Where Fantasy Gets Real

Someone (call them Person A) I know and value just did something that was hurtful to another person (call them Person B) I know and value. I am not sure why. I have to assume that there is backstory and history and motives I know nothing of. But, justified or not, they did this hurtful thing.

Person B went public with it immediately.

Anyone who knows them both might have predicted that the person being hurt was almost certainly going to lash out in some way, and almost instantaneously, at the person doing the hurting.

I am pretty sure that the person who did the hurting did not expect a public airing of the unwashed clothes. They ought to have, but this is the real point here: they made a choice about an action, without considering all of the possible ways in which their target might react.

They may have imagined what they would do and assumed that that was what everyone would do. I’m pretty sure that this is the normal human response: to think, in a mildly academic way, of what they believe is the ordinary response, and then acted on the assumption that this was what would occur.

A manageable and expected reaction to the original action.

And then – and this is equally true for both parties – neither one of them stopped before acting and thought about the desired outcomes they might want from this.

Whatever happens after this, there are now two people who are not friends, and I think the bridge there has not merely been burnt, it’s been uprooted and salted down and nothing green will ever grow there forevermore.

I can’t speak for them, of course, but I am betting that Person A did not want this to become an open hearing, and the fall-out for them is not good: several people filling out other letters of the alphabet have kind of identified with Person B, and this means that in the hereafter, they will not feel entirely comfortable with Person A and may even actively distrust them, thinking that they could be the next letter on the chopping block.

Person B, of course, cannot now mend anything: they might get some kind of apology, but there’s no going back from a public denunciation, and so what they have said they wanted is no longer a possibility.

What does this have to do with writing? I’m so glad you asked.

There is a thing that happens to writers when they are working out “plot”, and it pertains to every sort of fiction: where you have to consider the actions of a character in terms of outcome, and strive for the most realistic action and reaction to produce the effect you need.

Fantasy fiction is no exception. The characters need to be believable and perhaps it is even more true here than in any other genre. Somehow, when the magic spells go off and the dragon swoops in, the behavior of the characters needs to be more believable than in contemporary/slice-of-life novels, or the readers just…give up, I guess, or go play World of Warcraft or something.

It isn’t just the reactions. It’s the motives, the consistency, and – as one matures as an author – the shape of longer-term outcomes from those actions.

You don’t want a calm, cool, peaceable character to go off like a firecracker at the first sign of opposition, or be weeping alone when there’s a little good-natured teasing. You grasp that the fiery hotheads are not the right characters to let a deadly insult pass smiling and unremarked, only to have it become their motive for betrayal six chapters/a decade or two in the future.

People aren’t like that. Most authors, even the first time out in public, usually have a handle on that. It’s part of why there are so many cardboard cut-outs masquerading as actual characters in one’s early novels: you pick the most obvious traits to work with, because it’s easier to keep the story on track while you juggle how to get the reluctant mage or foolhardy soldier maneuvered into place for the fireworks.

But we grow, along the way. We begin to create more unique people for our worlds, with fuzzier natures, and more complicated worldviews.

The problems remain the same, though. Characters in books have to react in ways that will have the desired effect on the plot without causing the reader to throwing the book across the room in disbelief.

And that’s when more serious authors start looking at it not just from action = reaction points of view, or even those deeper examinations of motivations.

They start looking at all the possible ramifications of what the potential outcomes might be. It isn’t just that action = reaction. It’s that action can precipitate a whole host of reactions that could change the outcome in very material ways, while still remaining in character.

When I write, I take the longest view I can. Sure, if I make the wrong choice, I can always rewrite – but I don’t always know where I’ve gone wrong, even after the fact, and like most authors, I loathe rewriting with fiery hot passion of a thousand dying suns. But there’s a reason my current novel has stalled, and it is because I need to work out all of the possible ramifications of each potential action on the part of multiple characters, and not just for the short term. I have to think of what comes after.

It matters. It matters so much that a fictional woman named Tamar has been languishing on a boat in the ocean for weeks, because I need to decide what a dozen other people are going to do with the limited information they have.

The real problem, though, is when we don’t do this in real life.

One knee-jerk response and you could ruin your life. Or someone else’s life.


Do you really want to live with that?


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