Q&A: Fantastic Rules

Any advice for fantasy/scfi? Sometimes I feel like because it’s fantasy it gives me less reason to worry about reality because technology and powers can easily “explain” why it’s able to work. For example the Jedi from starwars are able to jump and spin around easily and have swords that can cut through almost anything. Is there any way I can make it more believable yet still keep it in fantasy?

zero36

Let’s break this apart a little bit. Fantasy is a massive meta-genre that can encompass so much, to the point where it’s almost not useful as a descriptor.

Basically, if you’re making your own setting, unless you’re looking at hard science fiction, you’re probably dipping your toes into fantasy.

Fantasy is, you created your own world. It could be, “like,” the real one, but it’s not supposed to be. Or, it’s like the real one, but has elements that don’t exist.

You brought up Star Wars, and most sci-fi wanders around a line. Science Fiction, originally, was supposed to be a projection of future technologies, and the implications (usually political and social) for those technologies. When it becomes more about the world, and less about how it got there, it transitions to “science fantasy.”

Star Wars is a space opera. It’s fantasy. By design, there’s no line to draw from the real world to get there. Star Trek is more contentious on this front. There are elements that are science fiction, and there are elements that are fantasy, and it wanders between them depending on the writers.

This, also, doesn’t mean you’re precluded from having meaningful discussions in Sci-Fantasy. Farscape is an excellent example of a series that was chewing through a lot of commentary with, fantasy elements. (It’s a Portal Fantasy in space, when you break it down.)

The problem you’re running into with Star Wars is you’re not seeing the limits. The Jedi powers are limited. They have a fixed set of force abilities to pull from, and an individual can only access some of those. Not everyone can use force lightning, or sprint around at insane speeds. On top of that, not every writer involved seems to understand the list, so it gradually expands, and we get power creep.

The Jedi Knights of A New Hope were space Samurai. Well trained, with an unusual philosophical position, and the ability to mess with people, but the their powers were downright subdued. Compare that to now, where you have Jedi (and Sith) using their force powers to drag capital ships out of orbit, using their lightsabers as ranged weapons, and bouncing around like methed up hamsters.

This didn’t happen overnight. The basic telekinetic abilities kept expanding as the series went on, and writers and stunt choreographers came up with more creative uses for them. The psychic abilities got stronger, to the point where a Jedi can now influence the outcome of entire battles. And their ability to parry blaster shots has evolved to the point where conventional weapons aren’t a legitimate threat to them.

At this point, it’s expanded beyond the point where an average viewer can discern the rules at a glance, and that’s the real problem here. How do you balance a story against a character who can basically make the rules up as they go? You can’t.

Don’t let it get there.

Fantasy just means you started writing your own rules. Good fantasy creates the rules, and follows them. “You can this far, and no farther.” Sometimes the rules aren’t entirely obvious up front. That’s fine. There’s a lot of stuff in the world that isn’t immediately apparent. The rules your characters understand can be wrong. It’s just something you need to be careful of.

It doesn’t really matter, much, if your fantasy setting is some fictional historical era, modern day, or the distant future, having consistent rules for your fantasy is critical. The less consistent you are, the more you’ll damage the audience’s suspension of disbelief. It sounds like you’ve gotten to the point where your baseline has been pretty abused.

In fairness to you, Star Wars starts with some pretty extreme rules, and then dials up from there.

If you’re wanting to write a setting, write that setting. Making it believable falls onto your ability to make the people and places feel, “real.”

The places are simple, at least in concept. Work out the stories that created them, how they came to be what they are. You never have to fully tell those stories, and arguably shouldn’t, as that kind of an infodump can kill momentum and potentially overwhelm the reader. Feel free to ration out the details that are useful, though. It’s not important that you detail six centuries of technological advancements in one go, but if there’s an important figure that affects the story or helps to explain the figure, maybe mention that they existed and explain what they did.

Working the people out isn’t much more complicated, but it’s often more time consuming, because you have more to deal with. Work out their stories, where they came from, where they’re going, what they want, how they view their world. This is stuff that’s pretty easy to do, but you’ll only bite yourself if you forget and skip this. Again, you don’t need to dump most of this on the reader. You don’t need to detail every job a character held, or what their favorite childhood food was, until it informs their behavior in some way.

Tech and or magic can be a little more complicated. This requires you have concrete ideas about the kind of vehicles, weapons, and other equipment your characters encounter. This is less about having concrete explanations for how this stuff works, but about saying, “yeah, this is the kind of gear these people have, and this is what it can do.” This is also where, with fantasy, you can get into some bonkers anachronisms. In your case, I’d recommend against lightsabers.

Magic isn’t that different from technology in this sense. It’s about knowing the kinds of things they can do, and how they do that (in a technical sense, not necessarily a metaphysical one.)

Magic and unrestricted technology run real risks of getting out of hand and becoming cheap, “I win,” buttons. That’s something you want to avoid. Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy way to prevent this. You simply have to resist the impulse to put this stuff in without carefully setting it up.

Something that can help, or may help, is looking at exactly where you find fault with other media. You don’t need to show it, in fact, you really don’t want it getting out there ever, but it might help you find the exact points where something like Star Wars loses you. Once you have that list, start looking for patterns. Things that reliably knock you out of a piece. If you’ve got outliers, think about those specific examples in context with the film or book, and see if you can figure out what didn’t work that time, as opposed to in other pieces, where you didn’t have an issue.

To be fair, sometimes a given piece of media will fail so spectacularly for you that there’s no return. With that in mind, you might want to look at exactly what caused it. Though, they can be instructive for what you don’t want to do.

It is entirely possible to create a fantasy setting with consistent rules, and that’s all realism is, in the end. A setting is realistic if it behaves in accordance with its own established rules. Set those rules, and enforce them, and you should be fine.

-Starke

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