For almost two years now, Walt and I have been working (intermittently) on a novel that—for lack of a better term—we’ll define as falling within the genre of fantasy. In the hopes of completing it and one day publishing it, we’re not going to delve into the story’s plot or details. Rather, these posts (oh yes, there will be more!) will examine some of the difficulties we’ve encountered while working on it.
This particular post is going to look at why Walt and I have been trying to write this book in the first place. While this might appear at the outset to be a little self-masturbatory, we do think there are some interesting factors that come into play in writing a book like this, and these factors might provide a useful framework for why we find it so difficult in subsequent posts.
Let’s begin with a caveat: neither Walt nor I have really written in the fantasy genre before. In fact, we’ve never written genre fiction of any kind. This is partly a reflection of the kind of books that got us interested in writing in the first place (contemporary and [gag] “literary” fiction, which for the record is a term that makes us shudder, but people seem to know what it means, and lacking anything better, we’ll use it, here, with sincere reservations). It’s also a reflection of the types of stories/novels we read when we “studied” creative writing.
And yet, these stories weren’t what made us love reading. They may have rekindled the fire, but they did not ignite the initial passion.
There’s a reason for this. Most children aren’t able to understand/enjoy/appreciate the plight of prostitutes in, say, William Vollmann’s The Royal Family, or the beauty of Carver’s minimalist prose. Kids like magic and treasure and lightsabers, not the invisible undercurrent of whatever tip of an alcohol-drenched iceberg a modern “literary” author allows us to see. So it’s no surprise that the stories we’re introduced to as children contain more fantastical elements.
Yet even so, if you look at the stories that have stuck with human beings across the thousands of years we’ve been telling them, they’re almost always fantastical. They were myths, then they were legends. Even Shakespeare dealt in ghosts, fairies, and fatalism. In our modern era, these are the stories that inevitably become box-office hits.
The easiest and perhaps most satisfying answer is to examine why stories were told in the first place. Now, neither of us are historians, anthropologists, or theologians, but when we look at our own reasons for reading, at the very root of the impulse, is the fact that stories are a form of escape. Yes, myths had morals, and yes, the conflicts were often based on historical forces. But, at least initially, people told and listened to stories because the form allowed them to be transported out of their bubonic-plague-stricken lives into a realm of wonder and vicarious glory.
In fact, modern story-telling involving the trials and tribulations of “everyday people” appears to be a relatively recent phenomenon. Part of this no doubt has to do with average citizens actually being able to read and write, and having the time to read and write without worrying about shoveling pig shit all day. But the idea of unity or shared experience which appears to be the driving force behind modern (and potentially post-modern) fiction is, without a doubt, a relatively recent development.
Which is all well and good. In fact, it’s extraordinarily special. Rather than escaping into a character to go and slay the dragon and rescue the damsel in distress, we find a certain amount of pleasure in witnessing our modern hero trip all over himself and ultimately come up short. Why? Because it’s the story of us.
What this does, when it is done well, is to make the story entertaining. And both Walt and I have recently come to the conclusion—obvious though it may seem—that any story worth anything must be entertaining.
Entertainment is a word, though, that has developed some unpleasant connotations. It’s often associated with hacks, or people who are writing only for the money. For the serious writer, the goal shouldn’t be to entertain, but rather to illuminate, to inform, and to suffer the inevitable sound of crickets when their opus fails to sell. Writing is one of the few vocations where making a lot of money often implies that you are less talented than your peers (under this rubric, Walt and I are incredibly talented). Within this paradigm, entertainment is defined as plot over character development. Explosions over moral dilemmas. Sex and gunfights over the awkward silences at the dinner table.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Perhaps what makes a story immortal is not just the plot, but the audience’s ability to relate—no matter how godly he or she may appear—to a hero. Perhaps what makes Dune so appealing is that we witness Paul’s actual development into a god-like figure; that like Harry Potter and Hercules, Katniss Everdeen and Luke Skywalker, a “normal” person is somehow torn from his or her mundane circumstances and placed in a world where they have the capacity to become something more. Or what about Tolkien? Would The Lord of the Rings be The Lord of the Rings without “ordinary” Sam? Who in many ways is just as responsible—if not more so—for the destruction of the ring and saving Middle Earth, as Frodo?
For it becomes clear, on reflection, that the great stories are not merely fantastical tales. Rather, they are stories in which “ordinary” people are thrust into extraordinary circumstances and forced to adapt. Just as it’s impossible to root for a hero who never falters, so too is it impossible to root for a hero who never has to falter. In order for the story to work, the hero must be wrung through a gauntlet of incredible feats, and yet he or she must remain human. No deus ex machina. No stupid villains. No infallible heroes.
This is actually really, really difficult to do. In subsequent posts, we’ll explain—or attempt to explain—why that’s the case.
But, for now at least, we think it’s a job worth doing.
W & W Sawday