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"But it doesn't happen on Earth!" or "But it's a fantasy!"

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Heliotrope, Sep 4, 2016.

  1. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Fifth View always has great post ideas, and I gave him a few days to post this one, but because it has been something in my mind for a while too I thought I would get the ball rolling on the discussion.

    So basically this post is about your thoughts or process, on what stuff you keep as "mundane" in your works, and what stuff you feel OK about stretching beyond a reasonable doubt.

    The reason I have been thinking about this lately is because I'm doing a few crits for a few people (and working on my own WIP) and I find that I am constantly toggling between two comments:

    "This is too unrealistic." and "This is a fantasy! Jazz this up a bit."

    Obviously, the two comments are contradictory. lol.

    Here are my thoughts on the subject:

    I think that the reader will always revert to "what they know" or their "schema". Basically, when introduced to new information they will try to fit that information into what they already know.

    So if you are going to present something like birth, or lighting a fire, or reading a book, or getting punished by a whip, then the reader will automatically imagine the experience in a way they have seen it before.

    If what you are showing the reader comes across as too unrealistic (the baby is born very quickly and the mother gets up and fights off a dragon after) or a slave feels very little pain from the whip and then has no problem picking up his sickle and heading back to the fields, then the reader (or me, in this case) will think "That is too unrealistic. Obviously, this author didn't think this through or do her research." Nothing screams amateur to me than this sort of thing.

    HOWEVER, there is a caveat:

    - IF the author explains why childbirth or the whip are different in this world, and uses enough detail to show how they are different, then I may suspend belief.

    - IF the author SHOWS another, different woman giving birth in a similar way, or another slave being whipped in a similar way my "schema" changes to think "Oh, this must be the way this is done in this world."

    In my opinion, both of the above are necessary when including something in a fantasy that is "not the way it happens on Earth."

    BUT IT'S A FANTASY!

    Yes. Yes, it is. And this is why world building and showing, not telling, are so important to fantasy writers and why most fantasy books are two to three times longer than other genre fiction. We don't need to have lanterns, we can have floating orbs of magical light. We can bend the rules of architecture, time and space, gravity, whatever we like. We can create new races... I think we can stretch our imaginations to whatever deep and dark corner we can come up with, and I know for myself when an author throws in something totally strange, or weird, or unknown to me... something so huge and over the top my eyes widen a bit, and my ears prick up and I settle into my seat and think "Cool, this is going to be good."

    BUT,

    First, they need to show me how their world is different. Change my schema. Include a scene showing me why and how things are different so that I can suspend disbelief. There needs to be a substantial amount of detailed world building and "set-up" scenes so that I understand without a doubt that the scene is not a on-off with inadequate research, but actually how things are done in the world.

    Thoughts on this? How do you guys show your worlds are "not Earth" without hand-holding or getting too deep into exposition?
     
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  2. Reaver

    Reaver Kwisatz Haderach Moderator

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    Great start to a thread Heliotrope! For me the answer is simple: the mere existence of fantastical creatures and beings in my world is enough to show that this isn't earth.

    I'll also include peripheral things like multiple moons in the sky at night, trees a thousand feet high and many other otherworldly examples.
     
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  3. glutton

    glutton Inkling

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    The way the heroines are presented in my stories are usually enough in my view to show it is pure cathartic fantasy and not meant to be particularly realistic. Girls who wield 20-50 lb weapons often one-handed, beat up giant monsters without magic, and endure attacks that would kill a normal human many times over are bae. In the opening scene on my current WIP one of the characters has her subordinate 'trim' half a dozen arrows that are sticking out of her so they don't get in the way of her movement, then goes on to bisect a 1500 lb armored boar in one hit and then absolutely annihilate a half-angel wielding the artifact spear of a Lucifer analogue. She is high end even for my girls and it is meant to be a major hype scene, but still.

    One of my heroines getting up after childbirth and fighting a dragon would be a mid tier feat for them lol.
     
    Last edited: Sep 4, 2016
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  4. I struggle quite a lot with this kind of thing. I have two sides of me at war; on the one hand, the scientifically-minded side who wants everything to be factually accurate and is driven mad when I have to bend the rules of physics and nature to justify something; on the other hand, the whimsical, imaginative side who wants to go wild inventing strange and bizarre and often illogical things. It can make world-building painful.

    I would like to consider my WIP a hard fantasy. The "magic" (if you even can call it that) isn't in everything. By that, i mean it occurs in a very specific and limited context (in people) and what it can and can't do is very clearly defined. I can't handwave anything by saying "it's magic." My dragons can't be magical, my swords can't be magical because magic isn't something that occurs throughout the world in things like animals or objects...aside from the magic system everything works not much differently than it does in reality.

    BUT. There are rules I still have to break. And i can't explain them away using magic. For example, my dragons and winged people--I have a flight obsession ever since watching How to Train Your Dragon and I have a lot of things that fly. A creature with both forelegs/arms and functional wings is rather impossible (the muscles in both limbs would be competing for space, and the muscles controlling the wings would have to be huge. Also, there would be no place to anchor the wing muscles. If you study a bird's skeleton they have a bone in their chest that the muscles powering the wings anchor to. In a peregrine falcon these muscles are 30% of the bird's body weight. Yes, i'm a nerd.) But, still, I have the dragons and winged people, because they're cool. If I can't use the "it's magic" explanation to handwave them, should i have them? I don't know.

    I have a saying that goes something like this: "It doesn't have to be realistic, it just has to be real." That means that it doesn't matter if something obeys the rules of reality as long as the reader can be made to believe in it. Suspension of disbelief is a tricky thing. You have to resolve the questions that the text brings up. If it can be clearly shown that something works a certain way in this world, the reader will accept it without an in-depth explanation, but if it's just thrown out there...it's different. It seems more important to show what the rules are than show how the rules conform to our rules.
     
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  5. SaltyDog

    SaltyDog Sage

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    I agree with Reaver, fantastical creatures and strange races say it all. Only have one moon though.
     
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  6. La Volpe

    La Volpe Sage

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    I've always seen this issue as a matter of differentiating between something being realistic, and something being internally consistent.

    Fantasy, by nature, is unrealistic. But it's important to stay internally consistent. At the start, everything is assumed to be the same as we know it (i.e. Earth-like). But you can change this schema. You describe this perfectly in your caveat bit.

    A very basic example of this is magic. Magic is unrealistic, but it can be internally consistent. I.e. it follows the rules the writer sets for it. As the reader goes on, you reveal patterns, and a new schema emerges. If you suddenly stop following the rules you set up, you're being inconsistent, and that's usually not good (unless it's planned).

    An example of something that struck me as terribly inconsistent was this: Clark Kent is attacked by a guy with a knife. But he holds up his hand and the knife hits it square in the palm. Then the blade shatters apart.
    While we have the new schema of Superman being impenetrable, that isn't enough to shatter the knife. The only way that would happen is if the guy attacking has super strength (which he doesn't). I.e. the scene is not consistent with the rules that's been set up.

    @Dragon: I think you have the same understanding about this. I.e. you can do anything as crazy and strange as you want, as long as you apply the rules consistently.
     
  7. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    ^^^ Yes. I think this is very important.

    If it happens once with one character without any explanation it is stretching it for me.

    IF the author SHOWS it happening more than once, with more than one character then it becomes "normal" in the context of the world.
     
  8. SaltyDog

    SaltyDog Sage

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    Always stick to the rules you have set down in that world, it may be crazy stuff, but if you follow the rules it tends to work out.
     
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  9. ascanius

    ascanius Inkling

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    This is so true for me too, yet we fight on.

    As a reader, the more a world diverges from ours the harder it is for me to enjoy, think tritation curve. For me, if your going to have a floating city of one million people you're going to have to do a hell of a lot of work. I don't mean just the physics, economics, demographics etc... I mean the subtleties of the entire world. The thing I hate is a real world transplant with extravagant magic. If the culture details are not there to act as a foundation I have a very hard time.
     
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  10. You said it much better than me, but yes, basically.
     
  11. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Helio,

    I avoided starting the thread because I was worried it could become a War of Polemics. Or, of Aesthetics. All of us who are intensely in love with the fantasy genre will have strong feelings about its very nature and, simultaneously, might easily feel that any You Must or You Mustn't could become an unfair manacle on our creativity.

    First, the abstract...

    In that other thread I'd broken the dichotomy into this: "the tendency to not follow 'Where there's a will, there's a way' but rather to stop at 'OMG I just can't do this!' "

    My general concern was not about what must or must not be put into a fantasy, how we must or must not put it there—per se—but rather about the effects of internalized inhibition. Do we limit ourselves, our own creativity, though a fear of seeming ridiculous—or of being misunderstood?

    Here's a related Writing Excuses podcast: 11.08: Wonder as a Subgenre | Writing Excuses

    Sanderson: "So the first thing I would say is that if you want to use this in your books, if you want this to be a strength, you need to put awesome things in your books."

    Does inhibition limit the awesomeness? Or let's put it another way: Does fear of being ridiculous push us toward writing the average?

    So my primary concern was about how those two guiding principles, Where there's a will vs OMG I can't, come into play in the conceptualization phase, the preplanning, or, if we are pantsing the story, as we write.

    I'd say this concern affects everything from basic world building, to creating characters and developing the plot, to creating individual plot points and scenes.

    So, putting feet to pavement....

    "Where there's a will" can take just about any crazy idea and make it seem plausible, whether by following Earth as a model or through internal consistency for the story. This doesn't mean the idea won't itself need to be altered.

    So birth while falling: When I hear, "But let me tell you how birth really happens," I have a kneejerk angry reaction internally because my impulse is to respond, "Let me tell you how it really can happen—in this story." Perhaps the initial brainstorm, that lightning bolt Cool! idea, would need to be developed further. Our winged human goes into labor hours before she's abducted by whoever's going to kill her, so it's not a 15 minute gap between first labor pains and giving birth. She herself doesn't fight her abductor to acquire that hatchet, but rather someone who's shown up to save her is the one who fights the abductor. When her would-be killer shoves her over the edge of their floating city, this other person flies after her, holding the hatchet that will be used to cut the umbilical cord. Still not enough? Well let's consider other ways to make it plausible.

    Maybe there's something unusual about this species of winged humans that would further make that birth while falling plausible. (Internal consistency.)

    But the "OMG, I can't do that!" guiding principle automatically removes the idea before it's really weighed and tried. So we end up with her in a hospital bed with legs in a stirrup. Or something else we've seen 1000 times in movies, television, or something we've read in books. Maybe we just kill her in an alley, the baby still inside her. Y'know, what always happens.

    A similar experience for me was reading a recent thread about a 5-year-old's reaction when his grandfather throws up on him. We are told that the 5-year-old is of a different species, one with fast brain development and isn't quite like the 5-year-olds we know on Earth. What does he say after his grandfather throws up on him? The consensus answer seems to be: Think of how 5-year-olds would naturally react on Earth. I was thinking he might say something like:

    "What the hell, grandpa!"

    or

    "By Grentor's balls, grandpa!"

    And it could be almost anything, unless we want a strictly Earthly experience involving any average child on Earth.

    So...To be continued. I think subgenre, style, and so forth could play a large role in how we decide to go about presenting the fantastical; but I might save that consideration for later.
     
    Last edited: Sep 4, 2016
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  12. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Ahhhhhh, I see where you are going with this.

    Ok, in my own personal opinion, I find that I write my best stuff when I'm pushing the boundaries of embarrassment. I think this is fairly common, because I've heard the same thing before from many people. I think, that when we can access the scary subconscious of our brains, the stuff that we would be embarrassed to tell anyone else, the stuff that would scare people, then that is the best stuff.

    I always think this after I watch a horror movie... like "Oh my gosh, whoever wrote that must be sick in the head." I think the same thing about Stephen King, but also GRRM... at what point do you become OK with writing about twin incest?

    But I think it is necessary in order to create good fiction that people actually want to read. I think everyone has that deep scary subconscious and when a writer can access that it is gold. But I think the writer needs to overcome that embarrassment in themselves before they can do that.

    Anyway, that is my opinion on that.

    So, I do not have an issue with a winged creature giving birth while falling from a cloud city... BUT like I said earlier, because my schema tells me this is impossible, there would have to be some substantial set up before it could be plausible for me.

    I would need to see another character giving birth before the scene, so I could understand how giving birth is different in that world than what I am used to. I would need to see another creature have his wings hacked off and survive in order to understand that that is plausible in the world. I would need to see another creature fall from the cloud city and survive so that it makes sense that an infant could do so...

    Does that make sense? I say, be as creative as absolutely possible, please! Don't hold yourself back! Go crazy! But understand that your readers have a schema, and in order to make it seem plausible, they need to understand how your world is different then what they know so it makes sense.
     
  13. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Let me tell you about my schema. :D

    As a child, I was told of my aunt's birth several times. She was born in a car on the way to the hospital. I recently asked my mother about this, because the topic's been on mind. Apparently, my grandmother had a normal doctor's appointment that day, and the doctor told her to go home, the baby wouldn't be born for another week or so. As my grandmother got home, she told my grandfather, "Turn back. The baby's coming right now." On the way to the hospital, the baby was born. My mother, who was 7 years old, was also in the car when her sister was born.

    So, that story was in my mind when my first brainstorm of the idea came. So when reading that story about a labor and birth time of 1 hour, 45 minutes, and that it's called "precipitous labour" and happens in about 2-3% of births, I thought maybe that explains my aunt's birth nearly 6 decades ago.

    Another part of my schema: All those stories in the news about teenage mothers giving birth in restrooms at schools or restaurants and disposing of the child in a trash can.

    Plus, I recently watched the second season of Marco Polo on Netflix and saw one of the characters giving birth while squatting...and in the last couple of days, I've read that squatting, standing, or even walking while giving birth can help in the process—gravity may help. So falling? Hmmm.

    Now none of this is to say that trying to shoot for the average experience, so as not to break the average reader's suspension of disbelief, is a bad strategy. These are things that probably should be considered in many cases when brainstorming awesome ideas. But I'm also not sure that we need to follow an Earthly pattern in great detail, or an average Earthly pattern. I don't know. Look at a movie like Gravity, which gets high marks for realism but doesn't entirely escape criticism either.
     
    Last edited: Sep 4, 2016
  14. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Totally. I agree. I gave birth to my two standing as well, and quickly. But because it is not the "average" way of doing things on earth, I would feel that if I were to include these experiences in my novel I would need to explicitly show the reader in some way that this is either "normal" by having other characters do things in a similar way, or "not normal" by having characters react in certain ways.

    One of my favorite films is Inception. Hardly reality, and my favorite type of fantasy. The plausibility of a team of characters accessing my subconscious and stealing ideas as if they were confidential documents is pushing it. However, throughout the film they use a variety of purposeful "set up" scenes to make it perfectly clear to the viewer that "this capability is commonly used and normal in this world".

    Late in the film the subconscious of the victim is protected by "guards" or projections of his subconscious. In order for this to be plausible for the viewer (who is already suspending disbelief that Leonardo decaprio can access people's dreams) they had to use a set up scene earlier to show how people can be trained to protect their subconscious with these projections.

    once the idea is set up early in a simple way then it becomes more plausible later on.
     
  15. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    For me, I go I'm in the boat that anything can work as long as you set it up right, which I guess is the key here. Off the top of my head I'd say if it follows common sense, consistency, and cool you'll be fine.

    With fantasy, I think you'll get a extra bit of wiggle room to make sense of things to the reader. For the most part I think people will accept almost any type of creature without explanation if they know the story is fantasy.

    Where you begin to lose the reader is if you violate common sense a lot. One or two times the reader will forgive things if the story is engaging, but after that, the story loses credibility,

    You could have knights in full plate doing back flips like a gymnast all day long as long as you establish that it's a thing in your world, and your consistent about this ability, and well because it's cool. But as soon as you have a knight go "I've fallen and I can't get up" there's going to be a long pause by the reader as they decide whether or not to throw the book across the room. Because if your knights can do back flips, then common sense and consistency dictates armor shouldn't prevent them from getting up from a fall.

    Any ways my 2 cents.
     
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  16. Malik

    Malik Auror

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    This. Sometimes I'll be reading a fantasy novel and I'll reach the point where the author is basically telling these aggrandizing lies about all the super-awesome things that his friend can do, and I reach the point where I'm thinking, "Bullshit."

    There's a novel out there (and I hope the author isn't reading this; check that, I hope he is) where the hero is jousting (in a battle, but we'll let that slide) and he takes a lance to the chest. With this lance sticking in him, he's able to grab the end and lift the badguy out of his saddle -- levering him using the lance, mind you -- and flip him up over his head like a pole vaulter. That's where I clicked out. "Nope. No way. The hell he did." No magic involved, just a superbadass MC.

    Aaaaaand, no.

    Magic? Sure. Flying pegasi? Absolutely. But I draw the line when the author clearly doesn't know what the hell he or she is talking about.
     
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  17. glutton

    glutton Inkling

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    ...that is like a standard fight scene for one of my Baeforce wielders XD

    Regarding the last sentence, how obviously absurd would it have to be for you to figure the author knows what they're writing is unrealistic but decides to do it anyway? Is 'girl cleaving straight through the body of a 1500 lb armored boar from mouth to rump in one running swing' blatant enough? ;)
     
    Last edited: Sep 4, 2016
  18. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    Vin Diesel, is that you?

    [​IMG]
     
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  19. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    It seems to me that different subgenres will place different requirements on the writer.

    The easy example would be hard science fiction vs space opera of the Star Wars variety.

    Also, farcical, comedic fantasy might actually make a strength of the absurd rather than suffering from it. I can actually picture that jousting event being hilarious, under the right circumstances. But in an epic fantasy with a serious tone, not so much.

    Then there are horror tales in which the strange and unbelievable may become more frightening simply because of the mind bending, mysterious, barely-to-be-believed events and monsters.

    I think this is true, and so I wonder if the type of unexplained oddity can make a great difference, and how it is used.

    Are we far less likely to simply accept, without explanation or foreshadowing, a character doing something seemingly preposterous than we are to accept the existence of an odd creature? (That may dip into the Mary Sue problem. Or that might evoke the deus ex machina problem if the character also somehow manages to save the day by performing a preposterous action that hasn't been foreshadowed.)

    I wonder what limits or requirements we might place on geological oddities, climate oddities, weather oddities?
     
  20. I kinda think it comes down to how purposeful the divergence from reality seems.

    If there isn't a good reason for the divergence and it looks like the author just had no idea what they were talking about...if it doesn't look intentional...I'll question it.

    But, if it's clear that it was on purpose and if it makes sense why the author did it, my reaction will be different.
     
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