I’m sure many fantasy writers have heard their genre described by readers and other authors as “making shit up.” As in, “I could write fantasy. It’s just making shit up.” I can’t answer for the reactions of every fantasy writer who’s heard this, but I know it always pissed me off. Making shit up? Well, yeah, that’s what *fiction* writers do… all of them. But this strange idea is only applied to those of us who write fantasy. Or sci-fi depending, but that’s a whole other post.
To be fair, a lot of beginning fantasy writers think this, too. I’ve seen it everywhere. On several of the many writing forums on the web, in a few blogs that shall go nameless, over on the NaNo boards. Some of these people are honestly ignorant. They just don’t realize the kind of work that goes into creating a believable fantasy world. Others are lazy. They feel they can get away with making shit up, because who is there to catch them? The readers, sure, but the Fantasy Fabulation PoliceTM aren’t going to show up at their house and beat some work ethic into them.
And then, finally, there are the people who are on the “make it up as you go” side of the world-building debate. I mean them no disrespect. They’ve chosen a method and they feel it works for them. Whether or not someone has the chops for this sort of writing is a debate I’d rather not get into (again). Heaven forbid someone make subjective statements about someone else’s behavior. On the Interwebz? Shouldn’t happen.
But hey, I have no trouble admitting there have been many great books written like this. Not how I do it, but then, I haven’t sold tens of thousands of copies of over twenty different novels. I’m not going into the mechanics of world-building on the fly. I may be a punster when I write, but I have files and files of world-building material on paper, on disk, and in my head.
The point I haven’t gotten to here is that world-building on the fly is not the same as “making shit up”. I could make up a world in 30 seconds, and nine times out of ten, the reader would have thrown that book against the wall in half the time. People think getting a real-world city/religion/philosophy/branch of science right through research is tough. And it is. One mistake, and that community is all over you. But when you fuck up in world-building, the number of people who can–and will, believe me–get on your ass is exponentially greater.
Readers like a story to make sense. Why? Because then they know how to react to it. Awesome Fantasy Character #1482 is crushed by a fifty tone granite tomato(hey, this is fantasy): *atsiko weeps*. Two pages later, the author resurrects this character. *Atsiko screams and throws the book out the window.* Well, the window was closed, and I have to pay $200 for a new one. Now I’m doubly pissed off. If I had known how easy it was to bring characters back to life, I would not have cried. I would have winced, maybe. ‘Cause the Goddess knows getting squished by a fifty ton granite tomato hurts like hell. But if it doesn’t kill the person, why should the author trick me into wasting my emotional energy? Guess what would happen the next time someone died? Atsiko would flip through the lame-ass death speech (because they all are), confident that the character would return by the next chapter. If I didn’t already need a new window.
I’ve talked in other posts about how the reader doesn’t like being played with. It’s annoying, it’s frustrating, and if we are really engaged in the story, it can be emotionally draining. For the same reason you don’t make a book all action, you don’t constantly fuck around with the reader’s emotions. We also don’t like it if the author is an idiot. Ground glass is not poison people—it’s beach sand.
Now, to relate this back to our original topic:
1. Readers like to have a general idea of how much of ourselves we should invest in a given part of the story. That’s not to say we don’t like surprises. A predictable book is a boring book. But if anything is possible, nothing is interesting.** And a boring book is also boring.
2. Readers like to have a general idea of how easy it will be to solve a problem. That is, if the hero is surrounded by a thousand ravening orcs, the reader would like to know how much effort it will take to defeat them—or if the hero is just screwed. All the tension is gone if you take the cheap way out. So, what’s the way to accomplish these goals? How can you give the reader an idea that they know what is going on? By making sense. If you make shit up, it usually doesn’t make much sense. “Crap, I’ve written my hero into a corner. Wait, I’ve got it! If you say ‘bambino’, they esplode!” An extreme example, I’ll admit. Let’s try something more sensible. “My hero’s dropped his sword! And he’s not wearing armor. What’ll I do?!” Hint: don’t have him catch the sword. This looks cool until I put the book down to get a glass of milk. Then the fridge logic kicks in, and I remember that a sword is a wedge. What do wedges do? They wedge things apart. Like hands. Not to mention that, um… you know… this: gravity + human strength > human strength. Duh, author.
Sure, fantasy writers make things up. But they also do this thing called “being consistent”, which is a lot harder for most people to grasp. It’s not any less work to make stuff up than to use real stuff. It may even be harder. You don’t have to suspend disbelief for a story set in New York. But in Random Fantasy Kingdom #127?
Yes, readers, fantasy has to make sense, too—just its own kind of sense.
So, to sum up: Make sense, not shit. And have a little more respect for fantasy authors.
More on “Respecting the Reader” later.
**I’d like to thank Limyaael for making my point for me.