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.