Novels are by definition fiction, and fiction is made up stuff. It doesn’t matter if you write gritty police/courtroom procedural stories, or invented world fantasies, it’s the same. None of it really happened. An argument can be made that even if you were writing a non-fictional account of something that really did happen, your description would only form one perspective and would be seen by others with firsthand knowledge as “fiction.” Still, no one writes in a vacuum. No matter how fictional something is, it is always based on reality.
I write fantasy. The first books I’ve published are invented-world-fantasy, which is just about as out-there as you can get. I created a whole new world, which means I can make anything, anyway I want. I could implement Hollywood-Gravity if I liked. Magic can exist. Gods can recognizably walk among people. People don’t even have to be people, they can be something else entirely. Time doesn’t have to work the same as we perceive in our reality. There could be more colors, a seventh and eighth sense, whatever I want. Given all this freedom one might expect far more creativity in the genre, and yet oddly, so many invented-world-fantasies take place in very similar settings most drawn from our own history.
There are a number of reasons for that. Authors are trying to replicate what they love to read; it is easier to write about something familiar; it is easier than trying to invent something completely new. All of these are writer-centric, but I feel there is another reason that is actually reader-based that holds more legitimacy—it is easier for a reader to understand. If your setting was too strange you’d either have to stop constantly and explain how everything works, or just accept that the reader won’t have a chance to grasp what is going on. To educate the reader well enough to understand the story, would be prohibitive to the timely telling of the tale. This would be a situation where the art destroys the entertainment.
There are dozens of reasons I choose to write my books in a medieval setting. Swords and arrows allow for more drama and greater flexibility than guns and bombs. Cell phones and the Internet are two of the worst inventions in the world for writers. Just a few years ago, it was so easy to build a story out of a person’s quest to find something or speak to someone. Now to do that you need to explain why they just can’t look it up on Google or call them on a cell. If your heroine discovers something crucial, she’ll be an idiot if she doesn’t just call your hero on the phone to let him know. Doing so will destroy the plot of course, but not doing so is obviously contrived and unrealistic. So historical settings make building plots so much easier. The age of knights, castles and dragons is also grandiose to the point of caricature. Billowing cloaks, towers, long gowns, primal forests, it has great built-in visuals and a wealth of pre-established forms that can be utilized to create any plot. I think only the Western can really compare in its open-source form that is both infinite in possible complexity and yet simple in essence. Between the two, I just think medieval setting are richer because it draws on a larger swath of history from more than one country.
To get around the problem of repetition, of being seen as using the same tired setting, some writers just change the names. Knights, castles, elves and swords are just called something else. The readers is confused, but only for a little while and then they catch on, substituting in their heads what they know for the new terms. For those sensitive to traditional terms this apparently has a soothing effect, but for most everyone else it is just an unnecessary road block to understanding.
Some go through great effort to break with reality, to invent a new world so different it can be perceived as original. The problem with this, as I see it, is that readers find the greatest rewards from a connection to the story, not from a distance. Familiarity is what touches us. Witnessing an alien world, or individual can be interesting, but it often fails to move emotions. People like to make connections between themselves and what they read. When they do, it becomes personal and when that happens a wall drops, and that’s when you can get at their heart. That’s when you can make them laugh, cry, or scare the crap out of them.
This doesn’t just apply to invented-world-fantasy either. No matter what you write the more you can reflect a reader’s personal experiences, the deeper you can touch them. The obvious question is how can you do that to someone you’ve never met? How can you do that to more than one person when everyone has such different experiences? This is where what I call true magic comes in.
People are surprisingly similar. No two are exactly alike, but a lot of us share common feelings, and the deeper the feeling the more common it is. The way to tap those feelings is to be honest. To depict reality as it really is—even if that is in a fictional world.
In Stephen King’s It, and in his novella The Body (later made into the movie Stand By Me) he did a wonderful job of depicting the life of childhood. It did not matter that his setting was the fifties, the dynamic are universal and reminded me of my own youth. And it is this capturing of familiarities that has the power and magic to take the fantastical and breathe real life into it. I’m sure Mr. King was drawing on personal experience as it just rang too true to be wholly invented, and this very same thing can be done in any genre.
When I started art school my goal was to practice painting reality until I could do it so well, that I could then paint images that did not exist and make them look just as real. I don’t paint so much anymore, or rather I don’t paint with brushes much anymore. Paint has become words—so much faster and far less to clean up. Still the idea is the same. When I create a fantasy world I try to make it accessible to the reader by making it similar to what they might know rather than different. In paint I might depict a castle floating on a cloud, when both the castle and the cloud are perfectly believable the illusion is stirring, captivating. In words, if I relate the heartbreak of a dragon for the loss of its son, the feeling is what’s real, it’s what resonates. The more connections to reality the more real the writing becomes.
In real life there is copious amounts of humor, it is how many people deal with stress, how people hide, how they defend themselves, and how we enjoy ourselves, and yet I find there is almost no humor in non-comedic fiction. There is often a perceived dividing line—if it is funny it can’t have drama and vice versa. So all the effort to create gritty realism is lost because the tale feels artificial due to its own weight. In real life people have hopes and fear, goals and aspirations that often have nothing to do with what’s happening, but not always in stories. In real life people have good days and bad days, happy memories and tragedies, and even horrible places can seems beautiful at times. Yet a single-minded approach to characters and settings tell only half the story, that just doesn’t feel complete. The suspension of disbelief is hindered by the absolutism drawn by the writer trying to hype the sympathy, the fear, or the misery. This lack of combining the real and the unreal in an honest uncontrived manner, this distance between the two, can create a disconnect leaving stories interesting, but not moving, creative, but not believable.
To this end, I have often found that learning how to paint the real world well enough to be convincing, is a huge benefit. This is one of the reasons why I would advocate reading outside of your favorite genre, and even writing outside of it. If you write in fantastical worlds, learning how to write a realistic story will help lend that needed credibility. If you write in a realistic world, learning how to transpose real into the unreal results in the benefit of causing you to focus on the details that, in the real world, are often ignored, but in a fantasy world need to be accounted for.
I think it is when a writer invents a very different world that is surprisingly similar to our own, populated by people that remind us of ourselves, that fiction of any kind stops being fiction, and can truly tell us about ourselves, reminding us of something worth remembering.