Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Plausibility in Fantasy

I got the book proofread and off to my agent. Now I want to clean my kitchen, straighten my living room and bedroom and maybe start shoveling out my office. And I also have my medical school work to do. Speaking of which, another faculty member at the medical school where I used to work and that I still freelance for won a Nobel prize yesterday, which brings them to five, which I think is still a record for Nobel-prize winning faculty members at American medical schools. I had to do the research and call around to other schools when we got the fourth back when I worked there, and at four we were on top back then. I don't think I knew this doctor when I worked there, so I haven't added to the list of Nobel prize winners I've met personally, but considering I have Watson and Crick on that list, I think I'm still doing pretty well. I had tea with Dr. Watson once when I had to entertain him while he was waiting for a news interview (they weren't on the faculty at my school but were there as guest lecturers for a seminar).

My next project is already nagging at me. It's a mostly completed book that still isn't quite right, and I'm not entirely sure what to do about it. It's falling apart at the ending -- not the resolution of the main plot, but what that resolution really means to the characters and how it affects them. I think that means I need to go back to the characters and really look at what their arcs should be, since the resolution of the main plot should complete the character arcs. I may not have to change the main plot, but I may need to change what I see as the journey the characters are on and what they're supposed to be learning from it.

A couple of weekends ago at FenCon, I was on a panel that I find myself still thinking about, in part because an audience member asked a question that I wasn't able to answer at the time, and I'm still not entirely sure what my answer would be. The topic was "Plausibility in Fantasy," and we were discussing how to write a novel in which unbelievable things happen and make readers believe it. When you read fantasy, you're pretty much buying into the idea that impossible things will happen -- magic exists, vampires exist, etc. How do you create a world that people will accept? Someone in the audience asked us if there had been a fantasy novel where we couldn't buy the premise or that struck us as implausible.

At the time, I couldn't think of anything. It's usually the real-world stuff that throws me out of the novel. If I'm reading a fantasy novel, I can buy that there may be immortal people who could be hundreds of years old but who look young. I have a hard time believing that these centuries-old people would be going to high school or falling in love with teenagers. In urban fantasy, I'm more likely to question the heroine having a nice Manhattan apartment and a closet full of designer clothes than I am to question the fact that she has magical powers. I guess it's because I don't have any experience with the supernatural, so I'll take what the author gives me there, but I will question the things I do have experience with. One of the conclusions the panel came to was that most of this boils down to how entertaining or engaging the story is. If I'm mentally calculating the heroine's cost of living, then the story hasn't sufficiently engaged my brain or emotions.

Since then, I have thought of a couple of cases where it was the fantasy element that threw me out of a story. One that shall remain nameless because these books are very popular and I'm acquainted with the author probably suffered from the fact that they contained fantasy elements I'm not overly fond of, so the rest of the book would have had to be really engaging to get me involved, and one of the key fantasy elements that was unique to the premise just didn't work for me. I didn't believe it would work the way the book said it would, and something the book treated as a plus I thought was absolutely horrible. I think this was because it was a fantasy element with roots in religion, and the use of that element didn't fit with my personal religious experience, so it probably falls into the category of me questioning things I have experience with.

The other case of a fantasy element that I don't find plausible is a popular trope in paranormal romance and urban fantasy that crosses over with paranormal romance, and that's the couple who are supposedly destined for each other but who have absolutely nothing in common -- no interests, no values, no goals that mesh in any way -- and who may even be enemies, but because they're destined for each other, they can't resist each other. I would think that being destined for each other would mean they're made for each other. They'd be the perfect fit. They may be entirely star-crossed and be on opposite sides of a conflict, but when they met it would just seem right in ways that go beyond physical. I can't get into any book where the characters hate each other, are total opposites, have nothing in common and yet who can't help but be drawn to each other because it's destiny.

Now I kind of want to read (or write) the book where the two people from opposite sides who should be enemies meet and everything just clicks, and they find they agree more with each other than they do with their supposed allies.

Otherwise, for me it seems like a case of getting the real-world details right, and then I'll buy whatever you try to sell me in the fantasy elements. Let me know that you've thought about sources for food, money and clothing. Make the characters act like real people -- or explain it really well if they don't. Put some thought into logistics. And then I'll probably accept that your characters have magic powers.


Hope said...

Since I haven't read it yet, I am not certain The Night Circus fits your "on opposite sides, have lots in common, fall in love" angle, but it sounds like it might.

And I completely agree with you on the "reality" elements of a fantasy novel being the ones I have trouble with more often than the fantasy. That was one thing I really appreciated about the Enchanted Inc series when I first read them. Yes, Owen is pretty wealthy, so he has a fancy home etc, but the way he got the money is believable, and Katie is far more realistic (and therefore likable) than most chick lit or urban fantasy characters - bringing lunch from home to save money, really debating buying the shoes because of the cost etc.

Shanna Swendson said...

That book's on my "look for this" list, so I'll have to see.

I actually did research on living costs and salaries and created a budget for Katie when I started writing the books because I figured if I wanted people to accept the Fantasy part of the story, the reality needed to be realistic.

For real nerdiness, on a research trip to New York I used a stopwatch to time the amount of time it would take to walk various places.