Hard Fantasy

“You write fantasy like it’s hard science fiction.”

This comment was made to me many years ago by Patrick Nielsen Hayden of Tor Books. He went on to clarify what he meant, saying that—no matter how peculiar and varied the elements (intelligent animals, magical kaleidoscopes, figures from myth and legend) I bring to a story—reason and logic will, oddly enough, continue to rule.

Over the years, Patrick’s assessment has been echoed many times, in various situations. A radio interviewer coined the phrase I now like to use to describe the majority of my writing: Hard Fantasy.

I realize that, to many readers, Hard Fantasy may seem to be a contradiction in terms. Fantasy, according to most generally recognized definitions, differs from both “real world” fiction and “science fiction” in that magic or magical creatures are active elements. Whether the story is set in modern times or in days of yore, in a recognizable historical setting or in a completely imaginary world, toss in a spell or a dragon, an enchanted weapon or a winged cat, and you have Fantasy.

(Okay. I’m not here to argue the fine points – that the winged cat could be genetically engineered, or the enchanted weapon a scientific artifact—we’re talking Magical Stuff).

The sad thing is that, for many writers of Fantasy fiction, the inclusion of magic seems to mean that logical ramifications and real world laws both go out the window.

Take intelligent animals. They appear in Fantasy fiction with startling regularity, but most of the time they are not animals at all, but either humans in animal form or idealized spiritual companions. This is the case, even when the author states that what he or she is presenting are “real” animals.

A few years ago, I was sent a book in which, in the opening section, intelligent wolves (not shapeshifters or otherwise magical creatures of any sort) are in conversation. I read until one of the wolves nodded. Yes. Nodded. Head shake up and down.

Wolves don’t nod. Humans nod.

Later in the book, the wolves regularly barked and wagged tails held high. Problem. Except in a very limited fashion, wolves don’t wag their tails or bark. Wolves aren’t merely wild dogs. Wolves are physiologically and socially very different from dogs.

The author could have bothered to learn these things. She didn’t. (I think the author was a female, but I admit, I tossed the book after a detailed skim to make sure these weren’t werewolves or suchlike that would explain such non-lupine behavior). Yet there is ample material available on wolf behavior and biology. She wouldn’t have had to go to the extent I did and make the acquaintance of several actual wolves. All she would have had to do was read.

Why didn’t she bother? I suspect because what she was writing was “just” fantasy. Realistic details didn’t matter. The sad thing is, if this same author had been writing a mystery novel set at a wolf sanctuary, she probably would have gotten the details right. After all, that’s the “real” world.

Sadly, lack of attention to detail plagues Fantasy fiction on many, many levels. Diana Wynne Jones‘ excellent book The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is a compendium of the sort of lazy writing that has given Fantasy fiction—especially the sub-section that features elves and dwarves and other Tolkienesque elements—a bad name.

Ms. Wynne Jones doesn’t just touch on over-used magical races and such, but also on those mundane elements that are so often overlooked by writers who don’t bother to think out the details: cloaks, socks, embroidery, instruments that never go out of tune, and the prevalence of stew.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is a great book, one that can make you laugh and squirm (especially if in one’s callow youth one just might have made a few of these errors). I highly recommend it.

My feeling is that writing Fantasy should be harder—not easier—than writing any other kind of fiction. Why? Because every magical element, every immortal (or nearly so) race, every enchanted sword adds to the ramifications and complications of your creation.

Hard Fantasy. Of course. It should be.

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