Wednesday, January 30, 2013

How realistic does a created world have to be? A Google+ Hangout Report

This week I was joined by Lesley Smith, Brian Dolton, Glenda Pfeiffer, and Harry Markov.

I started the discussion with the caveat that I have a personal bias against magic. While I love reading stories with magic, when I write them I have a tough time because I find magic "slippery." This is one reason why my Varin world's magic long ago (in writer time) turned from plain old magic to a semi-natural phenomenon. I don't like to be put in the position where I wave my hands and things happen the way I want them to. I want magic to have restrictions - and whatever freedoms it has, they often need to be counterbalanced with more realism in other areas. This topic will come up again later in the report.

We turned at first to Science Fiction, because it often has very stringent requirements of realism, in particular the rules of physics. Brian immediately remarked that much of science fiction doesn't conform to the rules of physics, as for example when people use faster-than-light drive for space ships. However, we did manage to agree that there was a difference between a story that takes something like FTL drive and "sets it aside," i.e. makes it a necessary condition for the story to take place, but doesn't have its scientific details play a critical role in the main conflict. For example, my stories take place on planets that must have been reached by FTL drive but in which no one ever travels that way. Brian has a story, by contrast, in which the nature of the propulsion is what the story is about. When you put the main focus on propulsion, then you at least need to have an internally consistent set of principles for that propulsion.

Brian proposed a fantastic Venn diagram of two overlapping circles, one of which would be Realistic and the other of which would be Believable. When we write, we definitely want to portray things that are believable, but not all of them must be Realistic as such. They say that truth is stranger than fiction, and often things that have really happened are so far out that if you wrote fiction about them, nobody would believe you. For example, I once wrote a story about my sixth grade class, using a few of the first names of people who'd been in it, and a teacher told me the names were unrealistic.

As an author, you are put in the position of establishing a contract of trust with the reader, where they must believe that you are narrating in good faith on some level. Maintaining a degree of realism in the story can help the reader continue to believe in you as you stretch credulity in limited areas.

I tend to think that character psychology and human emotions benefit from being realistic. Mind you, I do a lot with cultural differences and different ways of thinking - but I always come back to a basic rule of sense-making, requiring my characters to possess drives that we might find familiar, and to explain how they make sense of things if their thoughts are vastly different from ours. If a character becomes so alien it "goes off the rails," then the reader is less likely to stick with the story (without other things available to keep him/her reading).

At that point we turned to the question of language. Conlangs, or created languages, have been increasing in popularity lately. [Klingon, Na'vi, Dothraki are standouts] They can often create a sense of realism for an alien group and its culture. Harry argued that this is only the case on film, that using alien language in written narrative reduces his enjoyment of the story. However, creating a language does not mean you have to fill your story with long tracts in that language. My own approach is to create the grammar and culture and manners of a culture but to use only minimal vocabulary, and allow the alien language to influence my use of English. That way people can continue to grasp what is going on (I hope! but this is what critiquers are for) and yet have the feeling that the language exists, and is real, because of the way that it changes the alien's use of English.

Next we turned to the genre of Fantasy, and specifically to the question, "Does it bother you when magic doesn't follow rules?" Brian remarked that many people in the real world believe in magic in one way or another, such as when we knock on wood, and that magic in and of itself wasn't inherently unbelievable. Lesley agreed, mentioning Arthur C. Clarke's principle that any sufficiently advanced technology is seen as magic. By this argument, much of our understanding of our current technology resembles belief in magic, since a great many of us don't understand how it works.

I argued that in the Harry Potter books, magic follows rules the way English follows grammar rules - that it has areas of order, and areas of disorder. Several of us felt that the magical diversity employed by Rowling went too far in places. On the other hand, Harry mentioned a book he'd read where a superhero was super-powerful whenever he needed to be, and sometimes his powers drained him, but at other times they restored him - that sometimes he needed to touch someone to influence them, and sometimes he didn't. This was the kind of lack of realism that everyone in the group was bothered by.

One thing that can help you keep a feeling of consistency in magic is the use of a consistent metaphor for the magic. Is magic like water? Is it more like air? Are spells like inhalations that come into you and then affect the entire area around you? Or are they like projectiles which you can shoot? Sticking with a consistent metaphor for your magic is a lot like sticking with the rules of physics in science fiction.

Finally we touched on the question of cultural realism. Brian proposed another type of Venn diagram, this one showing the two overlapping circles of "What history was like" and "What people think history was like." History is written by the victors, which influences what appears in it. Fiction has also influenced our view of history, as when we draw conclusions about what the Middle Ages were like based on our Fantasy reading. Harry said there is a common illusion that the Dark Ages didn't experience any cultural advances, but that this was largely a product of the fact that we don't have as many records from this period. Brian observed that while the Roman Empire fell, things were still going on and "advancing" in other places.

It's important to avoid falling into the ideological trap where if it didn't happen to our "favorite" civilizations, or our "favorite" members of those civilizations (be they nobles or men, or members of particular races) then it didn't matter. The historical record is not well-integrated across cultural zones, and widely divided into what matters and what doesn't matter. What you end up with, then, are a lot of cultural assumptions about what history holds and therefore what is "real." Recently there was the example of Scott Lynch receiving criticism for his female pirate  mother of two being "unrealistic," which he responded to brilliantly (there are some great links about it here). There have also been recent discussions of whether the lack of people of color in the movie Brave was historically accurate (hint: it wasn't, but many people thought it was).

Glenda made the excellent point that every author should ask, "Who is my reader?" Your intended audience can have a big influence on how you would like to portray your world. Writers and readers often have different criteria (writers are typically far more critical!). I mentioned the book Red Moon, Black Mountain by Joy Chant, which featured three children who fell through a magical portal (not unusual) but who were separated in their magical travel and ended up landing in the magical world at different times, so that by the time they reunited, one of them had aged a number of years and the others only a month or two. Was it realistic? I found it believable when I read it, and the group agreed that it was a refreshingly original author choice. I could, however, imagine that some people might be disturbed to find their expectations confounded.

Thanks again to my guests for the excellent discussion! Join us again tomorrow at 11am PST on Google+ when we will be discussing Worldbuilding Process. I hope to see you there!