The Uncanny in Fantasy

Man. So, last week’s piece? That was a monster, huh? Seriously, I don’t know how many pages that was. And you know what? I don’t want to know. It’s been a week and I’m still pretty drained from all of that Milestone business. So when I tried to decide on a topic for this week, I was all, “Let’s do something light. Let’s just have a good time… Oh, I know! Let’s talk about the concept of the uncanny in Fantasy!”

Yeah. Cause, ya know, my brain’s an asshole. I tried to think of another topic that I’d rather write about, but my brain refused to even consider anything else. So here we are!

Again, and as always, I have to stress that I’m not yet published and these are just observations I’m making about a genre I love and write on a daily basis. So take from this what you wish with the knowledge that I don’t claim any expertise here. This blog is therapeutic for me and at best, let’s hope it’s thought-provoking for you. In particular, this post is just a collection of thoughts that aren’t meant to provide anyone with anything more than food for thought.

The Uncanny Problem: Not Too Close …

So, let’s say you’re reading a fantasy novel. And you get to a scene where a wizard and a warrior…

… Wait. Dial that back.

A wizard and a warrior walk into a bar. The wizard goes and does magic somewhere–he’s not important (and yet, I put him in?)–and the warrior goes to the bar and orders a whiskey.

How does that feel? Did that immediately stop you–the fact that the warrior ordered whiskey? Does something seem a little… off about that?

Let’s dial that back again.

A wizard and a warrior walk into a bar. The wizard starts dry heaving immediately (because that’s just what came to mind) and the warrior shrugs (?), goes to the bar, and orders a Mike’s Hard.

Okay. That seriously must’ve stopped you. Why?

Because Mike’s Hard shouldn’t exist in this world. Why the hell would there be Mike’s Hard Lemonade?

Well, that’s what I’m talking about here today; that is, according to me, the Uncanny Problem in fantasy. In short, some kinds of fantasy (i.e. not urban, superhero, or anything else that takes place on Earth or a modern-Earth analogue) absolutely cannot introduce elements that are too close to things we have, in reality, right now or even things that are popular right now. That warrior cannot order a hard lemonade because it’s something we have right now that’s popular enough to stick out in our minds as “recent”; t’s just too current (even if it’s not). Really, the whiskey’s also too current, and seeing it immediately ties what we’re reading way, way too closely to reality. Maybe someone could argue around that–maybe someone could make a point that this is the best pub in all of… PublishSaveDraft Town (thanks, WordPress–they’ll never know the difference)–but that person would then be taking time out of their story to explain why the characters have hard lemonade.

I’m a firm believer that you could make a lot of things work if presented in the right way (just trying “sourmash” for example, instead of “hard lemonade”–or even presenting Mike’s Hard in a weird fantasy story that includes lots of modern trappings as part of its theme), but it’s incredibly easy to accidentally include elements that are too “Earth-modern” (we’ll say) in your own fantasy writing. In short, it’s incredibly easy to use the uncanny by mistake and incredibly difficult to use it on purpose.

For example, someone might put a confession booth in a fantasy world church without thinking about it, because, hey, confession booths are things that are in churches, right? But what if the society that built the church is a race of deep elves, let’s say? What if for the majority of your story, you illustrate that these elves aren’t keen on apologizing and often take opportunities that will further their goals out of principle, with no remorse? Would this society actually have confessionals in their churches? Or would churches be something practical that they use for other purposes? Would worship even be the same for this race? Do you, as a writer, feel like you have to justify these elves having confessionals for it to make sense? Is there a chance you’re just trying to justify these confessionals because they’re what you expect to be there–possibly because they’re familiar? And, maybe, easier? The answer to all of these questions probably isn’t clear immediately, but your best possible response whenever you encounter them in your own writing is always, “I should really think about that.”

It’s a slippery slope. Especially because fantasy also can’t go too far away from what inherently makes sense to us… as humans.

The… Other Uncanny Problem: Not Too Far

Okay. Just… Just try this on for size.

A blorfenlaz magic soul and a sentient… (fuck)… metal (fuck it) phase through the flesh wall of a jenmursian. The sentient metal slides through… the… the membrane–

Look, whatever. You get it. What does any of that mean? How does any of that make sense? It doesn’t. Because none of what I was thinking relates to you, as a human, at all. You’re already lost and I didn’t even get to the part where that sentient metal orders a Mike’s Hard.

Because as much as it is fantasy’s job to challenge reality, the genre also can’t stretch too far away from it. Why? Because we’re human, writing and reading human stories. I do believe the genre can push past this inhuman point, but eventually, you pass into sci-fi… or into something else that we as humans just inherently wouldn’t want to read. I’d love to see that envelope pushed as far as it could go, but that’s mostly because I’m really unsuew how far someone could take it.

I think the best anti-uncanny pushing I’ve ever read comes courtesy of Brandon Sanderson. In a lot of his writing, he pushes the boundaries of what we consider normal. But even then, those otherworldly details are tied to concepts we understand. The best example that I can think of are kandra in the Mistborn series. If you haven’t read it, I’ll just say that kandra are not like human beings; they’re an incredibly original, bizarre race that’s really fascinating. But, as a reader, they’re easier to accept because they prefer to present themselves as humanoids–and even beyond physical presentation, kandra think like humans. Even if this was not an intentional decision on Sanderson’s part (I’m not comfortable with making one assumption or another about any writer’s intentions here), the point is that the need to have inhuman things presented as humanoid is as much a facet of fantasy as the need to not have elements be too modern. It’s why orcs and atronachs and countless other races, no matter how weird, are still almost always “humanoids.” It’s why a fairy realm, no matter how bizarre, still has castles (or, if not, still has homes or dens or any kind of dwelling the faeries call their own). It’s why even if there’s not Mike’s Hard (and really, there better not be), there’s still–always–ale.

In short, there’s a weird balance between what’s absolutely not okay to put in a fantasy world and what’s not okay to omit.

Disciple or… Student?

It’s a weird divide. And one I have struggled with because it’s the kind of issue that can pop up for nearly any detail during your world-building. There will inevitably be the point where you think, “Well… should these forest people have bread?” and “Wait… how likely is it this other race would have large wings?”

The answer here is a resounding, “Do research.” But even after research–and on humbler issues, like the naming of a drink in a tavern–the question becomes, “What do I call this thing?”

And that’s when you have to work the uncanny scales and decide. Is your initial concept unrealistic in relation to your fantasy world? Then dial it forward or backward on the Uncanny scale until either you get something that’s both human enough and otherworldly enough to work (keeping in mind that unless you’re making a story about, say, half-orc vampire squid, it’ll probably be [inherently] easy to keep things human enough). In my experience, even just working that dial on one concept–like “student”–will eventually result in a word that might change your concept of a character or world element (in my case, I recently worked the scales on the word “demigod” and wound up with a different concept that changed the way religion works in one of my worlds).

~

Well, I think I’ll call it quits there. Thanks for reading and, as always, I hope you enjoyed the rant.

On Reaching the Creative Writing Milestones

Earlier this week, I popped open an email from a friend. She’s an aspiring author like me, and like me, she has her strengths and her weaknesses as a writer. In particular, she does really amazing research; I definitely search for a quick answer or example for an element I want to use, get it and stop reading if I can work with what I found, but she learns all that she can about a topic, records relevant details, makes an educated decision about what she’s going with and why (and then records those reasons as well, I believe).

Anyway, I’m reading her email and spot something that comes up off-hand; she’s actually written a bit–her words (well, tone [whatever]), not mine. She only spared a sentence for this bit of information, but I smiled. Not in a douchy way, but because, in my mind, she hit the third Creative Writing Milestone (or Waypoint? [Tier? Tier! That works… No it doesn’t (not Event [not Phenomenon (not Happening [Got it! Yes!… Milestone!])])]). And just knowing that–seeing where she was in my concept of the writing process–made me want to tell anyone about that concept. So here we are!

Before I go on, I should caution you that they aren’t a defined thing supported by research; they’re the product of my observations and opinions as an aspiring writer and, as with nearly everything on this site, they’re flavored with an implied “fantasy” before every instance of “writing” and “fiction” (whatever application you can take from them as a general fiction writer, for example, is completely up to you).

That said, in my mind, there are Milestones that every aspiring writer experiences. Each of them is an event (phenomenon, or happening) that–while not all difficult–are still steps we have to surmount and experiences we need to have for better or worse. They are events that I believe we all experience, although their prominence in our lives is different for each of us. I should add that if you get nothing from this, you’ll at least have a pretty clear idea of my growth as a writer.

Anyway, enough foreplay.

The First Milestone – The Realization

You realize that you want to tell stories. Specifically fiction. You aren’t sure what or how, but you want to entertain people. Perhaps you’ve read something and enjoyed it so much that you wanted to try doing the same. Or you experienced a story in a different medium that you enjoyed but that you knew could’ve been better, and now you want to figure out how by writing the story you expected. No matter how you came to realize that you want to write, the point is, you know now and it starts to color how you see everything.

However, for a while, there’s only guess work. You fumble with a few ideas as you try to decide what stories you want to tell, but these ideas may never fully take. Eventually, you may either forget these ideas or remember them fondly regardless of your choice (I hope you remember them fondly). At the very least though, you find characters and story elements that you really like during this time, and often carry them with you afterwards, growing with them and eventually finding their stories if you can.

For me, the Realization only came in full after I did two separate things: played Lunar: The Silver Star for the first time and watched Jurassic Park for the first time. I do fondly remember the characters that I found in those days, but I’m not the person to tell many of their stories (although I brought many of them with me, I could not bring them all; oddly enough, one of my current characters is actually named after one of my First Milestone characters who I had to leave behind [because he was literally just the stereotypical noble knight]).

I haven’t met many people who come to this point and don’t continue–this time for a writer is usually exciting, I think, so there’s an uncontrolled, unplanned, and potentially accidental progression to the next Milestone.

The Second Milestone – The Concept

After trying a few ideas, you experience your very first, oddly cartoonish epiphany; there’s a really good chance that somewhere in your timeline, a young you actually stopped what he/she was doing, jumped up with eyes wide and said, “That’s it!”

After the epiphany, everything happens very, very quickly. You start to create a world based on that single, brilliant idea–an idea which can be anything from a particular setting to a social element in your world. It could be the origin for a character or even just the reason why they wear an iconic piece of clothing.

For me, it was a single social detail about a world that I didn’t know otherwise. I thought the element was amazing, and, in my memory, it was immediately followed by countless details about that world and the realization that two of the characters who I’d been drawing for the past year were key players in its story.

Now, the important thing to realize here is that the Concept can be absolutely addictive. It can go on for ages and can ultimately swallow a writer whole. It’s beautiful, pure creativity, but it requires a lot of work that most of us give willingly, which is part of the problem. For my part, I spent at least ten years of my youth creating new ideas for the one fantasy series. In retrospect, it would’ve been a terrible idea for me to start writing that series in high school, but regardless, the point is that I just kept building that world. And when it got too big, I didn’t stop–I remember having countless files on my computer that conflicted with each other (we’re talking about conflicting world timelines). When I realized this, I tried to prune it all down, but in my excitement, I just created more details and piled them on. Ultimately, I never started that first series in part because it’s still an incredible tangle of concepts that I know I can’t use and won’t do justice to until I’ve had experience actually writing and being published. The point is, however, it’s incredibly easy to burn out from all of this; in my experience, in fact, this is the point where many of us ultimately give up. We carefully and meticulously build worlds and then life happens and for whatever reason we forget or we let go. Either way, very few of us actually move on to the next Milestone.

The Third Milestone – Actually Starting

I don’t want to say that anyone who hasn’t made it to this point isn’t a writer–I believe that anyone who meticulously and lovingly builds a world is someone who wants to write.

However, there is ultimately a huge difference between building that world and actually writing a story in it. Put simply, no matter how much you love your world and your characters, no one will ever find out about them until you start putting pen to paper. Actually doing it–actually starting to tell your story–is one of the most important things you can do. Because, to vastly understate a fact, it’s the hard part. This is the point where you challenge yourself to do this thing you’ve wanted to do for years but were afraid of. This is where you actually try to give these characters you love their voices.

And if you’re anything like me, this is where you suddenly realize that among all of the elements you created, all of the tense dialogue you outlined between characters and all of the plot events you lovingly polished until they were all shiny with epicness, the one thing you didn’t actually do was write out a full, detailed, logical plot that your stories follow. There is a first scene or a first chapter that you work through, but you eventually get tired and stop because you find that there’s no chapter 2 outlined anywhere in all of those notes.

It’s important to say here that this Milestone isn’t all failure though–it’s a victory. You’ve actually started to write and that’s awesome. However, it’s another, strong opportunity for an aspiring writer to stop. Suddenly things don’t work and, at best, you struggle to make them work. You start to let go of some projects while focusing instead on the best you have because you start to realize that what you considered a collection of awesome stories is actually just a group of ideas that require execution to be completed (and enough logic to be executed).

But at the same time, the experiences that come with this Milestone are synonymous with actual, successful writing, and for some of us, the entire process can stop here. Over the years, you can figure out everything about a story, finish a novel, get published, continue writing, and be happy. But again, that’s for some of us.

For the rest of us… there’s the Fourth Milestone.

The Fourth Milestone – Realizing that Everything You’ve Been Writing Is Complete Shit: The Reckoning

<sigh> So… every Milestone is important. But for a lot of us, this is the final, terrible hurdle. Like I said, not everyone experiences this one.

But for the majority of us, there comes a reckoning. It will have been coming for years, and when it finally hits, you’ll melodramatically realize, “I always knew.” It may come out of nowhere or it may come from finally and honestly trying to accept harsh criticism you’ve received for a sample you sent out. Regardless, it is, officially, the point at which criticism stops being inherently harsh in your mind. Not because you’re suddenly zen, but maybe because your third eye opened, and through it you realized that when someone said they didn’t like x and y about the excerpt you sent them, it wasn’t because they were assholes (unless they were actually assholes about it)–it’s because your excerpt actually sucked. And why? Because when the Third Milestone came, you realized that “things don’t work,” you spent the last few years struggling to “make them work.” And in the process of trying to force things to make sense, you took shortcuts and made tenuous, odd ties between conflicting elements. You held onto original concepts you liked (i.e. the magic flute that lets the one character talk to animals) even though they no longer worked with newer, more logical angles you created (i.e. it’s silly how unnaturally useful this flute is). Put simply, your brain and your heart have been fighting on paper and you stepped in to force a settlement between them. And that torn up battle ground? That story that doesn’t make the sense you thought it did? That’s what you’ve spent the last few years writing.

You were too close–that old creative writing adage you’ve heard and used so many times without actually knowing what it meant. In short, the answer was never “make the magic flute less useful.” The answer was, “You honestly think this fucking magic flute is stupid, just like everyone else. Why aren’t you seeing that? Why are you so afraid to delete that stupid flute?”

But, it doesn’t matter. As harsh as all of this is, the point is that you realized you were too close. You finally saw what you were doing and you stepped back and honestly reevaluated your writing. You actually took the criticism and looked at it instead of just glossing it over and telling your friends, “Thanks. I’ll definitely keep this in mind.”

Now, I’m probably biased because I just got to this Milestone a few years ago, but I cannot help thinking that it’s something every writer should look out for. If you’ve been writing for a while now and you love what you write to the extent that you’re sure everyone’s opinions about your work are wrong, you need to stop and very openly and honestly reevaluate yourself as a writer. If you have friends who have told you that your work is great but you have a hard time tying scenes, character motivations and plot events together in a simple, logical, and compelling way, then–as harsh as it sounds–you need to consider that your friends are being nice and that your story / characters / writing in general is missing something.

Something, by the way, that you can absolutely provide. At this point, you will have already worked on your craft for years, and despite how bad this sounds, this is not a reckoning that you won’t understand. When you get here, you’ll realize you’ve been ignoring issues with your writing for ages. Whether it’s because you’ve heard it from others or because you’ve made excuses for clear plot holes, you’ll know what’s wrong.

But when you get to this point, you’ll have found a solution. And maybe it won’t be clear (maybe you’ll have to figure out exactly what you need to change about your writing to produce quality stories), but finding this solution–admitting that you can always improve as a writer and that you always need to try harder–is synonymous with producing quality writing. If you reach this Milestone, you haven’t been defeated. For lack of a more melodramatic phrase, you’ve been set free.

~

Well, that was an incredibly long post. If you read through, I hope you enjoyed and got something out of this. Either way, thanks for reading.

A Year Later

So I was on the bus with Chaos Mechanica last week after seeing The HughJackverine. It had been about two years since I’d last seen him (Mechanica, not HughJackverine), and talk eventually turned to work. Our days after Infinite Ammo have seen him get a position with Dual Shockers, a gaming website. And they’ve seen me…

… Well, definitely fail to finish writing my book in the time constraints I originally gave myself with Brand New Day–let’s just throw that right out there. It’s been a very long year after IA and it hasn’t been kind; there’s been all manners of fighting with friends, fighting with family, various fun injuries, and a lot of other issues I don’t want to get into. Really, the fastest way to say it is, life happened. Oh, did it ever happen.

Anyway, back to Chaos Mechanica; we got around to talking about our blogs eventually. He asked me how long it’s been since I’ve written on mine. I was all, “I seriously have no idea.” We talked about how blogging was a therapeutic thing anyway, and how, really, we just didn’t have the time for it.

But, despite having a job now, I realized… I do absolutely have the time for this blog.

If I’m completely honest about it, time was never really an issue in writing this blog the same way that time is never really an issue… with writing. It wasn’t that I couldn’t–I just didn’t, which is always the brutal truth of writing anything; yes, we may come home from work and we’re exhausted. And yes, we may get to our day off and we just really can’t be bothered to start because we just want to relax. But, really, those are always comfort choices; it’s never that we absolutely need to spend the whole day gaming, watching TV, going out or doing whatever–we just choose to.

And that’s absolutely what happened with me. While it would be nice and dramatic to pretend that I took a break because I was sad that I lost Infinite Ammo, the truth is, Mechanica and I gave it up; for my sake, I can admit that journalism was not for me at all and the constant pressure, along with the certainty that I didn’t really know what I was talking about a lot of the time, absolutely burned me out. Pulling back from that–taking a breather from talking about the gaming industry and comics industry like I was an expert when I absolutely wasn’t–was so cathartic that I kind of just gave up everything. It was a choice that I made the same way an aspiring writer comes home after work, sits down, and decides without a thought that, nope, they aren’t writing tonight. And, really, it was the worst choice.

But, there’s something important to specify here. While I say I gave up everything, I mean everything except for writing my book. My book which I’m super embarrassed to admit I’m still working on (even though I’m somehow also absolutely proud to still be working on). More to come on that, but for now, the point is, I haven’t given up on that, which, I believe, is why I’m writing this blog post at all. Because despite everything falling apart–despite deciding to give up for a while–there was something that I never questioned sacrificing–my writing. As hokey as it sounds, I just kept doing it in part because it was always there, always waiting, and always relying on me to do it. Because there are characters with voices that only I know and places only I have seen and I would be nothing without those people, those places, and the chance to bring them to others.

Man did I say “hokey”? Not a strong enough word.

This is all to say, I realized that I have the opportunity to write about all of this here on this blog because I haven’t given up. And I have the opportunity to share my findings with other people (specifically my findings about writing fantasy–the one thing I’m certain I know about). So why shouldn’t I do that? Because I’m tired? Because I got burned out? If I say yes to those things, then I’m not a writer.

So, instead, I’ll just say, hi. I’m back.