Writing Believable Fantasy – A Guide to Keeping It Real

Maintaining your audience’s suspension of disbelief is a challenge that every fantasy writer must face.  Obtaining, and holding, that suspension relies on your ability to convey a believable story, setting, and cast.

If the suspension of disbelief is dissolved, so is the reader’s will to continue on with the story.

So, how do we make fantasy believable?

Realism in Fantasy?

Wait, this thing is part aardvark, part gopher, has three heads and a hide as strong as diamond? Oh, it can teleport, too? Awesome. But it’s okay, because Sir Badass has the only weapon in existence that can hurt it.

It may seem like an oxymoron, but there is a need for reality in fantasy.

World building is one of the most exciting and challenging parts of the fantasy writing process.  The imagination can create some awesome things, but sometimes it goes a little crazy… and you end up with a three headed, diamond-skinned…  never mind. Have no fear, for a splash of reality could be all that you need.

Being realistic does not mean removing the fantasy aspects of a story.  Rather, it means being sensible with them.  When incorporating a new fantasy element, whether it is a type of magic, a person, or even a creature, ask yourself the following:

  • On a scale of one to ten, how bizarre is this new element?
  • In its present form, would it break someone’s suspension of disbelief?
  • Would this element seem too ridiculous?
  • Does it break any of the rules that are set forth in my fantasy?

Making your fantasy elements easier to comprehend and more realistic ensures that you will not break your readers’ suspension of disbelief right off the bat.  It also makes your fantasy more accessible to newcomers to the genre.

Getting the Facts Straight

Accurate knowledge of what you’re writing about is necessary for achieving a sound, believable fantasy narrative.

If your story is set in a mirror of the middle ages, then researching life in that era is essential.  Nothing makes a reader more likely to put a book down than discovering sheer outright falsehoods.  If you aren’t sure about any detail, research it further.  You can never be too careful with such a crucial thing.

Oh, and as if this wasn’t obvious, don’t get the facts of your fantasy world wrong, either. That would be most… embarrassing.

The Power of Consistency

Consistency is what maintains the suspension of disbelief throughout the narrative, and keeps your readers comfortable in your fantasy world.  It makes it possible for their minds to accept new developments, so long as they do not drastically break from what has already transpired.

How would you feel if you woke up one day and everyone had suddenly turned green?  No doubt there would be widespread confusion, but there would be an even greater calling for an answer, a reason.

Now, transfer this idea into your fantasy fiction. While your fantasy story’s inhabitants turning green may not be a great dilemma, the same principle still holds true; a fantasy world should have laws and rules, not the judicial kind, but the kind that pertain to existence – things like gravity and other laws of nature.  Everything that transpires in your fantasy story should follow those rules.  If something deviates from them, people will call for an explanation.

Your audience needs to believe that what’s happening in your fantasy story is consistent with the world that you have presented.  Obeying your fantasy universe’s laws and rules ensures that the story is believable.

When you do introduce new fantasy elements, a few questions should be asked:

  • Would this new element be better introduced earlier in my narrative?
  • Does this break any of the laws of my fantasy world?
  • If this new element is a departure from the established rules, should I let my audience know ahead of time that this might be possible?
  • If I was a reader, would I want an explanation for this new element?

The important thing is that you do not shatter the consistency by breaking the universal rules of your fantasy world.

Bending the Rules

While you cannot break your own rules, you can manipulate them.

You may not, for example, establish a rule that “the gods cannot intervene in mortal affairs,” and then have them rescue your hero.

But if you simply reword this as “it is believed that the gods cannot intervene in mortal affairs,” then you have left yourself an opening.   Adding  “it is believed that” allows for a possibility of the occurrence to happen.  At the same time, however, you have the illusion of a rule.

So, if you do intend on breaking any of the “rules” that you set out, make sure to leave yourself a credible way to do so.

Staying True to Your Vision

While your fantasy elements should possess realism and consistency, they should also stay true to the fantasy.  Don’t erase an entire species or series of events from your fantasy if they seem a little farfetched, especially if it plays a part in the story. Realism is to be taken in moderation.  While they are seemingly opposites, realism and fantasy need each other to produce a healthy, sensible work of fantasy fiction.

When writing a fantasy story, what do you do to make sure that it is believable?  Do you take any special steps to keep it realistic and consistent?

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Knight
1 month ago

An amazing article. So glad this is on the internet.

Hart St Martin
7 years ago

Codey, you have articulated this very well.  I’ve been living in a fantasy world for many years now, tweaking it constantly to make it all work.  I now have a workable world, one which even non-fantasy fans in my writing workshop understand and appreciate.  But if you ask me what it takes and I say research and consistency, people tend to scratch their heads.  “But you’re making it up!” they counter.  Your article is enlightening not only to those who would create fantasy but also to those who read it and don’t understand why some of it works and some of it doesn’t.  Homework.  It’s all in the homework.  Thank you.

Lyrie
Lyrie
8 years ago

 @Beida  @beckyefp This happens to me sometimes too.  Once I go back to see it and I know what’s going to happen, it doesn’t seem as subtle, but upon first read, I just blow right by it.

Beida
Beida
8 years ago

If he battles crime on the streets of London with a sarcastic, fast talking, womanizing iguana-alpaca-hummingbird-Great Dane fae, you would have me sold!

SeanDavid
SeanDavid
8 years ago

Great tips!  I have found consistency to be one of the problems many of us have to overcome in our writing. There are quite a few ebooks that I have downloaded from Amazon that have come up against this situation and failed. Got to have that consistency or the story line doesn’t work. Good article!

Lyrie
Lyrie
8 years ago

 @Kristiana The problem is that sometimes those one or two inconsistencies, although small, may be jarring enough that a reader can’t get past it.  If you have to remind yourself “It’s just a story” then you’ve already backed out of the world the author has created.

Polgara
Polgara
8 years ago

You have to set up the why, before you can get the reader to believe a new fantasy element.  You can’t just state that this is the way it is, because without a plausible why, the reader is never going to buy it and will not enjoy or grasp a lot of what’s going on.

Kristiana
Kristiana
8 years ago

As a reader, I know to willingly set aside my own disbelief, so it bothers me when people let one or two small inconsistencies ruin an entire work for them. That aside, an author has to be as careful as possible to weed out those things readers may not be able to reconcile.

Lyrie
Lyrie
8 years ago

I agree that realism and consistency is important.  If you write something that is too out there and/or violates your own rules, it jolts the reader right out of the story.  That has happened to me on occasion and while I still finished the book, it wasn’t the same for me after that.

beckyefp
8 years ago

I prefer to read fantasy that has deep roots in realism. I don’t want to feel like the writer is rummaging through a bag of fantastic goodies and flinging them at me. When that happens, I’m likely to abandon the book altogether. My favorite fantasy novels captivate me because they have well-developed characters, and I ultimately trust the author (even if I don’t trust the narrator). If I care enough about the characters and trust the author, then I’m more forgiving when the rules are broken. I believe that the writer will ultimately answer the important questions that fantastic elements raise.
 
Like this article suggests, realism is important. If I trust the author when I read about realistic people, places, and events, then I’m much more apt to trust the author when he or she unleashes a dragon on me.

dewolfe001
dewolfe001
8 years ago

Good fantasy has to have some kind of a foundation in reality. The swords have to be able to run someone through.

Phoenix Just-Phoenix
Phoenix Just-Phoenix
8 years ago

Primarily: necktop computer. Some supplementary notes organized by same.

Mythic Scribes
Mythic Scribes
8 years ago

Yes, keeping track of the details is key. What method do you use to keep track of everything?

Phoenix Just-Phoenix
Phoenix Just-Phoenix
8 years ago

Continuity/consistency isn’t a big problem, just requiring memory and an attention to detail. The situation and environment are whatever you say they are. To keep things realistic/believable, the characters must have acceptable (to the audience) reactions to whatever’s going on in the world you’ve presented. If that falls apart, you’re going to need more than crazy glue to save it.

Reaver
Reaver
8 years ago

Bah! My fifteen headed giraffe-kangaroo-ocelot-ostrich dragon that only speaks in adverbs and I beg to differ!

caprabobby123
caprabobby123
8 years ago

I write children’s fantasy. The same rules apply as you have just suggested, but writing for young children gives the writer more of an opportunity to make use of the child’s imagination. Thank you for this post.

CiaraBallintyne
CiaraBallintyne
8 years ago

I think consistency is the primary key – as long as you set the rules, and play by the rules, you can create almost anything. Coincidence is not a credible explanation for anything, and in the event that a writer plans to ‘bend’ the rules in the way you suggest, I strongly urge foreshadowing – else it is likely to seem more deus ex machina than anything else. ‘It is believed’ is likely to be too fine a nuance for many readers to distinguish, and I confess I would feel cheated unless this had been hinted at in some way

beckyefp
Reply to  CiaraBallintyne
8 years ago

 @CiaraBallintyne I completely agree with you. It’s good to place hints throughout the narrative that prepare a reader for something that bends the rules. One or two hints often aren’t enough, especially if they’re subtle.

Beida
Beida
Reply to  beckyefp
8 years ago

 @beckyefp I agree as well. All too often I have been halfway through a book when something happens that I thought couldn’t happen. I’m anal enough to go back through the story and find the subtle hint, but it aggravates me when said hint is *so* subtle that I didn’t pick up on it.

The_Drill99
The_Drill99
8 years ago

The bigger the world, the bigger the story, the harder it is to keep it consistent for me.  However, when editing, I can find those inconsistencies and snuff them out.  Great article and something to think about.  Even fantasy needs rules!

Antonio del Drago
8 years ago

I agree about how important consistency is.  To keep track of my world and its rules, I have a series of files on geography, religion, customs, etc.  I’m always referring back to them, and add to them when necessary.
 
Still, I do get things mixed up on occassion.  But hey, that’s what revisions are for.  😉

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