Monday we brushed the surface of speculative fiction and why it can be such a powerful and world-changing genre when executed well. In my opinion (based on years of experience with new manuscripts) this genre shares a lot of the same pitfalls as literary/character-driven novels. If we aren’t careful, world-building—while vital—can take over and obscure the human story.
While literary authors don’t face the perils of too many dragons or spaceships, they can run into a similar world-building dilemma with prose and too much inner demon navel-gazing self-exploration. The world-building is “internal” and vital, but the key is to make sure this “inner world” is serving the story not smothering the life out of it.
Though what we are talking about today can be useful for virtually any genre, it plays a special importance in genres that come part and parcel with elements that can easily become distractions.
Lasers, spaceships, magic, demons, technology, kingdom rivalries, portals are necessary for spec fic and fantasy. Yet we are wise to appreciate that these elements, while potentially beautiful, can easily get of control.
Like the wisteria I planted that tried to eat my house.
Just like a mystery must come with a crime and a romance requires an HEA, spec fic and fantasy also possess ingredients fundamental to the very definition of the work. It would be weird to have a science fiction with no “science” or a fantasy with nothing “fantastical.” Our job as the author it to make sure everything harmonizes.
Yes, while we need superlative world-building, WB alone does not a story make. Readers don’t want to hang out on our personal holodeck (or in our Literary Barbie Dream House). They long to be invited along on an adventure, and to become part of that adventure.
Empathy is the mechanism (plug) that connects the readers’ consciousness into our characters (socket) where they experience the raw energy of the stories we tell. Insert plug into couch cushions, small houseplants or mini-blinds and nothing happens aside from looking like an idiot. A socket with no plug serves no purpose and vice versa.
Connect them together?
This is where characterization becomes a game-changer.
When reading Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, there were a couple of assertions King made that really opened my eyes as to what made the difference between the fun escapist fiction versus the books we read for generations.
Power vs. Resonance
All spec fic and fantasy are about power. Monday we mentioned there are different types of fiction to serve different needs. Some fiction is just mind candy, a place to escape and get away and get some mental R&R away from “adulting” and that is a good thing. We need books like that and readers enjoy them.
Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian books are a prime example. These are standard sword and sorcery tales and Howard wrote more than fifty of these himself. Other authors added to the trove of stories about Conan.
Yet Conan was a character who always had power, never lost it and only wielded it. In King’s words, these were “tales of power for the powerless” which explains why I loved books like these so much as a geeky teen (definition of “powerless”).
According to King (and I concur), the great fantasy fiction (and spec fic) revolves around those who find power at great cost or who have power and lose it tragically. This is the crossroad where tales of Conan and the legends of King Arthur part ways.
When we look at Lord of the Rings the Hobbits are given what they always longed for. They wanted adventure and they learned that the smallest of all can make the largest of difference. This quest reveals strengths and abilities they were unaware they possessed. They come to learn they can fight in battle, brave trolls and orcs and giant spiders and ride horseback while battling vast armies.
They learn they are smarter, braver, tougher and stronger than they dreamed possible. That of all the races, they alone could resist the temptation of Sauron’s Ring of Power, rendering them the only ones capable of destroying it and thus saving Middle Earth.
Yet there is a heavy price.
Yes, they save the Shire, but can never return to it. Not really.
We witness this in one of the final scenes of Return of the King. We see our band of Hobbits in the same pub and while the other Hobbits they saved are drinking and dancing and laughing, our party sits quiet, somber, broken and grieving far too much death and loss.
They’re sharing more than a round of pints. They share a dark suffering reflected back in each others eyes and wounds that never will fully heal. They will never be the same.
Great power has been granted…but at tremendous cost.
Same thing in horror. In Stephen King’s It the children (even as adults) refer to themselves as “The Losers Club” because they are the outcasts of Derry: the fat kid, the boy with the stutter, the geeky class clown, the “white trash” tomboy girl, the Jew, the black kid, and the mama’s boy hypochondriac. The least likely to destroy a creature as old as time are the ones who discover they’re the only ones who can defeat it.
But, again this power comes with tremendous sacrifice and at great cost. They didn’t ask to be heroes but rose to the call knowing what it would mean.
Did We Mention the Supers?
Spec fic also covers super heroes, super villains, etc. The comic world is all spec fic. Yet, if we look at all the great superhero comics and movies, we see a similar pattern. How many superheroes/super-villains have been created over the past several decades, yet of that number, how many endured? Or have been elevated to modern legends?
Arm Fall-Off Boy, Color Kid, Skateman, Vibe, and no I am not kidding Squirrel Girl all made it into the comic world only to exit just as readily. All of these superheroes failed for a number of reasons beyond being stupid ideas to begin with.
The creators became too fixated on a “different superpower” and so I guess that is how one comes up with a Vietnam veteran who fights crime on roller skates or an even more lame@$$ superpower of being able to…change the color of things.
Super powers were not enough to make these characters into super heroes and thus they were quickly (and eagerly) forgotten.
As I hear it Arm Fall-Off Boy is serving time in Pensacola for disability fraud, Vibe was sued for sexual harassment, and Squirrel Girl lives in NYC near Central Park with her life partner Color Kid who found his true calling…interior design. Skateman was unavailable for comment.
All kidding aside, super powers alone were never enough to elevate these “characters” into the staple heroes/anti-heroes/villains we know and love even today. There had to be resonance and resonance comes from what King described…those who find power at great cost or who have power and lose it tragically.
Resonance is why we remember Batman, Spiderman, Mr. Freeze, Harley, Wonder Woman, Two Face, Joker, and Captain America and why they’ve been reinvented time and time again.
Resonance is why audiences cheer for anti-heroes like Deadpool, The Punisher and Spawn. Resonance is the difference between the mundane and the memorable and resonance comes only with creating dimensional characters with human flaws and emotions.
What are your thoughts? I always had a fondness for villains with tragic backstory. Mr. Freeze? *clutches chest* What resonates with you? What characters and stories connected to you? What stories, movies, television shows fell flat and why? I am no comic expert, but which ones were your favorites and why?
I love hearing from you! And I am not above bribery to hear your thoughts 😀 .
For the month of JULY, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
****And MAKE SURE to check out the classes below and sign up! Summer school! YAY! We’ve added in classes on erotica/high heat romance, fantasy, how to write strong female characters and MORE! Classes with me, with USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds and award-winning author and journalist Lisa-Hall Wilson. So click on a tile and sign up!