Generic 1960s pic of a father and son scene.

Generic 1960s pic of a father and son scene.

I was reading some writing blog or listserv a few years back, and I ran across a fellow–a writer of espionage-action thrillers–who was trying to work himself out of a plot dilemma. His characters were schlepping across an arctic waste in Norway or Finland or someplace, and there they had been schlepping for a good long while. He felt he needed something to happen, so he was going to drop a village onto this vast arctic waste, a place where his characters could meet some new people, maybe get into a scrape or two.
I urged the fellow not to do it. The arctic waste in question is a real place, and there are reasons there are no villages there. I challenged the writer to spend some time pondering a) why there are no villages where he wished there was a village, b) what is there instead of villagers (smugglers? moonshiners? hermits?), and c) what narrative possibilities present themselves. Plopping down a village would be the easy and convenient thing. But by taking that easier route, the author may miss out on some real rewards. Aren’t smugglers and hermits more interesting than villagers anyway?

The fiction writer has the luxury of not sticking to the facts on the ground. He can change whatever he wants to change in his fictional world; who’s going to stop him? Writers of fantasy fiction have even more freedom in that regard. But there are dangers therein. Imaginative worlds are frictionless worlds. And frictionless is another word for slippery.

I’m a big fan of creative non-fiction. A good essayist limits himself to the facts as he finds them, then rassles around with those facts until meaning reveals itself. The facts on the ground become metaphors and symbols for deeper truths that lie behind and beneath them. There’s a whole worldview there. I really believe that good fiction–including fantasy fiction–begins with a willingness to search, like a non-fiction writer, for the meanings that inhere in the facts of the world around us. Different writers will choose to disguise the facts on the ground to a greater or lesser degree. But when they unmoor themselves entirely from the facts of our shared world in the creation of their own, the story suffers.

I’m not through articulating this idea. I imagine there will be two or three more posts on these topics in the next couple of weeks. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the role of the “real world” in imaginative fiction.

  • Patrick
    5:58 PM, 4 January 2011

    I love that anything is possible in writing fiction. A fantasy world that is just like the “real world” just begs “why?”. When you can do anything, why not create a more interesting, more colorful, more dangerous world? Why not discard “real world” frictions and limitations? Throw out gravity and other inconvenient physical laws, the limits of known species or environments, locations on the real world map, languages and dialects… throw it all out if it helps you tell a better story. But a good story can not be told without friction. Not only is the friction needed for the story to hold interest- the minds of the readers are human minds that only know the “real world”- the story still has to make sense in the minds of your readers.
    The fantasy world must operate in a logical way. So, if I want there to be a village in the arctic waste- I agree with doing some critical thinking about it- What would it take for that place to exist? How did those people come to be there? How do they get the things they need to survive and maintain this community in a way that the rest of the world doesn’t know they are there? What sort of people would desire to live in such a place? I agree- it can’t just be flippantly dropped on the map without explanation- explain it so your “real world” readers will accept it. With stories like Wonder Land, Oz, Avatar,,, or Santa’s elf village located in the middle or an arctic wasteland- isn’t anything possible in fiction? The average human’s imagination is more flexible than we tend to give it credit for.

    Can you imagine a con-artist making a circuit through the same small towns on a little island year after year, with no one recognizing him, and year after year he continues to con these people over and over again? Every fiction story has it’s unbelievable elements, and if it is a good story told well we overlook those elements fairly easily.

  • Jess
    7:15 PM, 4 January 2011

    I have to say I enjoy any story told well, be it real or based on reality (for example “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane), or be it fantasy fiction (like Narnia and the Wingfeather Saga), or be it a real story retold to include fantasy-ish elements (the Wilderking Trilogy comes to mind). If it is told really well (and “told really well” means technically and logically well but also emotionally and spiritually well, incorporating the truth we all are searching for), then you can’t back out and say it is too unbelievable. However, the more logical and believable it is, the more likely it is to be written well. Writing is one of those things where it is really hard to use “I HAVE to do this” as an excuse, because every little thing thought through and done well contributes to the overall goodness of the story. It might be so incredible of a story that we forgive the village plopped in the middle of nowhere, but if there had been something more logical and exact, the story would be THAT MUCH more incredible. Writers need to stretch their minds and achieve the logical stuff so that they can achieve the THAT MUCH more incredible.
    Hey, what do you know, I managed to say what has already been said! Sorry, that happens a lot.

  • Jonathan Rogers
    5:15 AM, 5 January 2011

    Patrick, you ask why somebody would make a fantasy fiction world look just like the “real” world. I’ll tell you why the world of my fiction looks so much like the real world…but in a later post, not in this comment.
    Jess, you make a good point that fiction that is logical and believable is more likely to be well-written than fiction that is inconsistent…more or less by definition.

  • sally apokedak
    8:50 AM, 5 January 2011

    I’m looking forward to your posts on this—so consider the advice on craft solicited.
    I remember reading a book once and for the longest time I pictured the protagonist with blond hair. About three-quarters of the way through the author mentioned the character’s raven hair. It really bugged me. You can make the hair whatever color you want, but do it early. Once I have my own picture drawn, you are going to bump me from the story if you give me your picture.

    I think the problem is less about writers making stuff up and more about writers violating readers’ expectations.

    I once wrote something that was true about Alaska, and I had to change it because readers found it unbelievable. It didn’t matter that it was “real world” stuff. If it jolted people and made them think I hadn’t done my research, then it wasn’t worth keeping.

    It sounds like you were right in thinking the author you bumped into was looking for the lazy way out when he wanted to plant a village in the arctic. But in the end there are countless ways to tell a story. I think you can stick in whatever you like as long you give your readers enough of a hint that the the thing is coming. If you want an arctic village to show up in chapter 23 make sure to mention the existence of arctic villages in chapter 3, I say.

    You say: Imaginative worlds are frictionless worlds.

    I’m not sure why a writer can’t put friction in an imaginative world. There was friction between Bilbo and Gandalf and Bilbo and the dwarves and Bilbo and Sméagol and Bilbo and Smaug. All of those characters are imaginative and they live in an imaginative world. I love the way The Hobbit starts out with a hole that is not like the holes in our worlds. Not a dirty, wet hole with bits of worm in it. It’s a hobbit hole and it’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. Sure, we all understand what it is to want to be warm and well-fed and to sit comfortably on our porches with our pipes after we eat. So there is a tethering to a universal emotion, but the world itself is quite imaginative and yet it is full of friction. So I’m thinking I’m not understanding you.

    But what I really hope you’ll delve into is this bit: “I really believe that good fiction–including fantasy fiction–begins with a willingness to search, like a non-fiction writer, for the meanings that inhere in the facts of the world around us. Different writers will choose to disguise the facts on the ground to a greater or lesser degree. But when they unmoor themselves entirely from the facts of our shared world in the creation of their own, the story suffers.”

    I don’t understand what meanings inhere in the facts of our world and I can’t come up with a picture of a writer who has unmoored himself completely from our shared world.

  • Jonathan Rogers
    7:58 PM, 5 January 2011

    Hey, Sally–I didn’t do a good job of communicating…or, rather, I did a poor job of editing. The business about imaginative worlds being frictionless worlds related to a paragraph that I had pulled out of the post. I should have pulled that sentence while I was at it. The paragraph in question related to CS Lewis’s The Great Divorce, and the idea that people in hell can simply imagine a new house and there it is. It would seem like a great boon to be able to plop down a house so easily, so frictionless-ly, but it is actually a curse. In the same way, a writer who doesn’t subject herself to the friction, gravity, and other limitations of the “real” world is in danger of seeing her story float away. I’ll circle back around in a later post.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller
    7:30 PM, 13 January 2011

    I was going to question the line about friction, too, Jonathan. I don’t think the friction a fantasy writer like Tolkien created comes from our recognition of that world as real. I’ve never been on a whale hunt or deep sea fishing, but I could relate to the friction inherent in Moby Dick and in The Old Man and the Sea, not because those stories took from the real world but because the friction the characters encountered with their circumstances and with each other was friction I understood and which the author made believable.
    Consequently, Bilbo could encounter trolls and I didn’t think, I’ve never encountered trolls, so I don’t understand what he’s going on about. Rather, I worried for him and happily cheered him on when he bested them, however accidentally.

    All that leads to this point. I think the meanings that exist for the reader do so because they exist for the protagonist and the other characters. Trolls don’t worry me, but they worried Bilbo and the dwarfs. Hence when I was reading The Hobbit they did worry me.

    The author’s job, I believe, is to communicate the characters to the reader, complete with their values. It is from what the characters value or devalue that the reader discovers how to react.

    Take Feechies, for example. All the Corenwald civilizers either feared Feechies or dismissed them as myth. Except Grady who liked being one, though he thought he was only pretending. And we the readers love Grady. Hence our ideas about the Feechie are formed long before we meet a real Feechie who knew himself to be a Feechie. We don’t recoil in horror at the end of the book because a terrible thing has fallen upon our beloved character. And our reaction has nothing to do with encounters with Feechie in the real world. Instead we see as Grady saw.

    That’s the challenge of the fantasy writer, I think. Yes, it might seem easy to drop a village where none should be, but as Sally said, it must first be “explained” within the story so it’s not out of the blue (i. e. it has to be believable). The friction, then, must occur based on how the character reacts to this encounter (something I will then understand).


  • Rebecca LuElla Miller
    7:41 PM, 13 January 2011

    I just thought of something you said in your more recent post on this subject—about bandits and whatnot being more interesting than villagers. I see your point. I think authors do better if we go beyond what is the first, most obvious answer (need an encounter with people? Put in a village). But what if the protagonist is a hermit? What then would be the encounter that would generate the greatest friction?
    What if he himself is a highwayman? or a trapper? What if his expectations for the arctic village are built upon his reading about a science station on the North Pole? Will he be disappointed? relieved? I guess I’m saying that an author creates friction more by how he draws his characters than by what he puts into his world.

    At least that’s my premise. 😉


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