Resonate. It’s the word I use most often when talking about writing. But what does it really mean?
Take the word home. The dictionary definition is “The place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household.”
But that’s not what anyone thinks when they hear the word. They think of their home. What it looks like, what it sounds and smells like, how it feels to be there. They think of the people who occupy it and the often complex emotions they engender. They think about history and family and legacy and…well, you get the picture.
Home is a word that resonates.
Not all words do. The is going to lie there like a lump no matter what you do with it. When writing poetry, I try to eliminate as many inconsequential words as possible. In such a short form, it’s important that every word count. But sometimes, a the changes the meaning of the line and helps it resonate. Take these lines in a poem about Medusa as a single woman I wrote recently:
she does not suffer
in the silence
where a husband
Twisting tropes/aphorisms/clichés is an easy way to get something to resonate on at least one extra axis.
But when writing longer form fiction, I need the text to do more work than a single clever line can do. In every fiction—but especially fantasy—the fictional world needs to resonate like the real world does. If it doesn’t, the story can fall flat without the reader ever really knowing why.
Internal logic. In his essay, “The Fantastic Imagination,” George MacDonald states that, “…in the process of his creation, the inventor must hold by those [his invented] laws. The moment he forgets one of them, he makes the story, by its own postulates, incredible. To be able to live a moment in an imagined world, we must see the laws of its existence obeyed. Those broken, we fall out of it.”
The world and the people within it must follow the rules of that world like we follow the laws of gravity. Unnoticed and unnoted upon but completely essential to the world functioning as we are used to. I apply this rule to characters, as well. If a character acts in a way anathema to her personality, it should look to you, the writer, as though they had suddenly begun to float away from the earth. You often see this when a weak writer needs their plot to go in a certain direction and makes their protagonist act contrary to their nature just to move the plot along. Either change the plot or change the makeup of the character, but consistency of character is essential to making your story resonate.
Because whether or not you put your worldbuilding/character work explicitly on the page, knowing it—and I mean knowing it, knowing it to the hilt, to the quick, to the deepest, darkest depths—will cause your world and your characters moving through that world to act with an internal logic that, like gravity, the reader will not see, but will still feel with every step taken, every word read.
When I talk about this, it’s around here that I get the “but I don’t like magic systems” complaints. I’m not talking about magic systems. It’s fine if magic is just…well…magic. Don’t give it rules. I don’t care. But the world must reflect what it’s like for there to be unconstrained magic loose in it. The characters must act with the knowledge that strange and wondrous powers exist—that some may even wield—that no one knows the rules to.
I also get the “ick, world building” complaints. For those, I offer you some hope. Despite all I’ve said so far, you don’t have to go crazy with worldbuilding; just make sure you don’t break what world you’ve built. I saw wonderful grimdark fantasy author, Joe Abercrombie, speak about a scene he’d written in his First Law trilogy. His main character was being thrown through a window, and he wanted it to shatter dramatically. However, he’d set his story in a roughly 12th century European society, so he was researching whether the windows of that period would shatter in the way he wanted them to. But he stopped himself, because he realized that, no matter how twelfth century European windows were constructed, he wanted these particular windows to shatter in the most dramatic way possible. And it was fine. It was great, in fact, because it was a flashy and memorable climax to an important scene and it didn’t break the world. The plot didn’t revolve on the particulars of 12th century window design. There were no glaziers in the room to comment on how the windows shouldn’t break like that. No glaziers in the entire story, that I recall. And since it was a fantasy, the world didn’t need to follow the exact history of 12th century Europe; if the development of window design that would allow for shattering happened a little later than that era, it didn’t matter.
You don’t have to know your world down to every minute detail. You just have to know all the important bits.
“But if I do all that worldbuilding, I’ll never get to the writing!”
The great thing about writing, is that you can always go back and pretend like you wrote it that way the first time. I tend to do a lot of my formal worldbuilding about three or four chapters into my novels. I say “formal” because a lot of it has already happened on the page. Now I just have to look at what I’ve written, see what it intimates about the world my characters are moving through, and formalize it, flesh it out, see what it means for the rest of the world. Then I’ll write some more with this new information in mind, stop, and then world build some more. Rinse and repeat. And if I run into things that contradict each other, I change them—either the character or the world. I made it all up, after all. And until it’s published, I can continue to tinker with it until it all makes sense.
So, you’ve got your worldbuilding done and your characters all are true to themselves. The final piece is voice. Make sure the voice you’re using fits the world and the viewpoint character(s). Don’t use words or phrases that are anachronistic to either. Change the voice subtly when switching viewpoint characters. Or not so subtly if they are very different. Then, when you’ve found the voice for your book, polish the text. Polish it over and over. Polish it until every word is intentional, every sentence as perfect as you can make it, every paragraph and page pushing the story along, illuminating plot and character in equal measure as the story slowly/swiftly/smashingly reveals itself.
And after all this, when you’ve put the final period on the final line in the final draft, you hope that what you’ve written resonates with the readers. Because when it does, that’s real magic.