The Secret to Writing Fantasy: Reality

by Jennie Jarvis

In both my screenwriting and my novel writing, a lot of my work has been in the fantasy genre. I’ve created worlds where leprechauns play tricksters, where yokai run shops, and where a person can die by turning into a robot. Each of these stories have won awards and gained interest from producers, even if I haven’t been fortunate enough to see them make it to the big screen due to their high budget concepts.

Each time I’ve sent these stories out in the world, I always get the same response – “How do you do it? How do you create such intricate and detailed worlds that feel so real despite being so foreign? How can you make it feel so true?” My answer – I just looked at the world around me.

We’ve all heard the old adage “Write what you know.” When it comes to writing fantasy, however, this seems like bad advice. After all, if you’ve spent your entire life working in a cubicle, what part of that existence would you even want to use when writing about a colony on Mars or an extraterrestrial attack on Earth?

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For me, the secret to writing fantasy isn’t to create something that is 100% original or unique. Audiences find it challenging to identify with worlds that are too far from what they know. Readers and viewers need to see something familiar before they can accept the unfamiliar. In order to do this, it’s important to focus on the emotional truth of our daily experience and use that to create a place of identification. In other words, take something that exists in our world and use fantasy as a metaphor.

So, if you’ve spent your adult life working in that cubicle, you may have experienced feelings of boredom, monotony and frustration. These feelings are similar to what someone would feel if they work in a monotonous job – perhaps in an assembly line at a space ship factory or in a farm where humans serve as the labor force for an alien race. Using those human emotions as your truth makes your fantasy all the more identifiable and believable.

Let’s look at another example: Let’s say that, in real life, you are an expectant mother, and you are both terrified and excited about having to care for this new life. In a fantasy world, you could adapt those feelings into a story about a young child finding the last unicorn on her planet and taking responsibility for its care. In both of these stories, you are dealing with very real, human emotions involving expectation and responsibility.

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One more: Let’s say you have experience with recovering from drug use. You were forced to leave all your old friends and your old hangouts in order to make a new and better life for yourself. In a fantasy world, you could adapt this experience into an explorer who leaves Earth to find life on a new world. In both of these stories, you are dealing with the concept of starting over and leaving everything that is familiar to you in order to find hope and life somewhere else.

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While the worlds are drastically different, the truth behind the characters’ emotions makes fantasy feel like reality. And once it’s real, readers will go along with you on the ride.

What life experiences have you had that you could turn into fantastical metaphors?

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