Authenticity

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Steve C

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Mar 1, 2019
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Came across this TED talk. It rang a bell with me because so much fantasy is being written that I wonder how writers get their readers to immerse themselves in it. It beats me how the likes of Tolkein captured me with only his imagination. It seems to me one has to be a genius to create a whole new world and then tell a story within it. I have no choice but to stick with reality, but at its edges, as most of it is boring.

 
Came across this TED talk. It rang a bell with me because so much fantasy is being written that I wonder how writers get their readers to immerse themselves in it.
I think the talk gives the answer. You get your readers to immerse by writing authentic characters.

It beats me how the likes of Tolkein captured me with only his imagination. It seems to me one has to be a genius to create a whole new world and then tell a story within it.
Tolkien was an anomaly. His approach to world building was unique (some might say freakish). His way of working (to derive entire peoples and their history from invented languages) is not the norm, and most speculative fiction authors would agree. Most speculative fiction authors, when it comes to world-building, deal in what ifs... What if you could live on the sun? What if you could stop time? What if there was a monster under your bed? And once you've got your what if? you tell a story about how authentic characters respond to it.

You don't build a whole world (unless you are Tolkien). You build the bits you need to serve your story. And when you've done all that, which bits do your readers remember most? Well, the authentic characters, of course.

I have no choice but to stick with reality, but at its edges, as most of it is boring.
I don't believe any part of that sentence. ;) :)
 
I don't believe any part of that sentence. ;) :)
Well, I was fibbing/generalising a little but the edges are more interesting than the middle, bit like cake really :)

More seriously, I do find the bits of fantasy I come across place more emphasis on the world than on the characters. As a youth, I devoured Isaac Asimov but his fantasies tended to be off-world and how the real world dealt with them, albeit in different time zones. It may be a symptom of my age in that I can rely on experience as a framework. If I was younger I'd have to make it up. It may well be one of the few advantages of being an oldie :)
 
I do find the bits of fantasy I come across place more emphasis on the world than on the characters.

I haven't noticed that in the fantasy I read, and I read 5 or so books a month (and I'm trying to increase that). It's not really fair to compare Asimov to the authors of today; they're different beasts. The world and character go hand in hand.
 
I do find the bits of fantasy I come across place more emphasis on the world than on the characters.
I haven't noticed that in the fantasy I read...
I think there's a simple reason for this apparent discrepancy. I'm going to go out on a limb here and express a *strong* opinion [brace yourselves].

Most speculative fiction (broadly speaking, science fiction, fantasy and horror) is crap.

There. I've said it.

The fantasy market especially (I know, I write fantasy) is saturated with bland, derivative crap. Seriously, you could drown in it.

But... the fantasy novels that people talk about weeks, months, years after their release are precisely the ones that do have authentic characters, questions and themes. It's just that so many authors never get beyond the surface – Wow, dragons, spaceships, monsters! – that it's easy to drown in the aforementioned sea of crap. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying anything has to be highbrow, elitist, or life changing. But it does, as the man said, have to be authentic.

I devoured Isaac Asimov but his fantasies tended to be off-world...
I loved Asimov when I was younger as well (still do, but differently). But his stories are intellectual explorations of what if? There's a reason why his core fan base tend to be engineering students called Dave. Speculative fiction has grown since Asimov's day. It's matured (the good parts of it, anyway). Now, just like in any other form of commercial fiction, successful speculative stories are about authentic characters.
 
I did physics. I may as well have been called Dave. In fact, I think many blokes have been Dave at some point in their life, even if only briefly. :)
 
I knew lots of Daves. There was upstairs Dave and downstairs Dave because of where they lived. Dormant Dave slept through everything and
De De De Dave had a stutter :)
 
Most speculative fiction (broadly speaking, science fiction, fantasy and horror) is crap.
Yep, agreed. Sometimes it's hard to find good examples to learn from. And then I read Ken Liu's stuff and weep for how bad a writer I am ...
 
I think the key to creating a good fantasy world is to make it seem functional. The political, economic, social and technological structures need to feel plausible in order for the reader to believe in it.

I think Brent Weeks' Lightbringer series, Game of Thrones and Hyperion by Dan Simmons, which I'm reading now, do this really well.
 
Most speculative fiction (broadly speaking, science fiction, fantasy and horror) is crap.

I third that. I have read some stuff that's just all "surface" and no "deep/third wheel" as Lisa Cron describes it in Story Genius. I'm pretty picky usually and it pains me that in order to find comp titles, I need to wade through so much crap, but I've recently found Daniel Greene on Youtube and I feel his recommendations are solid (even if slightly skewed from my own preference). But there are definitely fantasy authors who build characters (and fabulous worlds).
 
Come the end of the day for me writing is about generating emotion in your reader through story. For that, your characters must have authenticity so readers believe in them and invest in them. If you can achieve that then they can inhabit all sorts of invented worlds but for me inventing worlds would be very difficult and an additional burden when learning to write. I don't think fantasy is an easy genre for beginners although many appear to start with it.
 
@Steve C, if you like emotion in writing try The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Mass, it could help you enhance your own writing. I just started reading it now, it's not the first time I've read him, but he's an easy read. I totally agree with this,

I don't think fantasy is an easy genre for beginners although many appear to start with it

and I think fantasy suffers for it. Give me the emotional experiences of The Pillars of the Earth or Anna Karenina, but in fantasy, but it's also possible that's too heavy going for young adults (not an adult fantasy though). That's an interesting discussion, what does everyone think? How heavy-handed can you be with emotion in YA?
 
I don't think fantasy is an easy genre for beginners although many appear to start with it.

Many start with it because it is easy - on one level. If you're only concerned about plot and spectacle, then fantasy is just the ticket. No need to worry about fitting your story around the real world, with all its limitations. No need to concern yourself with deep and complex characters because a lot of the characters in fantasy are tropes, interchangeable and undistinguished. For the neophyte author this is a good thing. A lot of new authors are mostly regurgitating and recombining scenes and characters they love from their favourite novels. For many years that's what I was doing.

I actually don't think it's all bad. Getting the plot right is, to me, the first requirement of a successful novel. It's not enough by itself to make a good novel, but if you have a story with a decent plot but bland characters, to me that's closer to ready than a story with fantastic characters but no plot.

IMO, the same freedom to borrow bits of fantasy worlds at will to make up your own settings, to borrow stock characters to populate your plot, is all part of the same kind of shortcut writing. Authenticity comes from limitations, and the less you world-build, the fewer limitations you have. The more stock your characters, the fewer limitations.
 
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