The world of literature would be much poorer without its fantastic fiction and its realistic opposite (and I am including non-fiction in what I term reality writing). Both show worlds we can identify with in some way.
For example, in The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkein’s epic fantasy work the way Saruman attempted to destroy the natural world to make his weapons and build his power is a direct reflection of how things have been on our own planet time and time again. I needn’t name the dictators and while Tolkein always denied any comparison to the build up to World War Two, you can see why people made that link. An absolute evil had to be destroyed. An unlikely hero did so. (Who would have thought Britain would win the Battle of Britain? We weren’t supposed to!).
Even the most fantastic of stories has to have a realistic feel to it. This is achieved by there being something about the characters we can identify with, but is even better when we can follow what is going on in their world and recognise the parallels with our own.
Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is great for this. The Vimes series of novels will ring many a bell with anyone interested in the history of how our police service developed. Ankh-Morpork has its own university (albeit a magical one), a system of government (aka Lord Vetinari), a railway (Raising Steam is a must for fans of how our railway developed, you will spot the parallels), a waste disposal system (thanks to Harry King) and the city guilds very much reflect how our guilds and ancient companies operated. Discworld may be a fantasy world but it has solid foundations.
As for Harry Potter, the portrayal of the Muggle world is spot on. There would be people like the Dursleys who oppose the magical world and fear it. The abuse of power in wizardry especially by Voldemort reflects on humans we’ve known abuse power and so on.
One of the great tenets of fiction writing is being able to “willingly suspend disbelief” while we are reading a story. Where you have a setting and characters readers can “latch on to”, they will willingly suspend that disbelief. They know the story is a conceit (all stories are, writers are making things up after all!), but are so gripped by what they are reading, that doesn’t matter. Achieving this is the holy grail for all fiction writers. But having your fiction firmly based in reality, no matter what its genre, boosts this.
Yes, you can have nonsensical work (see Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll on that one) but I find I can only read that in small doses. I have to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate Alice in Wonderland for that reason. A world with its flaws and virtues that I can get behind is far more appealing to me and holds my interest for much longer as a result.
I never have as much time for reading as I’d like (and I think most writers will identify with that) so when I do read, I want to make sure I am going to enjoy what I’m currently reading!
Fiction can, of course, hold a mirror up to reality and reflect it right back at us. It usually isn’t a pretty sight when it does that. Look at Lord of the Flies by William Golding. I read this at school. I still remember the all too real portrayal of human nature at its nastiest – literally boys going wild. A horrible book but a gripping story and accurate depictions.
One of my pet bugbears is when people dismiss something as “just a fairytale”. There is no “just” about a fairytale. Most of them are grounded in truth and some like Hans Christen Andersen’s The Little Match Girl accurately portray the horror of poverty and people going by on the other side and not seeing what is in front of them. As timely as ever I’d say…
I’m not sure what to make of the more modern phenomenon of misery memoir. I know it isn’t for me (there is enough misery in the news) but I can see the point of it and I hope the writing of it proves therapeutic to the authors here. Very much reality writing here but a personal one. Too personal perhaps? Maybe that’s why I’m not comfortable with it.
A well written biography or history can take you into a world you never knew just as much as fiction can. It should show you something about the person being written about and their world. I am very fond of history whether it is fictional or factual and reading the latter in particular has made me appreciate more who the heroes really are. What a debt we owe to Thomas Crapper, Sir Joseph Bazelgette, Thomas Edison, Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage, as well as the creative genuises of Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens and Wodehouse.
All storytellers need backgrounds to their story world and using our own planet to work out how to create your own fictional universe makes a great deal of sense. Sometimes it can be a case of seeing how we run our systems and getting your created world and whoever runs it to do the exact opposite. Sometimes it can be a case of knowing how a historical form of government worked and then copying that system into your own stories. But whatever you decide to “use” here, it pays to research well. You won’t use all that you find out directly in your story but you will “draw” on what you have found out as you write and you will write with more confidence.
Don’t despise science here either. Knowing how our solar system operates can inspire you to work out how and where to set your fictional creation. Knowing about gravity can make you decide whether your world has the same system or not. (And if so what are the effects of no gravity on the world you’ve set up). Knowing about flying can help you work out how your fictional world organises its transport system (to name just one example).
I love fantasy partly because it takes me away from this world for a bit (and no transport costs or parking to worry about either!) but the irony is the better fantasy stories work as well as they do, because we can identify with their world, which is based on this one!
Science fiction is an interesting one in that it can seem to predict the future at times (Newspeak, anyone? George Orwell would not have set out to be a prophetic writer but that is what he effectively became!). Likewise, developments in science fiction have then gone on to be scientific fact (look at how far ahead automatic sliding doors were when Star Trek the original series first came out and well they’re almost everywhere now).
So whatever your first choice of reading material is, be open to trying the other side of the coin. Fiction and non-fiction feed into each other. Fantastic stories and “real” writing also feed into each other and that is the way it should be.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
Never miss out on another blog post. Subscribe here:
Subscribe to Blog via Email