Things Your Fantasy Or Science Fiction Story Needs
Writing a fantasy or science fiction story isn't a license to let plotholes, contradictions, sloppy worldbuilding, and poor characterization go unchecked. This article goes over three major things that are important to factor into any fantasy or sci-fi story - and why they're important.
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The great strength of the speculative fiction genres - fantasy, science fiction, etc - is that they do not need to conform to the known rules of the real world. You can do anything you want - you can write about sentient plants that feed on gamma radiation, people who morph into unicorns, and purple space mushrooms that sing under the light of the full moon.
Here’s the thing, though - you need to make a world that your audience can temporarily believe, and nothing snaps a person’s suspension of disbelief and jolts them out of a story quite like that unmagical moment when they realize that something in the story isn’t adding up. That beloved character you killed off in the second installment? If readers remember that another character was saved from an equally-bad injury in the first installment, and there’s nothing to explain why they couldn’t save the second character in the same way, they’re just going to get frustrated and angry. (And there’s nothing like senseless character deaths to infuriate your audience.)
It also works the other way around - if the healer couldn’t save a character from a deadly sting in the first installment because healing magic doesn’t work on venom, and then in the second installment the same healer saves a character from a deadly sting with no explanation as to why this suddenly works now, fans’ suspension of disbelief will snap as they realize that you, the writer, can’t keep your stuff straight.
In particularly bad cases, you may end up with inconsistencies that undermine the fundamental integrity of your story’s universe. Charmed is a prime example of a tangled mess of a universe that could rarely keep anything straight longer than one episode, and not infrequently did the drama point of one episode completely contradict the drama point of another episode. One of the main premises of the show is that the three lead characters are witches who must use their magic to fight the forces of evil… while keeping their powers hidden from the population at large.
In one episode, the characters were exposed as witches, and the chaos that erupted from the public learning about the existence of witches and magic culminated in one of the characters being fatally shot. The problem was only resolved once time was reversed and the characters were able to change the course of events so that exposure never happened.
Flash forward a few seasons later, where we find out about the existence of a group of beings known as the Cleaners. Their purpose is to “clean up” exposures by re-writing peoples’ memories and if necessary, erase exposure risks from reality altogether. The Cleaners are supposed to have existed all along - in which case, the former episode should have gone down very differently. At one point the Cleaners erased someone who was convinced the characters were doing something illegal that needed exposing… never mind that another character who was doing the exact same thing in the first two seasons was left untouched. The result was that a lot of fans were left angry and confused.
The show also undermined its own moral messages. One episode featured a child with the ability to magically start fires, and the main characters had to protect the child from evil forces that wanted to use the child for their own purposes. It’s stated in this episode that his powers aren’t inherently evil; it’s what you choose to do with them that matters. Unfortunately, all of this goes down the drain when at another point fire powers are depicted as being evil period, with some of the characters realizing that another character was evil because she had fire powers.
Your fantasy world does not always need to follow the rules of the real world, but it does need to follow its own rules. Now, it can be difficult to keep everything in a universe straight, particularly when multiple writers are involved. To avoid this, create a notebook, computer document, or even a wiki to write down what you’ve come up with so far. Whenever you plan to use a particular element, you can refer back to what you wrote to avoid inconsistency. Also, check out Phlebotinum-Development Questions for a series of questions you should ask yourself about any new gadget, spell, superpower, or whathaveyou from the getgo so you can avoid writing yourself into a corner later.
Reasonably Solid Logistics
In a nutshell, logistics concerns the flow and management of resources, be it food, equipment, personnel, livestock, money, time, or information. In many stories, it’s quite clear that the writer hasn’t thought out just how all of these things are managed. And just as inconsistency and contradictions can snap someone’s suspension of disbelief, so can things that just plain don’t add up.
Peter Parker’s costume in the 2002 Spider-Man film is a simple example. Peter is established to be a poor high school student - which means that he has neither a lot of time nor a lot of money on his hands. Yet he manages to create a spiffy costume that would have required a lot of time, a lot of money (according to IMDb, the costumes were created at up to $100,000 each), and the skill of a very experienced tailor to create. Even assuming that his spider bite somehow conferred upon him super-tailoring skills, we can presume that a poor teenage boy living with a widowed aunt would have something more pressing to spend $100,000 on.
Another example is the way horses are treated in some fantasy works - like some sort of pre-industrial vehicles that just require a little fuel (food and water) and a little maintenance to keep running. In reality, horses require a lot of food, plenty of rest (especially if they’ve been worked hard), medical care, socialization, grooming, and even playtime. Horses are also prey animals, which means that they tend to be on the cautious/fearful side when it comes to dealing with potential danger. Horses can also suffer mental trauma, and even post traumatic stress disorder.
The Twilight series is another example of failed logistics. Stephenie Meyer explains the Cullen family’s wealth through having Alice Cullen use her psychic powers to predict the stock market. In reality, Alice’s shenanigans would attract attention from authorities because anyone that successful at the stock market is very likely to be engaging in insider trading. The investigations that would results from this would create an exposure risk for the Cullens. As explored in Common Plotholes In Vampire Fiction and Tips & Ideas To Write More Believable Masquerades, there is simply no way to rationalize how the Cullen family has avoided landing themselves in hot water from human authorities, and subsequently, the Volturi.
Good, Well-Developed Characters
Characters are the heart and soul of of your story, and good characters will make up for multitudes of flaws or perceived flaws. As an example of what a difference good characters can make, let’s look at the My Little Pony franchise. In the older cartoons, the characters were fairly flat, little more than simple caricatures comprised of what writers thought would appeal to girls. These cartoons were never really popular among anyone outside of target demographic, and by and large are forgotten today. But then came along My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic with Lauren Faust’s cast of dynamic, well-rounded characters - and suddenly, a franchise that was previously considered to be for little girls became popular among young adults of both genders as well.
Just go to a site like Tumblr sometime and plug the name of a popular show or movie into the search box. Notice how many of the posts are character-related. And before any of you go “eeew, it’s just fangirls lusting over the popular hottie” - stop right there. Yes, it may be true that some of them are teenage girls having fantasies over the hottie du jour - but they’re also customers enjoying a product that someone has successfully sold to them at least in part because of the characters.
As for the ones that people find sexy - stop and look these characters over. Even though the popular characters may be attractive, they’re also usually dynamic and multifaceted. If it were just about the looks (or even that girls just like bad boys), then Iron Man 3’s Aldrich Killian should easily have as many fans as Loki, but he doesn’t. If it were just about the looks, then Iron Man 3’s Eric Savin should be more popular than Phil Coulson - and it’s doubtful that many people would argue that Clark Gregg is objectively better-looking than James Badge Dale. (If you look closely, you'll often find that the characters people go wild over exhibit certain behavioral characteristics.)
Remember, no work is utterly flawless - but there's nothing to distract people from these flaws like good characters. When in doubt, make good characters. For tips and guides on improving your characters, head on over to Characterization & Character Creation.
Also check out:
Things You Need To Do In Your Science Fiction Or Fantasy Story
How To Increase The Fun Factor of Your Fiction
Tropes Used in Successful Fantasy & Speculative Fictions That Inspire Creativity in Fans
Tips & Ideas To Create More Believable Sword 'n Sorcery Worlds
Borrowing & Sharing Ideas In Fiction - When It's Okay, & When It Isn't
On Plot Structure & Plotting
Spaceships, Airships, & Other Fantastic Crafts: Things To Think Out & Consider