Making It Up and Having It Easy

In the mood to rant a bit.

Ever since my first book came out in 2006 I’ve been hearing variations of “fantasy writers just make it all up,” sneered at me and others–sometimes in very backhanded ways, but nonetheless, sneering–with the implication that fantasy is lazy and fantasy writers are therefore lazy and not very good (or possibly that being not very good writers, we ended up writing fantasy because it’s so “easy.”) Further this often comes with variations of “when are you going to stop wasting time and write a real book?” or “why are you wasting your talent on that?” which frequently comes along with the caveat that the speaker hasn’t actually read the books in question (or books in the category cited by the speaker) but they are sure the writer could do much better with something “real” or “more serious.”

Let me be really blunt here: All writing is hard. All writing is work. One genre or type of writing is not inherently better or more “serious” than another (unless you want to split a “serious” hair about comedy and if you do, then to hell with you.) Fantasy is not easy and it’s not lazy.

Good fantasy is like a really magnificent puppet show where the apparently inanimate object comes convincingly to life. If you’ve ever seen Mary Robinette-Kowal take off her boot and convince you that the boot has a life and emotions of its own, or watched a muppet made of an old coat sing and dance and believed the fuzzy green frog had real feelings for a pig made of hatter’s wool and wire, then you’ve seen the same magic at work. That is fantasy, the resonance of reality persuading you that what you see is real–or at least a strong reflection of reality.

Fantasy writers don’t “just make it all up.” Most of us do as much or more research as writers in other fiction fields, because when you are building something from scratch, you have to really understand your materials, your facts, your structure and how it will work together once it’s built, no matter how much fantasy you’re putting in. If you need to create a whole new world, a fantasy world is not any less difficult or complex to build than a science fiction world or an historical world now long gone. Even if you are just splashing a bit of magic into “the real world” or if you are building a whole new world, it has to make sense, it has to work, and it has to resonate with reality for the reader.

Look at that again: it has to resonate with reality. They have to believe it; they have to believe that old green coat is a frog. The fantasy being presented has to seem real or possible or at least internally consistent or it falls apart and the reader is unable to suspend disbelief and come along on the journey of your story. It has to have the strength and resilience to persuade readers of its probability.

In order for these worlds and characters and situations to resonate with reality, they must have some reflection of it. That means either knowing reality pretty damned well–and frankly, I’m not an expert on anything, myself–or doing a lot of research and a lot of thinking and ground-laying. Fantasy writers not only have to tell a cracking good story, they have to make the unreality of their world plausible and reflective of reality.

This reflection of reality is a lot easier and more persuasive when the writer includes as much of the real thing as possible. That means the writer retains things like psychology, history, physics, language, economy, and social mores as much as she can. She may dress them up in interesting costumes, but they remain the same. Unless the writer has posited a disk-shaped world that lays on the backs of four elephants who are standing on the back of the great turtle A’Tuan as she swims across the universe, chances are good that the world is still round and spins on its axis, sans elephants. If you posit that your policeman is secretly a werewolf, you don’t need to rebuild the whole world, but you do need to know how police procedure works and you need to figure out what the common myths about lycanthropy are and how you’re going to integrate or reject them in a way that is consistent and functional and how being a werewolf is going to make Policeman Furry’s life different from every ordinary cop’s and how that is going to let your story throw a spotlight or a magnifier on something in our own reality.

That requires research, thought, and planning. And on top of all of that, there are things we do have to make from near-whole cloth, we have to figure it all out for ourselves from the parts we can steal from reality. That is hard by itself, but when you put it on top of all the rest, it’s amazing fantasy stories ever hold together at all. Yet they do and they do it with such style and sparkle that readers think “it’s easy!”

When I see fantasy writers (of any stripe, no matter how thin) being accused of laziness and lack of research, of “making it all up” and “having it easy,” I want to kick the speaker in the shins. One hallmark of art is reflecting or magnifying reality, showing the viewer/reader a facet of the world–something about themselves or their society–by making it larger and brighter, not just by copying reality and claiming the same old ground with a new flag. Fantasy (and science fiction) writers hold up a lens for the world to look through. It’s not easy and it’s not just “made up.”

Some people call science fiction the “literature of ideas;” if that is true, then I will claim fantasy as the “literature of making it look easy.”

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About Kat Richardson

Writer, editor, eccentric pain in the tail, bestselling author of the Greywalker novels.
This entry was posted in rant, Uncategorized, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Making It Up and Having It Easy

  1. sonia says:

    That is so true! I am thinking that the idea fantasy is easier to write goes along with people thinking it is a lesser form of fiction.

  2. worldweaverweb says:

    APPLAUSE!

    Dear GOD, this needed to be said.

    [sigh] AGAIN.

  3. Sonia: unfortunately that seems to be true. Also I think there’s a lot of attempts to elevate one’s own genre at the expense of another. People like to feel superior to someone, but it’s a scam.

  4. Fantastic post! Retweeting.

  5. Bravo. I’m convinced that those who scorn fantasy/sci-fi fall into one of three categories 1) fatally unimaginative 2) won’t read it because someone’s told them it’s uncool and they haven’t enough self-confidence to challenge the conventional wisdom 3)woefully uninformed and in need of enlightenment.

  6. Rae Evans says:

    Anyone who writes works damn hard and those that belittle a writer do not understand the process and probably don’t have a creative bone in their body.

    Anyone who writes has my greatest admiration for their devotion, skill and persistence. Your stories, Kat, are entertaining, well-written and pull me in to your world completely.

    I have no doubt that to do that you are anything but lazy. Please continue to work as hard as you have been and ignore the unimaginative rants of those who should know better.

  7. Amy says:

    Dear god, I am so glad that I have never encountered this before! If I heard anyone mutter such nonsense I would kick them in the shins, with no hesitation and quite a lot of glee.

    Not to add to the genre one-upmanship, but I would think fantasy or sci-fi or horror or anything else not firmly in the real world would be harder to write, and therefore take more skill, than writing in “reality” would. For exactly the reasons you mention. You have to get the real stuff right, but you also have to make sure that your alterations work as well. Other authors only have to deal with the former.

    Anywho, at least you know your fans know better. And that we’ll gladly do the shin-kicking for you, since I could see that being rather detrimental to your image if you did it personally.

  8. Amy says:

    P.S. Great A’Tuin*

  9. apologies to the Pratchett fans: I couldn’t remember the spelling.

  10. T. Hernandez says:

    Well said and YEAH! Sheesh that drives me absolutely batsh*t crazy. I’ve never understood the ghettoization (not sure that’s really a word but I’m going with it) of different genres. Good writing is good writing. That’s it. It’s all hard and good is good. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing about short people with hairy feet or old gods in a new land or an impoverished family on it’s way to anywhere but the dust bowl. This happens a lot to YA Lit too. I just recently had to explain to a very well educated, well read women who works in the publishing industry that just because a book is defined as Young Adult doesn’t mean it isn’t brilliant writing that is worthy of her attention. So…yeah thanks for saying all that!

  11. Derek says:

    YES! That is all. =)

  12. T: yeah, I have incredible respect for folks writing in the YA field. It has to be just as well-written as any other book while operating under a considerable number of market constraints. And they usually put out multiple books each year per series, so not only good writing, but highly productive and careful writing is required.

  13. Colleen (MizB1) says:

    Huzzah! Being a sci-fi/fantasy story addict (regardless of whether the stories fall in the literary or entertainment medium) from a very young age, I, too, am weary of the dismissal of these genres. I share Amy’s opinion that good SF/F writers likely work harder than their non-SF/F counterparts.

    The fact that SF/F films are rarely recognized at the Oscars except for technical awards makes me wonder if the same narrow-minded Academy members are the same folks as the SF/F literary snobs.

    I thank the gods for the rise of geekdom in popular culture (not to mention the fact that they’re generating all of that tech that permeates our lives) and the popularity of SF/F books/TV/films over the past 5-10 years because it has broadened the horizons of a lot more people. If this trend continues, perhaps the snobs will be outnumbered by the masses, and the enlightened will eventually gain control of the purse strings (i.e. publishing houses & chain book buyers).

    This cartoon always makes me feel better whenever I’m faced wit SF/F bashing, so I have to share:

  14. Cat says:

    CHEERS!!!! SF/F is only as made up as the rest of fiction, which is to say, it’s ALL made up. It’s a story. That’s the point. Whether or not they include technology that doesn’t exist yet is irrelevant.

    And if they give you flack, use ANY spy novel or mystery to shoot them down. Or even Pride and Prejudice. Every author doesn’t keep things the way they work in the real world… if they did, it’d be a remarkably boring world in all fiction. Movies as well. As Mythbusters proves on a regular basis, most of the action and explosions we see in real-world based stories are exceptionally special effects.

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