Fantasy and Reality

Tracy Hickman, a writer I greatly admire, wrote an interesting blog the other day about the new TV series Once Upon a Time. He gave a brief synopsis of the story that went like this: “It is about an Evil Queen in a fantasy world filled with fairytale characters all of whom she curses with the most terrible of magical spells … condemning them to live their lives in our reality and not remembering their true, better selves.”

That resonated with me because what are we if not magical creatures living in this reality and unaware of, and not remembering our true, better selves?

Tracy Hickman related it to writing and how some people want to write the ideal, and some people want to write the reality. I tend to dabble a little in both–taking a character through the reality so they can reach the destination of the ideal.

In the national market I get some eye-rolling because they say I am naive, or that I’m too idealistic. They tell me I’m wrong because that isn’t reality. Reality is the evil of the world. Reality is the hard times, the persecution, the abuse, the hopelessness, the cutting, the suicide, the hate crimes. I write for the teen market–where it’s popular to write about gritty “realistic” details. Many of my contemporaries focus on the drugs, sex, violence. And they applaud each other for being so brave as to write reality. Sometimes it feels lonely writing the positive sides of youth–the sides where they get the chance to become, or to at least glimpse, their better selves

But Tracy’s post made me think. What if they’ve got it all wrong?  What if the ideal is the reality? I believe in the pre-existence. I believe in a post mortal existence. I believe I am in an interim–and in the grand spectrum of things, it’s a relatively short interim. So will I call this short eye-blink existence that is sometimes hard, sometimes cause for despair, my reality? And will I write from only that narrow short-sighted perspective? Or will I write the grand scheme reality–the place where people have the chances to ultimately be their better selves?

In this Thanksgiving season, I am thankful for the positive things. The things that are beautiful, that shine with potential, that glimmer with that memory of our better selves. And as we move on to Christmas, I will enjoy watching as people strive to be their better selves for the holiday. It’s a good time of year–a great time to remember that reality is exactly what we think it is.


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3 Responses to Fantasy and Reality

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Stories have to have some realism to them or they aren’t relevant to our lives. However, that realism can come in a variety of different areas: realistic characterization, settings, real-life consequences to actions, etc.

    Similarly, stories have to have some fantasy to them or there’s no point in telling them. The very craft that we put into stories is evidence that they *aren’t* simply a slice of life, but rather fictions that vary in deliberate ways from everyday life. Why not create characters that are in some ways better than most people, or that hold up ideals of how things *can* be? Even sitcom characters are typically cleverer than most of us in generating one-liners and comebacks. And storylines are more or less by definition simpler and less complex than any given slice of real life could possibly be, representing a kind of Aristotelian ideal of unified action. The question lies in where we put the fantasy and what its impact is.

    Back when I was a graduate student, trying to develop a theoretical framework for my (never-written) dissertation, I read a book by Kathryn Hume titled Fantasy and Mimesis in which she argued that fantasy was the meaning-bearing element in fiction, and then went on to analyze how the balance of fantasy and realistic elements works in a variety of genres. The book itself was kind of boring, but I found the basic premise fascinating — and compelling. The notion of a fantasy that uncovers underlying truths about who we really are, beneath the mask of mortality, is one that after all has a great deal of power for us as Mormons. Certainly there’s a place for fiction that reminds us of that truth.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      Genre writer David Farland talks about the idea of relevance (strict accuracy to the [current] real) in his workshop on writing a bestseller, and introduces the idea that are three key areas of relevance—time, place, situation. He argues that the most popular stories are real for a maximum of two of those three areas (and a minimum of 1.5), precisely because too much realism locks readers into a very small and potentially unacceptably uncomfortable box. Likewise, an insufficiency of relevance provides no emotional draw to hold the reader’s interest and attention. The effect in either case is that the reader puts this book (and presumably future books by the same author) down, never to return.

      His core idea is that readers need an out from the story—especially if it’s a particularly difficult or painful story—so that they can gain safe distance and consider the story intellectually as well as emotionally. If the story is too real (aka, the details are too relevant in time, place, and situation), that separation becomes increasingly difficult, and the emotional stress takes too high a toll on the reader, with the result that the reader walks away from the story.

      This says nothing about the value of the story, only about its potential popularity. Too much (or too little) relevance limits readership.

      Genre writers start from this assumption that at least one key area of the story will be irrelevant. For sf it’s usually time (and often place). For romance it can be either time or place. Absurdism changes the situation (and sometimes place; think Swift). Thrillers work with semi-relevant situations in exotic places (anything by Dan Brown). That says nothing about the internal realism of any single detail—only that the overall story provides sufficient irrelevancy that the reader can separate enough to be informed without being traumatized.

      That’s one of the challenges of stories set here, now, and with realistic problems—too much relevance. The common workaround is to make the characters just quirky enough (irrelevant enough) to create a sliver of separation; exaggerate the very real into a sufficiently stylized eccentricity to be symbolic rather than strictly realistic.

      Which is an interesting advantage of explicitly LDS stories. For non-LDS readers that irrelevance of setting (or situation) creates safe distance that may not be created for LDS readers. Traditionally, we’ve gone for the exaggerated character to create distance for ourselves at the expense of communicating a caricature of our culture to those who many not know better—more than enough truthiness to resonate with both audiences.

      This dovetails with one of my own taxonomies for fiction—stories about what we think is true (strict realism), versus what we wish was true (utopian or constructive fantasy), versus what we fear might be true (dystopian or destructive fantasy, horror). I think we’ve been packaging our fear of what might be true as if it were strict realism, and I think we do ourselves a great disservice. We’ve made the irrelevancy of situation thin enough that many readers don’t detect the separation and take the grit as documentary rather than (at least marginally) exaggerated.

      Nothing wrong with that, but it is nice to see the hopeful/constructive fantasy now and again. One can acknowledge ugly truth as a given while still offering a better view—not because we’re naive, but because we believe in the power of individual people to remake their world as better than it currently is.

  2. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Julie, I appreciate your sentiments here. Ages ago, when a student at BYU, I remember hearing my contemporaries complain that BYU was too sheltered and that they longed to get back to the “real world.” Well, I was a convert and the “real world” they referred to was literally the world I came from. I had a great family, but members in it had very real world problems. Heck, my brother had a marijuana “farm” in our basement. I had no desire for this real world and, if what I was being taught by my religion was true, it struck me that the life I was living as a BYU student, striving to live the gospel, was more real than any life they were referring to. “Real,” it seemed to me, is what lasts. Right living stretches on to the eternities, is progressive and regenerative. So while I haven’t an issue with gritty in fiction, I’m grateful for the options. And as a teenage convert, I especially appreciated those who wrote about the good life I was choosing.

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