Picture a rich fantasy world—vivid and lush and filled with glittering phoenix eggs, squat mushroom cottages, and the proudest of dragons. Only, when you go over to pick up an egg, you find it’s glued to the floor—and possibly made of Styrofoam. And when you try the cottage door it won’t budge—your hand goes right through the doorknob. And when you get closer to the dragons, you find they’re not real at all—they’re just painted on the canvas of the sky. How disappointing is that! For all that the world paints a pretty picture, it’s as dead as the paper it’s written on.
What it’s missing may seem hard to identify in any single captured frame of the story. But when you see the whole, you can see that, like early CGI, it’s missing the grit, the scars, the physics engine, and all the other little details that bring the world to life. That sense that a dragon could flap its wings and autumn leaves would swirl out of its way; that an anxious griffon could click its beak; and that certain wizard parents might drop sand in their babies’ eyes as part of the sleep spell they cast at least once a week these days, in hope of a fuller night’s sleep. These seemingly innocuous details, not important to the actual story, are the difference between a world that makes you feel like you are really there--and a painting.
Immersion is captured in every interaction between the characters and their world. It’s found in thinking about consequences—the whys, whats, and hows of your characters, monsters, and worlds. And it’s hidden in every established bit of lore and history that comes back to haunt your heroes. But that’s an awful lot of generalities to implement on a novel-wide scale. So I’ve broken them down into three basic areas where a little detail goes a long way.
Dragons and Harpies and Centaurs (Oh My!)
When I think about really well-executed nonhuman characters, the first things I think about are animated movies. Tangled has a horse to die for, and a certain bear in Brave is so expressive I could swear she had dialogue—all without saying a word. By way of creative physical interactions and theatrical ear, paw (or hoof!), and head positioning, they manage to be both easy to read and ridiculously endearing.