details, readers will be able to believe the fantastic, strange, out-of-this-world concepts we write about.

      But there's so much ROOM to explore the five senses in fantasy! You literally have an entire new world to explore with fresh eyes. Maybe in contemporary and historical, it's a bit easier because the details are things we normally encounter, so our minds need less help making the setting come to life. *shrugs* I agree, though, it's rare for me to truly FEEL the physicality of what fantasy characters go through.

      GIVE ME ALL THE FEELS, OKAY. THAT'S WHAT I'M HERE FOR. Ohhhh, yes, A Time to Die had incredibly vivid detail. Poor Parvin! D:

      Ahahaha, this is what *I'm* really working on too, and it's one of the big missing ingredients in my Journeys of the Chosen series. XD So... don't feel bad.

      Ahhh, that makes me so happy! Thank you, Christine!


  2. You make such good points! I agree there needs to be realism, emotion, and a well defined word in order for the story to be engaging. I need to work on world building more myself.

    1. World building is so complex! They say something like a tenth of the world-building knowledge you design should actually come out on the page... the rest is your own development behind the scenes. Which is kind of daunting if you think about it that way--OR it can be very motivating and fun if you see it as a secret world and only you know the full extent of it. :D

  3. Young fantasy writers need to read this... Right now I am working on the whole backstory/figuring out the painful details of how large my continent is, how long it should take for my characters to get across it, etc. The whole backstory creation of a fantasy world is... Whew...
    I have a whole new awe for Tolkien's Middle Earth.
    I was thinking about Christian metaphors in fantasy lit, and I realized some is very complicated, and some is very simple. Mine is very complicated, so it has been hours of work, not even writing my book, just working on the WORLD.
    Great post, I really enjoyed this!!!!!

    1. Sheesh, I needed this a few years ago too, and it's still a good reminder for myself now! Ack, travel logistics are a real pain sometimes. That's one of my biggest worldbuilding struggles, I think. I applaud your work!

      Oh goodness, YES. Tolkien was the worldbuilding boss. o.o

      That's a good point too. The amount of metaphor/allegory in a book deserves a lot of attention!

      Thank you!!! :D

  4. Great post!
    Many of the books you gave as examples are ones that I've read and enjoyed, or desperately want to read.
    There are two books I've been enjoying lately, that I think fulfill these points well: Pendragon's Heir by Suzannah Rowntree, and Storming by K.M Weiland. Have you read them?

    1. Thanks, Blue! I kept going back to the same favorites when brainstorming the book examples, honestly. So many of them fall under all three categories! XD

      Oh, no I haven't! But I've heard of each of them and really, really want to read them. Especially Storming. If it's really as well-developed as you say, I'll have to bump it higher on my TBR!

  5. This is a really neat discussion! I wish there were more homeschooled characters. I was homeschooled and it would have been nice if growing up there were other characters like me. Also more tall girls. XD Most girls in YA novels are always said to be short and mousy. I'm very tall for a girl. Always have been, so it would be nice to have some more tall ladies in fiction.

    1. Thanks! Oh, I agree 100%--we need more homeschoolers (who aren't automatically weird or unsocialized). XD Also yes to more tall girls. I'm on the taller side too, and nothing at all like those "short and mousy" protagonists either. XD

  6. Excellent post! I agree with all of these :)

    I'm doing some CUH-RAZY world-building stuff in my Turrim Archive series, and I am grateful that I now know of at least one reader who will appreciate the lengths I have gone to. :)

    1. Thanks, Jenelle! Glad you enjoyed.

      Exciting! I mean, headache-inducing too, at times, but I will DEFINITELY appreciate all the hard work you're putting into it. <3

  7. The Queen's Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner blows my mind with its worldbuilding. The descriptions, the politics, even the mythology are so well developed, it feels like a world that truly exists. Have you read it?

    1. I haven't yet, but it's on my TBR! I've heard excellent things about it! :D Maybe I'll be able to pick up the first book this summer.

      Another series I've heard has very realistic consequences is Red Rising--that's also on my towering TBR. XD

  8. I love this!! I totally agree with you about emotions feeling so cliche in spec tropes. Of course, characters are going to act a certain way, and sometimes you can't avoid sounding cheesy. But when it's cliche after cliche, it gets really annoying really fast. I want to relate to these characters! So if they're doing just dandy with no worries or realistic reactions, I feel like a pathetic bean, because I for sure couldn't handle whatever they're going through as well as they are.

    I mean, if I was 'the chosen one', I can say for sure that the crushing pressure and self-doubt would kill me before any monsters or villains would. XD

    1. Right, some cliches are tropes for a good reason! As long as they feel REAL to me, I totally don't mind. You're right, spec fic characters seem to roll with the punches way too well.

      Right?? I would need a loooot of support from my Mentor and Sidekicks to stay alive. XDDD