I have written a lot on this blog about how I would like to see realistic elements in fantasy, particularly when it comes to politics. Inevitably, I receive comments indicating that readers are upset that I apparently don’t understand that fantasy is, well, fantasy. But I have never criticized fantasy for containing dragons or ogres or magic. I have never indicated that I think fantasy is somehow lesser than contemporary fiction or that I mistakenly believe that fantasy cannot be real in a very fundamental sense–revealing truths to readers, providing them with relatable characters, or speaking to their own experiences or feelings. Indeed, it would be strange for me to criticize fantasy for being fantastic–it’s my favorite genre.
When I ask that fantasy be realistic or believable, I am merely asking two things: that the internal logic be consistent and that the normal rules of logic apply to the situations presented. The first demand is fairly straightforward. It means that, if the rules of magic in the Land of Magic Is Awesome dictate that wizards cannot bespell plants, I don’t want to see a wizard bespell a plant later along with an explanation that makes no sense. “But is a cactus really a plant?” probably isn’t going to cut it for me if I’m thinking, “Yeah, couldn’t come up with any other way to get the wizard out of that situation without breaking the rules of magic, could you?” Because a cactus is a plant and some fancy work with words cannot convince me otherwise.
The second demand is open to a little more interpretation. It means I want characters to make decisions that make sense. For instance, I don’t really buy into the premise of Gail Carson Levine’s The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre because none of it makes sense. In this book, the Latki rule over the Bamarre, whom they consider inferior. The Bamarre want to return to a wasteland of monsters in order to be free–despite the fact that no one has been able to survive there since the monsters took over and despite the fact that the Bamarre, as servants, aren’t trained in warfare and do not own weapons. They should not last a week if they go to that land. But no one doubts that this plan is the greatest plan ever. That’s unrealistic. And it has nothing to do with the dragons.
Or take The Orphan Queen and its sequel The Mirror King by Jodi Meadows. It features a princess taken from her own land to live in the Indigo Kingdom. The politics boggle the mind. The prince of the Indigo Kingdom publicly defends and supports a known murderess who endangered the entire kingdom–because he’s obviously in love with her, even though his feelings are officially supposed to be engaged elsewhere. His public policy is all built around listening to and supporting this known criminal at the expense of the interests of his own country. If this book were realistic, the prince would face public backlash. His advisors would caution him. He might face protests or an outright rebellion. But none of that happens. It’s not a realistic book. And it’s not because the book contains magic. The politics in this book would be unbelievable and unrealistic even if the book were set in a real-world country in the modern day. Because most citizens don’t take it kindly when public officials protect their personal interests at the expense of the country.
Fantasy worlds can be just that–fantastic–but they still need to based on logic in order to be truly believable. Having a character cheat another character out of everything they own and having the cheated character go, “Huh, whatever,” instead of being mad or seeking revenge or struggling with forgiveness (normal human reactions) should not be acceptable just because “it’s fantasy” and “I need to suspend disbelief.”* Suspension of disbelief is not a free pass for poor writing but rather a gift a reader gives to a world that is different from their own, but still logical. Suspension of disbelief means that I accept that I am in a world where genii grant wishes or rabbits can talk or trees grow violins. It does not mean that I pretend I no longer have a brain and cannot recognize poor characterization, faulty premises, or ridiculous politics when I see them.
The best fantasy is realistic fantasy. And we should not cheat ourselves of quality fantasy by excusing poor writing with an erroneous definition of “suspension of disbelief.” I want to see more realistic fantasy because only realistic fantasy allows me to suspend disbelief enough to fully immerse myself in another world.
*Please note that I understand that it is conceivable that a very specific character might really possess this level of ambivalence. The example given assumes that the author did not write such an unusual character but simply failed to give the character a reaction that the average person would have and that the average reader would find convincing in the context of the story.