Problems in urban paranormal/fantasy fiction writing

It’s all over the place now: self-published urban fantasy/paranormal fiction. Lots of fantasy, too. If it has elves, I think of it as fantasy. If it has vampires, I consider it paranormal. If it is set in our modern day, unless it is set in Cletusville, I consider it urban.

This is the legacy of franchises: Anita Blake, Twilight, True Blood, and going farther back, Shadowrun, Tolkien, and D&D. And it’s fine, unless you hackney the hell out of it. Unfortunately, most people do so.

All right, if you insist on writing it, then do a good job:

Work out your world’s ‘science.’ You can’t ignore that. What is the biology of your elves, your vampires, your dragons? How long do your elves live? Is vampirism biological? Viral? What about lycanthropy? How does your magic work? Yeah, I know, you don’t care about all that crap; you just want to present this beautiful, thrilling, terrifying environment with compelling characters and a gripping storyline. Tough, because if you skip those basics, you will never get your reader to suspend disbelief long enough to buy in. It is not that you need to tell the reader all that stuff. It is that you need to know the ‘reality’ so that cues from it seep into your story as you go.

I have a hot tub. I don’t want to mess with bottles of chemicals, testing strips, and periodic changing of the water. I just want to soak in its soothing, scenic, healing warmth. However, if I don’t do the testing and treatment part, I will contract a rash that requires antibiotics to battle. It is no more feasible for me to duck out on tub maintenance than it is for an SF/fantasy author to just decide the nuts and bolts are too icky and she just wants to write a beautiful, scary story. The reader deserves better than the brain rash she will get from trying to follow a grammatically incontinent story.

Look at what’s been done. Tall, noble elves with sage wisdom and lifespans of centuries? Well, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen those. It may be the ten thousandth. How are your elves more interesting, fresh, new? Same for every non-human race you present, if it is a race concept for which your reader has a frame of reference.

Don’t throw in as many species as you can think of unless you’re prepared to give them all background. Okay, you decided that weredragons are really, really, really cool. How the hell does someone get to be one? If you just allude to them, you will leave your reader hanging, wondering what goes on with those. If you allude to too many, you will leave your reader not caring what goes on with any of them.

Consider lifespan, knowledge, and experience. If you are going to present creatures that are five centuries old, you must have some idea how and where they survived that long. They should have accumulated the knowledge of seven human lifespans. How do their brains cope with all that? Do they now speak forty languages, ten of them dead? Can they hold in their heads the active vocabularies to do that? What happens? Think it through.

Do not be pretentious. Pretense comes when you begin with the assumption that your world has certain qualities, particularly mystical and magical. You cannot merely tell the reader it has those, and be believed; you must show her that it does. Tolkien didn’t write an epic fantasy story by telling us that Aragorn was noble, or that hobbits were quaint and endearing; Tolkien gave us reasons to see them those ways. Not that he did not describe; he did describe. However, he showed more than he told.

How are you going to narrate? Fantasy tends to contain a lot of flashbacks, lookbacks, and so forth. Is the protagonist the memoirist? The only one, or will there be another narrator at some point? How long after the story events was the memoir composed? Here’s the thing: character death. If writing after the fact, the minute you say someone ‘is’ such-and-so, you convey that s/he survives the story. What if there’s a gender reveal? It will take major gymnastics to avoid doing that without pronouns, and a single slip blows the reveal. Consider the person–first, second, third, and tense, present or past. Are you writing in first person? Then you can present only that which your protag sees, feels, knows. On the easier side, your narrative has the freedoms mostly allocated to dialogue; on the harder side, you have to be careful with tense.

That’s another area where one simply cannot just say: “grammar is icky. I just want to write and this is my process.” Then I will say the sentence that has gotten rid of more ‘will you look at my writing’ folks than any other: then your process is wrong, and you should fix it. Most people who seek out freebie writing advice from me do not really want my honest opinion. They want me to approve of what they are doing. Well, if you do not think through the person and tense of your narration, I disapprove of what you’re doing. Here are examples of problem sentences:

I go to the store for some milk and ran into David. While first person narration of an uneducated or poorly spoken protag doesn’t have to be perfect, it needs to be better than this. Even a poorly spoken person would almost never mix tenses quite this way.

So I called up my friend Bertha. Bertha is about six-two and 275. And we now know that Bertha survives the story. Which, if you don’t mind that, fine and dandy. But what about everyone else in the book?

Some of this applies to genres other than urban paranormal/thriller/fantasy, but that’s where I’m seeing the most of it. People can do much better.

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2 thoughts on “Problems in urban paranormal/fantasy fiction writing”

  1. Excellent piece and very true. Over the years I’ve tried to help friends design home-brewed RPG rules, and they never want to build the foundation of how the universe works. I built a new magic system in my campaign years ago and before I started I wrote out 15 basic questions and then worked on answering them- What is magic? Where does magic come from? When cast, how does magic manifest? What protections are there against magic? Etc. The answers to some questions may cause you to change or modify other answers. The internal consistency allows you to derive the answer to other questions that arise and create something that feels coherent and real (even if there are still mysteries).

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    1. I think it’s no accident that a lot of SF and fantasy writers have spent at least some time in the RPG world, Randy. Not simply because the genre is what they like, but because the worldbuilding and character development issues are basically the same activity in either situation. Thanks for swinging by!

      Like

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