When writing in the science fiction or fantasy genre, a writer must answer one important question early on. How much like our world (the real world) is the world my story is set in? I realize that this question is not limited to science fiction and fantasy, but those of us who endeavor to write in these genres, do face some special challenges when answering it. We write about alien worlds and magical places, and as such, we are only limited by what our imaginations can conjure up. That kind of freedom can be daunting and in some cases dangerous.
In writing fantasy, we almost invariably ask our readers to believe in some magic system that we’ve created or adapted. Our individual magic system will vary in complexity and scope, but regardless, by just adding that one new variable to our normal world, there will be some learning curve for the reader as they try to get up to speed.
Many urban fantasies tweak only the one “magical” variable, leaving everything else in their new worlds similar to ours. I believe that is part of urban fantasies success and appeal. By leaving the world so similar to ours, urban fantasy is able to give its readers an immediate familiarity with and foothold in the world. That familiarity limits the amount of explanation needed, thereby letting the author get into storytelling mode more quickly and hopefully keeping the reader more engaged.
When we swing further toward the epic fantasy end of the genre, (And I have to admit that I love a good epic fantasy, especially one that takes place in a faraway pseudo medieval land), and write in a land or world of our own creation, we are taking on a second variable that will also need some level of explanation. This world variable, like the magic variable, will obviously vary in scope from project to project. If the elements that make up the new story world are in themselves familiar to our world, (mountains, rivers, trees, houses, swords, shoes, etc.) then explaining them is not such a daunting task. If however, in our new story world we decided trees will all have blue leaves, or won’t have leaves at all, and horses are not horses but six-legged Sagarrats, well then we have got a lot of explaining to do.
With each variable or difference from our world that we add to our story worlds, it is important that we consider the depth of explanation those differences will need and the unintended consequences they will have. As all of us know, writing exposition without getting bogged down can be tricky. Inserting fun and even important world details without losing reader interest takes finesse and practice.
The unintended consequences of the changes we make cannot be understated either. I remember reading a short story in school (I don’t remember the title or the author) about a scientist that makes a change to earth’s entire water supply. The change he makes is that ice no longer floats on top of liquid water. That’s it, the entire story is the author extrapolating out the consequences (most of the horrible for human kind) of that one change to “normal” physics. What if ice sunk instead of floated? My point is that even small changes that may seem purely aesthetic, or even insignificant when we dream them up, could prove, when thought through logically, to have huge civilization changing consequences if they were ever to become real.
By definition, fantasy is fantastical and not real, we all know that, but part of good storytelling is drawing the reader in and creating the circumstances where they can suspend their disbelief and believe for even a fleeting moment that the world we’re telling them about is real. When they want to believe it, and even do just a little, that is true reader engagement and that can’t happen if we ask them to stretch too far. We need to anticipate, have thought through and have a plausible answer for as many of their questions as possible. Questions like: Why don’t the magic people just take over? Or: Wouldn’t flying horses (or other rideable flying creatures) speed up communications pretty significantly? And what affect would that have on things like war and trade? Do trees with purple leaves still do photosynthesis? Where does that huge castle in the middle of nowhere get its food, water, money from? How does a second sun or a second moon in the heaves affect agriculture, and the seasons?
You get the idea and I don’t want to belabor the point, I just wanted to show that even a single small change to the ecosystem, civilization, or the laws of physics that we take for granted here on earth would have rippling widespread consequences. It is clear from browsing the shelves at the local bookstore that authors in the science fiction and fantasy field all have their own take on how many variables, or how much complexity is manageable and wise in a project. And certainly not every writing project is the same, some will undoubtedly demand more complexity than others. But if we choose to incorporate one, two, or even a couple dozen such changes we would be wise to consider the consequences.
For my most recent project I decided that I didn’t want to rename the horse, or try and explain each nuance of a new exotic humanoid race. I decided I wanted to keep things a little simpler and to explore the characters and situations that I’d been thinking about for a long time. I hope this will allow my readers to relate to and engage with my characters more quickly and thoroughly.
Thanks for reading, I would love to hear what your thoughts are on the subject on how to handle complexity in science fiction and fantasy writing.