Wednesday, 6 May 2009

More Than Just A Maniacal Laugh

I get asked to read a lot of fantasy manuscripts by aspiring authors. That’s not surprising. It’s the genre most readily associated with children’s fiction. Unfortunately, it’s also the genre that produces the worst results when done badly. So I wanted to highlight one area where a lot of bad fantasy falls down, in the hope that it might be of use to someone.

It seems to me that every fantasy needs a meta-narrative, by which I mean an over-arching account of the world within which the smaller narrative takes place. Take Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings, for example. Frodo has inherited a magic ring, which has the power to make him invisible. More importantly however, that ring is the one ring of power made by the Dark Lord to subjugate all the other rings of power and bind their wearers to him. It is the missing part in a historic struggle between good and evil that began before Frodo was born and will come to involve nations and peoples that he has only heard of in legends. So Frodo’s story is really part of a much larger story, the meta narrative.

In order for a fantasy to work properly the meta narrative needs to be fully integrated into the story. This means that the motivating forces within it need to be explicable i.e. the reader needs to be able to understand just what the hell this story is about and what circumstances produced the events that are being described. This sounds obvious but a lot of people who write fantasy get carried along by their own imagery and their sense of poetic narrative so that the reader has no clear idea what sort of world the story is taking place in or why the characters are acting as they are.

The motivating forces that govern the meta narrative need to be personified. In particular, there needs to be a clear source of evil in the book. This should not just be a cartoon villain who loves evil for its own sake. There should be a history to the development of that evil and a degree of human complicity so that we understand that the evil described has the power to take root in all of us. To put it bluntly: there needs to be more than just a maniacal laugh; there should also be a powerful sense of sin.

It goes without saying that the relationship between the smaller story and the meta-narrative needs to be watertight. That means no holes in the backstory, no random and unexplained happenings, no characters or incidents that are invented simply to get the author out of his or her difficulties with the story.

Finally the power of the meta-narrative needs to grow as the story unfolds, like a shadow looming larger and larger over the protagonist until he (or she) comes to realise that he is really part of a much larger drama than he could possibly have imagined when the story began.

Does that sound like a tall order? I don't think so. All I'm really saying is that fantasy, just like naturalism, needs to be properly thought out.


Paul Lamb said...

I agree completely, and I think these words apply to all types of fiction. Even the most straightforward, mainstream work of fiction must have the sense to the reader that we are only seeing a snapshot of a much larger, perfectly credible universe.

I've sometimes doubted the assertions by some writers that they have no idea where a story is going to take them when they start writing it, but if this meta material really does exist for them (even in a subconscious way), then the story's events can transpire in a sensible way because the story exists in a whole universe.

Paul Lamb said...

Still, a maniacal laugh is often useful in fiction.

Jarucia said...

This is so very true. Not just of Fantasy either. When I read stuff that has the bigger story in every fiber of the tale it's clear the author has a whole, integrated writing style.

(If this is written silly it's because I'm sick and my mind is foggy)