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Reality Made Fantastic: Using the Real World in Fantasy Fiction

Fairytale by Harriet Chrystal EdlundMore than once, I’ve heard a reader of fantasy remark that the reason they love fantasy so much, and that they continue to read/watch/engage with fantasy literature and film is that fantasy is not the real world. For that brief period while they’re able to sit down with a book and read, or turn on the TV and watch a fantasy-inspired program or film, or even play a fantasy RPG, the real world doesn’t exist. It can be tuned out, and they can fully engage with a new and different reality.

It’s a reality where there are no screaming children who need to go to bed, no dog whining to go outside, no sink full of dishes, and no overdue report for a demanding boss. Once inside that fantasy world, the reader (or watcher, or gamer) can fully enter that world and live vicariously through the hero or heroine, experiencing something completely removed from the mundane of their day-to-day existence.

There’s no shame in this—I’ve said it before myself—and I think that in this stressful modern world, it’s important to have an easily facilitated escape. And hey, fantasy is a safer way to “get away from it all” than many other options, not all of which are particularly legal…

But here’s the thing. At its core, at its very heart, fantasy relies on reality in order for us to fully understand and engage with its story and characters. And above and beyond that, the real world has plenty of the fantastic to offer up to the reader and writer…if they just know where to look.

The Importance of an Internally Consistent World

Look around you. Look out the window, at the trees and the birds and the way your car isn’t floating in the air because of an amazing thing called gravity. If you live near a river or stream, take a look at the way it flows. Or load up your local weather network’s webpage and look at the weather map, with air currents and incoming weather patterns, and look at the ground and how the success of that year’s plant life growth depends on not only those weather patterns, but also the water table, and in a way, gravity.

Save The Planet by vladstudioWe live in an internally consistent world (note that I didn’t say the people were consistent!), where cause and effect is a reality—and an important one. If even one element of our world is changed, many other things are affected. Our world is also logical, scientifically sound, even if we personally don’t always understand everything about it. It is internally consistent, and therefore we relate best to an internally consistent world, even in the things we read and watch.

In fantasy, having an internally consistent world is critical. In order to be able to relate to what the characters are experiencing, we need to have a base point of comparison. That doesn’t mean reality can’t be altered to fit in a fantasy setting, rather that it’s necessary to start with the world as we know it—with necessary variations for a base fantasy setting, of course—and then build out of that. This allows for not only an internally consistent world, but for those experiencing the world to have a starting point by which to learn about and understand the fantasy world.

Not sure what I mean? Take, for example, perhaps the most obvious example of reality made fantastic: The Shire in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Tolkien confirmed that the Shire was based on rural England, and the parallels there are quite clear for those who know this. As for Middle-earth itself, on a number of occasions Tolkien stated that it was indeed our Earth, just at a different stage of imagination or a brief episode of history. And I doubt anyone will argue that his world was, most thoroughly, internally consistent.

The Importance of “Bolognium”

Author Larry Niven coined the word “bolognium” to describe the elements in sci-fi stories that simply can’t be explained by current science (and apparently, if you have more than four pieces of bolognium in a story, it’s probably fantasy).

Voidwielder MTG by Chase-SC2We could sit here all day and argue back and forth on how many pieces of bolognium are needed to qualify a story for fantasy status, but the concept is the same: Once you have an internally consistent world, you are allowed (in most cases) one piece of bolognium per story. That means you get one thing that you can’t explain away through logical means, and that includes any magic. Some authors are fantastic at creating logical magic systems that come across as real—take Brandon Sanderson’s work, for example—but other authors need that bolognium to explain their magic or a key element of the fantastic in their world.

That said, remember that when working with an internally consistent world, even the non-realistic aspects—that includes the bolognium—must have consequences. They can’t exist apart from the world that they’re in (that literally doesn’t make sense), so even the inexplicable needs to be explained in terms of the consequences that arise from it and from its existence.

This means that the fantastic within the realistic needs to be drawn and used very, very carefully. It often works best as a prop or window dressing, rather than being the core of the piece—take the preternatural Alexia from The Parasol Protectorate series, for example. Alexia is soulless, and therefore is able to negate supernatural powers by her touch. Now, does that make sense? Not particularly. And while it’s a core aspect of her character, the series isn’t defined by her condition—rather, this little slice of bolognium has critical consequences and causes all sorts of nasty problems along the way.

It doesn’t make sense, can’t be explained, and yet fits logically into a fantasy setting (yes, I realize it’s modern/urban/steampunk fantasy in this case) in a way that serves to maintain a relatable, internally consistent world.

The Importance of Fantasy for Our Reality

At a recent convention panel I attended, L. E. Modesitt said that “reality is human nature—fantasy is the way in which it is expressed.” For fantasy fans, I believe this is entirely true.

While we find our footing most firmly in the door of reality—because that’s where we live and exist—it’s those elements of the fantastic within a relatable reality that grab hold of us, pull us into a fantasy story, and refuse let go until the final page.

Title image by Harriet Chrystal Edlund.

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2 Comments

  1. A good article – though I’d argue that no fiction is actually set in the “real” world we live in, only the world as the writer wants to portray it. Fantasy is just more honest about that than most fiction.

  2. Avatar Dan J. says:

    Excellent article. The only thing I’d quibble about is that Brandon Sanderson relies on bolognium just as much as does Gail Carriger. It makes no more sense to say that swallowing iron makes someone able to “pull” on metals than it does to say that having no soul makes someone able to negate supernatural power. Brandon tends to offer detailed rules about HOW his magic systems work, but he provides little or no explanation about WHY they work. They’re just magic or, in other words, bolognium.

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