What Are You Saying?

So I finally finished my line and content edits on my “first” draft in the middle of last week and have been taking some time to really just sit back and think about the deeper aspects of what I’ve written and why.

Yeah…not easy.

(Also, I apologize for not posting on Wednesday, as is supposed to be my habit.  This post was originally going in a different direction, and after much deliberation I decided to cut out and rewrite certain sections, heh.)

Asking Questions & Exploring Themes

In an article on her website, Holly Lisle asks writers to consider questions which they’ve yet to find satisfactory answers to when it comes to unraveling their stories’ themes.

Isn’t that why people write creatively in the first place?  Not because they already have all the answers but because they don’t, or because the answers they have been given do not make sense to them or just aren’t enough to quench some deeply rooted thirst for knowledge.  People, in general, aren’t creative because they are satisfied with what already exists; they are creative because they believe there are better ways to accomplish certain things in the world or see a niche in which some segment of the population is not being served.  Creativity is problem solving at its best–coming up with solutions to various problems in a novel or innovative way.  “Scissors are meant to be used with the right hand?  Says who!  Let’s make some for the lefties, eh?” (Universal design is a great place for creative people to exercise their creativity.)

Some cases of problem solving save lives (the, albeit accidental, discovery of penicillin); some make life more convenient (the invention of the wheel); and some are more fanciful because they question or speculate on the direction of an unverifiable future (what would life on Mars be like?).  Some problems even seem to be generated for purely whimsical reasons (imagining a world in which magic were an accepted part of everyday life)–and don’t even get started on the solutions to those kinds of problems.

The Role of Fantasy

Fantasy seems to sit at the bottom of the totem pole, if you know what I mean; it is the most difficult to reconcile with “life as we know it” and is typically regarded as mere “escapism.”  I feel there’s a lingering notion that if what you are doing isn’t saving lives, making lives easier or tangibly contributing to the betterment of the future of mankind then it isn’t relevant or isn’t taken as seriously.  So I guess that’s the thing: Does fantasy accomplish any of this?  (Fantasy author Mark Charan Newton recently went into this in “Relevant Fantasy,” with an emphasis on the cultural value of fantasy.)

I think where fantasy has shined in the past is in its ability to explore human values and mores but also the unknown with only the constraints of the imagination, and this is something that goes back to old mythology.  Even though we tend to understand and go about things differently today, I think fantasy is still good for the same reasons.  By stepping outside of reality as we know–or rather as we think we know–it, I believe we allow ourselves to be distanced from the familiar so that we may better examine the nature and problems of humanity.  By placing characters in exotic situations, it makes for a much more contrasting, dramatic backdrop against the more mundane themes of humanity.  You can take the ordinary and wonder if things wouldn’t be different for mankind were our situation just a little bit different.  In a fantastical setting, you can freely explore the answers to questions such as:

Why is mankind so dysfunctional?  (I mean really, we just seem incapable of staying out of trouble.)  Why do people do horrible things even when they mean to do good?  Why did I, of all people, survive a terrible car crash when so many others in similar situations have not?  What happens to people when they die, anyway?

Also, would we be any different if we encountered the divine, the paranormal or magical?  And how can such things improve us as a people?

Lots of people won’t turn to science for answers to these kinds of questions; they turn, instead, to the divine, paranormal and/or magical–areas they don’t fully understand in hopes that these mysterious realms hold the answers to the more elusive aspects of life.  (Because they obviously aren’t finding satisfactory answers within the reality they know.)

I think that fantasy writers are mythmakers, in a way, and for whatever reasons what we say still potentially holds power.  Living in modern times, however, it almost seems out of place to explore questions through mythology and fantasy when mankind is so steadily striving for knowledge accrued in such a tangible, scientific way.  Yet and still, we do it anyway.

Ask Some, Answer Some

As far as writing goes, I think you can choose to write something that sets out to answer all of its questions, but you can also leave some questions unanswered–especially when they deal with particularly esoteric concepts.  (In fantasy this approach is a plus because it already lends itself well to forms of magic, the paranormal or the divine.)  I guess it’s like having an open-ended versus a closed-ended story.  Are you declaring a definitive message, or are you inviting others to consider the possibilities?  (Or perhaps some hybrid of both?)

I recently went to see X-men: First Class last Friday (which was really good, btw) and realized that in my story I am exploring a lot of the same questions and themes as that movie and in similar ways.  This made me a bit paranoid, to be honest, so you can be sure I am deeply considering the themes in my story and how I choose to answer my questions.  (Am I just saying the same things?)

Looking back on my WIP, I’m realizing that some of my “questions” are fairly prominent while others are less obvious.  These questions include but are not limited to:

  • What does it mean to be human?
  • What is the value of being human?
  • What qualifies one as, or disqualifies one from, being human?
  • Why are certain rights that are generally accepted as universal withheld from some humans though not others?
  • What if those with inherently less power found a way to control those with inherently more power?
  • What if identifying “the evil ones” was not such a black-and-white endeavor?
  • What if one’s ideas about good and evil are incorrect?
  • Where do the notions of good and evil come from, anyway?
  • Is this source the same one that controls the universe?
  • Is this source sentient?
  • Is this source knowable and through what means?
  • Does this source actively influence/shape the lives of individuals (human beings) in a way that temporal beings can identify?
  • What connection is there between that which is human and that which is not?

(I didn’t think I was asking that many questions!  Haha.  No wonder why this has been such a long ride.)

Not necessarily original questions, but there they are.  I can very well see where and how each pops up in my story, though I continue to shape it into its final form.  To understand what a human is, for one, you have to first be exposed to something that is not–be it other forms of organic life, the inorganic, the supernatural, or the divine.  In my case, I’m choosing to focus mostly on the second and third (the elements or the natural world as well as the idea of there being an all-pervading energy source) and somewhat hint at the last (an omnipresent, all-knowing being), for the purpose of leaving myself a few (bigger) things to explore in subsequent books as I become a better and more mature writer.

By a conscious, and probably through a largely subconscious, effort I have been exploring these questions within the framework of fabricated mythology (fantasy), and I suppose that the resulting story/stories will be my answer, though a few of those answers might still just turn out to be, “I have NO IDEA.”

I guess the question after all of this, then, is what do you do when you come up with answers to your questions, or even when you don’t come up with answers?  What do you make of it?

What Are You Saying?

What questions are you asking in your fiction?  Are you finding the same answers as other authors or storytellers you read?

Also, why do you think that people continue to write fantasy?  And, if you’re feeling adventurous, what do you think is the role or purpose of fantasy in an age teeming with so much (digital) information?


6 thoughts on “What Are You Saying?

  1. Asking questions is part of why I write. Most of my stories get their start start with a “What if?”. We don’t always need to have the answers, and that’s the great thing about fiction, as opposed to non-fiction. I think great fiction makes us aware of the questions, and start thinking about them.


  2. Hey Tiyana,
    You’ve got a good chin-stroker of a post going.
    One exercise I’ve been put through (and I’ve inflicted on my critique group) is being challenged to answer: What is this story about? The twist is that the answer needs to be one sentence. If you can express what you’re story is about in a concise, clear way, it blows some of the cobwebs out of a story.
    My questions (to answer yours) for Angel Odyssey were:
    What does it mean to be a man?
    How does (my main character) react to passing through the traditional rites of passage?
    What is it like to love somebody out of your league?
    What would it be like if she loved you back?

    Now , just to make things fun, I had similar questions for my other lead character:
    What is the effect of becoming more human to a supernatural being?
    How can you recognize love?
    What is more important, love or duty?
    How does a supernatural being of great power avoid becoming a tyrant?

    Now I don’t need ‘the’ answer to any of these. All I need to do is tell the story of how these characters answer those questions. I need my characters to tell the truth but I’m not going to get hung up on ‘The Truth’. I’m telling a story, not preaching.
    On the other hand, I did need to make some concrete determinations of how things worked in order to build the world. But the reader doesn’t need to know all that. All they need to know is that the world makes sense, that it is consistent so they can trust that I know what I’m doing. The answers to the above questions are specific to those characters and to that world. They aren’t intended to be universal. But I think there are universal verities in my story and other fantasy stories. Right and wrong, selfishness and self-sacrifice, meeting responsibility or fleeing it. I choose to write about heroes because that’s what interests me. And heroes can be larger than life and face unreal challenges in fantasy. I mean, who wants to read about a kid from Seattle who sees a dragon and wets his pants? Fantasy readers, most readers I think, want to see the hero confront evil, danger and all the rest.

    I also think there is a rejection of the world we live in, that’s why we escape our day to day grind, our relationships, our bodies by diving into fantasy (or sci-fi or romance) fiction. I think the same things drive video games. We want excitement without risk. We want to feel things, safely. We want to be entertained. That’s why I write, to entertain myself and other people. If other stuff wants to work its way in there, that’s fine.

    Pardon this fast, rambling response. Work beckons.



    • Whoops–looks like some bits of an email correspondence slipped in there somehow! Hope you don’t mind that I just magically made that part disappear, heh.

      I think that may be the difference between “preachy” fiction and fiction that invites: The latter doesn’t always prescribe the answer(s) to readers.

      That’s an interesting way to consider the questions we ask in fiction–not only through our own eyes but through those of our characters. The author has a chance to represent many different world views through the eyes of his/her characters, so it helps to portray even those views that radically differ from our own in a way that doesn’t come across as one-sided.

      Nothing bothers me more than a fictional antagonistic force that is *clearly* evil incarnate and needs to be put down–no questions asked.


      The best ones, and I think the hardest to write about, are those that exemplify both the best and worst qualities of humanity. (Easier said than done!)


  3. Hmm, I never did comment on this one, did I? I, for one, think that Fantasy as a genre provides a lot more flexibility for exploration of themes than some more mundane genres. This is largely because you can put your characters in situations that are impossible in “real life” and really explore the boundaries and limits of that character. You have tons of flexibility to create powerful, flexible, and multi-faceted metaphors. There’s a lot you can do with characters in a fantasy setting… and that gives you a lot of options to explore themes through those characters.


    • So true! It’s like this web of themes just seems to spawn naturally from your array of characters, and if you’re lucky (or if you just plan it this way, heh) they can end up working together very nicely. It can also be a challenge to manage all those characters and themes.

      Of course, I think Mark made a good point earlier about being able to give a one-sentence answer to, “What is your story about?” You could go stir-crazy with themes and then lose complete focus. Having a central theme also helps keep them in check. In my story the main theme is self-discovery, as the protagonist is struggling to understand and accept her place in society. As she peals back the layers of her world and simultaneously discovers what she is (and isn’t) capable of, so does the reader.

      Sometimes her journey is fun and exhilarating, but other times it’s just downright scary! (So I hope, heh.)


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