Your Altered World: A “Scientific” Approach to Writing Fantasy
If you know my novels, you might wonder why I’m writing about writing fantasy. I write books about empathetic androids and trips to Mars. I’m considered a hard science fiction author.
But if hard science fiction is my meat and potatoes, then fantasy is my pie ala mode. I’ve published eight short fantasies so far, and I’m writing a novel that’s best described as Rural Fantasy. I grew up on Tolkien. The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs is one of my favorite books. I devoured the MythAdventures series by Robert Lynn Asprin and Writers of the Future judge Jody Lynn Nye.
And one of my formative fantasy influences is The Magic Goes Away by Writers of the Future judge Larry Niven. That book and other stories in that series (including novels cowritten with the late Jerry Pournelle) are excellent examples of what might be termed hard fantasy: fantasy with consistent rules.
Niven is, after all, a preeminent hard science fiction author. He is the master of what I call Ruthless Consistency: establish the rules of your story world, never break them, and discover how story is shaped by them. In the tradition espoused by long-time editor John W. Campbell, Niven introduces just one new scientific principle in a story, and then explores how that principle complicates the lives of his characters—sometimes across multiple stories. These are stories of an altered world, and how characters respond to the alterations. In my opinion, no one is better at finding story in the rules of his altered world, whether those rules are current science or some imagined future science.
Or fantasy! In The Magic Goes Away, the fundamental alteration is a world of magic in which it is discovered that magic is a nonrenewable resource, and things fall apart when it fades. After generations of Atlantean sorcerers keeping the nation above the waves, Atlantis sinks when their magic is exhausted. Gods sleep and dragons turn to fossils when their power fades. Magical beasts turn mundane, and some of them are willing to kill to prevent it. The books look at the efforts of wizards and others to find new sources in a world of dwindling magic—or to build new ways to live in an altered world.
This is a “scientific” approach to writing fantasy. It’s consistent world-building (which is an element in most good fantasy) raised to a major factor in plot constraints and character motivations. A simple “recipe” for an altered world story might look like this:
- What’s altered in your fantasy world? (Or your science fiction world?) It doesn’t have to be just one thing. The Magic Goes Away is a world of wizards and gods and dragons and fantastic beasts. But one key alteration is the crux of the story. You might want to build an entire fantastic world, or you might want to build a world just like ours, but with one key change. Some readers (and writers) like deep immersion into a different world, while some prefer a more familiar world they can easily visualize, so the key alteration stands out. For the sake of focus, I’m going to concentrate on the one key alteration.
- Who suffers from the alteration? How and why do they suffer? If no one suffers, the story is flat.
- What do they do about the suffering?
- How does that go wrong, leading to a rising series of challenges? How are these challenges rooted in the alteration? How are the challenges rooted in the character?
- What does the character have to learn about themself and their place in the changed world? Because remember, the story is about the character, not the alteration.
- What difficult choice do they face? Do they make the right choice, and triumph at great cost? Or do they make the wrong choice, and get defeated by the alteration?
A recipe is not a story, of course, but it can help you find a story. You’ll have to add antagonists and allies, conflicts and consequences, tragedies and triumphs. You’ll need good characters who make sense in this world. You’ll need good descriptions of your altered world, so readers can see and hear and feel it.
And all of these elements, required for any good story, should be added in a way that’s consistent with your altered world. This is where Ruthless Consistency comes in: if a new element doesn’t fit the altered world, how can you make it fit?
This is by no means the “only way” to write fantasy.
“There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
—Rudyard Kipling, “In the Neolithic Age”
It’s not the way, it’s a way. There are great fantasies without Ruthless Consistency, where part of the world is its mystery and unpredictability. The Great Cthulhu cannot be bound by mere rules. (But use caution: if literally anything can happen, readers can lose interest. There’s no tension when characters can pull miracles from a hat, nor when antagonists can magically wipe away any triumph.)
But an altered world is one great way to start down the road to a fantasy story. “The Road goes ever on and on,” Tolkien tells us. It can start with a simple alteration. Follow that to the story.
Martin L. Shoemaker (Writers of the Future Volume 31), is a programmer who writes on the side … or maybe it’s the other way around. He told stories to imaginary friends and learned to type on his brother’s manual typewriter even though he couldn’t reach the keys. (He types with the keyboard in his lap still today.) He couldn’t imagine any career but writing fiction … until his algebra teacher said, “This is a program. You should write one of these.”
Fast forward 30 years of programming, writing, and teaching. He was named an MVP by Microsoft for his work with the developer community. He wrote fiction, but he gave up on submitting until his brother-in-law read a chapter and said, “That’s not a chapter. That’s a story. Send it in.” It won second place in the Baen Memorial Writing Contest and earned him lunch with Buzz Aldrin. Programming never did that!
Martin hasn’t stopped writing (or programming) since. His Nebula-nominated short story “Today I Am Paul” explores the logical consequences of a medical care android with empathy, able to understand how its actions affect its patient’s emotional state. He expanded that story into his debut novel, Today I Am Carey (Baen Books), in which the android learns more about humanity through life with its human family. His novels The Last Dance and The Last Campaign (47North) are mysteries set on Earth, on Mars, and in the space in between.
Learn more at http://Shoemaker.Space.
Great article, Martin. You helped me understand a question I hadn’t asked yet. Thanks.
Amazing! Thank you so much Martin! This looks like something that would be fun and interesting to write.