December 18th, 2012

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Intimate vs. Epic Fantasy

I can't believe it's only a week until Christmas. I have my shopping mostly done, though there's still one gift I need another part for. I kind of have a sense of what I need, but nothing is jumping out at me as being the right thing. It might be easier if I actually went to a store, though. It's kind of hard to conjure gifts out of the ether. And this isn't something where shopping online can help. It's something I need to see in person. Otherwise, the necessary baking is all done. Anything else that comes up will be just for fun or because I need something to eat. I've almost given up on getting work done, other than research reading. My focuser isn't working very well right now, and it's hard to do revisions and editing when your brain is all "Reindeer!" (the Christmas version of "Squirrel!").

I've been talking for some time about what I call intimate vs. epic fantasy, and that subject came up again for me recently when I was reading a book in a fantasy series that I've been liking, and it just wasn't working for me, even though I really love the characters. I realized that it was an intimate fantasy that had gone epic, going from plots that were mostly about what mattered to these individuals to a "save the world" plot.

And then while I was thinking about that, Jo Walton had a post at tor.com about saving-the-world plots in fantasy. It's essentially another angle on my intimate vs. epic distinction. I can see how this happens because as writers, we're always told to keep upping the stakes. Something vital has to be on the line to motivate our characters, and we have to feel like something bad will happen if they fail. High stakes generally mean high tension, and that keeps the pages turning. The longer a series runs, the more likely it is that you're eventually going to get to a save-the-world story. Book one may be about the apprentice wanting to escape from his cruel master and stealing some household object to help fund his new life -- only to find out that his cruel master is an evil wizard and the object the apprentice stole is the source of his power. So his goal is to escape with his life. Book two is probably going to be about stopping the evil wizard from controlling the king, with the goal of saving the kingdom. By the end of the series, our former apprentice who's learned to use the source of power will have to stop the evil wizard from having the whole of creation sucked into the Pit of Despair for all eternity.

I never have figured out why these villains are so keen on destroying the world. The world is where the people are. It's hard to have ultimate power if everything's been destroyed. Even if you survive, you're left with no one to do anything for you. I guess they're suicidal and want to take everyone else out with them.

But in thinking of this, I've realized that you reach a point of diminishing returns on the stakes=tension equation. If the world won't literally come to an end if the heroes fail to achieve their story goal, then there's some doubt that they might achieve it, and that keeps the tension high. I have read books in which the heroes fail, in which the bad guys prevail, even if it's just temporarily (most often seen in series). The Empire Strikes Back is generally considered the best Star Wars movie, and the heroes' only real success is surviving to regroup and fight again. But if all of creation will be destroyed if the heroes fail, there's not much doubt that they'll succeed. I don't think I've ever read a book that wasn't a satire in which the heroes fail and the world is destroyed, the end. How they go about saving the world may be interesting, but there's not as much tension there because you know they're going to succeed.

I think there's also a case of some stories being too big for the world/characters. This is hard for me to articulate, but I think some characters are best on a smaller scale. It's okay to stick with surviving, maybe saving the town or the kingdom, finding the object, rescuing the dragon from the princess because it's hard to believe that these people could really save the world. Then there are the worlds where turning things global changes the world. I was thinking about this in regards to what happened in Buffy and Angel, where it got to the point they were having annual apocalypses (and you know you're in trouble when you have to worry about what the plural of "apocalypse" is). On Buffy, it just got silly, and they made a joke out of having to save the world again. On Angel, I think it ruined the world when they got too big. The fun of both those series for me was the sense that this was our world, and all these things were going on behind the scenes or underground. That worked with Angel, particularly, because they were out of the small town and into Los Angeles, and there were all the fun jokes about what the evil law firm was really into, which celebrities and world leaders were their clients, etc. But then they got on the apocalypse train, with things happening that everyone in Los Angeles noticed, that were on the news -- the sky going dark for days, rains of fire, everyone falling under the sway of a hell goddess. When they did that, it was no longer about the stuff that's secretly happening in our world. It became another reality, and that ruined the premise.

That's something I'm conscious of in my series because I want to maintain the illusion that this is our world and there's stuff going on that most of us don't notice. Katie may quip about saving the world, but they're really just saving one corner of the world. If they fail, there may be a big ripple effect, but the secret still wouldn't be out. So far, I think they're making this work on Grimm, where they're not trying to save the world, just deal with these individual cases. It may go up the chain with the royals being involved, but I hope we don't get into the global apocalypse sort of thing. With Haven, another "secret" world, they're keeping things mostly within this one town and covering everything up, with the newspaper editors and the police chief being in on the secret so that the national news hasn't yet had a whiff of what's going on in the town, and they just need to save the town, not the world.

Speaking of Haven, they've finally announced when they'll be showing the skipped episode. It and the finale (originally scheduled for this Friday) will be shown on Thursday, Jan. 17. See the SyFy web site for details.