Monday, 28 January 2013

High Drama (part 2)

Remember this? I do occasionally come back and tie off loose ends...

In that blog post, I talked about a problem that arises when we try to define 'fantasy' as a genre; specifically, that it's hard to pick out the essential component of something being 'fantasy', when stories with fantastical trappings - dragons, swords, magic etc. - can vary from A Song of Ice and Fire to The Lord of the Rings to The Lies of Locke Lamora and all the way back again.

I phrased this in terms of a concept drawn from video game theory, the concept of a core aesthetic - defined as the underlying emotional reason that we go to a particular genre or category within a form. A core aesthetic is, ultimately, the experience we go to a work of art in search of. Today, I plan to outline what I think the core aesthetic of fantasy (literature) is.

First, though, two things it's not. In the first part of this post, I linked to this video, which outlines the theory of core aesthetics in videogame genres. Now, they actually offer a definition of fantasy as it applies to videogames, which is that fantasy is vicarity - fantasy, in videogames, is what allows you to become something you are not; a soldier, or a gangster, or a pilot etc. etc.

That works very well for videogames, but it's much harder to do in literature. Because when reading you don't have control over the choices that the characters make, it's very rare to find fantasy literature which involves fantasy in this sense. There is a degree of vicarity, to be sure, in our enjoyment of the heroic and exciting deeds of protagonists in all genres, but in literature I think vicarity is the province primarily of horror and (erotic) romance, which are the most visceral, experiential forms of writing - the genres most focussed on making you feel what the characters are feeling.

But, intuitively, lots of things that are quite definitely 'fantasy' aren't primarily about vicarious enjoyment - there's no better example than A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones. No-one's getting any pleasure from vicariously living in that world (okay, psychopaths notwithstanding). Similarly, there are things that intuitively don't seem to be fantasy which are deeply vicarious - the aforementioned erotic romance, for example.

So vicarity doesn't make a good definition of fantasy. Quite separately, we need to make clear the distinction between 'fantasy' and 'magical realism'. Tempting though it is to uphold Terry Pratchett's charming quip that magical realism is 'like a polite way of saying you write fantasy', there is a key difference, and it's an illuminating one to discuss.

In essence, the difference is this: in a magical realist story, when the ghost or spirit or monster or whatever turns up, no-one worries too much about why, or how it works, or what the logic that governs its behaviour should be. No-one pays any attention to the system of the magic.

In fantasy, however, one key element is showing that there is some system to the magic. So, whereas in a magical realist story, a ghost would just be a character who was dead, when I wrote Heaven Can Wait, my fantasy novel about a ghost (which is coming back soon, I fervently hope), the story explored the mechanics of being a ghost and the spiritual implications of life after death just as much as the character dynamics of the protagonist trying to relate to the life he'd left behind (which would be the sole focus in magical realism).

That's not to exclude fantasy stories where the magic isn't what we call 'rules-based'. Heaven Can Wait is a rules-based magic story; what this means is that the reader should be able to figure out and sometimes predict things the magic system makes possible before they actually appear on-page (in fact, the very best rules-based magic systems will leave the reader thinking about all the cool things you can do with magic which there wasn't time to fit into the book). The Lord of the Rings, by contrast, doesn't have rules-based magic. Tolkein never explains how Gandalf's powers relate to or differ from those of the One Ring, for example.

But The Lord of the Rings definitely is fantasy, not magical realism. Why? Because things we know about the magic itself - that the ring is corrupting, that it must be destroyed to curb the power of Sauron - are significant to the plot. Put simply, there is a relation between character and setting which is essential to fantasy but not essential to magical realism.

Therein lies the key. Fantasy is about what fantastical settings allow you to do with characters, not in general (because other genres, like sci-fi, horror and magical realism also rely on setting-character interactions) but in respect of a particular core aesthetic, which I call high drama.

By high drama, I mean a particular feeling you get at the climax of a fantasy novel. Think about Frodo and Sam as they stand on the edge of the precipice in Mount Doom, as Frodo finally succumbs to the Ring's power. (Those of you who've read the final volume of the Wheel of Time, think about Rand at Shayol Ghul - this is probably the best possible example of what I'm talking about, but slightly less well-known as yet than the climax of LotR).

It's that moment where the whole world hangs in the balance of one character's decision; that is high drama. It puts the character under a microscope, shows you how all the stresses of a lifetime can shape morals and wisdom. It can be achieved any number of ways, in the everyman who finds a lost artefact of power (Frodo), or the destined hero who faces up to the ultimate trial (Rand in the Wheel of Time), or the crook who stumbles over a sinister plot (Jimmy the Hand in Raymond Feist's Riftwar trilogy), or the ruler who faces up to the corruption of her government and/or nation (Mara in Feist and Janny Wurts' Kelewan trilogy) and so on.

The heart of the matter, and the reason genre fantasy books and series end up so long, is that to give that one moment of decision weight, you have to feel the character's life adding up to it. Whatever the reputation of the genre for shallow, stereotypical characters, when done right it is more character-focussed than any other form of literature.

I can't think of a fantasy story that I've read that didn't supply this core aesthetic. I can think of books with magic in, some of them very fine (Balthasar's Oddysey by Amin Maalouf, arguably), which don't do this, but they don't feel like fantasy to me. Dragons, swords, stupid character names and hypersexualised she-demons (naming no names, Cersei Lannister) have nothing to do with it.

(Addendum: I realised after writing this post that high drama doesn't have to be reserved entirely for the climax of an entire series - there can be other moments of high drama in a series, as for example at the climax of season 1 of The Second Realm or even, arguably, in the red pill/blue pill choice in The Matrix. It's still that sense that everything we know about the character has a part to play in this crucial decision that he/she is making. I might need to do a full post expanding on this point at some later date; there isn't space to do it justice here.)


  1. I'd argue as well that the 'realism' aspect of magical realism is important. The magic is *part* of the real but contrasted to it. Realism is quite explicitly about documenting this world along with it's mundaneness and small quotidian moments.

    Urban fantasy isn't quite so concerned with *our* world as such, it's more a fantasy setting built out of recognisable parts of our world. Hence for example: we see a bit of Buffy's classroom or her revision; but Joss Whedon never lingers on those moments of normality.

  2. Oh and there is one piece of common ground between the genres: When you have worlds filled with strange happenings (be they explicable or not; realistic or fantastical) having one protagonist function as an 'everyman' helps. Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, Sarah Connor, Kafka Tamura, Josef K - all 'normal' people thrust into extraordinary situations.