Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Falling into another world

This is a popular setup in fantasy. From Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to J. V. Jones’s The Barbed Coil to Stephen Donaldson’s The Mirror of her Dreams, there’s a lot of mileage to be obtained from a modern person being transported to a fantasy world.

Two things that make this plot perennially interesting are the conflict inherent in the fish-out-of-water start and the fact that the reader can discover the world along with the main character. There are some pitfalls in constructing such a story, though, which I discovered when I critiqued the sixth or seventh version of a query for such a novel…

1. Unfinished business

If the protagonist leaves duties or responsibilities or problematic relationships behind in the real world, readers will expect these to be resolved somehow – for instance, by the protagonist learning something in the fantasy world that helps him to deal with the situation when he returns to reality.

That was a problem with the query I critiqued – although the protagonist’s real life was terrible, there was no indication that he would return to improve it. Which makes it seem like unfinished business, and there’s a difference between an open-ended story and one which had loose ends.

Readers remember their first impressions vividly. If the first impression is of a girl running from her abusive boyfriend, they will expect that the abusive boyfriend situation be corrected or at least addressed in the novel, even if the rest of the story is how the girl falls through a portal and finds out that she’s really the Princess of Peliga (to use a really cliched example).

A solution is to give the protagonist a happy and normal life – a la Alice in Wonderland - but then it’ll be necessary to deal with their wanting to go home and missing their families or friends. Which leads me to my second point…

2. The realities of medieval worlds

I love medieval worlds. I love looking at paintings of them and writing about them. I would hate to live in one.

Hygiene, health, safety and convenience in a medieval land would probably not be up to the same standards as those a modern character would be used to. I spent a month in Sri Lanka a few years ago, and there were so many things my extended family there took for granted but which I was unused to – heat, mosquitoes, scorpions, the lack of a reliable Internet connection and so on. The same thing applies to a modern person in a medieval world, except more so. At least I knew I’d be leaving after a month.

And those are just the realities of medieval worlds. What about the dark side of their fantastic elements – predators and hostile magic, for instance? There are some wonderful and whimsical things and people in the Looking-Glass world and in Wonderland… but there are also some disturbing and dangerous aspects of those places.

3. A welcome with open arms

This will probably make me close such a book right away. I’ve read too many stories where the protagonist is the Chosen One, the princess sent away from her home for her own good, a la Moses on the Nile. It kills any conflict dead, since everyone likes her and is overjoyed to see her; the few people who don’t are invariably evil or at least misguided.

4. A wish-fulfillment fantasy.

The main problem with the query I critiqued was that the protagonist (once he entered the medieval world) was given respect and status and everything he had ever longed for. He didn’t have to fight for what he got, and he was more or less at the top of that world’s pecking order. Again, no conflict.

There are wish-fulfillment elements in a lot of stories, but when powerful magic operates to take a protagonist to a world where he is immediately recognized as special, it’s a bit more obvious. In Pan's Labyrinth, Ofelia had to work to gain recognition as the Princess, and when she made a mistake, she was chastised - hard.

Some things I’d like to see in such a plot…

A character enters a not-often-used world, something different from the usual medieval landing point. I’d love to see a modern-day person in one of Shakespeare’s plays, where the play is the reality. Or a character from a completely different reality (e.g. a steampunk or dark fantasy) is transported to a medieval world.


JH said...

I complain about fantasy cliches a lot but this one, like sealed-evil-in-a-can, still works for me. An interesting angle for thinking about why a real-world person would get pulled into a fantasy world is that of "summoning magic." A mage calls some entity from another world to aid him with his fantastic powers... but what if our world were a valid target for pulling a summoned being from?

I've seen this idea used in a way that suggests the the summoners vaguely asked for "someone who can help us" and were confused with the fish-out-of-water modern person they got, setting up a generic hero's journey/chosen one plot. But I think this is very impractical. Real world texts of demonology described the number of infernal soldiers at the command of the Dukes of Hell and the skills and knowledge they had mastered, along with their unique magical powers. Summoners will specify the kind of help they want.

The question is, what kind of help would your average low-tech fantasy world get from the real world? We think of ourselves as more advanced than the ancients and Medieval people, but many of out advantages are systemic, not personal. We rely on technology and industrial systems to make use of our greater knowledge.

A summoner might well call up a modern doctor during a severe plague, and would find someone uniquely skilled to diagnose the issue, but helpless to act without modern drugs and medical technology (and the diagnosis might not help if germ theory isn't understood). Probably the most personally useful modern professional for an ancient summoner would be an infantryman, fully armed for battle. A machinegun, modern body armor, grenades and night vision goggles could be devastating to an ancient army... until the ammunition runs out. But if all you need to do is turn the tide at a vital moment, and don't care about what happens to your summoned help afterwards, it's not a bad choice.

There's also the issue of getting the summoned being to do your bidding, which sometimes looks like haggling, and other times like mental domination and slavery. What would you offer a modern person for his help, having plucked him from his time to yours? How would a modern person react to being forced to submit to the will of some weirdo in a robe though sorcery?

Mary Witzl said...

I love 'modern person falls into medieval world' books, but you are so right: they have to offer a compelling story with all the conflicts and resolutions any regular story would have. It's no fun if they're all Queen for a Day stuff with nectar and ambrosia to eat and gold-paved streets.

What JH says is so true. I could get sucked back into 1200, say, and be of no use at all. I can use a computer and a mobile phone and a radio, but I couldn't make any of those things if you put a gun to my head. And even if I could manage to cobble one together (and could magically find plastic, copper wire, etc.), I couldn't plug in, get a signal, etc. A couple vials of Penicillin, soap, sterile dressings and antiseptic -- they would probably go down a treat.

parametric said...

It clicked for me when I read this post that Harry Potter is actually a portal fantasy:

- The protagonist has an unhappy life with his abusive family in the real world,

- then (thanks to Hogwarts letter/Hagrid) is transported into the Wizarding World,

- where he gains the power (magic symbolising his power as a person) to

- return to the real world and defeat his abusive family.

Helps me understand what you mean about the protagonist learning enough to go back and fix what was wrong in their life. :)

Marian said...

JH and Mary : You both made such good points that I'm going to write another blog post on the ideas that you brought up.

Thank you!