Does your fantasy novel have to be realistic?
Do fantasy books really have to be realistic? They’re fiction! And fantasy fiction at that! Can’t you just explain away anything “unrealistic” with magic?
That’s what we’re talking about in this blog post!
Yes, fantasy has to be realistic. But not “realistic” in the way you’re probably thinking.
When I say “realistic” here, I don’t mean realistic as in “works in the exact same way as the real world.” I mean realistic as in “feels as if it could actually be real even though we know it’s really not.”
Remember: When readers read your book, they’re suspending disbelief—pushing aside the part of them that says, “That could never happen.” Fantasy readers are really, really good at this.
But even avid fantasy readers have their limits when it comes to suspending disbelief.
Dragons are real? Sure. The main character can use magic? Sounds great. The evil wizard who was trying to destroy the world has suddenly given up because the main character asked him nicely? Ehhhhh, I don’t know about that.
See what I’m getting at?
Your fantasy novel doesn’t have to be real-world realistic, but it does have to follow realistic logic. It has to feel real to readers.
It’s that moment when the story stops feeling real that readers complain about a fantasy book being unrealistic.
So why does it matter if your fantasy novel feels real?
In short: Your readers need to feel some sense of realism in order to keep reading. If your story goes too far away from what readers understand and accept as realistic, you’re going to start losing them.
You may be thinking: But if they’re fantasy readers, then why can’t they just accept anything in the book as realistic?
Readers bring their own knowledge and experience to books when they read.
👆 Read that again, because it’s SO important to understanding how realistic fantasy can and cannot be.
Readers do not read in a vacuum. They can’t abandon everything they’ve ever learned just to dive into a new book. Whether it’s conscious or not, they go into every novel with their life experience and reading experience behind them, informing them of how things can and cannot work.
And it can’t just be turned off.
Using the evil-wizard-ask-nicely example, I understand from my thirty-odd years of life experience that ambitious people are not usually swayed by just one person saying, “Hey, maybe don’t? Please? I’d appreciate it.” It takes a lot more to dissuade a determined person on a mission.
Similarly, based on all my reading history, I also know that evil wizards gonna evil, unless they’re misunderstood in some way.
Putting those together, it follows that an evil wizard backing down just because they’re asked nicely is completely unrealistic. At least based on what I know from my own life. Another reader may be different.
Yes, the scenario of there being an evil wizard out to destroy a world full of magic and dragons in the first place is unrealistic. But I can ignore that part—I can suspend my disbelief about the fantastical setup in order to enjoy the story. I can’t ignore the asking nicely part, because it so completely goes against everything I know.
But do people really stop reading because of this?
Think about your uncle and his buddies who just went out fishing and come back with zero fish but a bunch of stories of near misses. Your uncle and his friends are all happy to talk and laugh about the “biggest carp I ever saw” and “if it weren’t for that stupid seagull,” but are you interested as somebody who wasn’t there? Probably not, because you’re not part of it. You didn’t see the “giant carp” or the “stupid seagull”—in fact, you doubt those parts of the story are even real at all.
So you might listen to them tell tall tales for a little while, but you wouldn’t be able to listen for hours on end. The stories are so outlandish that they start to feel like an inside joke you’re outside of.
It’s the same for your readers. Pile up too many unrealistic-sounding tall tales in your story, and readers are going to zone out.
The fact is, we all need some sense of realism to keep us interested in stories, as frustrating as that might be to hear.
So how do you make your fantasy novel feel realistic even when it’s not realistic?
First and most important: Maintain internal story logic.
When you introduce a rule or concept to a reader, follow that. Or if you don’t follow it, explain why.
For example, nobody but elves in your story world can use celestial magic, but all of a sudden your human main character starts using it, that’s a breach of logic. It’ll feel unrealistic to your readers.
Unless there’s a reason—like your main character isn’t actually human at all, or an elf character passed their magic to the main character as a baby, or the main character has been chosen by the gods to receive the celestial magic, or whatever.
It actually doesn’t even matter what the reason is as long as it makes sense with the story logic you’ve already set up. Like, you can’t use the “elf character passed their magic” explanation if you’ve already established that passing magic to another person is impossible.
Second: Immerse readers as much as possible.
The more immersed a reader is in a story, the more likely they are to suspend disbelief, even for stuff that rings their little “not realistic!” alarm bells.
Going back to the human celestial magic wielder example from above, if the reader is really, really excited about the celestial magic powers you’ve set up and how the main character might use that magic, then they may be able to look past the fact that the main character really shouldn’t have those powers to begin with.
Third: Wink at readers.
What do I mean by winking?
This is also called “lampshading,” and it means to do something in the story that lets the reader know that you know what you’ve just written is unrealistic/a cliche/whatever.
You can do this by having a character say exactly the thing the reader is probably thinking, like, “There’s no way you can use celestial magic. You’re human!”
You can also do this by incorporating the reader’s questions into the plot. For example, maybe a subplot of your story revolves around your main character trying to figure out why they got celestial magic.
Basically, by acknowledging the readers’ thoughts and questions, you reassure them that you know what you’re doing—you’re not a newbie storyteller sending them on a wild goose chase.
Finally: Give readers something to hang on to.
Fantasy especially can introduce a lot of new concepts and uncomfortable logic to readers, which makes them cling even harder to things that are the same as the real world. Which in turn, oddly enough, makes them more likely to be unhappy when the “realistic” things they cling to turn out not to work the way they thought.
So give them some things that are the same.
Maybe your fantasy world has the same compass points as Earth, and the sun rises and sets from east to west just like here.
Maybe no matter the species—elf, fairy, vampire, whatever—they all have humanlike thoughts and emotions, even if their outward behaviors are a bit different.
Maybe your magic system has the same rules as a real-world concept like inertia.
Whatever you can give the reader to ground them will help them accept all the other things that don’t work the way the real world does.
In short, your fantasy book does not have to be real-world realistic, but it does have to feel like it could be real to your readers while they read it.
And if you’ve got beta readers saying your story isn’t realistic or you’re worried about that part of your book, I can help! Assessing how realistic a story’s worldbuilding, characters, and plot situations feel is one of the things I do in my Editorial Evaluation service.
Learn more about Editorial Evaluations here, and let's get your book feeling real without making it overly realistic!