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I’ve got a good idea of what comes to mind when you think of high fantasy: dragons, elves, sorcerers, castles, kings, and majestic storyworlds like Middle-Earth. Then when you think of realism, you get…well, you get real life, which isn’t nearly as grand nor as fantastic. But the realism I’m speaking of is a bit less than that; in fact, it has more to do with Sir Isaac Newton than your smartphone. Namely, I’m talking about keeping things realistic by keeping them within the boundaries of human limitations and the laws of physics (unless you’ve got a storyworld where the laws of physics don’t apply/are different). For instance, nobody, especially a dwarf, could jump a ten-foot wall without the aid of magic. And isn’t it more fun, not to mention engaging, to make your dwarf reach the wall, then have to fight his way to the top before jumping off? Not to mention that, if he did jump of a ten-foot wall, the chances of him hitting the ground and breaking/twisting/spraining an ankle or leg go way up, hindering his escape efforts even further.
This isn’t the only example of how writers can mistakenly push human (or dwarf) limitations. For instance, if your character has broken an arm, he won’t be climbing any cliffs or using a sword to fight off enemy soldiers. And a person can only lose so much blood (normally about 4 pints) before they’ll die without a transfusion. Couple this with the facts that, depending on where your characters is hit, this can happen in a few minutes, and that in most high fantasy worlds, medical technology isn’t advanced enough to do a blood transfusion, and you may need to find yourself a new main character. Another thing to look out for is a sudden characteristic change in your characters. Not in the sense of their personalities, however, but their physical abilities. For example, if one character is known for being clumsy (i.e. tripping over his own feet, knocking over tables and chairs, bumping into people) then you don’t want him to turn into a graceful ballerina waltzing his ways through a bunch of thugs jumping him.
Keeping human limitations in mind doesn’t only apply to high fantasy, or even fantasy novels at all. Let’s say you’re writing a mystery. Your MC has tracked down the bad guy, but the bad guy is getting away with a form of transportation your character can’t compete with or predict, like getting into a cab. Unless your MC can stay on the heels (tires?) of the cab, s/he can’t predict where it will go unless they’re Sherlock Holmes. And if your character randomly ended up on the same street as the antagonist right after he got out of the cab, it would be a bit of a plot hole. This scenario isn’t just a physical human limitation, but a mental one as well. It’s important to remember that a person can only do/take so much mentally as well as physically.
So there you go. If you pay attention to the laws of physics and human limitations (and elf limitations, and dwarf limitations, and dragon limitations, and so on) then your story will be stronger and more realistic, helping you to draw readers into your story and keep them there. Here are a few more human limitations to keep in mind:
- It takes 4-6 weeks for a hairline fracture in your bone to heal (trust me, I know). If your character’s horse falls with him on top and he hobbles away with a leg at a funny angle, it’s probably going to take longer. A lot longer.
- Somebody who’s never been near a boat probably won’t know all of the fancy seaman’s names for various parts of the ship and how they’re used. Just because you’ve done your research doesn’t mean your character has.
- Much as your character can’t suddenly know everything about boats, they can’t suddenly become good at a physical task like sword fighting or magic. If they’re accomplished in these types of things, find a way to show it before the fighting starts, so that the reader knows they can fight off, say, an entire group of thugs or a troll.
- No matter what you say, a dwarf still can’t jump a ten-foot wall without magic (or a trampoline).
Sarah here. Thanks to Andy for a great post! Be sure to stop by Andy's blog if you like what you see here.
What's the most far-fetched thing you've ever read or watched in fantasy? Share it with me in the comment section!