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.”