Dogs Can’t Meow: Why Even Fantasy Writers Need Research

As an editor, a writer, and a vocal member of the writing community, I hear a lot of strange rules that people make up about writing. As a matter of fact, our next CraftQuest discussion will be exactly about that (subscribe to our channel for updates)! One of my absolute favorite ones is this: If you’re writing fantasy, you don’t need to research. You’re writing about things that don’t exist in reality–why would you need to search for clues within reality? No. Just no. As a writer, you NEED to research. It’s a fundamental part of your work. And it doesn’t matter what you’re writing.

In real life, i.e. not your imaginary book land, there will always be things you don’t know. I know that the infamous “they” tell you to write what you know, but I’ve gotta tell you, if I wrote only what I know into every manuscript I work on, my work would be painfully boring. I’ve written about powered individuals who fight monsters. I’ve written about a girl who is best friends with Aphrodite. I’ve written about spiking your brother-in-law’s martini with coolant. I haven’t done a single one of these things, no matter how sorely tempted I’ve been. What have I done? I’ve been terrified for my life and I’ve been in chaotic situations. I’ve been friends with someone who wanted more for me, and I’ve been friends with someone who thought I should be something I was not. I’ve watched someone abuse someone I loved and wished for a way to free them from the neverending spiral of abuse.

So, how do you write about the things you do not know? You have to do research. You have to learn new things, understand different lifestyles, different histories. You have to dig deep. But what about fantasy and science fiction? You don’t have to do research for those, do you? I mean, they aren’t even real! Why would you need to research something when it’s all made up in your imagination?

Because the key to fiction is relatability. We enjoy books because we relate to their characters or their worlds on some intrinsic level. They reflect something about our world. Which means they have to, at least somewhat, feel similar to our world. On a planet where the physics are different? You have to justify that change. Create a world where someone is immortal? Why? How does their body work that is different from how ours do? You can’t just randomly have someone buried alive for a week and have them survive. You have to explain that they don’t need a whole helluva lot of food, water, and oxygen to survive. You can’t just have a dragon without wings fly through the sky. How does he stay up? Is some kind of magic at play? Without that, they wouldn’t be aerodynamic enough to swoop through the sky.

If your character rides a horse-like creature, you have to understand how to describe riding a horse and relate it back, because when we read, we base the adventures on our own somewhat similar experience. Your job, as a writer, is to come as close to capturing a relatable experience while still balancing that with the new and fantastical ways of the world you’ve created in a consistent fashion.

So how do you make sure your world feels relatable to your readers, even if you play with changing some of the rules? You take what you don’t already know and you…research it.

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