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An artist travels all over the world, seeing vast landscapes, experiencing five hundred qualities of light and shadow, examining the world contained within the cup of a flower and the flowers contained in the cup of the world. And then she goes and paints what she has seen and experienced. And her works—and those of artists like her—are gathered together and hung in a great gallery.
Another artist is born and grows up in that gallery. She sees the wonderful and exquisite works that surround her and is inspired by them to create her own art. So she paints the things she has seen and imagined in the gallery's halls. And her work, and that of other inhabitants of other galleries is taken and hung in another place.
A third artist is born and grows up in that gallery. All she ever sees of the world are those paintings. And when she comes to paint, her works are hardly recognizable as reflecting anything in that outside world, although they are strange and wonderful in their own fashion.
* * *
Each artist has taken information in through the senses, filtered out what seemed irrelevant, or not understandable, or distracting to her purpose, and interpreted what was left for other viewers. By the time we get to the third artist, she doesn't know the shapes of the leaves on that distant tree, or what lay on the far side of the mountains, or how birds drink, or perhaps even what the back of a person's head looks like. She has never looked at an object from all sides -- picking it up and turning it in her hand -- or understood the forces and history that brought the objects in a painting to come together as they have.
Am I talking about some shocking case of sensory-deprivation child abuse? No, I'm talking about the writing of fantasy. Fantasy literature that is not firmly grounded in a knowledge and understanding of how the real world works is like that third painter's works: weird and wonderful and distorted almost beyond recognition.
* * *
The world of fantasy—especially that subset inspired by the heritage of the pre-technological West—has developed its own conventions and iconography. We have the index of archetypes: the solitary travelling wizard, the clever and good-hearted thief, the girl who overcomes all obstacles to become a great warrior. We have the file folder of settings: the low quarter of a busy and decadent city, the isolated inn filled with intriguing travellers, the temple of a mysterious deity. And above all, we have those essential plot threads: the foundling child seeking its origin and heritage, the company of comrades who must find a way to mesh their strengths to defeat a great evil, the power of love and the shock of betrayal.
Where do today's aspiring fantasy authors learn these conventions? Alas, all too often from no source other than fantasy novels. And, even more disturbing, too often from novels written by writers who themselves had learnt their subject from fantasy novels—like the third artist.
It is said that the essence of fantasy is convincing your reader to suspend his disbelief. This, too, is the essence of art. Picasso, in a few strokes of a brush, can convince you that you are seeing a beautiful woman. The brush strokes are not the woman, and if you had never seen a woman they would be meaningless to you. But, because you are familiar with the human body, and because those lines suggest a woman to you, you are willing to believe. A talented author, with only a few sentences, will sketch for you an entire civilization and its history. That brief description is not sufficient to reconstruct the society it describes in detail, but because the outlines work—because they fit your knowledge of how the world works—you are willing to believe in the spaces and fill them in for yourself.
And those outlines work because the author knows and understands the world from which they have been traced. She sees the reality behind the sketch and makes sure that the places where her work differs from the underlay are drawn in more detail and merge seamlessly with the parts she has traced from life. She makes sure that when the reader fills in the blank spaces she has left it will be with scenes that do not conflict with what she has shown.
So what happens when our painter/author is working from derivative works instead of life? It means that she doesn't know what fills the spaces. She traces the lines she sees and alters them where she chooses to fit her story, and is unaware of how they mar and distort the underlying scenes that the reader—who has seen the world outside the gallery—has filled into the spaces.
* * *
All right. Let's cut the poetry. What am I talking about? There are ways in which the world works. An author needs to be able to draw on her readers' knowledge of those ways so that she can sketch instead of needing to photograph. (Perhaps a better analogy than photography would be building a computer screen image pixel by pixel.) If you tell your readers X, and X conflicts with the way they know the world works, then you are using up credit in the disbelief-suspension bank. If X isn't a critical feature of your plot, you are using it up to no productive purpose.
Suppose your protagonist is riding a horse, and you have the horse galloping at top speed for two hours without a break. Is this a magic horse and is the fact of its being magic an important element in the plot? If not, go back to square one and do some elementary research on the physical limits of horses.
Suppose your protagonist is badly wounded in a fight, and yet one week later is up and about with only minor inconvenience. What is the state of medical knowledge and sanitation in your society? How did she avoid or survive massive infection? Is 'magical' healing available? What are the economics of it and how does it affect the structure and dynamics of society?
Suppose your protagonist lives in a subsistence-level agricultural community, goes to the local fair and purchases a sword from among the two dozen the weapons merchant has on display. How has your hero managed to accumulate that much surplus income? In what form? Who made the swords? How, in an agricultural community, is it economically feasible for a merchant to carry a stock of two dozen swords? How often does he sell one? To whom? All right, maybe he's an independently wealthy meddler who travels around the land practically giving away expensive weapons to farm boys. Why? (It had better be strongly relevant to the plot.)
You certainly don't want to explain all these questions in detail in the text of the story, but you should know the answers to them yourself, and they should be plausible answers—answers that make sense in the real world, not just in a fantasy world where "anything goes".
But, I hear you argue, these are just standard fantasy conventions—everyone understands them. No one expects them to have anything to do with the real world.
Well, that's where you're wrong. If your story had nothing to do with the real world, your readers would no more be able to understand it from your word-sketches than we would be able to interpret Picasso's nude if we had never seen a living woman.
Every time you deviate from how the real world works, you are putting a strain on the author-reader relationship. Now, of course you have to deviate in some important fashion, or you'd be writing contemporary novels instead of fantasy. But the key word there is "important". If you tell the reader "elves exist" or "some people can work magic, and it works like this" or "the gods meddle in the affairs of ordinary people for their own purposes" you are establishing an important parameter of your story. The reader will then reasonably expect the story to revolve in some significant way around elves, magic, or divine interference. If it doesn't, they will wonder why.
Likewise, if you tell your reader (implicitly or explicitly) that horses can run for hours without getting tired, that major wounds can be healed quickly and effectively, and that poor agricultural communities can support a thriving weapons trade, then the knowledgeable reader will reasonably expect these facts to figure prominently in the plot. If they don't, your reader is entitled to wonder whether you really understand the world or whether you—like the third artist—have lived your whole life in a gallery, staring at other people's paintings.
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