Tuesday, March 26, 2013

What is a Fairy Tale?

I had an interesting discussion lately with some writer friends about what a fairy tale is. We agreed a fairy tale is a sub-set of fantasy, thus all fairy tales are fantasies, but not all fantasies are fairy tales. Let's take a step back ... What is fantasy?

In Fantasy: The Liberation of Imagination, Richard Mathews says that fantasy “is a type of fiction that evokes wonder, mystery, or magic--a sense of possibility beyond the ordinary, material, rationally predictable world in which we live. . . . [it] is clearly related to the magical stories of myth, legend, fairy tale, and folklore from all over the world. . . . [It is] a fiction that elicits wonder through elements of the supernatural or impossible. It consciously breaks free from mundane reality” (1-2).
So, we're all on the same page regarding what fantasy is.

What about fairy tales? A.S. Byatt says, "The characters and motifs of fairy tales are simple and archetypal: princesses and goose-girls; youngest sons and gallant princes; ogres, giants, dragons, and trolls; wicked stepmothers and false heroes; fairy godmothers and other magical helpers, often talking horses, or foxes, or birds; glass mountains; and prohibitions and breaking of prohibitions." Apparently, the definition of fairy tale is less straightforward, but I agree with Byatt's comments.

My friends maintained that a fairy tale is merely a fantasy with an internally-inconsistent magic system. I'm not convinced. But, the beauty of being a creative artist type is: you can do what you want and call it what you want!

How about you? What would you say a fairy tale is?

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Unconscious Revelations

Once upon a time, a writer got a critique in which her well-written protagonist was praised for being unique. This uniqueness took the form of being narcissistic and racist. The writer in question was surprised that readers perceived the character this way.
Another time, a writer created a protagonist who was brave and smart and deboniar--think a scientist version of James Bond. Basically, he could do anything from run a mass spectrometer to shoot a sniper rifle--and the women swooned over him.
In yet another example, a writer created an evil antagonist who ended up being the protagonist's father. And--wait for it--the next book the author wrote also had an evil father antagonist.

What do all these examples have in common? I believe the authors unconsciously revealed some aspects of their personality or paradigm. The 2nd author thinks he is like a scientist/James Bond. The 3rd author has a bad relationship with her father.

Is unconscious revelation bad? I'd say: no. As authors we have to use all the tools at our disposal, including our unconscious and our subconsious. In fact, in my experience, first novels often involve a lot of unconscious revelation.
I think this is another reason it's great to get feedback on your writing. If the reader thinks the protagonist has qualities the author didn't want him to have ==> change him! That's one of the beauties of being The Author, Great and Powerful. :)

Good luck with your conscious and unconscious revelations!
Hhm... Maybe I should go reread my first novel.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Story layers

I recently read an excellent novella, "Act One" by Nancy Kress. (You can read the beginning in Asimov's Science Fiction). I believe it was a 2009 Nebula Nominee. The beauty of this story is it works on multiple layers.
One layer is the external plot: An aging actress named Jane Snow is researching her role in a controversial film about a recently discovered genetic modification. The real-life procedure is proliferated by a mysterious organization known as The Group whose long-term plans are to reshape humanity. Some see them as benefactors while others see them as biological terrorists. When Jane and her manager, Barry Tenler (the point-of-view character), meet with members of The Group they are the catalyst of a global conspiracy. Can Jane and Barry stop it? Deal with it? Survive it?

One layer is the fascinating issues of genetic engineering. The story raises the important and topical questions of the ethics of genetic modification. Should humans be genetically modified? When would it be all right? To save a life? To avert war? As you can imagine, there's a lot of thought-provoking content here.

One layer, perhaps the most important layer, is the character arc of the protagonist Barry. Barry is the perfect character to tell this story because he has to deal with his own genetic challenges. And, because of this challenge, he attempted genetic modification of his son. Suffice it to say, this didn't go well, and Barry's life totally fell apart. At the end of the story, through the events of the story, Barry learns to accept and deal with his personal demons and the effects his actions have had on the people who love him.
I believe it is this layer that elevates the story from good to outstanding.

As writers, we should always strive to show our characters changing, learning, growing as a result of the story. A nice (and free) example of this is "Heart of a Magpie" by Kathryn Yelinek in the current issue of Electric Spec. In this story the protagonist, Marion, has to deal with a supernatural menace, and she eventually utilizes the help of another supernatural creature to defeat it. What makes this story better than the average story is the internal layer, the character arc, of the protagonist. In the beginning, Marion is reeling from some unfortunate events, and blames some people in her life for them. By the end of the story, because of the story events, she comes to realize these people aren't irredeemable. She deals with her life in a more positive way, and starts on the road to forgiveness.
Now, that's what I'm talking about!

How about you? Have you read any good stories lately?
Do you have any tips for creating story layers?