What I’ve been calling “hitting hard topics in worldbuilding” is a topic I knew I wanted to tackle from the time I was planning this series. I also knew I didn’t have the experience to write about it. So, I poked around in one of my writing groups for a guest poster and was super blessed to have Kate Flournoy volunteer. Kate is awesome both as an author and as a person in general, and I would highly recommend checking out her blog. Before you do that, though, stick around to read this awesome post of hers. :)
What’s the first picture that comes to mind when you hear the word ‘fantasy’? You’ve probably been influenced a little by your reading choices— fantasy as a genre is very broad. But I would guess that deep down, fantasy means the same thing to all of us: something spectacular. Something glorious and strange and full of wonder and magic. Elves and fairies and misty mountains and sun that shines through golden forests and stars that weep silver rain.
I’m not here to take away from that.
I’m here to challenge you to broaden your definition of spectacular.
Speaking of definitions, I don’t see fantasy as an escape, as some critics claim. It’s not separate from reality, but a plunge directly into it. In light of that, we fantasy writers have a great responsibility to accurately portray the reality of the human struggle.
That’s all well and good in theory. It’s easy to resolve to write ‘real’ stories instead of ‘soapy’ ones. Where we stumble is when we knuckle down and try to figure out the nuts and bolts of putting ‘real’ words on our precious paper, and they’re just… so… ugly.
One character of mine originally came to me as a girl who had been captured as a child and sold into someone’s harem. When the time came to reveal that in her backstory I squeezed my eyes shut and forced my fingers to make the words happen. When I opened my eyes and read the sentence, I felt so sick in my stomach I just erased the whole sentence and took that moment completely out of the story.
That piece of her backstory is still there, nagging at the back of my mind. I still see her as a child who was taken advantage of and a young woman who was violated, though she moved on with her life.
I’m still struggling with that decision. On one hand, it’s a very uncomfortable moment that could potentially make someone especially sensitive put the story down. On the other hand, reality is full of such uncomfortable moments. Is it a betrayal of my calling as a seeker and portrayer of truth to gloss over something entirely true to life, just because it made me uncomfortable?
Let’s think about that for a little bit. While we’re thinking, let’s go through six things we often gloss over when we build our imaginary worlds, fantasy and science fiction and all their offshoots.
1. Cowardice is Easier Than Glory
Every world has heroes. Most of the stories worth telling are about those heroes, too. Because of this, our perspective can get skewed. Heroism becomes the norm. Every other character is renowned for something, and all the hero has to do to receive glory is kill a few dragons or defeat the dark lord and he’s glorified forever. Not to denigrate those accomplishments, but stop for a minute and think about the real world. How many heroes of dragonslaying proportions does Planet Earth actually boast? A few names come to mind. William Wallace. Robin Hood. Richard the Lionheart. Leif Erikson. Winston Churchill. Joan of Arc. Robert E. Lee. George Washington. Abraham Lincoln. Maybe Johnny Appleseed. But in the grand scheme of things? That is a pitiful number. Most of the world is full of average joes. It’s easier to be average than to be heroic. It’s easier to be a coward than it is to rise to glory.
Of all those average joes, every single one had their chance at heroism. No one but yourself can keep you from rising up to change the world. The ugly truth is, only a very few humans have the strength, determination, and selflessness to stand up and be somebody. Heroism is the exception to the rule. There are all kinds of heroes. You don’t have to slay a dragon to attain glory. But at the very least, you have to slay yourself, and that is a test the majority of humans can’t bring themselves to face.
The true heroism at the heart of your world’s great stories is the heroism of the heart. When you build your glorious empires, never underestimate the humble triumphs of a heart against itself.
2. We Remember Ourselves Better Than We Were
Chances are you read that list of heroes up there and had a bit of an internal reaction to at least one of them. Abraham Lincoln? Wasn’t he quoted as saying if he could win the war without freeing a single slave, he would gladly do so? Robin Hood? Wasn’t he kind of a thief? Joan of Arc… her story confuses me. And Richard the Lionheart shouldn’t have been so irresponsible with his kingdom.
And yet we remember them as heroes.
Why? Each of them accomplished great things. The world, arguably, was a better place because of them once they passed on. But if we studied their lives and weighed their accomplishments against their character, I wonder how many of the people and nations we admire would be found lacking?
Regal Britain built herself on the broken backs of conquered peoples. America, so great and noble and full of freedom, stamped out whole tribes in the name of progress. Because of William the Conqueror civilization came to ‘savage’ Saxony, but is progress worth the blood of thousands?
We don’t ask ourselves these questions. We remember what we want to; what makes us feel noble and clean. Even those of us who do remember the slavery and bloodshed and wickedness in our pasts relegate it to uncomfortable footnotes not to be discussed in polite conversation.
Time softens the worst of criminals, but only because we like to remember ourselves better than we were. We like to forget. It’s inherent in us as part of the human condition. How many heroes do you have in your world who didn’t deserve the name? How much ugly history has been glossed over? What would happen if someone discovered the truth?
3. Worldly Glory Comes at the Price of Moral Degradation
Wherever there is wealth and glory, it’s usually the result of injustice and oppression. How cynical of me, right?
But there are two kinds of glory. Glory in the eyes of the world and glory in the eyes of God. To all appearances, glory in the eyes of the world is the grander one. Kings have razed cities and built them back up in their name, filling them with the riches of conquered slaves and decking every street and palace in finery that glorifies their name. People walk miles to see the city with the name of a king, and no one walks by it without stopping to marvel at such splendid glory.
What is God’s glory? Tribulation. People are burned at the stake for the glory of God; for daring to live in His name in a world too full of its own. God glorifies those who glorify Him, but rarely to the material standards of the world. The two kinds of glory are diametrically opposed.
Fantasy is filled with stunning palaces, vast treasures, and sprawling kingdoms shining with glory. As you create your worlds, ask yourself where that glory comes from. Better yet, ask yourself what ugliness that glory is hiding. Anything grand that belongs to the world always hides something much baser underneath. Slavery, extortion, theft… the list goes on. What glories of God were trampled to glorify men?
4. People Will Fight Over Anything
We all know that moment when the hero stands up in front of his tired, jaded troops and gives a rousing patriotic speech challenging them to fight for their families and their country. This is realistic; people have fought for their families and their countries since the beginning of time.
However, this isn’t the only thing people will fight for. Look at the Crusades.
This applies to everything from global war to disputes between neighbors over smelly chickens. If you combed through the annals of world history looking for the root causes of every dispute you would find a thousand different reasons people went to war. You would probably also discover that many ‘holy wars’ were excuses for more material gain.
But the chief reason people fight is because fighting is easier than seeking a middle ground of commonality. Competition is easier than co-existence.
Fantasy, possibly more than any other genre, incorporates war. Ask yourself why your countries and characters are truly fighting. What would happen if they set their differences aside and worked to find a mutually beneficial solution? Is there a mutually beneficial solution? How important is their war morally? Is their war as morally important as they make it out to be? What would happen if someone decided to rebel against the easy path and try to convince the world of a better way?
5. Oversimplified Virtues Become Vices
Ever considered the difference between nationalism and patriotism? Patriotism is being proud of your country because of what it has done or what it stands for. Nationalism is being proud of your country regardless of what it’s done or what it stands for. Yet many people confuse the two, and the results are ugly.
Subscribing to a form of goodness without living that goodness as a transformation in your heart is just blindness. Yet we constantly oversimplify things, watering them down to a formula that makes us feel good without making us think. Nationalism isn’t the only vice born from this— racism is also a result. We tally up our virtues and excuse our faults, becoming the most perfect; the most holy; the most superior ‘race’. Slavery wasn’t that bad. Abortion isn’t a huge issue. Yes, but other people have done much worse.
The core of it is human pride. When we agree together that our pride is justified and we really do know best, it spreads like wildfire to whole peoples. We become numb to the heart and suffering of others. A host of cruelties, from slavery to genocide to infanticide result from it.
What prejudices do your heroes have? What cruelties would your ‘good guys’ brush off as inconsequential? How many of your morally upright characters, when confronted with an ugly truth about themselves or something they take pride in, would respond with ‘Yes, but…’?
6. Sometimes the Bad Guys Win
You knew this one was coming. This is probably the most basic ‘write true to reality’ tip, and the first thing we stumble across when we start down this road.
It’s true. We look at the world around us, and the people who win are the bad guys. Corruption, cruelty, and selfishness abound in places of power, and we wonder about God’s promise to judge the wicked and prosper the righteous.
But remember, earthly glory is not heavenly glory. Victory in the eyes of the world is not always victory in the eyes of God. His rewards and judgments are first and foremost in the heart.
Do not fret because of evildoers,
Nor be envious of the wicked;
For there will be no prospect for the evil man;
The lamp of the wicked will be put out.
This brings me to the thought I hope you’ll walk away with. Making your imaginary worlds more true to reality does not mean turning them into dark, hopeless places without a scrap of beauty. Because reality means what is real— and what we can see with our eyes is only half the picture. Depravity is real. So is mercy. Greed is real. So is sacrifice. Satan is real. So is Christ. Neglecting to show either side of reality in favor of the other is a mistake. They make sense of each other. Without God, there is no sin. Without sin, there is no need for God. This is the truest fantasy— the highest definition of spectacular and the realest form of reality. All ends tie into it, and all threads can be traced to this core truth.
Writing darkness without reference to a God of light is as useless as writing God without reference to the darkened world who needs Him. Don’t write darkness because ‘it’s realistic’. Write it because it exists to point us all to God.
Kate Flournoy is a die-hard country girl raised on Tolkien, Dickens, and Lewis and determined to change the world. She’s a shy drama queen, timid idealist, hopeful cynic, melodramatic logician, and intellectual poet who believes that simplicity is best and everything is possible… except her ever coming to like cheesecake. Let’s not get too wild here.
Since deciding she wanted to change the world, she’s channeled her energy into two different methods— writing, and helping other writers. You can join her list of permanently awesome people by picking up her free fantasy novelette, The World Turned Upside Down.
She blogs as the inspiration strikes her at https://kateflournoy.wordpress.com/