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3 Tips for Making Real-world Fantasy Believable by Phil Williams

It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of urban fantasy author, Phil Williams. You can see why if you check out my reviews of his books here. After reading his latest work, 'Kept From Cages', we got talking about the challenges faced in making readers believe in the unlikely, the fantastic and the too-impossible-to-be-real. The majority of Phil's stories take place in the superficially normal city of Ordshaw in the UK but his latest story goes global. Such an expansion has to impose even greater challenges surely? It resulted in me inviting him to write this post. I think it's insightful and thought-provoking, I hope you agree.

I think it’s fair to say that I’ve probably spent more time than your average person pondering the intricacies of convincing people monsters are real. From the first stories I wrote, I’ve always looked to bring fantasy into the contemporary world, to make it feel like it could really happen to you. That’s the joy of the genre, where I’d otherwise be writing thriller or adventure stories, I want to feel like anything is possible.

So, how do you make the unbelievable believable? I’ve come up with three starting points for producing realistic contemporary fantasy. Though they could probably actually apply to all fantasy or sci-fi. Or horror, or romance or any genre for that matter…

1. Respect Rules & Reason

In any story, it’s crucial to establish exactly what is possible and what isn’t. For something to work in the real world, or in the world of your story, you might also consider how and why things are possible. Explanations for magic, monsters or people smelling through their eyes don’t need to be complicated, but they need to exist so you can ensure they’re consistent.

If your made-up details don’t behave in a consistent way (unless you have a really good reason that forms some major plot twist), it can feel half-baked, unconvincing – not real. For extra credit, be sure the invented convincingly interacts with established reality. Ponder things like: to what extent does modern sun cream help vampires? A lot of these things you decide don’t actually need to be in the story; if you’ve given it all this thought and a strong backbone, it’ll feel more confident anyway.

Going further than this, when you include things you haven’t made up, unless you explicitly deviate from accepted knowledge, then do your research. A reader’s more likely to find a story unconvincing when an ordinary gun never runs out of bullets, for example, than when you present a monkey channelling the voice of an ancient tree god with no questionable reason why not.

2. Create Realistic Responses

Realistic characterisation is something worth working on, because we might make up outlandish places and things but readers always want to experience it through the eyes of believable people.

The way characters react to unreal situations can make or break fantasy. It can be as simple as having characters treat established unreal details as part of their everyday society, and not something unusual (e.g. making bigoted remarks about London’s long-term goblin taxi drivers instead of mulling over their culture and physical characteristics). Having characters react properly to what’s unexpected is more challenging, but honing these kind of responses, be it for humour, horror or plain surprise, is what makes it real.

A story world can be utterly bizarre and different, but if the character experiencing it is relatable, we’re there and we accept it. An alternative is to make a character compelling, not necessarily sympathetic, but I’d argue that even that is a case of probing for the familiar, as “compelling” usually stems from something we’ve seen, want to see, or definitely do not want to see in ourselves or others.

3. Use Anchors

Lastly, and this is the easiest implemented advice, a handful of effective anchors used early can make all the difference in putting readers in the moment. In the first paragraphs of a story you can immediately identify time and place by looking out for tiny details that would indicate either – brands are good for this; a discarded chocolate wrapper, a familiar car, a specific landmark. If you open with a character watching the BBC news on a TV, we get a reasonable idea of modern, real world, UK (yes, that’s how Under Ordshaw opens, and I’ll admit it was my editor’s idea).

It’s crucial to establish these anchors as soon as possible, because while you might keep readers guessing on a lot of things, the setting shouldn’t be one of them. This is particularly important in contemporary fantasy, as without recognisable details, with unusual things happening we could easily start to think of a more traditional fantasy setting. Readers might draw their own conclusions and be picturing a medieval tavern until, surprise!, an orc pulls a gun and you’re thrown out of the story instead of drawn into the action.

So, there’s three meandering thoughts on some of the ways to make fantasy seem more real. Good luck with it!

Phil Williams is the author of the Ordshaw contemporary fantasy thrillers. His latest, globe-trotting romp, Kept From Cages, is out now. You can find out more about Phil and his books here and follow him on Twitter and Facebook


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