Wanting Realism in Fantasy

Realism in Fantasy

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, fantasyBut 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.

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71 thoughts on “Wanting Realism in Fantasy

  1. Kristen @ Metaphors and Moonlight says:

    I completely agree the best fantasy is realistic fantasy. I’ve talked a lot about realism in books on my blog, and it all applies to fantasy as well since that is mostly what I read, although you touched upon a wider discussion and different aspects than I have. But it’s just what you said. When there’s magic or fantasy elements, they need to have rules for how they work and be consistent. That’s one of my biggest issues with some paranormal books/series—the paranormal elements just start to get out of control and there’s seemingly no rhyme or reason to them. And also what you said, characters still need to act in logical ways that make sense (barring characters who actually are irrational as one of their traits or something). I can accept whatever world or magic there is, but characters still need to act in a way that makes sense within their world.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I just finished A Dash of Trouble by Anna Meriano and I wanted to love it, but the magic system seemed to be completely random! First, we find out that the character is from a family of cooking brujas. Then we find out they all have non-cooking related skills like speaking to the dead or influencing people’s emotions. Then more rules are suddenly made up at the end to add DRAMA! I was so disappointed by how random this all was, that I just couldn’t get into the book. And it had looked so magical and cute! (I just love books with backing ad magic.)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. R.K. Lander says:

    Great post. Fantasy and every other genre has to be well thought out, logical and reasonable. Anyone who states otherwise is simply seeking to justify a sloppy job. I think ‘fantasy’ refers to stories in which nonexistent elements exist. It is the author’s job to make them believeable. As for those unlikely political scenarios, I believe they are a telltale sign of the author’s age or simply ignorance as to the mechanisms of sound reasoning, which of course has nothing to do with genre at all.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I love how you phrased it! Yes, fantasy deals with things that don’t exist in our world–but that doesn’t mean they can’t be believable!

      I’m starting to think more and more that authors (YA and MG in particular) just don’t care about logic in politics. I have the sense that some MG writers assume their target audience doens’t know or care anything about politics and some YA authors prefer to have a dramatic plot before all else. And I like MG and YA! I’m not some grumpy person going, “Oh, these children’s books are all rubbish. Read real adult books!” But I still find myself disappointed in the quality sometimes. Still, I read so many books, it’s probably not surprising that some aren’t great quality. Not everything published can be stellar, I suppose.

      Like

  3. louloureads says:

    Yes! It infuriates me when authors don’t follow the rules they laid out for themselves in later books. Sometimes it can be chalked up to “huh, we never knew magic could do that”, or the hero having learnt from an unreliable source before, but more often it just gets dismissed out of hand. I have not yet encountered any examples of the second point (I haven’t read either of the books you mention), but I would find that frustrating too.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      That’s a good point. Sometimes an unknown magical rule comes to light. That’s fine with me–as long as it makes sense in the context of everything else we know about magic. I don’t like when the new rule just appears for the purposes of plot. Like someone thought, “Hm, how can I add some drama? I know! I’ll just make up a new rule to complicate everything!”

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Carrie @ Cat on the Bookshelf says:

    I agree. I’ve been getting more annoyed lately when the logic doesn’t line up in fantasy. These fantasy worlds have laws and rules for functioning, and it’s annoying to break them because there was no other way to get around it. Either that should not be a rule of the world or the author needs to try to find a way to work around the problem. Great post!

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      It does feel rather like sloppy writing and, as a YA fan, I regret to say that I see this all the time in YA. It feels like some authors are deciding that dramatic plots come before all else and they end up doing some wild things that don’t really make sense.

      Like

  5. Aimee (Aimee, Always) says:

    This post is AWESOME, Krysta. And I totally get you. Every time I read a fantasy novel, I have to bump my review down a star or two because there were scenes that totally didn’t make sense, with stuff going on that pretty much defy any kind of logic. Yes, it’s a FANTASY book, but just because it’s that way, doesn’t mean all sense in the world has been lost. :/

    – Aimee @ Aimee, Always

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      The funny thing is, I’m willing to accept a lot in fantasy. You have to complete three random tasks to win a magic item? Sure, why not? The One Ring can only be destroyed in the fire in which it was forged? Whatever you say, Gandalf. Not going to question the logic of the One Ring. And yet there are still magic systems that are so utterly random and/or contradictory, that I just can’t believe them!

      And the same with the plots. I feel like some authors (mostly YA, I say sadly, as a huge fan of YA) will literally do anything to make the plot more dramatic, without caring whether it makes sense or not.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. TeacherofYA says:

    I totally agree with you! Sometimes the premise can be so far-fetched that it’s like,
    “Cmon!!” But this point never even occurred to me.
    Thanks for sharing it!

    Like

  7. Sydney @ Fire and Rain Books says:

    WOW this is a great post! I don’t know if I’ve ever truly thought about it, but everything you’re saying makes complete sense. It’s like even though there can be magic and creatures and whatever, the basic way humans work shouldn’t change. They should still get angry at appropriate times and have logical thought processes. Great great post ❤️

    Like

  8. Camilla @ Reader in the Attic says:

    OMG YES! I’m not only a reader but also a writer (not author). I write fantasy. I read fantasy. And it really piss me off when people say:
    “It’s not a fantasy” (talking about something like a contemporay and implying that fantasy cannot be realistic)
    “it’s a fantasy, wha do you expect?”

    Well, reality. Reality with magic but even that can even logic and decided rules. Or even the creature in books. Unless they’re made of some pure magic stuff, they have flesh and blood, organism, dna, animal features and behaviour.
    So the society could be made up too, but still it has rules and all those rules should be belivabale. I understand the possibility of writing or finding a huge unintentional plot hole, but still that doesn’t mean that fantasy should kill of the law of common sense.

    Like

  9. winged says:

    I absolutely agree! The rules of magic in a world should feel like physics; perhaps we discover that popular thought about them is wrong (Gail Carriger pulls this off really well) but we shouldn’t have them be broken within themselves or totally incomprehensible.

    I think having read Anne McCaffrey at a formative age definitely cemented this for me. While there are other … problems … with her Dragonriders series, it’s a series that artfully appears to be almost high fantasy in certain books (hold/feudal system, inexplicable threat, dragons, lords, etc) and hard sci fi in others (spacecraft, genetic engineering, etc) and the transition from one to another makes complete sense: knowing the science of Thread and Dragons and Between just makes it make more sense. (Well, Between stretches it, but it’s at least canonically consistent.)

    Anyway, I’ve rambled on long enough but yes yes yes to this. There are a few books where I’m willing to handwave for the sake of compelling characters, but even if I love a book, it always pulls me out to have to do that.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Ooh, that sounds interesting. I know a lot of people like her books, but I haven’t read any so far.

      I haven’t read the Dragons of Pern series for years! I remember liking them, but unfortunately have no vivid memories of the worldbuilding!

      Like

  10. Fanna says:

    I loved this! YES, fantasy should not be correlated with absolutely impossible or ignorant situations and characters. You made a correct point: people think fantasy is somehow synonymous to magic and that in turn is synonymous to anything and everything–irrespective of logic.

    Character arcs, story lines, climaxes, and world building should definitely not be unrealistic because those are the main things that’ll make me love a story, no matter what genre. So, why would I not let those affect my opinion when I’m reading fantasy?

    I really liked your points for politics and mere rules when it comes to the fantasy world. Those are necessary and to make that fantasy stand out, the story has to have realism in it! And of course, nothing can be worse than just agreeing to something in a fantasy story because it’s ‘fantasy’. 😀

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Exactly! I don’t mind suspending my disbelief, but there are limits! I feel like a lot of the YA fantasy I’ve been reading lately is just sloppy and it’s so disappointing. I go into each book wanting to love it (that’s why I picked it up!) and then so many of them fall apart, despite the awesome premise. It almost makes me sad, like apparently the premise was too awesome for anyone to actually pull off.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Sarah J. says:

    Yes! I agree wholeheartedly. There are some fantasy novels that are so absolutely ridiculous that I can’t enjoy them. I know a lot of people say you have to suspend belief, but I don’t want to do that all the time. Our world is grounded in a lot of logistical facts and there are unexplained occurrences out there, but even then, a lot of it has logic. There can a be magic with logic; the two go hand in hand to coexist peacefully. If it works in our world, why can’t it work in fantasy worlds?

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, people are always telling me to suspend disbelief when I criticize fantasy. But suspension of disbelief means I imagine I am in a world with ogres and leprechauns–not that I give a pass to sloppy writing!

      Like

  12. Kym says:

    You speak nothing but the truth, and that’s why I tend to read more Urban Fantasy where there are fantastical elements set in a realistic world where the rules of existence still exist. If anyone else give you a hard time about this thoughtfully crafted and true beliefs tell them they should just suspend their disbelief.

    Like

  13. Daniela Ark says:

    Totally agree with books (characters behaviors, world rules etc) are consistent and logic even in fantasy. I get totally lost and bored in world and stories that are waaaay to deep into the rabbit hole and don;t make sense whatsoever. One reason why I didn’t enjoy A series of unfortunate events was because I didn’t think the characters behaved logically.

    Like

  14. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Really agree! You’re spot on that suspension of disbelief is not a free pass for shoddy writing. And that set up in Orphan Queen makes *no sense*- why not just even insert that some of the advisers aren’t okay with it? (although there are some cases where people don’t have the opportunity to stand up for their rights) But yeah, whenever I say I can suspend my disbelief, I mean “I’m on board with the dragons, you don’t have to try and scientifically explain how they breathe fire”- when it comes to magic I can be on board with most things (as long as it’s internally consistent 😉 )

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I think a lot of YA is written to forward the plot at all costs, honestly. Adding in advisors would not have been relevant to the romance the book wanted to forward, so they were dropped. That’s my guess, anyway. But it does raise the question of who is actually running the country because it appears to be the foreign-born disinherited princess/criminal…

      True. Magic systems don’t need to be explained in excruciating detail as long as all the magic seems to be cohesive and make sense. I’ve never questioned why the One Ring needs to be thrown in Mount Doom, for instance, because it just seems right in the story and doesn’t contradict anything we know about magic or the other Rings of Power.

      Liked by 1 person

      • theorangutanlibrarian says:

        Yeah gosh that’s so true. hehehe I’ve seen that kind of thing in YA a lot to be honest- I mean, why have logical politics when it might get in the way of the romance? 😉 hehehe yes that is a problem 😉

        Yeah exactly- I was the same. And I really agree. Some people prefer more depth, but I’m okay with Ring = powerful + bad… so into Mount Doom it goes 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  15. Sophia Ismaa Writes says:

    Which fantasy books depict realism, just out of interest? I tend to stay away from fantasy for these very reasons except for a very, very, select few. I would like to read more fantasy in the future hopefully!

    Like

  16. Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

    EXACTLY. This is why I often struggle to buy into really popular books. I find the characters are unrealistic or the settings are ludiris or whatever. For example, Throne of Glass has a protagonist who is not only the youngest, most successful assassin of all time (with minimal at best training) who is the most beautiful girl in the world, but she is brilliant because she makes all sorts of inferences and assumptions NO ONE should make. The world around her is evil and dangerous, but she is magically protected from it all just by being her. It’s… unbelievable. Now, I can handle some suspension of disbelief, but not 400 pages worth.

    This is why I love Brandon Sanderson’s novels. Even if I don’t care for a character or a plot point, everything makes sense in the context of the novel. Magic systems are a challenge for many (I’m looking at you The Paper Magician</em.) — they are often brilliant, but unable to keep their own rules in check. Not so with Brandon Sanderson's works! He's ALWAYS consistent.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Hahaha! I haven’t read Throne of Glass, but I’m thinking now that maybe it’s not for me! That sounds hilarious. But it’s a bestselling series, so clearly my love of logic is not shared by all. 😉

      I do love Sanderson’s magic systems! He’s so good at them! So detailed!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

        Exactly. Best selling does not always make for me favorite literature. Which makes me super sad! I stopped reading after the first book (and the short story collection, which are all prequel stories written much later hoping that I might actually like her developed writing style)— it just wasn’t for me. But that’s the fun with literature. If everyone loved everything it wouldn’t be nearly as fun.

        Liked by 1 person

  17. oldmanrambleson says:

    I think most authors of fantasy setting tend to travel so far down the rabbit hole they forget about the readers. I have just begun my own fantasy story and as a new writer it is sometimes hard to follow the countless plots left by those who penned on the paper before. A good read might be a simple to follow book or sometimes a vivid descriptive tale. Great points to take note of.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      That could be. I suppose it’s possible to get too wrapped up in your own story and forget how it’s coming across to others who aren’t living in it the way you are!

      Like

  18. Dani @ Perspective of a Writer says:

    Oh I so agree with this! ❤ Internal logic especially gets me! I really dislike when a character should have reacted a certain way but didn't because of some plot coming up… yeah… the character was NOT debriefed by the author beforehand! (Or well, of course they were because they somehow knew it was coming…) And I agree suspension of disbelief is not a free pass for poor story craft! Motivating characters and having things make sense at least on a basic level isn't that difficult, really!

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Characters not reacting in character because of plot points reminds me of how Steven Moffat writes women–the main reason I stopped watching Doctor Who. :/

      Like

  19. Margaret says:

    Agreed. Fantasy should be believable. It should establish the rules of the world and then follow them. World building is the best part of fantasy. And when it’s done badly, it’s so disappointing.

    I think realistic might be a poor choice of words in this context. Except that fantasy is so often allegory. When the magical people oppress the non-magical people who then rise up against them, it gives the author and the readers a way to express their frustration with racism/elitism in the real word. So in that sense, Fantasy should also be realistic, though I don’t think that’s the point you were making here.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Though many people misunderstood what I meant by “realistic,” I would suggest that is because they didn’t read my explanation of the term. If people are going to skim and assume, my term is not at fault. 😉

      I do like your point that fantasy can be applicable. It’s true that a lot of high fantasy tends to have people fighting evil or overthrowing a government. And it can indeed be used to explore questions pertinent to our own situation.

      Like

  20. danielle says:

    I totally agree. One of the biggest beefs I have with fantasy is that this suspension of LOGIC happens a bit too often. (For me, this goes for dystopian, too). Well said!

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I know! I think we can do better! I think, however, that the problem is that bad writing so very sells–and sells well. I can imagine editors knowing that they’re publishing a poorly written book, but also not caring because they know it will make money.

      Liked by 1 person

  21. AliciaS says:

    You express one of the major faults I find in the genre of fantasy. It seems like writers use the excuse of a fantastical world to write poor characters. Fantasy is not easy to write, and magic does not allow a writer to short-cut the process.
    Your article expresses the difference very well.

    Like

  22. jamie @BubblyBooks says:

    So agree! I feel like a lot of the time in fantasy they kind of just skip over the politics part? like we know your a kingdom and in a kingdom politics exist!! Fantasy being my fav genre as well I completely agree that in order to be fully immersed in a world you need the whole picture and the whole picture includes those knotty gritty details about the not so glamorous parts of life. Great post 🙂

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, when the author ignores the details it can be hard to immerse yourself in the world. You don’t want to be reading about a generic medieval-esque world where you have no sense of the politics or traditions or anything that would set the world apart!

      Like

  23. Daima Hussain says:

    Completely agree with you, i actually came across a piece of great writing advice recently that is very close to this; the writer advised us to base our characters upon real people and think about how each decision a character makes affects the other one. The only way we are able to connect with and appreciate fantasy is because the people and logic seem real. I really hate it when a story contradicts it’s own internal logic.

    Like

  24. thesagaofaelorad says:

    The sentiment is shared here from somebody who grew up with historical fiction. Now I do contest the word “real” to be defined by the author for clarification. What makes fantasy real? I think it is largely the characters that provide the level of palpability that readers can connect with and become immersed.

    I believe that when done right, SFF can be used effectively to tackle morality and complex issues via archetypes. The same was done by our ancestors, via the gods, spiritual beings, and the supernatural to teach principals. Otherwise the tropes can just be imitated and spewed out by the next large publishing company in order to churn out money.

    Fantasy doesn’t need to be Game of Thrones to be done right. But it can’t be done in a manner of expedience either. Realism needs to come from the inner characters, reflected in their struggles in order to achieve that level of growth and progress we see in our own and others lives.

    Great article!

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I think that realism can come from the characters! You want characters whose motives make sense and whose characters remain consistent! One thing that made me stop watching Moffat’s Doctor Who was how Amy’s personality would change from episode to episode based on the needs of the narrative. She didn’t seem like a person, just a plot device!

      Liked by 1 person

  25. neenan01 says:

    I agree with this post entirely. So many times I have read a work only to shake my head and have no choice but to give up on it. There is a difference between fantasy like Lord of the rings and nonsense like Alice in Wonderland. When something doesn’t follow its own rules or breaks logical sense in a fictional novel, we do not clap our hands and say the author is a genius. Just like in a movie when a character does something stupid for no reason or logic breaks down, that is the author’s laziness showing.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, internal logic does wonders for a book! I think part of the reason LotR is so impressive is because Tolkien spent time making sure his characters were travelling at a realistic rate, making sure the phases of the moon were correct, and so forth. It makes his work feel like it really could have happened in our past!

      Like

  26. Lionelson N.Y. says:

    True! I try to be realistic in writing my fantasy book as well. As fun as magic and the supernatural is, if it’s not rooted in some rules, it’s not so cool. Even magic works on a system, not merely a simple hocus pocus.

    Like

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