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Friday, June 15, 2012

Making Fantasy Fiction Feel Real ~ Robert Liparulo

Best-selling novelist Robert Liparulo is a former journalist, with over a thousand articles and multiple writing awards to his name. His first three critically acclaimed thrillers—Comes a Horseman, Germ, and Deadfall—were optioned by Hollywood producers, as well as his Dreamhouse Kings series for young adults. Bestselling author Ted Dekker calls The 13th Tribe, released in April 2012, “a phenomenal story.” Liparulo is currently working with director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive, The Guardian) on the novel and screenplay of a political thriller. New York Times best-selling author Steve Berry calls Liparulo’s writing “Inventive, suspenseful, and highly entertaining . . . Robert Liparulo is a storyteller, pure and simple.” Liparulo lives in Colorado with his family.

Five Elements that Make Fantasy Fiction Feel Real
By Robert Liparulo

I like stories that surprise me, show me things I’ve never seen before, and get me playing make-believe like I haven’t since selling my G.I. Joes and Legos at a garage sale. Few tales are as make-believe (or as fun) as fantasy fiction—from the ones I call “light fantasy,” like alternate histories and time travel to the hard-core stuff involving space odysseys and dragons. Trouble is, I’m a skeptic, a hard sell. For a story to grab me, no matter how far-fetched it’s supposed to be, I have to see and feel things I recognize, things I relate to.
Sounds like common sense, but as a voracious reader of published fiction and a judge in umpteen writing competitions, I’m here to tell you it’s not as common as you’d think.
The idea of reality-based fantasy truly hit home when, after writing three reality-based thrillers (Comes a Horseman, Germ, and Deadfall), I decided to tackle a fantasy-adventure story for young adults and a fantasy-thriller for my latest novel, The 13th Tribe.
In the Dreamhouse Kings series, a family moves into a house that turns out to be a gateway to times past. Not only can the family go from the house to the past, people from the past can come through into their house. Someone does—and kidnaps Mom back into some unknown history. Brothers David and Xander begin going through the portals looking for Mom. We slowly learn that the Kings are in the house for a very specific purpose, and they must do much more than “simply” find their mother.
In The 13th Tribe, a group of immortal vigilantes try to earn God’s favor by killing sinners. When we meet them, they’re planning an attack on a major city and it’s up to our reluctant protagonist to stop them.
My goal was to make the stories feel as real as possible, and more: I wanted to reach even readers who don’t normally like fantasy elements in stories. I identified a few key ingredients that would help me reach this goal:
1. Characters who feel. The way to a reader’s heart is through a story’s characters. Doesn’t matter if they’re fighting dragons or stepping into the Roman Colosseum during a gladiator fight, a character has to experience fear and courage, love and heartbreak, blood, sweat and tears—all of it realistically rendered in a way the reader understands. In the Dreamhouse Kings, I decided to make the time travel parts feel real by making everything else absolutely real.
The poor King boys (ages 12 and 15) suffer so many cuts, bruises, and broken bones that a popular contest on my website involves identifying as many wounds as possible on medical body charts. They cry for their mother, and ache at the possibility of never seeing her again. They also realize how much they need and love one another, and even find time to laugh.
Look, too, at Ender Wiggin in Orson Scott Card’s brilliant Ender’s Game: That boy went through such a gamut of emotions (loneliness, anger, triumph, self-discovery) that despite the future setting on a spacecraft, even non-sci-fi fans ate it up.
2. A character who’s skeptical. Some authors have done so much research and spent so much time contemplating the fantasies of their stories that buying into the fantastic is a no-brainer for them. Their characters barely shrug at the concept of vampires or the shattering of the laws of physics.
I read a lot of fantasy, but I still want to be convinced every time. It helps when at least one character mirrors my disbelief. It tells me the author knows he or she is venturing into fantasy territory, so I trust that I won’t be left behind. As the evidence slowly convinces the skeptical character, more times than not, I’m convinced as well. In other words, the author builds a bridge between reality and fantasy—if not necessarily with rock-solid explanations, then at least with feasible theories and suppositions.
3. A learning curve in understanding the fantasy. “Hey, a watch that stops time—let’s do it!” You’ve probably seen the equivalent of this many times: the characters instantly grasp and use some crazy new item or idea. I want to see them stumble, misuse it, make mistakes, figure it out. A large part of the fun in Dreamhouse lies in the family’s near fatal mistakes as they rush to find Mom, and how their assumptions about time travel and the portals consistently lead them into more trouble. They eventually set up a “Mission Control Center” to map where the portals take them and what they can and cannot do in the past.
In Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (my favorite book), protagonist Robert Neville is constantly learning new things about the creatures after him and the virus that turned them into vampire-like beasts. Readers get to tag along and figure out the problems and solutions with him; discovery becomes a team effort between character and reader.
4. Real surroundings and situations. Like characters who laugh and cry, hyper-realistic environments make the fantasy elements feel more real—because everything else is. When the King family finds the house, it’s dusty and run down, the banister leaves splinters in their palms, when the electricity comes on, old bulbs pop. Tolkien was a master at this, chronicling in Lord of the Rings the hobbits’ journey in almost painful detail. He gradually pulls readers in until we’re there, sore—if not hairy—feet and all. Likewise, characters should eat, sleep, go to the bathroom, whittle . . . whatever makes them real.
5. Consistency. A major Hollywood studio has an offer on the table for the film rights to The 13th Tribe, but part of the deal includes my providing a “mythology” of the immortals: What are their abilities, how can they die, how does the way they became immortal (it was a divine punishment) and their time on earth effect their current behavior? Movie people are particularly sensitive to remaining consistent to the rules of made-up conceits because audiences can spot inconsistencies easier in the condensed stories of film (and movies rarely have the time to explain how seeming inconsistencies really aren’t). It’s a lesson writers of novels would do well to learn, because readers tend to be more demanding when it comes to storytellers staying true to the rules of a made-up world.
Not every story requires equal doses of these elements. Think of them as spices: the amount authors use of each depends on the dish they’re preparing . . . and their personal tastes. But all dishes need spices, just as all stories need to feel real to readers.


  1. Robert Liparulo is perhaps the ONLY author who inspires me to read his "fantasies" for precisely the reasons he explained. They don't seem like fantasy. As usual, well done, Robert.

  2. Neat article. Big fan of your work and it's cool to hear your advice.


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