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.
(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?