One of the best parts of writing, of course, is getting to create the story from scratch. It’s an awful lot like playing pretend when you’re a kid and you get to make up all sorts of fantastical things. The kid stuff doesn’t have to follow any set of logic or rules. When you’re a kid, you can have the biggest weapon and be unbeatable by any foe. You’ll also be smart and handsome and generally the best player in the game.
While that’s all fun when you’re tootling around the playground with your buds pretending to fight the forces of darkness and winning handily, it doesn’t make for good grown-up stories because beating the bad guys senseless without any real stress doesn’t create our good friend dramatic tension.
“Yep, whooped up on the bad guys and went home to XBox and the best Cheetos and chocolate milk money can buy. Didn’t get a scratch on me.”
Fun. Not exciting, though.
One thing kids do have that adults seem to lack is a lot of imagination. In a kid’s world, fantasy and reality combine to make a kind of surreality soup that tastes great with Cheetos and chocolate milk. The fantastic can be incredibly fantastic and the realistic can also be incredibly fantastic because kids don’t see the world through the same jaded eyes adults do.
In the adult story world, things need to make a least a modicum of sense or, at the very least, be very truthy. Even the fantastical stuff needs to have an air of rules and some grounding in reality or it starts to smack of deus ex machina solutions and over-the-top fantasy where a girl falls in love with a billionaire and changes him for the better. No one will ever fall for that.
Wait. Scratch that. It’s a common trope these days.
Anyway, even if the fantasy world filled with magic and dragons, there still needs to be some limit on just how far things go. The hero – who is righteous and brilliant and handsome – can’t change the rules at the last minute because the story got to a point where there was no reasonable way out.
The inherent perfection of the characters is also something that can kill the tension. Heroes don’t necessarily need to be dashing or beautiful any more than villains need to twirl mustaches and tie damsels to train tracks. Realistic heroes can be monsters (literal or figurative) and villains can be people doing the wrong things for all the right reasons.
I’ve been working on my first fantasy novel, Greetings From Sunny Aluna. I promise, it won’t be a traditional fantasy novel. There will be dragons and magic, but there’s also crime, drugs, fighting, and drinking. In order to keep things at least borderline realistic in a world where there are two suns, two moons, magic is real (and used to power lights, among other things), and humans and dragons fought a nasty war at some point in the past, I’ve been digging into a lot of Chinese mythology and trying to reconcile it with the rules of the world. Sure, there are dragons, and, yes, they are magical creatures. But they’re also unrepentant apex predators with gigantic egos. There’s magic, but very few people completely understand it and even though it’s everywhere, most people are content to power their lights and ovens with it.
These are the things that help ground the story and, in my opinion, make it fun. That little hint that this could be real, no matter how bonkers the rest of the story may be. Too much fantasy and you lose the human element of the story. Too much humanity and you might as well be rewriting Beaches or The Piano because you’ve lost the fantastical element in the story. Figure out just what humans are good at (being lazy and finding the easiest way out of working) and wrap that with a magical world and you’ve got the makings of a good story.
There are rules on Aluna, and an awful lot of broken people doing awful things in the name of good. It’s still fantasy, but it’s not high fantasy. Think of Greetings From Sunny Aluna as down in the gutter fantasy. It’s going to be fantasy merged with the mean, gritty realism you only get when you’re knife-fighting behind a 7-11 at 2am. It’s just that the 7-11 will serve fried tarantulas and the knife fights will be epic.