I think I’ve said it before, but I didn’t get into writing to follow rules. Unfortunately, even if I ignore the rules, there are usually some guidelines that need to be followed if a book is going to be read by anyone but my dog.
I’m working on my first foray into a couple shifts in my writing. My tense use and POV has shifted. Henchmen was first person, present tense. I still love the way I can get into the character’s head with that model, but it makes complex stories with a lot of characters tricky. Plus, when something happens off-page, someone has to take the time to explain it to everyone else. I’m also writing the next book in past tense. Because reasons.
The biggest change is a shift from the real world – well, New Mexico, anyway – into a full-on fantasy world. For those who’ve read The Clock Man, this is the much anticipated full-length novel sequel to that novella. It keeps the story on Aluna – a world I’d already created some rules for – and keeps the major players in place. The difference is, this is fully realized story that loops in a lot more of the world. Since I’ve never written off-world stuff, that meant thinking more about how that world operates. In other words, Greetings From Sunny Aluna is as much a fantasy novel as it is a detective noir story and a wuxia novel.
I was never into the swords and sorcerers thing when I was growing up; my head was in the stars. I think the last true fantasy book I read was Susan Faw’s Seer of Souls. Prior to that it was Terry Brooks’ Elfstones of Shannara back when it came out. In 1983.
Neither of those are bad books by any stretch of the imagination and both were excellent resources, but I figured I’d better brush up a bit on the rules. Or, at the very least, the guidelines. Thankfully, Google was there for me with both some fantasy pictures (better than the one above) and a wealth of information.
The funny thing about fantasy is it really isn’t all that different from science fiction once you strip away the skin. As others have pointed out, fantasy is about things that likely can’t happen, while science fiction about things that haven’t happened yet. Both involve a lot of the same elements, though. Different races and non-Earth locales are common in both sci-fi and fantasy. The key difference lies not in who is wearing the wizard hat or the flight helmet, it’s all about the explanation of things.
Arthur C. Clarke once famously said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Sci-fi writers, and Star Trek is notorious for this, will use science-y sounding explanations for why things happen. “The quantum carburetor broke down, we’re stuck in this microverse!” or “The warp nacelles can’t handle anything above warp factor 10!” Why? Because they can’t, that’s why. And that science-y sounding explanation is all you need to know.
Similar things happen in the fantasy genres, except instead of science-y sounding explanations, you get magic-y explanations. “When she touched the staff of Jolan-Tru, the power of the universe flooded through her.” or “The Force is strong in this one.” Why? Because reasons, that’s why. And that magic-y explanation is all you need to know.
The trick to writing fantasy is the same as the trick to writing sci-fi: keep things seeming real even when they’re completely fantastic. That means the world has to have rules and they have to be immutable. Nothing kills a story quicker than some deus ex machina nonsense or a sudden, rapid shift in the way that world works. Aluna, for instance, doesn’t have any mammals aside from the humans that wound up there. To them, something with fur is freaky. That was a minor detail in The Clock Man, and one that nearly sunk me since I described a bit of cat graffiti early on. A quick fix before I hit publish quashed that. Minor details like that can add a lot to a story and when they break down, the story goes along with them.
The bigger problem is dealing with magic. It’s tough to have a fantasy novel without at least touching upon some kind of magic or another. The Clock Man established the basic rules of Alunan magic and, in the interest of keeping things the same, I actually had to go back and re-read it to see what I’d said a couple years ago. It’s better than I remember, so I had that going for me.
Magic, by its very nature, doesn’t adhere very well to rules. Trying to apply real-world logic to magic is like to trying to nothing but pork rinds and stay healthy. So, we may not be able to say definitively “Magic cannot do that!”, but we can establish through the narrative what magic is in the context of the story and how it works. One character may have no magical capabilities whatsoever, while another might have mad phat skillz at tossing magic around. Why? Because the story said so, that’s why.
In the end, I came back around to my one and only hard and fast rule of writing: Don’t confuse the reader. The Clock Man built a lot of the groundwork for the world and people of Aluna; Greetings From Sunny Aluna takes that groundwork and expands on it. Sure, there are rules in writing fantasy to keep things consistent, but beyond that there are no limits.