Working on my first non-fantasy novel is turning out to be an intriguing experience. There are no ethereal spirits, no special powers, no alternate universes and no magic in this story. It’s both fun and challenging, but the question is, how much different is it compared to writing fantasy?
When it comes to fantasy, the best part—and sometimes the most frustrating—is the scope to make so much up of the universe one is writing about. The challenge, of course, lies in making one’s fictional universe believable in the context of the story. In other words, inventing a convenient superpower just to get one’s protagonists out of a sticky situation is Cheating (capitalization intentional). So, if trees talk or if the sun rises at night, there’d better be a reason for that.
Of course, what’s fantasy without the fantastic, right? Magic and superpowers and other such fantastical stuff, that is. Magic needn’t necessarily be of the witches and wizards bent over boiling cauldrons sort, or superpowers of the saving the world variety. The point is, speculative fiction affords one the luxury of exploring in weird and wonderful ways, whether it’s a wormhole into the future, the ability to smell colour (all right, that is not a superpower, but a real condition called synaesthesia) or understand the language of dogs.
And then there’s the flexibility in your cast of characters, that people don’t necessarily have to be human. The TV series Doctor Who is a great example of how sci-fi/fantasy can broaden the scope of “people”. The eponymous Doctor isn’t even human—though it probably helps that he looks and acts (well, most of the time) like a regular Homo sapiens. Ogres, dragons, fairies, unicorns, talking animals, animated objects (remember the Luggage, anyone?)… suddenly humans seem a tad mundane.
Thus, when you think about the fact that the laws of physics, among other things, are already decided for you if you dabble in “regular” fiction, it seems a bit… yawn, right? What, no sparkly wands, no self-navigating suitcases, no sapient vegetation? Hmm…
Depending on whether you’re a spec-fic or non-spec-fic writer, you’d say that that is harder or easier respectively to work with the world as we know it. But I was surprised to find—brace for anti-climax—it is neither; it really makes no difference.
What any story really comes down to is a setting, a bunch of characters and whatever sticky situation you’ve plotted to throw them into. And subsequently how they get out of it. The constraints of your universe—whether real or imagined—still remain. Similiarly, your characters may be blessed with spectacular powers or have three eyes, but if you haven’t figured them out, they are not going to help you write them.
Having said that, I’ve rediscovered myself as a writer having taken on a non-fantasy project. Yes, I’m having fun writing it, but I’m also straining at the leash, wanting to get back to my made-up worlds where my protagonist can make a fireball if she feels like.
[Confession: Yes, I’ve lifted the title of this post from the autobiography of one of my sporting heroes.]