Writing is one domain where misconceptions always find a way to fester, especially in genres like science fiction and fantasy.
The freedom these genres offer often comes with a price. There are many more ways to fail at writing fantasy or science fiction than other genres. Thus, writers end up believing misconceptions about fantasy and sci-fi writing.
Don’t believe me. Let’s take a quiz. Name all the detective or romance fiction you read and didn’t like. Now name all the bad fantasy or science fiction novels you’ve read.
There is a good possibility the first list is longer than the second one. You are less likely to read bad fantasy novels because they often fail to get the attention of publishers, let alone the reading audience.
In short, writers have to strike the right balance when writing fantasy and science fiction. Unfortunately, writing a novel is nothing short of walking barefoot through a rocky desert with great chasms. However, writers can make their jobs easier by relieving themselves of myths and misconceptions while writing fantasy.
Moving forward, we will discuss some misconceptions writers tend to have about fantasy and science fiction writing.
Misconception #1: World Building
Generally, fantasy and science fiction writers spend months, even years, jotting down every little detail of the world they are setting their story in. As a writer, I can appreciate the dedication it takes to focus on every little element of a fictional adobe.
However, it doesn’t really matter that much.
Any fantasy epic is made popular by its story alone. World building is like garnishing. Your skills in world building will only matter if the central plot and the associated characters are interesting.
All the fancy galaxies and kingdoms you name, the family secrets you bury deep in the lore, the different kinds of species you create, all these things don’t matter without a story.
Don’t believe me? Listen to George Lucas arguing Star Wars is not about space ships.
Like all good SF and fantasy writers and creators, Lucas understands the part of Star Wars people love the most. Families are complicated, even those in a galaxy far away.
The reason the original trilogy resonated so much with the audience was the struggle of a family trying to come together against all the odds.
Thus, writers should not give up weeks, months, and years on world-building alone. Their first priority should be to create an interesting plot and the right characters.
Misconception #2: The Characters Should be Relatable
This is something we have talked about previously on this platform. Writing relatable characters has to be the greatest myth ever created.
Think about your favorite characters and stories. You don’t like them because what they feel or think is somewhat similar to what you believe. You like them because they are interesting and engaging.
Let’s take one of the most beloved fantasy characters of this century, Harry Potter. The reason Harry is a great protagonist for the series is his inherent investigative nature. When he faces any life-threatening danger, he chooses to confront it rather than lying low and letting it pass over.
From the very first book, we see Harry investigating strange things happening around him. Any normal person, such as the reader, would rather choose to avoid the danger altogether. How many of you have uncovered a criminal enterprise in your school, or caught an evil gang lord? By the time Harry finishes school, he ends the greatest dark wizard in his world.
How the hell is Harry relatable? He’s not. He is, however, very interesting and entertaining.
Is relatability an inherently flawed concept? In the context of characters, yes. However, the plot should have some relatable aspects to tie readers to the story. The Harry Potter struggle, broadly, is about the struggle between good and evil. The ASOIAF series is about concepts of power and war. These themes are relatable and common. However, it is a common misconception to believe fantasy writing only comes alive with relatable characters.
Furthermore, an obsession with writing relatable characters is likely to trigger the creation of boring characters. Boring characters will ultimately infect an interesting and balanced plot and kill the purpose of fantasy writing.
Misconception #3: The Real World is not enough in Fantasy Writing
One of the major reasons for an obsession with world building, as explained in misconception #1, is also a misconception. While writing fantasy, many hold the misconception that a new world has to be created. In other words, the real world is not the best placed to write a fantasy novel.
Firstly, there is some merit in writers building their story in entirely new worlds. Sometimes, the best option is to build from scratch. However, it is not a necessity to invent new worlds and spend hours upon hours on world building.
We have real examples of successful fantasy and science fiction epics set in the real world. The Matrix, Back to the Future, even Harry Potter to some degree is set in a real world.
Before taking the decision to either create a new world or set a story in the real world, writers must introspect and ask themselves the following questions –
- Is there a pressing need to create a new world?
- What are the negative effects of not creating a new world?
- Is there a way to negate the negative effects?
- Am I ready to give the time and attention to creating a completely new world?
After answering these questions, writers can then decide their course of action. Again, I am not against world building. In fact, some of my favorite books are set in make believe worlds. However, writers take the plunge into world building too often without weighing their options.
Misconception #4: Ensemble Cast is Necessary
One of my favorite science fiction movies is Blade Runner. Unlike many other fantasy and sci-fi novels and movies, it has a small cast and a narrow storyline. The tight plot creates a claustrophobic mood which compounds the dread and dour foreboding the story tries to instill.
The misconception of creating an ensemble cast of characters in fantasy writing is perhaps the most dangerous. This is because a misconception like this has a direct impact on the plot from the very beginning and harms the entire process.
A misconception of this kind is largely seen in fantasy writing.
Generally, writers get inspiration from popular fantasy epics like Harry Potter and Game of Thrones. Thus, they use such series as the basis for their own fantasy writing and make their first cardinal sin – choosing four or five protagonists to work from.
If you’re a young writer, writing a fantasy epic with four protagonists is a uniquely difficult task. Even the most experienced writers don’t take on such a challenge. This is because fleshing out one protagonist and completing his/her arc is a challenging prospect in itself.
To repeat this for three or four more characters is extremely challenging. Furthermore, writers also have to find a way to marry multiple arcs with a central engaging plot. Thus, there is no need to start off with an ensemble cast. Keep it simple, like Blade Runner, and you will get something unique.
Misconception #5: Disguising Science Fiction and Fantasy Tropes for Better Writing and Storytelling
Many writers dial down the complexity of their fantasy and sci-fi stories. They do so because they end up believing the narrative that audiences today prefer low fantasy and high drama. This is not exactly true.
Science fiction is a major victim in this trend. Writers today don’t explore the technical aspects of their story. The sci-fi and fantasy devices they use in the story appear hollow and shoehorned.
The solution lies in a quote from Charles Bukowski.
If you’re going to try, go all the wayCharles Bukowski, All the Way
When you start writing a fantasy or sci-fi novel, you have a good idea about the kind of story you want to tell. If it involves a lot of fantasy tropes and sci-fi devices, take time and explain their significance. You might think readers would find these explanations boring. As a writer, it’s your job to makes these parts interesting.
The best example of this arguably comes from LOTR. Tolkien takes a fantastical element, the ring, and tells a story which lasts generations.
Imagine if he just wrote ‘This ring will make you disappear’. His LOTR trilogy would have never been as successful as it ended up becoming. Through the ring, Tolkien explored the pscychological depths of each major character in the series. Thus, it is possible to bring depth to a story with standard fantasy and sci-fi tropes.
Misconception #6: Fantasy and Sci-fi Have to Deal with Impossibilities
It is not essential for a sci-fi story to have a time machine or flying cars. Similarly, it’s not necessary for fantasy movies or novels to have wizards and vampires.
The best example I like to give for this particular misconception in writing fantasy and sci-fi is Person of Interest.
Person of Interest is a highly-underrated television show. On the face of it, it’s just like another ‘catching the perpetartor’ type of show. However, the one element which is essentially a spanner in the mix; a super artificial intelligence.
It is an excellent show which explores the nature of AI. Since our world is slowly moving towards AI, the show offers some truly original insights and is definitely worth a watch.
It’s not wrong to call Person of Interest a sci-fi show. However, it avoids the tropes sci-fi fiction is generally associated with. Instead, the writers give us a grounded New York-based good guy-bad-guy drama with an AI in the mix.
If you want to write science fiction or fantasy, don’t shoehorn typical tropes unless they’re necessary.
The last two misconception may have confused some readers a little. Here’s a simple explanation.
You need to understand your own story better than others. In essence, if you think it needs high fantasy and sci-fi elements, add them to your story and give them enough background to make them look authentic. If you think staying grounded helps your story more, do that. You can make a wise decision only when you understand your story better than everyone else.
Misconception #7: Your Story Needs to Have a Political Message
There is a recent movement, I don’t know where it began, but it believes writers, comics, and other kinds of creators have to always question those in power. In short, whatever they create should ‘punch up’.
Again, this is my personal opinion, but I humbly disagree. The primary goal of a writer should be to write something a reader finds interesting. Without achieving this fundamental goal, there is no point in writing anything.
Take some of the most political stories as examples. 1984 is a story warning us about an authoritarian dystopia. However, at the center of this political message is a man who dares to go against the system.
Atlas Shrugged, unapologetically political, has a sense of mystery and intrigue from its very first line. Thus, even political novels have an engaging plot driving home the political message.
Not all writers and readers view the world as a power dynamic. Most people just want to pick up a book and have a good time. Thus, writers writing fantasy or sci-fi don’t need to search for a political message.
Misconception #8: An Original Concept is Essential for Success
At this point, writing truly original concepts for fantasy and science fiction is a tall order. I see writers trying to dredge up some original concept for a fantasy or sci-fi novel all the time. Eventually, they give up on the pursuit and try their hand at a completely different genre.
This is generally the kind of mistake rookie writers make. The search for originality is one of the most misunderstood concepts of all time.
Originality doesn’t necessarily mean you cannot use tropes used by creators previously. This is a misconception in both fantasy and science fiction writing. Did people stop making war movies after Saving Private Ryan? Did George RR Martin hesitate to add dragons to his book series despite its overblown use in fantasy literature?
Even if a writer thinks he has found an original concept, there is a good chance there is some obscure writing about it somewhere. Thus, the intellectually honest thing to do is present an original perspective rather than searching for an original concept.
If you manage to find a truly original concept, great. However, if you cannot, don’t worry. Write an original story with your own honest perspective.
Misconception #9: Fantasy Writing Has to Go Beyond One Book
Many writers are married to the concept of writing a book series. This is especially true for fantasy and science fiction writing. The ‘next season’ mindset has plagued many young novelists starting out and trying to find their own way.
No, you don’t need to write a trilogy, quadrilogy, or a quintet. You can just write one wholesome novel and move on to the next.
In fact, this obsession with multiple books is a big reason many fantasy books never make it. Instead of putting their best story ideas and concepts in their first manuscript, writers push back a lot of good stuff for future books. They forget the simple point that they first need to land a publishing contract for the first book before moving forward.
Furthermore, most writers get bored dealing with one storyline for a long period. Imagine how JK Rowling, Isaac Asimov, or George RR Martin must have felt (or in the latter’s case, still feels) dealing with the same characters for so many years and decades. Not every writer can manage that level of devotion to a single set of characters.
Thus, the best thing for writers to do is not get tied to the concept of writing a whole book series. Start with the first book, do it justice, and if the publishers like it, think about how you can extend the plot beyond the first installment.
Misconception #10: Fantasy Writing Requires Less Research and More Imagination
There are many writers out there who buy into the concept of mindless imagination without any basis of research. They believe they can invent anything out of thin air because fantasy and science fiction are genres where there is no need for logic.
This underlines some of the fallacies of modern fantasy and science fiction writing. If writers choose fantasy or sci-fi as their genre, this doesn’t give them the license to suspend logic.
Research is still a crucial part of writing any story, let alone fantasy and science fiction. It is no surprise most successful fantasy novelists have spent years reading the works of Tolkien. The same is true for sci-fi writers and HG Wells. Mystery writers read Sherlock Holmes. Their years of reading is a form of research in itself.
Misconception #11: Writers Need to Have Background in Science or Should Have Taken a Writing Course to write Sci-Fi or Fantasy
We have covered why writers don’t need creative writing courses to learn something new or extraordinary. Firstly, we have so many examples of writers finding their way despite not taking any writing course. Secondly, most creative writing courses teach concepts which can be learned for free through blogs and YouTube videos.
When it comes to writing science fiction, the need for an educational background in science is based upon the type of story someone is writing. For example, it doesn’t take a physics major to write the script of Back to the Future. The same is true for the writers of Blade Runner.
However, while writing a more technical sci-fi story, such as something similar to Interstellar, a little background in science helps.
Final Words: Misconceptions and Myths in Fantasy and Science Fiction Writing
Most myths and misconceptions writers end up believing come from vague generalizations. The purpose of listing them outright is to open the mind of writers to a world of different possibilities.
Some writers will naturally disagree with some of the things we discuss in this piece. We invite everyone to put forth their view in the comments. Furthermore, if you want to make your point more strongly, get in touch with us and we can think about publishing a separate blog post talking about your point of view.