Fantasy is a subversive genre, requiring the mind to bend and the imagination to flex. I love the genre's creative freedom, the opportunity to rethink, redesign and reinterpret the human experience in fresh and diverse settings, and the mysteries that magic brings to the human equation. But above all, I love realism in fantasy—the idea that even the most powerful magic is grounded to our sense of self, fueled by the choices we make, and rooted in the people we are. To me, a dose of gritty realism authenticates a story, validates my characters, and makes my worlds "real."
This is exactly what I've tried to do in my books, and my latest novel, The Curse Giver from Twilight Times Books, is no exception. The Curse Giver is about an innocent healer named Lusielle, who is betrayed and condemned to die for a crime she didn't commit. When she's about to be executed, Lusielle is rescued from the pyre by an embittered lord, doomed by a mysterious curse. You might think that Bren, Lord of Laonia, is Lusielle's savior, but he isn't. On the contrary, Bren is pledged to kill Lusielle himself, because her murder is his people's only chance at salvation. Stalked by intrigue and confounded by forbidden passion, predator and prey must band together to defeat not only the vile curse obliterating their lives, but also the curse giver who has already conjured their ends.
I know what you're thinking: How can a classic fantasy like The Curse Giver bring a sense of realism to the reader?
I can think of many ways, but I'll limit my discussion here to three very specific ways in which reality enhances a fantasy story.
First, the quickest and most effective way of establishing a link between fantasy and reality is by connecting the story's main themes to humanity's enduring themes. The Curse Giver, for example, is inspired by our ancient, deeply rooted belief in the power of curses. You can find curses in every culture on earth. It's one of those concepts that transcends background and ethnicity and binds us to our common original ancestors. It's primordial to the human experience.
The curse that inspired me to write The Curse Giver was a tangible object, ancient words inscribed on clay tablets dating back to 600 BC, a desperate attempt at protection, a warning and a promise of punishment. Curses are familiar to all of us and whether we believe in them or not, they are an intriguing part of our history, an irresistible taunt, a "real" mystery that none of us can resist. I think that realism filters up through the story from the inspiration source. We can anchor our fantasy worlds to reality by connecting them to our history and beliefs.
In more concrete ways, reality betters fantasy when it comes through pure and simple in the details. Settings provide great opportunities for realism. For example, The Curse Giver's river-centered world is inspired by the great American waterways: the Colorado River, which I have rafted often; the Mississippi River, which I've had the opportunity to explore; and the Amazon River, which has always intrigued me. Setting and landscapes offer some great opportunities for realism in fantasy and so does geography, especially when the details are vivid, concrete and deeply woven into the heart of the story.
But ultimately, real characters make real worlds. Realism achieves its maximum expression through the human experience as characters tackle the story. For example, in The Curse Giver, Bren, the Lord of Laonia, is a warrior. To be real, the concrete details associated with his trade have to be right. Research is fundamental. I relied on medieval primary sources to make Bren real. From his weapons to his fighting moves, to how he thinks to how he acts—everything about him has to be consistent and make sense, even if he exists in a fantasy world.
The same is true about my heroine, Lusielle. By trade, she is a remedy mixer, an ancient occupation to the human experience. I spent a lot of time researching medieval medicine, herbalism and the use of ingredients for healing in human history. Lusielle's potions and ingredients—the concrete elements of her practice—make her more real to the reader, more credible and therefore more compelling as a character.
Realism is important even when tackling the villainous and the mysterious. The curse giver stalking Bren and Lusielle wields some potent magic. But is magic really the defining element that makes the curse giver powerful? Evil as the curse giver is, as the story develops, the reader has to ask the hard questions: What's this creature's real nature? What is her motivation? What is the "real" source of her power?
I won't spoil the story's twists just to make a point, but trust me: Fantasy explores some very "real" themes, such as the tenuous boundaries between love and hate, virtue and vice, magic and belief, justice and revenge. These questions, which are at the heart of any good and complex plot, also contribute to realism in fantasy.
But beyond the details, what makes these characters real is their willingness to make choices, fail, cope, learn, adapt and change; to establish emotional connections and engage in each other's quests; to suffer loss, grief and love, just like we do in the real world. Magic is a powerful element in fantasy. No doubt about it. And yet ultimately, what matters most is the strength within. Because in the end, realism in fantasy is all about connecting with the powerful reality of our own humanity.
Dora Machado is the award-winning author of the epic fantasy Stonewiser series and her newest novel, The Curse Giver, available from Twilight Times Books, July 2013. She grew up in the Dominican Republic, where she developed a fascination for writing and a taste for Merengue. After a lifetime of straddling such compelling but different worlds, fantasy is a natural fit to her stories. She lives in Florida with her husband and three very opinionated cats. To learn more about Dora Machado and her novels, visit her website at www.doramachado.com or contact her at Dora@doramachado.com. For a free excerpt of The Curse Giver, visit http://twilighttimesbooks.com/TheCurseGiver_ch1.html.
Subscribe to her blog at http://www.doramachado.com/blog/, sign up for her at newsletter at http://doramachado.com/newsletter.phpFacebook and Twitter.
I'm going to let her talk about her new book the rest of the month of July, so please go have a look and support my fellow author!