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Is This Normal Around Here?

La Lumiere by FoxfiresSo you get home to your enchanted castle, hand your coat to the golem butler who waits by the door, tut sadly at Markus; the caretaker who’s trying to fill a light globe and letting all the fairies escape, then you head to the kitchen where your goblin chef has an entire pig roasting on a spit, it’s wings lie on the chopping board next to it. Just another day in the land of Tel‘vesh’na.

Normal in fantasy is an odd concept, for a genre characterised by dragons, magic and other amazing constructs, the idea of normal might seem ridiculous, yet it still serves a vital purpose in our stories. Fantasy can be populated by all manner of weirdness, worlds where the sun burns blue and withers the land, civilisations of purple-skinned shapeshifters that live on floating islands, and people who can shoot lightning from their fingertips. But for all this wonder an author will usually introduce these aspects in a way that establishes a baseline for the world of the story. Normal in fantasy might be incredible for us, it might be conjuring your breakfast each morning, or a race of demons fighting angelic beings because that’s just the way things are. This is not to detract from the fantastic nature of these things but to aid the reader in coming to grips with the world of the story and understanding normality as a relative term.

Some fantasy books and authors revel in pulling their readers through an increasingly baffling array of strangeness as part of their story, this often is the case in portal fantasy such as the classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, where the nature of the world itself is part of the plot. But for other fantasy and secondary world fiction, it is important to establish norms to facilitate the storytelling process. The better the grasp the reader has of the world and its rules the more easily they will be able to focus on plot and events rather than constantly struggling to make sense of everything. Not only that but establishing norms can improve clarity by producing a system of different levels within the book and allow the reader to recognise plot aspects and differentiate them from the rest of the strangeness of the world.

The Oldman and the Beetle by Denis ZilberFor example, say we have our fantasy world where people travel via riding large insects in place of horses, the author adds a line or scene that references a specific breed of these insects from the desert lands that fly, meaning they can travel much faster and hold a monopoly on transporting messages/packages. Thus we have established that these insect horses are normal and that these flying types are present but a more exotic aspect of the world.

Now the protagonists in the story head to a city to witness the first trip of a new invention, a flying airship. With the established baseline for normal, the reader will understand that this event is plot related, it changes the balance of power, and represents further chance for problems if the invention is misused. The plot can logically unfold from that point with the reader understanding the potential impact of the change, progressing through the story arc to the climax where you might have an armed fleet of airships arrayed against the protagonist and his army of flying insect riders to decide the future of the world.

Ideally an author will want to set up their norms for the world as quickly as possible, for the sooner the author can construct their initial equilibrium and impart a basic understanding of what passes for normal to the reader, the sooner they can get on with the business of actually telling the story. This is true even for novels that begin by opening straight into a plot event in the thick of the action, more so even, for while the reader’s questions can be held in abeyance for a time, the author will still need to impart the rules and systems of the world.

portal to winter by LoikaTo ensure it doesn’t jar the narrative you’ll want to try and work any important information about your world into the natural flow of storytelling. The general method is to focus on how new information is introduced to the reader and showing the characters’ reaction to it in such a way that it serves to establish an outlook on the world. If in your fantasy world people use portals to travel between cities as an everyday thing, then it’s important you show the reader the process as if it were mundane. Talk about the long lines as your characters step up to the magic platform, or the familiar tingling sensation when the character is transported, the idea needs to be meshed into the world so that it seems a natural part of it. This can a problem if you want to explain it to the reader though, if it’s so mundane, why should it warrant an explanation?

A careful author might be able to weave in enough detail to provide explanation as you go but it can be tricky to balance. Another way is to make it something new to that character specifically, so that as they experience it, there is the opportunity to explain to both the character and the reader. Think about the way Floo Powder is first shown in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the Weasleys take it as a matter of course, but there’s a moment where they talk Harry through it because it’s his first time. In this case it’s even worked into the plot with Harry going to the wrong fireplace and overhearing the conversation of Draco and Lucius. This technique can be a good way to get some vital information to the reader but it’s vulnerable to overuse and can slow the pace.

To draw back to the idea of plot events again, it might be necessary to establish a “normal” aspect of your world for later use in the greater story plot. But (to borrow from Sanderson) the ability of the reader to understand any plot development relating to a mechanics of your world is proportional to how well the author has explained them in the first place. Say your world does have magic casters and a set of rules that limit how much power they can wield. Now say your plot centres on a sorcerer of immense power and the group that must stop him. It’s vital that the reader understands there’s something special about this sorcerer for the purpose of your story, so the author must make that clear:

Power built around the sorcerer as he drew in yet more energy, the sky roiled above and the very ground shook. Waves of magical force radiated out from him, churning up the earth.

“Impossible,” cried Beldun. That violates Mengar’s 3rd law of magic! No human can hold more than the sum of the nexus limit. His body should be breaking apart from the strain.”

Fated Conflagration - MTG by ClintCearley

A bit obvious isn’t it? Especially given the situation, I don’t think the characters would be in a position to stand around and discuss magical theory. A far better way would be to drop hints previously in other scenes, build up the idea of the rules of magic for the reader then express it with a bit more subtlety.

Power built around the sorcerer as he somehow drew in yet more energy, the sky roiled above and the very ground shook. Waves of magical force radiated out from him, churning up the earth.

“Impossible,” cried Beldun. What he saw flew in the face of everything he knew about magic. He threw up a barrier as the wave of unimaginable power slammed into him.

Combined with some prior scenes this would be a much better way of introducing the concept to the reader, clearly showing the abnormal nature of the sorcerer even by the relative standards of your fantasy world.

However you go about writing your story, however strange and wonderful you chose to make it, these methods can be of use. To make sure your book works as something the reader can understand without losing anything of its nature as a work of fantasy just requires a little care and effort. Whether magical or mundane, as long as it’s written well, even normal can be spectacular.

Title image by ClintCearley.


One Comment

  1. Avatar Yora says:

    One thing to consider is whether things really need to be explained at all. Simply having supernatural elements being present without explaining their inner workings can have a great value of its own, even if the characters are assumed to have a deeper understanding of them.

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