Note: this piece was first published at The First Rule of Write Club, which is a podcast I highly recommend (and not only because it’s mine).
There’s one particular piece of advice that I’ve been hearing for as long as I’ve been an aspiring author: “Write what you know”. The premise being that an author needs to have an honest connection with what they’re writing, or else the entire thing rings hollow.
It seems eminently sensible, from an academic point of view, and it’s also been something that I’ve struggled with since I was about 13 years old.
The problem is that I want to write fantasy, and that’s always seemed to make ‘writing what you know’ sort of impossible. I don’t live in a preindustrial society, for one thing (although I am working on a modern-era epic fantasy series) and I haven’t been in a massive battle. I don’t think the authors I liked to read have either, and they seemed to get along just fine. “Write what you researched a lot” seemed to be a reasonable substitution.
As I got older, I started thinking about it a different way. I really value characters and relationships in books, regardless of genre. It doesn’t matter if someone’s a college student or a pirate, they still have wants and needs and friends and enemies, and that’s something I can understand. “Write what you know” started becoming about figuring out how people worked, went where they did, doing what they were doing with the people they were with. The writers I admired had characters who felt like they really existed.
And it still felt wrong.
Not just in my own writing; the more I paid attention to it, the odder and more inappropriate it started to seem, seeing characters who resembled people I’ve known all my life walking around in an environment that was so different from anything I knew. They responded to things with a strange mixture of overreaction and underreaction: a character would mirror my own astonishment, watching someone light a candle with the power of their mind, which is gratifying, until I stopped to realize that they probably shouldn’t be as amazed as I am, because even if they hadn’t seen it before they still knew it was fundamentally possible. On the other hand, a squire will see a dragon and shrug it off bravely because she knew it was coming, and I don’t care how worldly you think you are, I know that polar bears exist, and I’m telling you I would still run screaming for the hills.
We react to our world based on deep underlying assumptions that we’ve been building ever since we were born. Seeing someone behave contrary to those assumptions just makes everything feel off.
So I started thinking about that.
And I kept thinking about it
And then I had a realization the other day that was so glaringly obvious that I’m embarrassed not to have put it together earlier: people who are writing speculative fiction, particularly high fantasy, have no frame of reference for what we’re writing.
Fantasy Fiction Doesn’t Share Common Frames of Reference
Example 1: We Don’t Have Magic
I can’t fly. Hell, I can’t even fly in dreams – my obnoxiously detail-oriented brain always wants to know how flying works, and when the dream-people tell me that “you just fly” I get confused and stop being able to do it.
We don’t have armies of ghosts or vampires wandering around downtown, and pretty much every kid this generation has tried waving wands and shouting anything even vaguely resembling Latin.
We have no idea what it would feel like to want something, wave a hand, and have the thing appear. We have no idea what it would do to our personalities – what kind of toll would that kind of instant gratification take on your willpower? What would the impact be on the economy? On the environment? We have no idea. At least, I have no idea; I can’t even begin to think of something comparable.
And then if you start getting into magic systems that have a cost – blood magic, for example – that comes with an entirely different set of things that once again, we as authors have no way of reaching for a parallel. Sure, most people have had the experience of having to sacrifice one thing to get another thing, but that’s not even remotely the same thing for one simple reason: any sacrifice that I can make doesn’t require an understanding of forces beyond my comprehension.
Example 2: The Gods Don’t Walk Among Us
Okay, so this is a tricky question, and I’m not trying to make any blanket statements about the objective truth of religion. I myself don’t know what I believe, and that certainly doesn’t put me in a position to tell anyone else what’s true or not.
It’s generally accepted that deities aren’t walking around Toronto or Paris or New York or Beijing. Many people who pray feel a connection to their god, and it’s common to ask for help or a blessing on an important event, or for a friend or family member who’s going through a hard time, and if the event goes well or the friend or family member improves, it may well be because of divine intervention.
But when someone says “God strike me down if I lie”, we haven’t seen very many spontaneous thunderclaps killing people in the middle of a Sunday afternoon picnic. There aren’t many stories of a group of nonbelievers seeing a host of angels, all filmed by several different television networks.
Gods are not directly involved in the lives of most people, and many people are able to believe that there are no such things as gods and are never forced to question or change that belief.
Here, again, fantasy is different to an almost incomprehensible degree. “The gods walked among us” is a common theme in fantasy backstory, and the idea that gods are either still directly interacting with mortals on a daily basis or are directly watching over mankind, judging and keeping score, is also common. Many magic systems are based on the idea that a magic user’s power is given to them directly by a god.
That means that everyone living in those worlds wakes up every day with the knowledge that their every move is being observed by a being who may, at any time, choose to take direct, personal action for or against them. Their actions and moral choices are being constantly weighed. For people living in a different fantasy world, any single person that they meet might actually be a deity. How does a society deal with that reality? What level of privacy does someone have in their own mind? How much attention can a given deity pay to any one person at a time, and how well understood is that by everyone who lives there? What does that knowledge do to a person?
I’m not saying that every character in a fantasy world should be a neurotic wreck. An essential part of human nature is adaptability; we’re really good at looking at the hand we’ve been dealt, and designing the rules of the game so that our hand is the winning one.
But the techniques that I’ve developed to cope with my world, the techniques that most writers and readers share, aren’t all going to make sense as the default means of coping with the daily realities of living in a high-magic god-heavy fantasy world. And I’ve noticed that it’s a common trend in fantasy writing to have characters instinctively react to situations the way readers would, only applying their knowledge of the world around them as a conscious process.
I’m sure that makes it easier for readers to relate to characters … but it also makes the world seem a little bit plastic, like a theme park with everyone going through the motions for the sake of the story.
It’s hard to know who to trust. Everybody’s got their own agenda, loyalties are complicated, and Dr House isn’t far off when he says that everybody lies. Even when you know that someone is really on your side, there’s no way of knowing whether they’re always telling the truth, or if they’re going to come through on their promises.
For me, that means that I spend a lot of time holding my breath and hoping nobody’s playing me for a fool. Some people use threats or incentives as ways to try and encourage everyone to keep to their word … we all know the options.
In fantasy fiction, those options are usually tailored to reflect the preindustrial setting.
“On my honor” is a popular oath, taken from romanticised earlier times in Western history when honor was more important than pride or greed or realizing it was a stupid idea and wanting to change your mind. And it makes sense that in our world, where (example 1) there is no magic and (example 2) the gods are fairly uninvolved, you have to resort to things like morality and personal codes to hold someone to their world.
But it makes absolutely no sense to apply the same standards in a world where either one of those rules don’t apply.
If something is important, really important, why on earth would anyone with a little bit of common sense take “honor” when they could follow Narcissa Malfoy’s example and demand an Unbreakable Vow? If you’re not willing to give the vow, then that shows how much we can count on your honor, doesn’t it?
And in a world where the gods walk among us, “I swear on Sekhmet’s name” shouldn’t be taken lightly. If someone will “swear by the Gods”, why exactly would you accept that half measure? If a person won’t accept the responsibility of swearing by a specific god, then you should probably just save yourself some time and assume they’re lying.
I was a reading a scene that played out as follows:
The high priest of a religion was in his home, which was also the temple of his god. He summoned a religious zealot to come see him. The zealot brought a group of other zealots with him, claiming that he felt he needed protection, because he had been “preaching the truth” about the high priest, and everyone knew that when the truth was revealed, nefarious men would try to get rid of the brave preachers.
In the book, the high priest and the zealot argued for a while, and eventually the high priest ordered the bodyguards away and they went.
But that seemed entirely unnecessary to me. You had the high priest of a religion, standing in the temple of his god. Another believer of the same faith claimed to be afraid that the high priest was going to kill him. The solution, to me, seemed simple:
High Priest: “I’m sorry, my son, I was not aware that you felt that I was dishonoring our god. If you will swear, here and now, in the name of our god, that you were truly afraid that I meant to kill you, I owe you an apology.”
Because: the god is real. He has been known to come and visit people. They are standing in his temple, and both men believe in his existence. The zealot has been claiming that the high priest is corrupt. That’s something the god ought to know about. It’s entirely appropriate to bring it up. The zealot is also causing real political trouble, which is also something the god ought to know about. If the zealot is sincere, then this is a chance to clear things up, If the zealot is not sincere, then there’s no way out.
I’m not saying it’s a perfect solution … but it made me realize how very rarely problems are solved outside of the reader’s own comfort zone. If we were in that situation, we’d have to argue and fight and bluster and resort to pulling rank … so that’s what the high priest did. We couldn’t just ask our god to come down and be a lie detector, so neither did the high priest.
It’s tempting to think of fantasy novels as familiar character tropes interacting with each other in a strange and magical world. Authors spend months or even years designing magic systems, fine-tuning geography, creating languages and working out complicated political networks. At the same time, we try and create characters with compelling histories, believable conflicts, and relatable strengths and weaknesses.
That’s a great first step, but it’s not enough.
In order for the world to feel natural, we have to stop and really ask ourselves not just “what’s different in this world I just made”, but “how is it different from what I’m used to and what are the implications of those differences?” If you were a character in your world, which parts of the system would you exploit? What would scare you? Who would you be jealous of, and what would you aspire to?
Try to come up with as many different problems as you can think of: someone’s been evicted from their house; a couple is having marital problems; a girl isn’t doing well at her studies; there’s a plague; a boy can’t reach his ball because it’s in a tree. Try to figure out the best, most efficient possible solution to the problem using all of the resources your world provides.
Maybe try turning that on its head: pick ten or fifteen or twenty-five normal scenarios, use the resources at your command to ruin them, and then see how people react. People are having a picnic – until the ground splits open. Does this happen to them often? Are there people they can call when this sort of thing happens? Is this completely unheardof? What happens if one of them falls in?
Whatever you do, don’t think back on things you’ve experienced; you already know the rules of this world. If you want draw readers into your world, you need to learn its rules as well as you know these ones. Get your characters reacting instinctively and then maybe they won’t feel like they’re walking around in a theme park anymore.