Why fact-checking is unnecessary when writing fantasy fiction

It’s all made up, right? Even more so than science fiction, the readers of which sometimes demand a little bit of scientific plausibility here and there, fantasy is the product of the author’s imagination, and therefore there is no reason to worry about whether or not any given detail of the plot or setting or characters is even possible according to the way things work in the real world. You don’t even need to worry about terminology: if you want to call that equine-like thing with the single horn on its head an enfield, there’s no reason not to. It’s fantasy; it’s all made up. Facts have no place in this kind of fiction. Do whatever you want.

Okay, even to meet this week’s sarcasm quota, there’s only so much of that bullshit I can stand to type…

Yes, you can call a unicorn — or anything else — whatever the hell you want to call it. There are no laws about writing fantasy fiction that don’t also apply to writing literary or mainstream fiction (which is to say, none at all, other than the ones dealing with copyright and other legal stuff).

I suppose you want to know what sparked this particular bloggish rant. Well, earlier today I was reading a novel that, despite some punctuation issues (a semicolon is not a colon, and the two are not interchangeable!), seemed to be generally well-written and interesting. I liked the main character well enough, and the worldbuilding had a good blend of familiar and different. And then I saw this:

[…] the iron turned green with verdigris.

Screeeech! Those six words threw me right out of the story.

See the problem? Iron doesn’t oxidize green. Not ever. Y’know what does? Copper, and alloys of copper such as bronze and brass.

It’s trivial, I suppose, since the plot doesn’t hang on it or anything, but that kind of error can still cause trouble. (Or is iron oxidizing to a rusty color one of those extra-obscure facts known only to a privileged few, like a suction cup not working in the vacuum of space, or a starship needing more than twelve years to cross the Milky Way at four times the speed of light, or penguins and polar bears being native to different hemispheres?) Don’t assume your readers won’t know or care, either. Describe your eighth-century Norse woman as wearing a boned corset under her lacy chemise? Someone’s gonna call you on it. Say your hero’s sword — the best steel in the land! — weighs twenty pounds? Someone’s gonna call you on that, too, and possibly make veiled allusions to “On Thud and Blunder,” which remains a classic on what not to do when writing fantasy. (Go read it now if you’ve never seen it before. I’ll wait…)

“Oh, that’s all just research stuff. I’ll wait and take care of that after I write the story.” That’s the conventional wisdom, isn’t it? Just write it, and clean up the small stuff later…

What if a fact does affect the story in some major way, though? What if you decide your protagonist has to be in danger due to certain environmental conditions of the place where she’s been stranded, but the place you’ve left her doesn’t have those environmental conditions and can’t have them (coming soon: bloggish rant titled “Viking Knows Better”), and suddenly you have no plot? Better to come up with a viable alternative before you write the whole novel, don’t you think?

“But it’s so unfair! Not only do we have to know grammar and punctuation and stuff, but now we have to know history and art and physics and geography, too…? Next thing, you’ll be saying we need to know math!” No, you don’t need to be an expert in literally everything to write fiction, but you do need at least a passing familiarity with anything that’s relevant to the stories you write. You need to know enough to know when you need to do research on the specifics: “Okay, so I’m writing this fantasy novel set in an alternate version of England in the early 1800s… I’d better read up on the culture and history and stuff so I don’t have my heroine wearing a style of dress that didn’t even get invented for another fifty years, or have my antagonist using twentieth-century slang.”

So anyway, that’s one more thing to keep in mind while finishing/revising your very small novel. You’re welcome. 🙂

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About Thomas Weaver

I’m a writer and editor who got into professional editing almost by accident years ago when a friend from university needed someone to copyedit his screenplay about giant stompy robots (mecha). Having discovered that I greatly enjoy this kind of work, I’ve been putting my uncanny knack for grammar and punctuation, along with an eclectic mental collection of facts, to good use ever since as a Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom. I'm physically disabled, and for the past several years, I’ve lived with my smugly good-looking twin Paul, who writes military science fiction and refuses to talk about his military service because he can’t. Sometimes Paul and I collaborate on stories, and sometimes I just edit whatever he writes. It's worked out rather well so far. My list of non-writing-related jobs from the past includes librarian, art model, high school teacher, science lab gofer… Although I have no spouse or offspring to tell you about, I do have six cats. (The preferred term is "Insane Cat Gentleman.") I currently spend my time blogging, reading, editing, and fending off cats who like my desk better than my twin’s.
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8 Responses to Why fact-checking is unnecessary when writing fantasy fiction

  1. Pingback: MORE Cool Stuff from the Archives | North of Andover

  2. Thanks for sharing. I find it very distracting when a fantasy novel is not realistic. Take, for example, “The Hunger Games.” Katniss Everdeen is a teenager who doesn’t get enough to eat. So what does she order? Lamb stew. What teenager prefers lamb stew to tacos or pizza? In fact, there are no tacos or pizza in the entire trilogy. About teenagers. Incredible.
    On the other hand, maybe that is why President Snow is so uptight – no tacos or pizza.

    Like

  3. M. Oniker says:

    It is bad enough in fiction, but in non-fiction? Don’t ask me why I was doing it, but years ago I read a self-help, motivational, new-agey book that is the basis for another hugely popular book, movement, video, lectures, Oprah-type thing. The main analogy for the author’s “this is like science!” premise was that just like magnets, like attracts like. Yes, I typed that correctly. Just like magnets, in your real life, if you want to attract positive things in your life you attract them with positive things. The first time I read this I cringed, and thought it had to be a misprint. Then the author went on to repeat this several more times, in one way or other. I didn’t finish the book. I didn’t, literally, buy into the popularized version of it, and I still cringe. I guess if she was really stuck on her magnet image, and still trying to convince people of happy-happy positive things, she really couldn’t keep the pesky science in mind, because then, of course it would be opposites attract and only negative thinking would get you positive results. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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