How do you make the fantastic elements of your stories seem real?
We fortunately have a suspension of disbelief to work with. If we’re in a fantasy world, as long as the characters validate what’s happening, it becomes real to the reader.
First off, I believe having realistic characters immeasurably helps. Once I feel I’ve established that my characters are realistic (by having believable emotional reactions to the plot, a back story, character flaws, by showing proof that my characters are not suffering from deus ex machina, etc), those characters will inevitably encounter some of my fantastic elements, at which point they can either validate or invalidate those elements by their reactions.
If ‘warp drives’ are normal everyday things—or highly unusual—or thought of as completely impossible, the characters’ reactions should reflect that. The characters in the book automatically have more credential than the person reading the book because they’ve spent their entire lives in the book’s world. Having a scientist from this world react to the situation adds even more credential. And having a believable reason for that element to exist makes it practically gospel.
One character’s reaction is not necessarily enough. If a story starts off with a character that believes dragons exist, he can go find a dragon, touch it, and even die by it. But his reactions with other characters (and/or other characters’ reactions to the dragon) are what ultimately validates whether or not the dragons exist only in his head or are actually real, in the context of the story.
In Five Rings, one fantastic element I decided to use is shifting reality by changing the nature of something that is commonplace on Earth. I’ve had the challenge of making fire seem like it’s a very rare thing, and also, nightmarishly frightening.
Fantasy becomes reality when characters in the story validate the fantastic story elements. So the people that live on Lura have a hard time imagining fire’s destructive power and, worse, of burning to death. So I’ve made sure that a healthy fear of the flame has been intergrated into their culture, and made sure that there are situations in the book where entire crowds of people react to fire with panic and hysteria.
Little-to-no fire also causes many interesting problems in the world, so the characters that populate Lura are forced to deal with it on a regular basis: Every time they set up camp, every time they have to cook, every time they want to get rid of evidence, lack of fire causes a problem that has to be solved (by unconventional means by our standards, but conventional by theirs).
As a result, fire becomes far more dramatic a story element than normal when it is used. If a character’s parents died in a fire, it’s a much bigger deal than it would be in a typical setting. If a character thinks they are going to be burned to death, I can really play on their fear. And if a forest is burned down, it won’t soon be forgotten. In fact, everyone in Lura would be talking about it for centuries to come.