There was a discussion on Mefi about plausibility in fantasy (and related genres, like superhero comics). As there is inevitably in these discussions, some people argued that there’s no such thing. It’s all made up! It’s idiotic to expect any of it to make sense!

Retcon: this is so improbable that the Death Start actually ran on an Improbability Drive

Retcon: this is so improbable that the Death Star actually ran on an Improbability Drive

Since I write conworlding books, you can guess that I think this is a silly position.

  • It amounts to making all criticism of plot, story, and setting impossible. If anything goes, nothing goes better than anything else.
  • Implausibilities cause the reader to be confused, or to actively smirk at you. C.S. Lewis compared writing to driving sheep down the road: the sheep will go into any open gate to the left or the right. You don’t want to create diversions; it spoils the effect you’re trying for.
  • When anything goes, the story evaporates. If a danger is conjured up out of nothing on one page and disappears by authorial fiat on the next, the emotional temperature drops.
  • The idea that there are no constraints on a genre can really only be held by people who don’t understand it well– or at the least, by those who have never written it.
  • Let’s not discount the biggest reason fans argue about this stuff: it’s fun. We like to argue about why the eagles couldn’t carry Frodo and whether Superman’s toenail clippings remain invulnerable.

But the biggest reason is that fantasy depends on realism. We accept the fantastic elements because the rest of the story is realistic, and canny authors increase the realism in order to allow the fantasy. The classic example is LOTR. The plot structure is that of a quest; this only works as a story, and only has an emotional effect on the reader, if undertaking the journey takes time and effort. The novel underlines and relies on the facts that walking takes time, that people get hungry and tired, that swords hurt, that weather and darkness are dangerous, that baggage is not unlimited.

On a deeper level, LOTR works because it acknowledges that empires fade, that kings and leaders are fallible, that fighting battles scars soul as well as body, that gods can come to seem remote or weak, that the bravest may come from humble and unexpected quarters.

Tolkien is actually very miserly about doling out supernatural elements. Gandalf probably uses fewer spells in the entire trilogy than a beginning D&D wizard deploys in a single day. Rarity increases value, so the displays of power or terror are all the more effective.

It’s also widely realized that a good deal of the book’s power derives from its  deep worldbuilding. The allusions seem real (because, more often than not, they are real; they refer to something buried in Tolkien’s notebooks); the languages are gloriously real; the maps and appendices please our pedantic side.  (A lot of us probably know more about the history and geography of Middle Earth than, say, that of China.)

And the thing is, this use of realism is not a pure novelty of Tolkien’s; it’s a periodic infusion into fantasy and related genres. The very setting of most fantasy– medieval kingdoms, dusty cities, dark forests– was simply the everyday world of the Middle Ages. Alice and Oz updated the setting to modern times. Fritz Leiber’s sword & sorcery stories threw in a noir cynicism and grittiness. Game of Thrones keeps the medieval kingdoms but insists on the power politics, sexism, and brutality of the period. Writers like Neil Gaiman and Tim Powers toss out the medievalism to set stories in the present world, where magic is simply cleverly hidden.  China Miéville updates the politics with a healthy distrust of the old kings and lords. Star Wars, which is basically fantasy set in a science fiction atmosphere, was novel and believable in part because things looked battered and worn.  Frank Miller threw out the camp Batman of the ’60s and inserted realistic ’80s concerns, such as psychopathic criminals and nuclear war.  The latest Tomb Raider threw out the plastic dangerless pseudo-archeology and created a Lara Croft who was young, scared, and unsure of herself.

This sort of realism insertion is why Grant Morrison is wrong when he bellows ” ‘Who pumps the Batmobile’s tires?’ It’s a fucking made-up story, you idiot! Nobody pumps the tires!”  You can insert realism wherever you want to.  Focusing on the people who care for the Batmobile could be a great story.  (No, Alfred doesn’t create and polish all those gadgets by himself.)  Maybe they’re loyal little munchkins, but maybe they resent their nutball employer and can be bought out by the Penguin.

Now, let me get a straw man or two out of the way.

Most importantly, conworlding can get out of hand.  Tolkien himself was a victim: in his lifetime he never produced a sequel to LOTR, because he could never stop tinkering with the world. You do not need genealogies and flags and languages and train schedules for every nation on your planet. And even if you have all that, you shouldn’t try to cram it into your novel, since readers will choke on it.  Make a wiki or something.

(As a side note, though, Tolkien’s anglicization is probably an anachronism. Translating Jules Verne, you probably shouldn’t turn Jean Passepartout into John Goesanywhere; and similarly if a dude is named Maura Labingi, that’s just fine, you don’t have to turn it into Frodo Baggins.  I think readers these days allow or expect a little more conworlding in their stories.)

Also, you don’t have to explain everything.  Gaiman is my go-to example here: he rarely explains how his worlds work, and they’re all the better for it.  Some things can remain mysteries.

Next: realism isn’t all-or-nothing.  Obviously, we want at least some of the fantastic elements, otherwise you can’t put “fantasy” on the cover.  More subtly, you can be more realistic in some areas than others.  As I said, Tolkien’s quest depends on the journey to Mordor being a long, hard trek. For narrative reasons, he didn’t want to sprinkle welcoming inns or towns along the route. Thus the handwavium of lembas, an elven food that’s preternaturally light and filling. Still, it’s used honestly: when you’re out of lembas, you’re out of food.

Sometimes the unrealism is not in the fantasy elements, but in emphasis and omission. I just read the Council of Elrond chapter, and I have to say, there are peculiarly few allies that Elrond & Co. trust. The Fellowship turns out to be small enough to make a standard fantasy quest, with no more characters than we can keep straight.  It’s a bit like Mass Effect: the stakes affect the whole galaxy, everyone is amassing flotillas of spaceships, and yet every single crisis is handled by sending in a three-man commando team.  I’m not actually bothered by this, though I appreciate a little authorial handwaving to smooth things over.

As a corollary, Tolkien is of course not the only model. You can get away with a lot! The Princess Bride works despite its unreality– though good characters and good writing keep it from merely being twee.

(We have higher standards about plausibility these days… we’re used to naturalistic fiction, we don’t accept the supernatural quite so easily.  On the other hand, bear in mind that in their own fields, our predecessors were probably just as demanding. If the people listening to the Iliad heard the poet messing up details of bronze age armor or horse anatomy, I’m sure they let him know.)

Next: any fantasy or sf story come with certain gimmes— things we don’t question because they’re part of the basic scenario.  There’s no use worrying about how the One Ring affects the world physically– it’s supernatural, OK, and it’s what the story is about.  Do you accept the time travel in The Anubis Gates?  You’d better, because again, it’s what creates the story scenario.

The general rule, though, is that creators have to play fair.  Suspension of disbelief is not an infinite resource.  LOTR would have disintegrated if, on page 906, Tolkien had created an Anti-Ring which destroyed Sauron’s Ring. (Introducing it on page 56 is OK.)  Once Powers sets up the rules of time travel in Anubis, he respects them and never deceives the reader with them. In such worlds, it’s an added pleasure for the reader to try to understand the rules of the world and predict how they’ll play out.

We can also inherit a few gimmes from earlier literature. We still use the dragons and wizards and magic weapons of medieval epics.  Superman has eyebeams because, basically, that was what science was like when he was invented: new physical fields and forces were being discovered at a dizzying rate. Comics just never got the memo that it’s now all about reducing everything to a few phenomena.

I should also note that just as you can inject more realism, it’s sometimes effective to take it out. The Saints Row video games are a good example: they were never exactly journalistic-level exposes of criminal gangs, but they only improved as they downplayed the gang warfare and emphasized the fantasy (and characterization).  However, this move generally works best when you’re moving into comedy, or at least less seriousness.   (Though it can also be a welcome respite from too much grimdark.  After Miller, there wasn’t much to gain in making Batman nastier; thus the relatively lighter tone of the animated series.)

I think there’s two kinds of plausibility gaps: those we notice while reading or watching, and those that only come up while discussing the work over pizza.  On the whole, only the first kind is really harmful to the experience.  I was disgusted in the movie theater when the Force turned out to be a bacterial infection.  On the other hand, I don’t really care when playing Oblivion that there are obviously more bandits than citizens in Tamriel.

Of course, it’s nice when a conworld is convincing enough that it stands up even to rigorous prodding.  And I’d add that conworlding doesn’t, as one might expect, impede storytelling.  On the contrary, it creates storytelling opportunities.  I remember looking at the maps in LOTR and wondering what Harad and the Sea of Rhûn were like. I’ve been asked many questions about the less documented areas or ages of Almea. The more you know about a place, the more questions there are. (Star Wars or the Marvel Universe aren’t impeded by the weight of conworlding; they’re impeded by the sheer bulk of story.)

If the guidelines above seem vague– well, that’s the final lesson.  Despite the tone of some nerd arguments, these are matters of art and skill, not ISO standards.