Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Making Use of The Fantastical Mundane in Sci-Fi and Fantasy

When someone picks up a sci-fi or a fantasy novel, it's like they're getting off a plane in a foreign country. Some things feel the same, but others are decidedly different. Many times there are sights and happenings that, in the world they know, would be cause for great concern. Or for wonder. But in order for someone to figure out the context, they have to look at the locals. Are they running in a panic? Bowing in supplication? Or does an elephant walk down this street every day, its driver chowing down on what looks like a fast food hamburger?

Don't mind Johnny. He's tools through here every Thursday with that pack of gunships behind him.
The problem is that sometimes we get so wrapped up in our worlds that we forget to make clear what's an everyday piece of magic or technology, and instead geek out about everything. That can kind of de-value the excitement, which is why it's important to keep in mind what I call the Fantastical Mundane.

What Is The Fantastical Mundane?

In the old days of science fiction, every story was filled with rapture over the technological toys on display. Everything from gasping depictions of rockets, to amazement at the power of ray guns. That trend (along with a lot of others), changed when John W. Campbell took it upon himself to start re-shaping science fiction as people knew it.

More on who Campbell was, and how the editor of Astounding Stories could create such widespread changes, in the video below for those who want some context.

One of Campbell's many tenets was that if something is not unusual or impressive in the context of the world the story is taking place in, then it should be regarded as ordinary. A mundane part of the world to the characters we see, even if the thing in question would be a marvel to the reader. Whether it's seeing an elf when you pass through the forests, or having a replicator in your office that can make anything from coffee to a cheese burger at the touch of a button, those things should be treated appropriately in order to give the reader context.

As a for-instance, none of us can do real magic... but how impressive does the magic have to be in this setting for someone to be unnerved by it? Is someone snapping their fingers to produce a flame to light a cigarette just a handy parlor trick, or is that enough to make someone's hair stand on end? Is someone carrying an energy pistol a sign that they're a member of an elite unit tasked with handling the latest in technology, or is that just as common as seeing a police officer with a handgun in their duty belt? Is a troll coming into town cause for panic and terror, or just mild curiosity because you don't see them all that often this far to the south?

Set The Tone, And Conserve Your Wonder

You know how certain characters, such as Kratos in the God of War series, are always angry and screaming? And how this makes it impossible to tell the difference between their default emotion, and when they're being enraged and violent because they just learned their wife was dead, or they'd lost a child, or something else that should have had a big impact?

Same deal here. If everything is treated with awe and wonder, then it becomes impossible to figure out which things are really weird, unique, or unusual, and which ones are Tuesday.

But for every rule, there is an exception!
But what about when you want everything to seem weird and unusual to your reader? Well, that is where you need to introduce the Everyman to the situation. I talked about this a little back in How To Stop Your "Everyman" Character From Becoming a Clueless Dipshit, but the purpose of the Everyman is to provide the audience with a cipher. Someone who knows about as much as they do, and who gets walked through this strange and unexpected world. It's characters like Jake Sully in Avatar, Michael in Underworld, or Richard in Neverwhere; their purpose within the story is to be just as shocked and confused as we are by this strange world they're walking into.

Even in these situations, though, other members of the cast are the ones cluing them (and the reader) into the Fantastical Mundane. When Richard is freaked out at the market of unusual creatures from the new world he's fallen into in Neverwhere, for example, it's the Marquis de Carabas who reassures him that hulking troll is just selling kebabs, and who steers him around the counter crones who would eat him alive. He, like the audience, has no context for what's safe and what's dangerous. The cast around him does, though, and guides him through getting acclimated to his new surroundings.

Remember, you can be as weird and out-there as you want to be! But you need to make it clear what is a curiosity, and what is an amazement, or your audience might get overwhelmed by it all.

That's all for this Craft of Writing installment! If you'd like to see more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or head over to My Amazon Author Page where you'll find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

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