Around two years ago, I wrote about the necessity for the fantasy writer to avoid shoving his worldbuilding in the reader’s face. Unfortunately, it’s usually easier to talk about something than it is to actually do it. To the writer of light fantasy, this worldbuilding-shoving is perhaps an even greater danger. Unlike epic fantasy, light fantasy is typically not filled with epic quests, swirling magic or strange creatures, yet something must differentiate it from Ruritanian fiction. Something must say to the reader, “No, this couldn’t have happened in your world.” This differentiation often comes from everyday objects that exist in the fantasy world and do not exist in ours.
However, having these objects creates the temptation to wave them at our readers to help them see how clever we are. We want to shove them under the readers’ noses and yell, “Look! I don’t write Ruritanian! Don’t mix me up with that bunch! This is light fantasy. See? SEE?!” Instead, the elements must be woven into the narrative as seamlessly as possible. I am finding that a good rule of thumb/question to ask is this:
If you removed the object from the novel, would it render a single scene unnecessary?
In other words, are there any scenes that revolve specifically around the object, and after which it practically disappears? Or, if it affects part of the plot, does it seem like an excursus, or a meaningless addition? Could the plot go in the same direction if the object was not there?
I once read that a good way to introduce things that are not familiar to the reader is to have the POV character discover it. In my own writing, however, I have found that results in a meaningless scene revolving around the object. Perhaps a better writer could pull it off.
It could be that the best way, then, to include these objects is to make them so ordinary that the reader doesn’t necessarily even notice them the first time through. Blend them into their surroundings like a chameleon. To use Sherwood Smith’s Crown Duel as an example again, Smith has a number of objects that firmly place the book in the light fantasy genre: cleaning frames, fire sticks, and summons stones, to name a few. Yet these objects are so perfectly ordinary and everyday that the reader accepts their existence right off the bat, without the assistance of POV characters’ effusions. In Crown Duel, the reader learns about the objects as the characters use them to go about their everyday life. A character walks through a cleaning frame instead of taking a bath and then goes on with his day. The reader is not subjected to a whole scene of: “The cleaning frame was so amazing. One step, and he was clean. He ran outside and smeared dirt over his face and walked through the cleaning frame again, marveling that the grime magically disappeared.”
So in creating these distinctive objects, the correct question to ask yourself is not “What funky thing can I put in my world?” but
What real world object that is already in use in a scene can be replaced by something unique?
Perhaps this could be a new kind of poison that an assassin uses to murder someone. Or a different food that is served at a meal. Perhaps something could happen automatically (e.g. a door opening) that usually needs to be done manually or via technology in our world.
Even with objects that are incorporated into scenes, though, we still need to be careful. A pink and purple polka-dotted chameleon does not blend very well into a forest. One further question is useful to determine whether or not our object is properly camouflaged.
Does the character think about it?
No gushing over the object, please. No turning it over and over to consider it. The character should use the object without a second thought. It is no surprise to them, why should it be to the reader?
So find unique objects, use them to show the reader that you aren’t a Ruritanian writer. But do camouflage them like a chameleon. You don’t really want them to stick out like a peacock in an Arctic winter.