Bringing a Book to Life: The Tragic Reality of Pockets Full of Bat Guano
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.
While books are not movies, I think this is one area where books can learn from the world of animation. When you have a nonhuman character, spend some time thinking about all the different parts they have to play with, and how they would use these nonhuman elements to express the full gamut of emotions. Do they have wings? Mobile ears? A prehensile tail? Antennae? Horns? Fur? Use them! Use them all! Have a winged character’s wings wrap tight around their body when they’re feeling dejected, or unfurl proudly when they’re feeling happy. Have a character with a tail lash that thing when agitated, or wind it around someone’s leg when feeling clingy. Or have a chameleon character blend in to match the background when she’s nervous. As silly as it sounds, it can help to actually draw little stick figures to cover all the likely emotions for your characters. That way, you can make sure you’ve incorporated all the aspects of their character in their self-expression.
And, of course, it’s not all about expressiveness—it’s also about how other characters interpret their expressions. Can a human tell when an insectoid eye rolls? Does a harpy know what it means when a sphinx opens her mouth to scent? What assumptions does a unicorn have to deal with about her character—and how does she challenge them? Thinking about the realities of your characters—and how that affects them and those around them—will help make them a reality for your readers.
The Science of Magic
When things act in a predictable way, it makes them feel more real. As a bonus, predictable things also provide excellent opportunities for plot hooks and obstacles that readers can figure out right alongside the heroes. So, what does this mean for magic? It means ditch the endless pockets of bat guano. Anyone who carries that much bat poop around is doomed to smell terrible, and no one would want to be their friend. Instead, think about it logically: if you had to organize and keep separate a large number of spell components, how would you carry them? Would they all be in your jean pockets, mashed together in one happy, spider webby, bat poopy, sulfur powdery mess, fit to make the dry cleaners cry? Or would you use something like a tackle box, or perhaps store them all in little glass beads on a necklace? Or maybe, your kind of magic eschews components altogether. Perhaps you just use an implement, like a stone that vibrates at the same wavelength as a man’s dreams, or teeth strung along a necklace like beads, and maybe some identifiable hand gestures or magic words or runes sketched out in inks only visible under the light of the moon.
Once you have a consistent magic system, it leads naturally to plot hooks. Think about the withdrawal you’d suffer when removed from the druglike doses of magic you normally cage within your skin—and the effect that would have on your judgment. Or, perhaps the spell you need to get out of the devilish pickle you’re in requires a lot of glass—but you’re out. And scrapping all your drinking wear and cracking the glass stones out of your jewelry simply isn’t enough, so you need to pop out the lenses in the archer’s glasses, rendering his primary skill useless and forcing him to get creative. Granted, you don’t want your book to become a constant battle to find components or recover from casting. But it can create magical problems that feel as real as the fear of running out of water in a desert. And knowing how magic does—and doesn’t—work allows your readers to immerse themselves just that much more in your world.
The Practical Side of the Fantastical
Great fantasy books have a practical understanding of the fantastical. They take amazing, unreal things, and make them believable with killer characters and a deep understanding of how their fantasy society operates. This means even assassins have bosses they don’t like, coworkers who brownnose or show them up at meetings, and interns who sigh when people think all they can do is get the bloodstains out of their best killing shirts. Not to mention the bureaucracy around the business of murder. Nothing hits you in the face with realism like bureaucracy.
This isn’t to say that your book should be about the bureaucracy of an assassin’s guild—or center on the struggles of the intern assassin to get noticed by the big boss as useful for something other than target practice. Though, that book could be funny. But dropping in little, relatable hints can make otherwise shiny, untouchable facades become jobs we can identify with—just a little. I mean, I may not be an assassin, but boy, do I know how much it sucks when you need to do ten assignments by the end of the week, and realistically, if you want any semblance of quality, how can they expect you to do more than six?
And, of course, just as important as having an understanding as to how the world works is having the character and the events have an effect on the world—and having a world that shows the effects of previous generations of heroes. Visible history is inspiring, and letting your heroes add to it makes it feel that much more like a world we’ve just forgotten, rather than one that never existed at all.
Practice, Awareness, and Immersion
Picking the right details with which to furnish your story takes practice. But raising your own awareness of these details in your everyday life and in your reading, and thinking in advance about how things would work in your fantasy world, can help a lot. The more you are immersed in your own world, the more immersive it will be for your reader.