Tuesday, October 20, 2009

“Magic Rules!” or “Ye cannae change the laws of physics.”

Kelly Schaub writes:

“Writing fantasy is so much easier than writing something from real-life, like a historical. You can make stuff up as you go and never have to research anything!” –Newby Paranormal-Author

Almost. Paranormal fans, who often read bucketloads of scifi and fantasy, expect the worldbuilding to be consistent.

“That can’t really happen.”
Often in a paranormal romance, one small element of reality is tweaked but all else remains the same as real, contemporary Earth. For example, a talking dog. Reader accepts that the animal can talk and reads along blithely accepting this. Until you have the talking dog unlocking doors and cooking dinner or doing anything else that requires opposable thumbs. “Dog’s can’t do that,” the reader says, ignoring the fact that dogs can’t talk either. Why is one believable and not the other? Unless you show in the beginning that this dog can magically perform human-like deeds, the physics of our world deny the possibility in the reader’s mind. Think of Scooby Doo. He’s cartoonish from the beginning, so we accept that he does human-like things.

“That’s so unrealistic!”
A film example is from the recent “Alvin and the Chipmunks” movie. At the opening of the show, the three chipmunks are singing in harmony while loading nuts into a hollow cavity in a fir tree. Singing chipmunks = acceptable. Hollow fir tree = not found in nature…also, where did the nuts come from in a conifer forest? Add that chipmunks are ground sqirrels and a burrowing species...Little details like that can kill the suspension of disbelief.

“Who believes this stuff?”
While flying across rooftops on wires kung-fu fighting in slow motion works in Hong Kong cinema, it doesn’t work in a Hollywood action flick. Why not? Different audiences have different expectations of the level of realism. Do stars of a Hollywood romance suddenly burst into a song and dance number rather than getting’ busy? No, but that’s expected in a Bollywood film. Readers loyal to books about Celtic magic want every book to follow the same general rules found in the literature pertaining to Celtic legends. Wiccan followers know the main tenet of Wicca is “harm none,” so if your Wiccan character brings harm to anyone through use of magic with no three-fold consequences, your story loses believability.

“Well, that was convenient.”
When you create your own fantasy world, you get to decide how magic works or not in your setting. But change the rules of your magical creation for even one sentence and you’ve lost your audience. “Hey, how come Brilliant Hero can do X with his magic in chapter one, but on page 200 suddenly Brilliant Hero can’t do X anymore right when it’s crucial to avoid Scourge the Villain and save Damsel? Why didn’t he just do X again and avoid the problem?” If there is a logical explanation for why Brilliant Hero suddenly forgot that spell or couldn’t work it, make sure the reader knows before you get there. If one character has a limitation on his or her magical ability that other magical characters do not share, let the reader know the why of that.

Follow your own rules
Establish your non-real-earth rules early and clearly then follow them. Readers, editors and agents of paranormal romances have the expectation that what you establish during the first chapter will hold true throughout the book. Want to tweak the rules later as you write further in the manuscript? Great—but return to the beginning and establish that as the rule. As long as you are consistent with your worldbuilding, your readers will accept whatever strangeness you want to dish out.


Amanda Barnett Freelance Editor said...

Thank you so much Kelly! Fantasy has to be correct in the world you are writing and believable!

Good job!

Crystal-Rain Love said...

LOL at the newbie author quote bcuz I said something very similar during tonight's chat. Great post. Good points. Yes, it is very important to establish your rules early on. I'm writing an 8-book series and now in my 4th, I'll want to do something and realize I can't because it would go against rules I set up in the 1st book. It makes me wish I'd planned ahead but I've always been a pantser so these are just things I have to deal with.

Sharon Donovan said...

Hi Kelly

You're so right about establishing rules and laws, otherwise things would be so easy - and there'd be no conflict or tension because the characters could just do what they needed to do without any effort. I write futuristic and fantasy for the Faery Rose line, and half the fun is making the laws that govern my worlds, and doing the research to make sure they're not totally beyond 'the laws of physics'! And if they are that there's a good reason for it! :)

Beth Trissel said...

Good point! True, fantasy must be believable however you do it. I personally like the world to be real and the fantasy element to happen within the known reality. But I have great respect for authors who can create whole new worlds.