Genres can be difficult for readers and writers alike. Readers may find it annoying when trying to search for specific books while authors often stress over what is appropriate for reader expectations and for sales.
I used to mumble and stumble when telling others I write ‘fantasy’. The word always brought to mind Medieval magicians and sword fights or even scenes from Lord of the Rings…and my writing is nothing like either of those! However, I not only embrace being a fantasy author, I also happily use the words ‘urban fantasy’ for my modern warriors and Gypsy magic set in modern life. Sometimes, it is simply about understanding just what the term means.
Author Michael Darling has helped me understand a bit more about my own genre (learning is always good, right??)! This fantastic guest post will delve into the meaning of science fiction versus fantasy writing. I think readers and writers will find this insightful and helpful!
Magic, Science, and Magical Science by Michael Darling
For readers who are familiar with my novels, it wouldn’t be unusual to think I’ve specialized in fantasy. The Tales of the Behindbeyond series has three novels thus far, all of them squarely in the land of the Fae and fantastic. So, it might be a surprise to find that my next novel, Hollowfall, is a science fiction novel instead.
A lot of writers cross over to different genres. The best genre for a story is the genre that allows the author to tell the story in the best way. My first professional sale was a science fiction short story and it’s interesting to play in all the adjacent sandboxes scattered across the fictional playground.
One of the major decisions to be made in writing to a genre is developing the world. For a fantasy story, how does the magic system work? For a science fiction story, how much science (and what kind) is there in the fiction? Then there’s the very popular in-between land where everything looks like science but turns out to be fantasy. More on that in a minute.
There’s a misconception that fantasy is easier to write while science fiction is more difficult. Fantasy can be invented wholesale, but science fiction is based at least somewhat in fact, experiment, and established theory. Fantasy is also thought to be easier because magic can be used to accomplish anything, and anything can be explained with magic. On the other hand, science has rules and limitations that restrict an author’s options, because of those darn aforementioned facts and theories. Right?
Turns out, a story without limitations is boring.
There is more than one fantasy series out there where the hero of the story is all but invincible. The hero can use magic to create any solution to any problem they face. If they need to defeat an enemy in battle, they conjure a suitable spell and overpower them. If they need to escape, they use their powers to enhance their speed or vanish. It’s all done with loads of pyrotechnics that read great on paper. Bang. Pow. Boom.
As far as I can tell, there isn’t a single network with a fireworks channel. Not even on cable.
There’s a reason for that. Fireworks are fun for about twenty minutes, but once the “oohs” and the “aahs” are over, there’s nothing left. Nothing to take away. Nothing to give meaning or add an iota of clarity to the human condition.
The problem with fantasy and no boundaries is that there’s no cost. No conflict. No chance for the hero to learn and grow. Turns out, the best fantasy stories are the ones where the hero can’t do anything and everything. And no spell is free of cost. The hero must, and should, be required to make a sacrifice of some kind in order to win and the more it hurts, the better we like it. The best fantasy authors are the ones who make their heroes work the hardest and even let them lose sometimes and the best way to do that is to put limits and parameters into the worlds they build.
Starts to sound like a world of science, doesn’t it?
Here’s where science fiction just might be easier to write than fantasy. The limits and parameters for science are already discovered or theorized at least. You just need to become familiar with them. And, for the same reasons, these limits and parameters are why there are scores of television channels delivering character and plot-filled stories instead of just fireworks.
I’m not a scientist, but I’m interested in science. Staying somewhat familiar with current scientific theories isn’t that daunting a task and makes me a better writer, I think. And while I can’t generate a story that’s fully compliant with physics or chemistry off the top of my head, I at least know how to start asking questions and where to look for answers.
It’s all too easy to fall into science that looks like science but isn’t factually scientific. These are “magical science” or science fantasy stories. As an example, in one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the crew of the Enterprise discover what appear to be giant space whales. One of the whales had gotten separated from its pod, and Captain Picard needed to get the whale, who turned out to be a baby, back to its mother. The laughable part of the story came from watching the whales move through space. They “swam” like whales in the ocean by moving their tails up and down. What were their tails pushing against, exactly, to provide locomotion? Space is a vacuum, so there aren’t any molecules to swim through. Nothing to push against.
On the one hand, that episode is memorable for the wrong reasons. On the other hand, it provides a lesson that even the best writers deliver inaccuracies, intentionally or otherwise. And it’s okay. There are tons of shows with questionable science, but we love them anyway. Whether being teleported by having your matter turned into energy and back again, having TIE fighters and X-Wings fly through space as if they were World War I fighter planes, or manufacturing explosions that can be heard even though sound waves need an atmosphere to travel through, a touch of fireworks is okay as long as the rest of the story has set limits that are consistent to the universe created.
Applying scientific paradigms to my fantasy novels made a big difference to the stories. By borrowing a little bit from the world of science, the world building got easier and made for better plots. In physics, matter cannot be destroyed or created, but it can be changed, for example, from a solid to a liquid. Energy can also be captured and stored, but there are limits to how much can be held in reserve. So, the main character, Goethe Laoch, has an internal reservoir of magic that becomes depleted when he casts a spell. Casting spells also need to follow a set procedure to change the magical power into a form that is useful to the caster. Finally, when the caster uses too much power, the power is drained and must gradually recharge. So, in the climax of Got Luck, the first novel, Goethe finds himself in a battle with an enormous demon—and he runs out of magic. Not even enough to spark a firework. Solving that problem proves to be far more entertaining than simply inventing a bigger, badder spell.
Back to the science fiction novel.
The world of Hollowfall was complete and self-contained well before I started writing the story. Based on a popular board and computer game, I received the game “bible” as soon as the project was confirmed. Instead of inventing a world, it was handed to me. I just needed to become familiar with its parameters and it was loads of fun to look at the characters, the abilities, the locations, and the effects and consider how I could make those elements could interact in new and interesting ways without compromising the limitations. As a result, I completed the novel relatively quickly and the developers of the game, Stormcrest, were ecstatic with the results. In fact, having such limitations contributed to my being able to complete the novel in half the time it took to write my latest fantasy. There were other factors, but I’m convinced, now more than ever, that science fiction may be easier to write than fantasy, once you have some familiarity with how science works in real life.
If you haven’t read science fiction recently, give it a try. The worlds built on science and mingled with speculation are interesting and often filled with characters who feel more familiar and relatable than fantasy figures. If you’re a writer considering science fiction as a genre, but you’re feeling some trepidation, you may find writing sci-fi to be easier and more fun than you thought, once you get into it. Whatever genre is best to tell your story is the best genre to write it in. I know I enjoyed putting Hollowfall together and I hope it will find a wide audience. If you are so inclined, please make a purchase and tell me what you think about it by leaving a review online or writing a quick blurb in your social media. The need for reviews is anything but a fantasy and, if you’d like a free story, you can subscribe to my newsletter from my website for a taste of something you may enjoy.
Many thanks to Rennie St. James who runs two of the very best groups on Facebook for writers and fans of fantasy and sci-fi. I’m so grateful to be invited to write as a guest on her blog. She is an amazing and supportive friend to have!
Thanks a million much for reading!
Thank you for such a great read!
Now, readers, you have to want more from Michael, right? I thought so! His bio and links and below so start your buying and stalking now!
Bestselling author Michael Darling has worked as a butcher, a librarian, and a magician, which turned out to be an ideal set of skills for a fiction writer. He lives in the beautiful Rocky Mountains with his flight attendant wife and their normal-if-you-don’t-look-too-close children where he writes award-winning stories beside his big buddy, a St. Bernese dog named Appa. While best known for his Tales from the Behindbeyond urban fantasy novels, Michael writes across all the best genres. He’s published numerous short stories, had several plays produced for the stage, and written radio programs that have aired in 80 countries around the world. He has been the recipient of awards including the short story and overall winner of the UAACon writing contest and a Silver Quill award from the League of Utah Writers. His most recent novel is Hollowfall, a science fiction adventure set in the cyberpunk universe of the popular computer and board game Master of Wills.