I recently bought a pottery cup with the word “goya” written on it by a local artist. “Goya” is an Urdu word and has been described as an “untranslatable” word. Roughly, it can mean the “transporting suspension of disbelief that can occur in good story telling.”
This tiny word captures what I seek in my writing: to have a reader become enchanted by my story and feel transported into another world. This is the ultimate in literary escapism and all without drugs.
This is one of the reasons I enjoy writing (and reading) fantasy. It allows for the exploration of our ideas and the choices we make without the baggage of the current cultural, religious and political systems. By telling a story in a different context, it allows for illumination of ourselves in a way which can be difficult in fiction. Plus, I can make characters do things that aren’t possible in the real world. I get to make up fantastical creatures. I can bend the rules of nature which makes getting out of a tight plot spot, a little more fun.
At first I also thought it would be easier. I was wrong.
After all, if I want it to be snowing on December 15 of a certain year and in a certain town, I don’t have to worry if this is historically accurate or not. If I want a tavern on a particular street corner, I can build it there. Because this is my world and I get to make the rules.
But then I discovered that it isn’t as easy as it appears. This is because good fantasy has to feel real. It needs an internal logic to feel like a real place. Even if I create new rules (or bend the old ones) they need to be clear, consistent and believable. Characters must feel human, even if they have a tail or some unusual facial feature. My fantastical creatures must act in consistent patterns. In creating a new world, it must have elements and its own rules of nature that make it believable. A reader must feel that the characters act in human ways (even if they have special magical powers) to make them relatable and therefore want to spend time with them.
Without this you will have no goya
Keeping track of a new set of cultural, religious and political, and maybe even scientific rules, is tough work. I ended up writing a reference book which includes a history, geographical maps, and an overview of political and religious structures of my new world so that I can remember all the details. I had to create “monster” profiles to keep track of the behavior of my creatures.
In the real world, the reader and writer already know these “truths” but in fantasy, you have to show the reader these elements without sounding like an information dump and ensuring they stay consistent with themselves. In fiction, you can easily double check historical facts with the internet. In fantasy, it is much harder to make sure that you haven’t screwed up some internal logic.
But when done well, that magically moment of “goya” can sweep the reader from their chair and into another world. It is like when a stunning piece of music or an insightful picture transports us away. This is the real magic of our own world.