I recently introduced my boys to James Bond and Star Trek. They loved them. Of course, I had initially intended to start them off with Sean Connery and James T. Kirk. But they had other plans.
“Let’s watch them from newest to oldest!”
Sacrilege, I thought. But two endearing little smiles melted my resolve and we started the Bond movies with Spectre. Just the other day we watched A View to A Kill, tied as my all-time favorite Bond movie alongside Never Say Never. As I’m watching the James Bond movies in reverse, it’s interesting to see how writing has changed. I don’t remember ever watching new James Bond movies and thinking to myself, “Self…that’s about the corniest crap I’ve ever seen”, and yet, there I was, scoffing and guffawing alongside the kids. When I watched A View to A Kill at their age, I remember thinking, “I know it’s not real…but it’s so believable!”
Oh, how times have changed.
An important lesson was impressed upon me once again—realism makes for good writing! Readers want to be able to imagine themselves in the book, swinging swords, casting fireballs, sitting with your trusted companions around a fire—wherever you take them, make it believable. We’ve all heard someone express, “Oh, yeah…sure”, right after a character makes a 40-foot jump; nevermind the fact that the character was running from a horde of zombie orc mages.
But what does it mean to make your story believable? Basically, anything that isn’t natural to this world (Earth) must be explained in a way that fits your world. How do you make fire-breathing dragons and faster-than-light travel feel natural? Through the characters in your story, of course. It’s their job to make the unbelievable parts of your story believable, and it’s your job to write them that way. If your character is walking down the back alleys of Phoenix on a brisk winter’s afternoon, and he sees an orc in battle-worn armor, wielding a flaming sword, the character’s reaction to the scene should obviously be appropriate. If, in your world, a battle-armored and flaming sword-wielding orc is a common sight, then maybe the character admires the weapon, or wonders when orcs will start wearing normal clothes—armor stinks! If your story is about the normal world being plunged into fantasy, then the character would probably freak out. If jumping 30′ is possible in your world, then you’re going to have to explain why. Even if it’s completely natural because the world is less dense, and gravity is weaker than on Earth, you still have to explain it without it coming across as an info dump. Maybe your character expresses how much she loves soaring through the air as she leaps across a 30 foot chasm, contemplating the philosophical debate she’d sat in about gravity on other possible worlds. Most authors choose an Earth-based world, with aspects of fantasy interlaced throughout; for an excellent example of an epic fantasy world, see Brandon Sanderson’s series The Stormlight Archive.
The “yeah right” factor doesn’t just hold true for unrealistic physical accomplishments. It also holds true for the characters themselves. Gone are the days of antagonists that are evil for the sake of being evil, or unwaveringly good. Antagonists need to be as relatable and complex at their antitheses. Let your readers be intrigued by the evil in your world, such that they might make the reader feel a little uneasy. Those of us who read/watched Game of Thrones were made to feel compassion for the foulest characters, and resentment for the kindest of hearts. Make your readers weep for the villain, and shake their fists at the hero. Fill your world with complexities, for such is the way of life.