You Can’t Climb a Wall with a Broken Arm: plausibility in fantasy fiction

Kylie Chan

READERS tend to be extremely forgiving when a good story grabs them, and we fantasy writers rely on this suspension of disbelief to pull our readers down the rabbit hole of our twisted imaginations. It doesn’t take much though for the reader to pop back up out of the hole with an expression of disappointment when we betray their trust and push their credulity too far. And what sort of thing can do that? Let’s see what will drag a reader out of the adventure of following your Merry Band through your Fantasy Landscape.

Demography

If your Merry Band is all young, white, male, and straight – you’ve already lost me as a reader. If the only women they encounter are hot femme fatales or warrior chicks in chainmail bikinis or rotund grandmotherly bakers – you’ve lost me even more. More than half the world’s population is female and their roles are as diverse as their male counterparts, so don’t you dare use ‘medieval accuracy’ in a fantasy setting as a way to have men doing all the important stuff, because even in real history women have always been doing stuff outside their traditional role.

Children exist. Old people exist. The disabled exist (even more so in a time with less scientific medical care), LGBT people have always existed. The chances of a random selection of the population being straight white young hot and male – unless it’s in the Straightland of the White Men – are vanishingly small. So if your Merry Band is a limited demographic, 1. Half your readers just noticed and put you on notice (one more gaffe and they’re throwing your magnum opus against the wall) and 2. There’s a much smaller chance of really interesting interactions happening between them.

Everybody Poops

Everybody eats, sleeps, urinates, and poops. Clothes that have been lived in for a few days – and your Merry Band won’t have cute dinosaur jammies when they’re trekking to the Mountain of Doom – get stiff, scratchy, and stinky. Everybody smells when they haven’t washed much. Animals do too. If you’re going to take a cat on your broomstick, you’d better be thinking litter boxes.

Your Merry Band will probably be digging latrines before they sing merry songs around their merry campfire on the way to the Mountains Of Doom to face the Big Bad. And they won’t be eating stew, because stew takes hours to prepare. They’ll be eating dry, tasteless trail rations or the tough, gamey, greasy carcases of anything they manage to kill (and skin, gut and bleed with no soap to wash themselves after) on the way.

The food probably won’t be enough for the energy they’re burning, so they’ll all lose weight and muscle tone and have vitamin deficiencies. And then they’ll be pooping – the ones that aren’t constipated from lack of fibre, that is. And of course the ones suffering from scurvy through lack of organic Fair Trade fresh vegetables. Fungal infections, blisters, sunburn, and dysentery are all a hazard. If your Merry Band isn’t pooping, and pissing, and smelling and hairy, then you’ve probably lost your reader. Throwing in a bit of wild projectile vomiting is always fun for the whole family.

You Can’t Climb a Wall With a Broken Arm

If your Merry Band just had a big battle – and any fight longer than about a minute is a big one – then they’re exhausted. PTSD is an issue here. They won’t be picking themselves up to trek another hundred kilometres. Injuries happen, and if there’s a broken arm that person won’t be using their arm at all for a long time – in fact they’ll be screaming every time they have to move (believe me, I’ve been there. Trips to the toilet involve a lot of screaming).

It’s fine to identify your Merry Band members as superpowered, but then again don’t break your own rules to let them climb walls with broken arms, and don’t make them completely invincible. Invincible people are incredibly boring.

Don’t Break Your Own Rules

Did I mention don’t break your own rules? Don’t have a deus ex machina where someone suddenly has the power to overcome whatever the Big Bad is throwing at them. And don’t you dare start at me with the ‘Power of Courage’ or the ‘Power of Love’ or even worse, the ‘Power of A Single Perfect Tear’. If she leans over him and a single perfect tear falls on his face that heals all his … well just don’t go there, okay? That particular trope is older than me, and I’m older than time, just ask my kids. Give your Merry Band a smart, courageous and believable way of beating the Big Bad. Or have the Big Bad win – that’s an option too.

Good People Can Be Ugly

This is a time-honoured trope – Good is Beautiful, Evil is Ugly. This can be carried through to Black is Evil, or Gay is Evil. Are your Merry Band all straight white hot and male, and your Big Bad ugly, dark and occasionally threateningly effeminate? Lose it, or you’ve lost your reader. What if your protagonist is ugly, or disfigured? People are going to react differently to her, aren’t they? And your readers will love her even more, because she’s having a whole lot more shit thrown at her (particularly if members of the Merry Band ate something dodgy on the way to the Mountains of Doom and are suffering from explosive diarrhoea).

 

Everybody Makes Mistakes, But Smart People Rarely Make Really Stupid Ones

So your character needs to go from A to B (for example, hole in the ground to Mountain of Doom). Picking them up and carrying them there by having them do something incredibly stupid – like ‘accidentally’ walking off a cliff, sliding down a slide, and trekking through a long cave that miraculously turns out to be the Lost Dwarven Mines – doesn’t work. Particularly if they’re supposed to be the Merry Leader of the Merry Band, and cleverer than the rest of them.

Being straight white hot and male with really good hair doesn’t automatically make a leader; organisational ability, motivational skills, and decision-making aptitude does.

Being straight white hot and male with really good hair doesn’t automatically make a leader; organisational ability, motivational skills, and decision-making aptitude does. If that just sounded like the Position Description for the last job you applied for  – bingo! There we are, leadership potential. Mutiny is always fun, too, if your well-designed and diverse Merry Band decides that choosing a leader based on straightness, whiteness, maleness and hair gel maybe wasn’t the best idea after all.

Know Your Shit

Horses are big-ass animals that eat a mountain of food and run at the sight of their own shadows. If you ride a horse all day then give it a ‘bag of oats’ at the end of that day, it will get colic then be dead of starvation by the end of two weeks (and oats are a ‘heating’ food that makes horses go stupid, as well). You can’t go without water for more than about three days maximum. Swords aren’t heavy. Revolvers don’t have safeties. Do Your Research – check on the internet. And then don’t parrot the research you’ve done in a long and technical description of why revolvers don’t have safeties – just don’t mention them. Ninety percent of your readers won’t notice and the other ten percent will nod approvingly. And none of your readers will throw your book against the wall.

Head Injuries Can Be Lethal

It’s very convenient to knock someone out to carry them somewhere, or to disable them without killing them because the Merry Band are the Good Guys. Unfortunately if Big Bad’s henchmen are unconscious then they’re already past the point of serious injury. A good solid whack on the head can lead to bleeding inside the skull that can squeeze out the brain and kill it dead. Anyone unconscious for any length of time isn’t going to get up and walk around like nothing happened. They should be in hospital, and if they are in a medically-starved mediaeval land, they can end up blind, brain damaged, lose their speech centres, or at the very least have a crippling headache, nausea and dizziness for a couple of days afterwards.

So Be a Clever Writer

These are the biggest things that draw me out of a fantasy novel – the demographics, the use of clichés, and shortcuts on plotting that don’t stand up. If this makes it sound like creating a believable fantasy novel that won’t throw the reader out is hard – well done. That’s exactly right. It takes a great deal of clever plotting and some shrewd decisions about characterisation and conflict to draw the reader in and give them the ride of their life. So take the hard path, and the reward will be readers who can’t wait to read everything you write.♦

 

Kylie Chan is the best-selling author of the Dark Heavens Chinese mythology-based fantasy series published by Voyager-HarperCollins worldwide. Her books have been translated into multiple languages and have consistently appeared in the top ten of Australia’s bestseller lists. She is currently working with University of Queensland academic Dr Kim Wilkins on a proposed research higher degree about the impact of digital self-publishing on the traditional publishing industry.

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