On Reality, Suspension of Disbelief, and Toilet Paper

For the record, before I climb onto my soapbox, I SLEPT last night! I think it’s the best I’ve slept since I got back from CA, 9 straight hours. I even dreamed actual dreams, not just bits and pieces of junk. It is a wonderful feeling, which is now being exacerbated by a nice, hot shower, a solid breakfast, and a cup of hot tea. If this post is a little rambling, I do apologize. Yell at me later.

But on to the real business at hand. How much realism, should we as fantasy writers, impose upon our readers? Should we ignore all daily functions, have the hero subsist on a cracker and piece of dried fruit for months at a time, never get sick, and (unless it’s a romance/erotic story…) be free of all sexual temptation until the perfect moment with his lady-love?

How much is too much, but do we need to be a little realistic, for the sake of that ever-important suspension of disbelief?

The answer is, unless we are writing “REAL” -the surrealistic type that makes no sense-fantasy, yes. Horses, humans and dogs are almost always used in fantasy. And if it smells like a pig, looks like a pig, and sounds like a pig, it should damn well make bacon. Or something like that. The point is, if you have a human, make it have the same problems, needs and actions as most humans. Otherwise, you’ve got a Vulcan. Or a Klingon. Or a half-elf/orc/dwarf/Treebeard cross-breed I suppose.

That means that when Hero is out in the woods at night, he’s prone to using the wrong leaf, since you can’t really carry TP, and his buddies make fun of him for the rest of the trip. It means your city-dwellers run out of food and have to forage, and sometimes eat things that shouldn’t be eaten. Hero may buy a prostitute on his day off, and she may not be of legal American age. Realism makes or breaks a story in my opinion.

With that in mind, it behooves any serious writer to have an massive amount of research at their fingertips. The internet is a wonderful thing, Wikipedia has saved a story more than once. But start collecting, and browsing, more unusual books too. I have an old Air Force wilderness survival manual from a relative, history of weaponry, dog breeds, gemstones, horse references, herbal remedies. Find out how long a man can travel without food, versus without water, or if a horse really can jump a seventeen foot chasm (the answer on that one is “no”, unless your pony’s daddy is Pegasus).

Horses are one of the most misrepresented fantasy elements out there. A horse can, and has galloped 90 miles in one stretch, and made it just fine, although his rider died of exhaustion. Desert tribes are an excellent source of study, as most tested their horses rigorously. If the animal could run 50 miles, swim a river twice, and still eat a nosebag of oats afterwards, it was NEVER sold. Mares were used for war, because they would stand and defend their riders, or drag them out of harm’s way, and attacked as viciously as their master. Steppe tribes feed their horses on cakes of sheep-fat and oats, desert tribes on animal fat, camel’s milk and dates. Oats make a horse friskier than alfalfa.

There is a world of realistic information out there that can lend fathoms of depth to your story. Instead of hero walking across the desert, he can use the wrong leaf and get a rash, his horse might be munching on sheep-fat (or the fat melts in the heat…Oops!), and he might discover a new herbal remedy for saddle sores.

Have fun with reality. It’s a weird world indeed, one worth exploring and adding into your fantasies.

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