Advice Section Watt-Evans' Laws of Fantasy


This page has three distinct parts:


  1. Watt-Evans' First Law of Fantasy: Stories are about people.

  2. Watt-Evans' Second Law of Fantasy: People are never wholly good or wholly evil, and therefore characters should never be wholly good or wholly evil.

  3. Watt-Evans' Third Law of Fantasy: The basic human motivations are universal.

  4. Watt-Evans' Fourth Law of Fantasy: Everything other than the basic human motivations will vary, depending on the cultural setting.

  5. Watt-Evans' Fifth Law of Fantasy: Magic, like everything else, has rules.

  6. Watt-Evans' Sixth Law of Fantasy: If a story can be written without a fantasy element, then don't bother with the fantasy element.


Watt-Evans' Laws of Fantasy

by Lawrence Watt-Evans

I make my living writing, and most of what I write is fantasy. I'm fortunate in that fantasy happens to be popular at the moment, which is why I can make a living at it. I like fantasy.

Fantasy can be a confusing genre, though; some people aren't clear on what it is, where it overlaps (or doesn't) with science fiction, and so forth. Here are my own definitions:

Fiction is anything that hasn't necessarily happened.

Contemporary fiction is any story that could take place more or less at the time the writer wrote it, give or take a few insignificant years, without any drastic variation from everyday reality. This includes most "mainstream" fiction, as well as most mysteries, romances, and so forth.

Historical fiction is any story that could have taken place at some time in the recorded past, wherein the author has done his or her best to reconstruct some particular time, whether it's ancient Rome or the American West of 1870 or Paris during the 1968 riots.

Science fiction is any story that might someday be possible, not fitting the two definitions immediately preceding this one; it can be contemporary in setting, or historical, or prehistoric, or futuristic, or even set in parallel worlds. Certain outright impossibilities are sometimes allowed, such as time travel, faster-than-light travel, and so forth, though they strictly shouldn't be, in my opinion; I suppose that they're permitted because they were used in science fiction before they were clearly established to be impossible, and tradition has kept them on.

Any fiction not meeting the three preceding definitions is fantasy.

What does that leave, though? I've eliminated everything that might be possible. That means that fantasy is stories about the impossible; not just things that are impossible now, but things that will always be impossible. An alien spaceship landing in your front yard tonight is drastically unlikely, so that's not contemporary fiction, but it's not demonstrably impossible, so it's science fiction, not fantasy; when there's doubt, it's SF.

A wizard appearing in your kitchen and turning you into a frog is impossible, so that's fantasy.

(Of course, an alien disguised as a wizard using incredibly advanced technology to turn you into a frog is science fantasy, a sort of hybrid genre made possible largely by Clarke's Third Law, which says any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.)

In fantasy, anything is possible. That's what makes it fantasy.

There's a problem with that. It makes it too easy. If absolutely anything is possible, then the hero can simply wave his hand in the air at the appropriate moment and turn all his enemies into rocks.

That would be fantasy, all right, but it wouldn't be good fantasy. A good fantasy story, while including at least one or two outright impossibilities, sets down rules for itself and abides by them. It has logic to it, though not necessarily exactly the logic we use in our own everyday lives.

If a story doesn't have internal logic and consistency, it isn't any fun to read. Where everything is possible, everything is boring, because the reader knows that the hero can always just turn the bad guys into fungus. There's no chance to build up any sort of interest or suspense when anything can happen.

Therefore, fantasy has its own rules, and in order to write the stuff I had to figure out what some of those rules are.

I'm still working on the details of this, you understand, but after a few years in the field I think I've hit on most of the basic points, and here they are:

Watt-Evans' First Law of Fantasy: Stories are about people.

A good story is a good story, and the genre doesn't change that; a pointless, rambling bunch of events is not a story. A story is not just events, it's events that affect someone. Stories are about people. Being people ourselves, we're just fascinated with people. Oh, in science fiction and fantasy the people don't have to be human, necessarily, but they still have to be people. They don't even need to actually appear in the story, but the story needs to be about people somehow.

In Ray Bradbury's classic SF short story "There Will Come Soft Rains", for example, no human beings ever appear; the dialogue, if you can call it that, is entirely spoken by machines going through their programmed day after a nuclear war has wiped out their owners.

However, the story is about those dead owners, because the machines, through their programming, reflect the people who built and ran them. The reader sees the mechanical remnants of their daily routines, learns what they ate for breakfast, how they kept the house clean, even their favorite poems.

In bad fantasy, however, people aren't always to be found. Stereotypes are likely to turn up instead, often in the guise of "archetypes". Fighting-mad barbarians, nubile and willing slave-girls, plucky princesses, evil wizards, clever thieves, and all the rest abound, in various textures of cardboard, but no real people.

The discerning reader won't accept this; he or she demands characters she or he can believe in.

Of course, there are enough less-than-discerning readers around to keep a good many cardboard characters in print.

Watt-Evans' Second Law of Fantasy: People are never wholly good or wholly evil, and therefore characters should never be wholly good or wholly evil.

Characters, like real people, should be concerned with other things besides Good and Evil. They mustn't all be just good guys or bad guys; in fact, no one is perfect, eliminating your stereotypical good guy, and nobody thinks of himself as evil, eliminating your stereotypical bad guy. No one thinks of himself as a villain.

That doesn't mean you can't have villains, though. Adolf Hitler didn't think of himself as an evil man; he was trying to make the world safe for the master race, as he saw it, and that was, from his point of view, a very good thing, so that it didn't matter if a lot of people got killed in making it happen. He didn't think of himself as evil, yet I don't think anyone would deny he was a very satisfactory villain.

In bad fantasy stories, though, the villains are often evil for the sake of evil, proudly, arrogantly evil, proclaiming from the rooftops that they are the very epitome of evil, doing evil, rotten things just because they're evil.

I don't buy it. I'm sorry, but that just doesn't work for me, and I don't think it would work for anybody else, either. I can't see a real person, even a wizard or demigod, saying to his henchthings, "Hey, what can we do today that's really rotten?" Doing nasty, rotten things for power ("What can we do today to make people do what we want?"), or vengeance ("What can we do today to make life miserable for all those people who mistreated me?), or spite ("What can we do today to make everyone as miserable as I am?"), or even for sexual jollies ("What can we do today that's kinky?"), I can accept, but not just for the sake of evil.

And being good for the sake of goodness doesn't work very well, either. Fighting the villains because they're evil doesn't work. For one thing, how do you know they're evil? Fighting the villains because they've harmed people, or threatened to harm people, or might harm people, or just for the sake of fame and glory, I can accept. Even simply out of the personal satisfaction in doing something well, I can accept. But not just because we're good and they're evil.

This excludes religious or patriotic crusades, of course, which are often based on "We're good, they're evil," but where in fact neither side has a monopoly on either. In crusades, the characters can think they're acting purely because they're good and the other guys are evil, but only in a very weak story would they be right.

Watt-Evans' Third Law of Fantasy: The basic human motivations are universal.

People should still act like people, whether they're ancient wizards bent on world domination, or six inches tall and living in somebody's woodwork. They can fight for love, sex, money, power, fear, security, pride, and all the other important things, but not just for good or evil.

And this includes all the people. In far too many fantasy stories only the main characters are people. Palace guards, in particular, come off badly; nobody seems to think twice about slitting the throats of a few guardsmen. I don't care what the job pays, you'd never get me to be a palace guard in some of these universes. If I wanted to commit suicide I could find more entertaining ways.

Besides, they're so utterly ineffectual. Really, has any clever thief or sneaky barbarian ever been stopped by palace guards? Why do all these palace-owners bother with them? If I were hiring guards, I would want them to have at least some instinct for self-preservation, and to know how to do something other than stand there looking bored until someone sneaks up from behind and cuts their throats, or jumps down from an overhanging ledge, or gets them to look the wrong way with the distinctive sound of a pebble being thrown.

Soldiers have it almost as bad. They have this tendency to fight to the last man. In real life, most battles end as soon as one side is clearly winning, because the other side will turn and run-- or at best manage an orderly retreat. Dying, even in a glorious cause, is not popular with ordinary soldiers. Even palace guards can have wives and children and worry about putting food on the table, and the fewer who throw themselves into the hero's field of fire the better, as far as I'm concerned.

Watt-Evans' Fourth Law of Fantasy: Everything other than the basic human motivations will vary, depending on the cultural setting.

None of what I've said so far means that all the people in fantasy stories should act like your next door neighbor. The basic human emotions should stay the same, but not how they're shaped. After all, these characters grew up in a fantasy world, different from your own. Whatever a person grew up with, that's what will seem natural to him or her. If someone grew up conjuring demons every Thursday morning, then he will not be amazed or thrown off-stride by seeing demons conjured; it will seem perfectly normal to him. At least, on Thursdays.

People vary drastically according to their native culture; anyone who has travelled extensively knows that. The people in fantasy novels, therefore, should not think and act like ordinary twentieth-century Americans somehow thrust into another world (unless, of course, they are twentieth-century Americans thrust into another world). A boy who grew up as a pseudo-medieval peasant, spending all his life on a half-acre of ground, is not going to think the same way that a modern American suburbanite thinks; he's likely to be constantly aware of the weather and the seasons, alert to birds and wildlife (they can damage desperately-needed crops), but with no clear idea what a mountain or an ocean might be, for example, no idea what might lie beyond the horizon, even as to whether the laws of nature are the same elsewhere as at home. And, since this is fantasy, they might not be. If he was brought up in a religion with a hundred gods, he's very unlikely to embrace monotheism--or atheism.

And if his world is full of magic, then he will accept magic as an everyday part of his life.

Watt-Evans' Fifth Law of Fantasy: Magic, like everything else, has rules.

A writer needs to let the reader know just what the situation is. Is magic everywhere, fairies under every bush, dryads in every tree and nixies in every brook? Can anybody work spells just by putting rhymes together? Or is magic rare and valuable? Can only a handful of wizards cast spells? The rules need to be consistent. If it's established that only kings can work healing spells, for example, and the peasant hero heals his dying friend's wound, you darn well better explain that he's actually a long-lost heir to a throne somewhere, or the reader will feel cheated.

You had also better work out just how this magic fits into the world you've invented. If the gods appear regularly at their worship services, for example, your hero really can't be an atheist unless he's an idiot or blind. If alchemists can turn entire mountains to gold with no effort, the money can't be on a gold standard--at least, not unless the alchemists control the economy and maintain the currency artificially. If wizards can turn people into frogs, warfare is not going to be a matter of swords and armor, but of wizards hurling spells--unless there's some very good reason the wizards don't get involved.

Watt-Evans' Sixth Law of Fantasy: If a story can be written without a fantasy element, then don't bother with the fantasy element.

Avoid the Bat Durston syndrome. The now-defunct SF magazine Galaxy, back in the fifties, used to run an ad saying "You won't see it here!" and giving a paragraph each of a Western and a space opera, with only the names of the hardware changed--horses' hooves to rockets, six-guns to blasters, and so on. The same thing is possible with fantasy, and is very much to be avoided. Some fantasy stories are simply war stories, with wizards throwing fireballs in place of cannons, or love stories, with one corner of a triangle an elf-maiden or a werewolf instead of the redhead from the Accounting Department, or adventure stories, where the blizzard is sent by a sorcerer rather than a freak low pressure system. Most common of all is the war or adventure story that uses a fantasy setting because the writer can't be bothered to properly research an appropriate historical milieu. If you're going to the trouble of writing a fantasy story, then the entire plot should evolve from the fantasy elements. Explore the ramifications of a complex spell, or figure out what it would be like to be under a particular curse, or consider what might happen if gods really walked the earth, or devise a way that a flat world could really exist and still have air, gravity, and oceans.

Or, of course, there's the sort of fantasy that adds an impossible element to our everyday world; I don't mean to slight that, though it seems relatively scarce nowadays. I mean the sort of thing where the redhead from Accounting turns out to be a werewolf. Even here, though, the story has to evolve from the fantastic elements if it's going to be any good. Simply telling an ordinary love story where one person's a werewolf is pointless unless her lycanthropy affects the relationship somehow.

In short, to write fantasy, you invent your fantasy world--which can be almost like our own, or totally alien--put real people in it of the sort who would really live in such a place, present them with a problem that develops from one of the elements impossible in our world, keep it all consistent, and you have a fantasy.

Then all you have to do is tell a story.


Other Laws:

All contents and referenced pages are copyright by Lawrence Watt Evans except as noted.
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