Does Writing Fantasy Require Research?

You bet. Lots of it.

If you think just transferring your story from our world to your own make-believe one gets you off the hook for doing research, you’re sadly mistaken.

Consider: the further your setting from “First World, Earth, 2016” the less you’re going to be able to draw on your own experience, or rely on your reader’s. You’re going to have to paint a vivid picture for their mind’s eye, and that means being an authority on a few things that you’re probably not already an authority on.

Even in a land of total make-believe you’re going to have to know a few things about physics, light, weather, animals, anatomy, disease, weaponry, travel, time, warfare, history, politics, biology, botany, communications, manufacturing, chemistry, technology, etc. If these things are absent from your world, or present but lacking any realism, or even worse, contain outright contradictions or silly mistakes, then sorry… the reader just won’t buy what you’re peddling.

Even in imagination-land there has to be some realism.

Things have to make sense to a being with the senses that we have, which means they have to smack against one another, clash and clang, appear, disappear, whisper, go boom, taste good, smell bad, hurt, or make your hair stand up. If they don’t, then you have no sensory way to tap into the reader’s experience, which means, no way to draw them into your world. A world devoid of anything sensory (or sensical) to a being with our senses is the same as presenting them with nothing at all. (Or, if it is totally non-sensical, as two-dimensional or cartoonish.)

Writers forget, sometimes: it’s all about connecting with your reader. What is the point of your wonderfully-crafted alien world if no reader ever wants to step inside it and spend a few hours of their life there?

The fantasy writers that do it well do a great job of making their world very much like ours, with the same rules and even the same types of people… but with very slight differences.

For example, George R.R. Martin introduced us to a very realistic, believable world in A Game of Thrones. We could almost envision life on Earth being very much like that in say, 15th-Century England. (Hmm, Lancaster vs. York? Lannister vs. Stark?) He does so masterful a job of selling us on the reality… the filth, the brutality of combat, the smells, the deliciousness (or occasional grossness) of the food, the sickening power-lust of the characters, the Machiavellian politics… we have no trouble connecting it to our own experience. The fact that there’s zombies, dragons, and a little magic? No problem. We’re so engrossed in his reality we don’t even bat an eye.

Now, go tell George R.R. that since he was writing a fantasy book “it sure must have been nice not to have to do any research!” He’ll probably fall over laughing.

(Actually, don’t… he might never get up again. We want him to finish those damn books.)

Now, suppose you say: “Well, that’s fine for George R.R., but everything in my fantasy world is going to be completely original.”

Well, I challenge your use of the world “completely”.

If everything in your universe is going to be completely, utterly, TOTALLY different from our own then you have another problem: your manuscript is going to read like an unintelligible name soup. You’re going to need special made-up names for everything, no matter how prosaic, including light, air, grass, and basic anatomical parts. Listen, I love fantasy, but I’m going to read about half a sentence of: “He falmbolled up onto his trusty nimbolpian glambaxxok and breathed the rich riapnux into his ahlarumps…” and toss your book as hard as I can against the farthest wall I can see, OK?

You want to connect with your readers? Connect your world to the world they know.

This means learning about the world you inhabit.

I hate to say it, kids, but it’s the stone-cold truth: if you’re writing a fantasy story in a completely make-believe world… it’s time to go to school.

(P.S. Rick makes some great points on this topic over at Knights of Writ, which is what inspired this post 🙂 Check it out!)


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2 thoughts on “Does Writing Fantasy Require Research?”

  1. Thanks, Rick!

    You know, the more I think about it, the idea that you can “just write” fantasy and skip all that boring research stuff could only have been put forth by someone who’s never tried it.

    Anyone who’s gotten more than two pages in has found themselves in weird, wonderful, alien territory and had to start looking some things up!

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