Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Worldbuilding -- Part III: What Fiction Does Well

Last time, we talked about the unfortunate habits of some authors, when it comes to worldbuilding. Now let's talk about why such perfectionism can make it very difficult to write good fiction.

While reading Bernard Knox's fascinating introduction to the Fagles translation of the Oedipus plays, I came across the following quote:

“If through no fault of his own the hero is crushed by a bulldozer in Act II, we are not impressed. Even though life is often like this—the absconding cashier on his way to Nicaragua is killed in a collision at the airport, the prominent statesman dies of a stroke in the midst of the negotiations he has spent years to bring about, the young lovers are drowned in a boating accident the day before their marriage—such events, the warp and woof of everyday life, seem irrelevant, meaningless . . . it is the function of great art to purge and give meaning to human suffering, and so we expect that if the hero is indeed crushed by a bulldozer in Act II there will be some reason for it, and not just some reason but a good one, one which makes sense in terms of the hero’s personality and action. In fact, we expect to be shown that he is in some way responsible for what happens to him.”

A quote which quite aptly sums up much of what I think is wrong with the modern realism movement, and particularly, the motivations behind 'gritty' fantasy.

Za Warudo
Back when I was reading A Game of Thrones years ago, I was struck with the sense that this was precisely how Martin creates his plots: he knows that, this being a story, we expect that the people the story is about will be somehow important, and that they will do interesting things. More than that, we expect that Martin created them for some purpose, and for all of the plot and character arcs the author opens up, we expect them to be closed in some satisfactory manner. To deal with your own themes and create meaningful story arcs is the crux of good writing.

Yet he would just kill characters off, will-he-nil-he, in the name of 'realism', despite the fact that he was, in fact, creating a work of fiction. Certainly, many people find the unpredictability surprising, but if your art is only as unpredictable inasmuch as it undermines its own story, I'm not sure I would consider that a 'success'. It's like a playwright trying to write a shocking mystery and, coming to the big twist, writes 'at this point stage manager pours glass of water down audience's back'. Yes, it would be surprising but no, it would not make for a cleverly-written play. Simply betraying audience expectation is not enough--one must do so without making the story pointless as a result.

Many authors out there seem to think that by just copying the form of reality, obsessively adding every detail and aside, randomly killing off characters, and filling their stories with death and sexual assault just because those things happen to exist will automatically make their story better. Yet works of fiction are always artificial, and treating them as if they were real will only make it clearer just how artificial they are.

From A Set by Duchamp
Symbols are not meant to be wholly realistic, but to be recognizable representations, and so, when we cant to create a symbol, we must remember what we are at. Despite being tiny and wooden and legless, a knight piece from chess is a recognizable symbol for a horse, and gluing a tiny furred pelt onto it or giving it legs does not make any more representative of a horse. Speaking in a 'realistic' volume on stage does not make the audience believe the play is more real--it will only make the artificiality more apparent.

Fiction is inherently symbolic, and not even in the 'this character represents the struggle for knowledge' way, but in the 'this character represents a human being' way. There is no reason to go around gluing furred pelts on our characters, they are already artificial, already fictional and symbolic, and that's something we should take advantage of, as authors.

If a death does not have some narrative purpose, then why put it in? If a character is not important to the scene, why include them? Every author chooses what words, characters, and events to include in their story, so to add extraneous elements in the name of 'realism' is folly. When an author starts talking about their world-building, magic systems, genealogies, languages, or other pet hobbies, he is no longer writing a story, he is making a word-find.

It's true that perfectionism can be of great use--the need to constantly revise and redraft, to hunt out the most minuscule errors and correct them can be invaluable--but the best place to exercise this urge is not the realm of fiction. In history, philosophy, and the sciences, it is truly worthwhile to research and reconsider a single fact until it is precisely correct, since it directly impacts the understanding of those who follow. Knowing such facts for certain in a historical or scientific context can tell you the year an event took place, the influence of another culture at the time, and such a brief fact might impact several fields of study.

Yet in fiction, the phase of the moon on a particular night, the specific subspecies of tulip in the sultan's garden, and the make and style of a dwarf's musical instruments are not important facts, in and of themselves, because they will be whatever the author says they are. If an author already has a wealth of knowledge and can add details seamlessly in a way that adds to the tone without distracting from the pacing or purpose of the story then certainly, include them--but adding a bunch of unnecessary details to something you made up is not going to make your cliche story any better.

Gillray's Caricatures of Pitt and Napoleon
Such attention to detail was vital for Tolkien as a student of myth, of language, of history, but extraneous to his creation of fiction. Any writer who has an obsession with precision and realism would be well-served in researching and composing works of history, but turning these same talents to fiction is folly, because 'realistic fiction' is a contradiction in terms. Fiction is artificial. Certainly, there are verisimilitude and believability, but these are achieved not by copying history, but by taking advantage of the biased way the human mind processes, and tricking it into thinking of the story as real.

Caricature artists do not draw people as they actually appear, but as the human brain conceptualizes them. They do not achieve likeness by imitating how the world works, but how the mind perceives. It is not a likeness but a collection of cues. After all, why else, despite the oversized features, the grotesqueries, do we still have no trouble in recognizing them? Take a child's stick figure and compare it to the social focus we put om different of parts of the body (or to the concentration of nerves on the skin), it will be seen that it is an apt representation both of social and cognitive experience, if not the classic ratios of art.

Sensory Homonculus
A fiction author must pull a similar trick: the real world is full of unbelievable coincidence, but a story full of the same will not seem realistic; real, human speech is so convoluted, repetitive, and reliant on nuance that the faithful transcript read in court sounds not like real dialogue, but lame-brained nonsense. Yet, if you put a couple of 'uhs' in a character's statement, they will read as awkward and hesitant, despite the fact that the average real person might 'uh' (or 'em') in nearly every sentence.

If we stop and think about it, it's really quite amazing that this type of shorthand makes sense to us at all. We do not have to recreate an entire face, or every branch of a tree, or use the proper colors or scale, because that isn't how the brain actually sees the world. All we have to do is give the brain the cues it recognizes and suddenly, a triangle atop a square is a recognizable house, a stick with a ball on top is a tree, and a circle with lines in it is a smiling face.

Wide vs. Tilt-Shift by Chris Crumley
And we can do much more than that, we can play with shape and color, or with words and sounds and ideas, and develop depth, tone, and meaning, at every moment we distort and modify--art is not concerned with recreating the image of the world, but producing human images. Even in the case of photography, the frame, the tilt, the lens, and the exposure can be modified to create drastically different views of the world, which might seem real, but which never existed: images carefully and deliberately modified into a form less real, but much more human. If anyone tells you that photography is a lesser art than painting, they simply know nothing about how a photograph is produced, long before photoshop even entered the scene.

An author can skip months or years of time, ignore the details of a room, create impossibilities, even move backward from the future to the past over the course of their narrative--yet still, they will not lose their audience. They can be surreal in the original sense: super-real (not 'unreal'), taking realistic, transferable experiences and combining them in ways that are impossible in reality, but which still make sense in the conceptual world of the mind. The whole point of Dali's famous Persistence of Memory is not to confuse us with something nonsensical, but to combine real sensations in a way that we intuitively comprehend even though they are impossible. Divorced from our real experiences with clocks and melting, the piece has no meaning--but with that understanding intact, it invites us to think about the qualities and limitations of human sensation as it actually plays out in the physical world, and in the mind.

 

This is why, to me, it makes no sense for an author of fiction to entertain this kind of obsession with 'reality'. In a story, the author can make us fear a dragon, afraid that it might hurt the hero, despite the fact that no dragon has ever existed. To give the dragon a sense of realism does not mean revealing that it was a puppet the whole time, since dragons do not exist, but writing it so that it makes sense in the context of the story and serves the fictional narrative.

Magritte - The Treachery of Images
For mathematicians, historians, biologists, and all manner of other specializations, certainly it's a healthy urge, and I'd suggest these fields for anyone who wants to spend their time agonizing over a few dates or details for decades at a time. But to try to make fiction real is not only impossible, but a fundamental contradiction in terms, and a misunderstanding of what 'reality' means to our perceptions. Fiction works not because it is real, but because it is human. To try to pretend that it is real, or force it to be real, is to miss the point entirely.

But just as there are some people who read to escape, who would rather inhabit a false world than think about what is around them, so too some authors look for a facile evasion. Instead of doing the difficult thing and accepting their own work, flaws and all, and engaging with the world, they draw back and labor ad nauseam on a perfect creation that will never have to exist anywhere outside their own mind; but it is only an escape into pretense, into a loophole which has no bearing either on the reality of the world or upon the nature of the human experience, and hence, fails to address either science or art.

If a work neither explores the cogito ergo sum consciousness of Descartes, nor the apparent reality without, all that is left is narcissism: for the author, that of the monomaniac, and for the reader, that of the comforting mob.

10 comments:

  1. From interviews I've read with George RR Martin and Joe Abercrombie, the most prominent authors of gritty fantasy these days, they are genuinely more interested in history than in fantasy. Their writing is informed more by medieval and military history, than it is by traditional fantasy fiction.

    So, why don't they simply write historical fiction? Because fantasy gives them the latitude to break away the confines of history. They can ramp up the horrors even more, include outrageous plot devices and exaggerated characters. And, perhaps most importantly, there's a far bigger audience for fantasy these days than for historical fiction.

    The other question is why has this gritty, realistic approach proven so popular with readers? Because today's fiction audience is almost wholly ignorant of history. The notion that war is filthy, characters can die capriciously, and there's often shades of grey in a life-or-death struggle is a revelation. Reality - or rather the most lurid and shocking aspects of reality - is a tremendous novelty to today's jaded fiction audience. And this novelty (along with the explicit gore and sex) accounts for much of the popularity of this style of fiction.

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    1. 'Their writing is informed more by medieval and military history, than it is by traditional fantasy fiction'

      If you know more about the Middle Ages and military history than you do about traditional fantasy fiction, then it doesn't sound too wise to write a thousand pages on the latter, no? Wouldn't you attempt to gain some sound knowledge on the genre you are attempting to write before trying to replicate, or innovate it?

      It's no use trying to tackle something whiles in the dark, hoping that you'll make a hit, when you could have spent some time learning how to put the light on to ensure that you'll never miss.

      I haven't read Martin, and I don't think I'll ever find the time to, but from what I understand, the writer is essentially using tools that are better suited for a specific genre, on another genre, and it is considered a "novelty". A Fictional settings, with fictional characters, were gore and sex ("reality") happens...I never would have come up with that.

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    2. Rob said: "today's fiction audience is almost wholly ignorant of history. The notion that war is filthy, characters can die capriciously, and there's often shades of grey in a life-or-death struggle is a revelation."

      Yeah, in most cases it does seem to come down to readers who just don't have a lot of experience, be it with fantasy or history. I've had people tell me that Robert E. Howard, Dunsany, Moorcock, and Fritz Leiber are 'obscure'--so it's hardly surprising that with such a limited purview, Martin stands out for them. As for me, having read Tacitus, Martin's little melodrama definitely doesn't strike me as having much in the way of pathos or tragedy.

      William said: "If you know more about the Middle Ages and military history than you do about traditional fantasy fiction, then it doesn't sound too wise to write a thousand pages on the latter, no?"

      Eh, for all his claims, I'm not convinced Martin actually has a very good grasp of history, for as modern as his character psychology and political conflict are. I certainly never got a sense of 'culture shock' reading his books, like I do when I read a history (or some well-written fantasy).

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    3. I certainly never got a sense of 'culture shock' reading his books, like I do when I read a history (or some well-written fantasy).

      Well that's too bad then isn't it? Hmm, I've got Tacitus at home, and I'm sure I'll read him long before Martin, if ever I read Martin. But then again, it does appear that you are a man that is hard to please Keely, and then again, maybe it is because the mob has just got poor taste, right? Haha.

      Keep up with this blog. It's very inspiring.

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    4. Thanks, I'm glad you're enjoying it. I'll do my best to keep posting.

      I don't know that I'm hard to please: there are loads of books that really pleased me, and even more that pleased me at least a bit. But would the average book, grabbed at random from the pile please me? Probably not. But then, as Sturgeon's Law says: the vast majority of stuff out there is crap. We're just lucky that there's so much out there that we could spend our whole lives taking in art, music, and literature and still not exhaust the top 1%.

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  2. I'm curious, what do you think of the "realism" movement in literature, in general? Is it a silly pursuit? I'm remembering the last time I read Kafka's "The Trial", and how he detailed each characters movements are, both before and in reaction to the speech of others -- and it's all so smooth, even in its translated, adverb-heavy form.

    I think you're right about: "If an author already has a wealth of knowledge and can add details seamlessly in a way that adds to the tone without distracting from the pacing or purpose of the story then certainly, include them--but adding a bunch of unnecessary details to something you made up is not going to make your cliche story any better."

    Martin's prose in particular is cumbersome and unwieldy because, if not for a lack of practiced skill, his urge to jam factoids in every sentence lest they go unmentioned and remain stuck in his lonely skull.

    Also I think Tolkien's world-building had as much to do with his love of history as it did his fragile mental state after the great war.

    Great article. Please keep making more. I'm just now starting to read through them and am finding it all very informative! :)

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    1. yikes, buncha typos. sorry. shouldn't've done this on my phone

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    2. "what do you think of the "realism" movement in literature, in general? Is it a silly pursuit?"

      No, because despite its name, it is not intent on being 'realistic'--indeed, it is highly focused, carefully constructed, and symbolic. Authors like Chekhov and Kafka do precisely what I talk about in this article: they use shortcuts, taking advantage of the way the brain thinks of reality, rather than actually painstakingly recreating it in bits and pieces.

      "Martin's prose in particular is cumbersome and unwieldy ... his urge to jam factoids in"

      Yeah, definitely--as William J. Jarvis put it, “Worldbuilding: the accretion of inert details – doublets and barding, falchions and lyres – where fiction should be gravid with molecular intensities. As if writers of epic fantasy were all frustrated antique dealers.”

      "Also I think Tolkien's world-building had as much to do with his love of history"

      Well, yeah--that's specifically one of the arguments I make in this post: "attention to detail was vital for Tolkien as a student of myth, of language, of history, but extraneous to his creation of fiction. Any writer who has an obsession with precision and realism would be well-served in researching and composing works of history, but turning these same talents to fiction is folly".

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  3. People are overlooking Tolkien's tuning of words for musical effect. Not really a technique widely available, though Joyce and then Browning, introducing sound.
    Tolkien made new notes better than everyone else.
    Also, his myth is based on German archeaology, very advanced at that time on the Steppe...until the Iron Curtain closed and the Russians finished the work.
    Which then appeared after the 1970's.
    The movement west, once can just mentions the Alans. Probably nails it and entrance.

    I dont read Fantasy, well, I read English Lit, and Dunsany...whatever...rpgs...Gygax!
    Talk about world building for SOCIAL interaction, rather private interaction.
    Sounds like Martin is Maestro of the Colosseum.
    Is there not some Meme ranking the deaths?
    http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/box-seat/top-16-deaths-in-game-of-thrones-20140617-zsap7.html

    I find a strong flair for the dramatic, in the medieval Historian Costain.
    Why read Game of Thrones...unless they want me to do a exhibition of the table top rpg.

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    1. "People are overlooking Tolkien's tuning of words for musical effect."

      I fear I find myself in Moorcock's camp, agreeing that Tolkien's voice is condescending and silly without geniune levity, epic without stakes, dramatic without pathos.

      "his myth is based on German archeaology, very advanced at that time"

      Yes, Tolkien's entire approach and lifestyle is drawn from the tradition of the German academic that dominated European intellectual culture through the 19th Century. Indeed, he was a philologist, their most prized class of scholar.

      But, as Said pointed out in Orientalism, for as much good as that Germanic academy did, for as much knowledge as it collected, and for all the theories it produced, it was still a cog in the colonial machine, working hard to justify European prejudices and political aims through linguistics, biology, and anthropology--whence eugenics, whence 'scientific racism'.

      And Tolkien really does stay true to that message, a half century after its very visible death on the world stage--his orcs all inferior and amoral by blood, by cranial measure, by their situation in the South and East. On class, on religion, on gender roles, on racism, on nationalism, on technophobia, LOTR is right out of the Victorian academic regime.

      "Gygax!"

      I'm an Arneson man, myself--I see the game as collaborative, not competitive.

      "I find a strong flair for the dramatic, in the medieval Historian Costain."

      A very fair point--there's nothing preventing a historian from telling a dramatic tale, even as they delve into real facts and figures--there is no shortage of such fascinating stories out there to be collected and written up, after all.

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