Sunday, June 26, 2011

What Makes and Excellent Fantasy Novel? Part 5 of 5: Evil We Can Believe In

Spoiler Alert: I'm using JK Rowling's Harry Potter series as an example of a great work of fantasy.  If you haven't read the books, there are major spoilers ahead!

And today, Part 5!

“ Dorothy L. Sayers once pointed out about the mystery genre, fantasy is one of the last bastions of “moral fiction.”  By this she meant that in mystery—and in fantasy—good triumphs over evil, the wrongdoers get their just deserts, and all ends, if not always strictly happily, at least well.  This is the definition of “moral fiction”: something that shows the world, perhaps not as it is, but certainly as it could and should be.”

There’s a depressing amount of tragedy in the world.  And most of it, unfortunately, is complicated.  The more closely you look at an issue—any issue—the more complicated it gets, and intelligent, well-meaning people can disagree on the best approach to dealing with it.  Solutions aren’t just difficult to accomplish; they’re difficult to find in the first place.

In a fantasy world, things can be simpler.  In the Harry Potter series, taking out Voldemort and his Death Eaters is the clear, universally-agreed upon solution to stopping the wizarding war.  Don’t get me wrong, any good book, fantasy included, needs to be nuanced about its conflict or we’ll all get quickly bored.  There are plenty of cowardly, selfish and power-hungry characters in the series doing their part to make the world worse for complicated reasons.  But having that central, unequivocal evil to fix our sights on is satisfying.  We know who we’re fighting. 

Not only is the evil in fantasy easy to identify, it can form a “universal well” for sub-conflicts.  In Harry Potter, the mistreatment of house elves and muggle-baiting are tied to Voldemort’s pure-blood wizard fanaticism.  Barty Crouch senior, who sent his own son to prison, was driven to by fear of the escalating violence of the Death Eaters.  Even Dolores Umbridge, the power hungry over-zealous Hogwarts disciplinarian originally tied to the Minister of Magic, goes over to the dark side once the war begins.  I’m not suggesting that these people wouldn’t have found other ways to go bad in the absence of Voldemort, but even Harry recognizes that Voldemort is at the root of it all.  While recalling the fate the Neville Longbottom’s tortured parents and Barty Crouch’s imprisoned son, he thinks, “…it all came back to Voldemort….He was the one who had torn these families apart, who had ruined all these lives….”*

For the reader, this sort of convergence is, strangely, relieving.  The more closely we look at real world problems, the more complicated and nuanced they get.  The more closely we look at the problems in a fantasy universe, the more they all seem to lead back to the same place.  Just like I love a good romance novel for the guaranteed Happily-Ever-After at the end, I love a good fantasy novel for the guarantee that the Bad-Guys-Get-It-In-The-End.  What’s more, getting the bad guys actually gets something done.  It’s a respite to sink into a world where people can figure out the problems and then solve them.

That’s it for my “Elements of Fantasy” series.  What do you think?  Did I leave out one of your favorites?

*Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, p. 607

Sunday, June 19, 2011

What Makes and Excellent Fantasy Novel? Part 4 of 5: Measured World-Building

Spoiler Alert: I'm using JK Rowling's Harry Potter series as an example of a great work of fantasy.  If your haven't read the books, there are major spoilers ahead!

One of my favorite parts of reading fantasy is slowly discovering the world of the book.  Sinking into a well-crafted world is the ultimate escape, and it adds tension and mystery to the story, keeping me guessing about what new aspect of the fictional universe I’ll discover next.  That’s why I think measured world-building—in any kind of novel—is so important.  How the secrets of the setting are revealed is just as important as what they are, and from what I can tell, there are three ways to build a fictional world: just do it, hint at the secrets and then fill in the gaps, or add complexity to previously-revealed details.

The easiest way to build a world is to just throw stuff out there.  J.K. Rowling does this with prophecies in The Order of the Phoenix.  Before the showdown in the Department of Mysteries, we don’t have much reason to suspect that prophecies exist.  Divination class is ridiculed by Harry and his friends, and the death omen Harry sees in The Prisoner of Azkaban turns out to be his godfather checking up on him.   All in all, omens and future-telling seem to be bogus, so when the existence of prophecies pops up on page 782, we’re just as surprised as the characters are.  The prophecies are a big deal, but I think this method actually works better with small stuff, things that add texture without impacting the plot overmuch. 

Of course, there are ways to hint at important information before revealing it, and this sort of “filling in the gaps” method of world-building can be very satisfying from the reader’s perspective.  We still get that delicious thrill of finding out something new, but because the author has been hinting at it, making a space for it, the reveal seems natural, almost inevitable.  Rowling does this sort of world-building with Horcruxes.

We know from Harry’s conversation with Hagrid in The Sorcerer’s Stone that Voldemort wasn’t killed by his rebounding curse, even though he should have been.  Hagrid says, “Dunno if he had enough human left in him to die.”*  Throughout the series, this ability of Voldemort to escape death is repeatedly alluded to.  Dumbledore says that Voldemort is not truly alive, and therefore cannot be killed.**  Voldemort himself refers to the steps he took to “guard [him]self against mortal death.”***  So, when we finally learn what a Horcrux is, it’s both surprising and not surprising at all.  We knew all along that something like this must exist, but there’s a lot of satisfaction in finally learning what it is. 

A much more difficult but highly satisfying way to build a world is to introduce a detail or aspect early on, and then have that aspect of the world build in complexity and importance as the story progresses.  Harry’s ability to speak Parseltongue is a fantastic example of this.  It’s the first magical ability we see Harry display, in Chapter 2 of The Sorcerer’s Stone.   At the zoo with his loathsome cousin, Harry talks to a python.  Rowling could have chosen anther way to introduce Harry’s magical abilities, but that fact that she chose Parseltongue is genius.

Harry’s ability to speak Parseltongue isn’t just a fun, texturizing detail.  It’s crucial.  He uses it again to uncover the Chamber of Secrets in book two, and at the end of that book, we learn that it is the result of Harry’s connection to Voldemort.  This connection takes on even more significance in The Order of the Phoenix, when Harry finds he is able to spy on Voldemort through the link.  In the final book, Harry uses Parseltongue to open and destroy the locket Horcrux, and he uses his window into Voldemort’s mind to find the remaining Horcruxes.  Something we starting out thinking was a funny magical talent turns out to be the result of a complex and dangerous magical connection, one that has huge implications for Harry’s ability to triumph.  A simple detail becomes more and more complicated—and important—as the narrative unfolds.

So, there they are, my three Ways of Worldbuilding: Just Do It, Build in Hints, and Build in Complexity.  What are your favorite ways to learn about a new world in a novel?

* Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, p. 57
** Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, p. 298
*** Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, p. 648