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.
Instead, 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 plot twist. 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 in life will somehow make their story feel more real. 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|
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 going on about their world-building, magic systems, genealogies, languages, science gadgets, 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. A small archaeological detail 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|
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 on 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.
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|
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 everyday, familiar 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|
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 another kind of 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.
Up next, Worldbuilding: Bakker vs. Harrison