Maintaining the Illusion

I published this article over at the Independent Bookworm site last October  and thought I would ncoolow post it on my own website (with a few edits). I put a lot of effort into creating fantasy worlds; complete with believable histories and realistic cultures. After investing so much of myself to lure and immerse my readers into the setting so they believe the story “could be” real, it would be ludicrous to summarily dismiss the entire illusion with just a few words or faulty imagery. Yet, time-after-time I come across this in many fictional stories.

When I originally wrote this post I was reading a sample of a Medieval-themed Fantasy novel that looked interesting… at the time. It was intriguing, and I finished the first two chapters. The author had already drawn me into the world they have created. They did a good job of writing the end of the chapter so that I didn’t have any choice but to run my finger across my Kindle to bring up the beginning of the next chapter. And it went something like this:

Lionel, we thought we had found the missing orb, but it is not as you described. It is not the correct color.” The elderly knight holds out a shining white sphere.

It’s okay. It is missing the most important ingredient.” Lionel reaches out and when he takes the orb, it turns a dark blue, like the middle of a lake. “Me.”

That’s cool.” Boyden standing slightly to Lionel’s left steps closer, his eyes wide.

I went back to my Kindle library and deleted the sample, then searched for another book.

The author made a critical, but an all too common, mistake. They destroyed the illusion that they had so painstakingly created at the beginning of the book. Because of what I had read to this point, I was settling into the Medieval-themed world the author had built. Then suddenly I came to a screeching halt as I was snatched out of the well-formed fantasy world. I am okay with stretching the lines of the time-period with words like “orb”, since it is a fantasy, but unless Lionel and Boyden were somehow transported from the Twentieth century (which they weren’t), the contract the author had made with me, was broken, and I could never trust the author again.

The author had made a promise, a contract, with me that this was going to be a Medieval-themed novel. From the description, and what I had read in the first couple of chapters, I was prepared to read a book set in a Medieval-like world. I wanted to be taken away to a fantasy world that, while different from Earth’s Middle Ages, stayed true to the same basic principals of that time period. I would not expect someone to show up with a machine gun or for a plane to fly over head, or for someone to say “Okay” and definitely not “Cool” (unless they referred to the weather).

I have heard many people say that because it is fantasy, you can do whatever you want. This is the furthest from the truth. Mark Twain said,


Why is this? The basic tenet of fantasy is that the world, that the author creates, is an alternate reality of what we already know. An illusion that something could be real if you only let yourself go along with the author for a while. Illusion is the crutial word here. A common definition of illusion is ‘Something that deceives by producing a false or misleading impression of reality’. The key is that it gives the impression of reality. It is not a surprise that the word reality continues to come up as we try to define fantasy. When I read “Okay” and “Cool” the impression of reality was ended as cleanly as if the Knight had used his longsword to sever the connection between myself and the author’s world. Strange things happen in the real world that people cannot deny. However, in fantasy, the world must appear to be true. To do otherwise would be to breach the contract between the reader and author.

I realize that it is not always easy to use period-specific words. I am a little anal in my own writing and try not to use any word, in my Dragon-Called series, that did not originate prior to the mid-1500s. I am not this strict when reading other authors, but there is a limit. Simply putting just a little effort, on the part of this author, would have kept me comfortably in their world, and I would have bought the book.

Words are not the only way to destroy the illusion, but possibly the most common.

Another example occurred when I read a sample of a different book and immediately bought it. The story line was good, and the author kept me engaged. There were a few times, at the beginning, that stretched my believability, but I excused it because the story line was well done. That was until I came across a scene where the protagonist was invited by the king to attend a banquet. When the protag shows up at the banquet, the author starts describing a palace banquet room. They initially did a reasonable job, but with crystal chandeliers, it would have been more relevant for something out of the Renaissance period or maybe even later than that. Regardless, I kept reading and then the author required me to stretch my believability beyond reason. He had the protag describe the opposite end of the room like this:

At the other end of the hall was a bar stocked with every possible type of wine, ale, and distilled spirits. Directly before the bar was an open dance floor with a small stage off to the side for the minstrels.

A couple of pages later the author writes these lines:

One of the young bartenders saw them coming… <deleted for brevity>

chocolate-swirl-martiniSomeone with the Protag says, “Hi Aeron, we’d like two chocolate swirls.”

The author proceeds to describe something that sounds like a martini to me. I was so engrossed that I tried to put this scene aside, though failed. Especially as the author continued with more of the same in the rest of the scene. And yes, you guessed correctly; I deleted the book. I survived the description of a 1920’s speakeasy, but bartender and a martini, really!

These are not the only methods that can rip the reader out of the author’s world. Basically, anything that stretches the reader’s ability to believe in the setting the author has created. It is important to keep in mind that the reader is already suspending their belief to even invest time to try and accept the author’s world. The reader has entrusted the author to not only create a world that will whisk the reader away for ten minutes or hours on end, but to keep the promise that the author will maintain the illusion.

When an author delves into the fantasy genre, they are signing on to create a world, whether it be an alternative physical world to Earth, or our own world (hopefully that is Earth for all of you) based upon alternative principals, the metaphysical. In doing this, they are making a promise, to their readers, that they will do everything in their power to maintain the illusion of reality. If the author fails to do this, then they have given up any claim to the reader’s time and their loyalty. You can see similar train wrecks in other fiction genres.

My objective is not to criticize other authors. Most keep the promise and view their reader’s trust with due reverence. Everyone has their own style and a voice that is unique to them. My goal is to help those that venture into this, and similar, genres with something that is nearly as important as the plot, characterization, and all the aspects of writing that is drilled into most of us as we learned our profession. When an author introduces a character and tells us what they look like, a little about their background, and give them dialog – we, the readers, expect the character to do something later. The author has made a promise that there is something important, or at least relevant, about this character. Maintaining the illusion of the world is as, or maybe more, important.

Imagine if the first example had gone like this:

Lionel, we thought we found the missing orb, but it is not as you described. It is not the correct color.” The elderly knight holds out a shining white sphere.

You are not mistaken. It is missing the most important ingredient.” Lionel reaches out and when he takes the orb, it turns a dark blue, like the middle of a lake. “Me.”

Incredible.” Boyden, standing slightly to Lionel’s left, steps closer, his eyes wide. (Yes, Incredibl Books onlinee originated in the late 14th century).

Would it have changed the content of the story if the author had changed the “That’s cool.” to “Incredible.” above? I think not, it required little effort. The only difference is that I would have bought the book.

When you read fiction, how important is the illusion?

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