Why I Love Fantasy

I started re-reading one of the Harry Potter books this week. I often get the urge to read fantasy when it gets close to Christmas. I have yet to figure out why. My theory is that I enjoy fantasy so much because it fits in with all the other enjoyments—snuggling under a warm blanket (it would be in front of a roaring fire if I had a fireplace), with Christmas music playing and a hot mug of cider in reach.

But why fantasy?

I have several ideas.

One is that fantasy transports me to a magical other place, sort of like a snow-covered world does. Not that we have snow in Southern California, except in the mountains, but that’s the point, isn’t it. I grew up connecting snow with Christmas and my snow experiences are very other worldly.

Once, when I was about ten and we lived in Colorado, we had snow in September, before the trees had lost their leaves. Branches laden with wet snow broke, transforming our yard into secret tunnels and hideaways … until my poor dad cleaned up the mess. But for a few hours, I was in a private world, an imaginary place. The same kind good fantasies create.

Narnia, a secret place away from the adult world. The world beyond the Shire—more mysterious than secret. The magical realm accessed through platform 9 3/4. These are not your everyday places. These are tangibly other.

A second reason I love fantasy, especially this time of year, is because of the overarching story in each. Sally Apokedak said it best in her response to an earlier post. She was referencing Harry Potter originally but expanded her thoughts:

You take a poor, abused kid and give him more power than anyone else on earth has. And you see how his mentors help him develop his power and you see what he does with the power in the end. It’s a wonderful story.

It has shades of Christ, born in a manger, a powerless babe. Then he grows in wisdom and stature and he grows in favor with God and man. But he’s in a constant battle with an evil foe. In the end he has to make a great sacrifice to save his friends. This story–His story–is the one that all great stories imitate, I think.

His Story, indeed. Fantasy, with its good versus evil motif is the perfect fit for the story of Christmas—and Easter. Yet the best writers, retell it in a way that shines light on it anew.

Above all, after a glimpse of Narnia, further up and further in, or of Gondor under Aragon’s rule, these fantasies give me a hunger for heaven. They stir a longing for the return of the King, for the presence of the Lion of Judah. Great fantasies go far beyond good stories, which is why I love them.

– – –

Note: The previous post under this title took a turn away from this topic, so I decided to create a separate article, complete with the two pertinent comments.

Who’s Getting Better?

Earlier this month, former agent Nathan Bransford took a week to blog about Harry Potter—or more specifically about J. K. Rowling‘s writing. In one post, Mr. Bransford stated he believed Ms. Rowling continued to improve her writing throughout the series. I tend to agree, though I know others may see the books differently.

But here’s the point I want to discuss. Mr. Bransford had this to say about improving one’s writing:

In order to get better at something you can’t be self-satisfied and think you’ve made it and become convinced of your own genius. You have to keep digging deep and keep being skeptical of yourself and keep trying to spot your own flaws and resist the temptations that come along with success. And that is hard!!

I think it’s the success issue that makes continued striving for improvement hard.

When I was teaching, I didn’t really have a way to measure success. Oh, I suppose if I taught all the material in the curriculum guide and every student received an A and their standardize test results showed at least a full year of growth, then maybe I could rest on my laurels and say I’d been successful. But would you be surprised to learn, that never happened? 😛 I thought not.

Since I finished each year knowing that I hadn’t been successful, in the ultimate sense of the word, I would evaluate and plan and work so that next time things would be better. In fact, I often planned en route. I’d tweak lessons from class to class, and I’d make note of things that needed to be scrapped or retooled. There was never any “self-satisfied and think you’ve made it” time.

But besides teaching, I also coached. With sports, there is a winner after every game and coaches along with players can feel successful. At the end of each season, we even had league championships. So what happens if you string a series of those first place trophies together?

The right answer is to add up the hours of planning and practice that went into preparing a team to become a champion and make a new plan for the next year. But in the flush of success piled on top of success, isn’t it possible that a coach might start believing his or her own press clippings? Isn’t it possible he or she could “become convinced of [his or her] own genius”?

I’m reading about Solomon’s life right now, and in a way he was victim of his own success, too. Peace on every hand. Accolades of kings and queens from distant lands, wealth, achievement. He could claim responsibility for bring the glory of God back to His people when His presence filled the brand new temple Solomon constructed.

What happened after that? Solomon went wayward, to the point that God took part of the kingdom away from his heirs. What should have been a great legacy became a tarnished life, half lived well.

But why? Did he stop digging deep, stop being skeptical of himself, stop trying to spot his own flaws and resist temptations?

Spiritually, we have the Bible and can measure ourselves by God’s standard—His perfect Son. Seems like we ought to have no trouble with the success syndrome when it comes to our spiritual lives. Of course, that’s not true. How easy it is to take our eyes off Jesus and put them on the person living next door or on the guy on the street cussing out his girlfriend or on the one cutting me off in traffic. Next to Those People, I can feel pretty successful. Ugh! Using the wrong measuring stick can give a false positive.

Might not that happen for writers too? Might we look at sales and think we’re successful if our book “earns out”? Or if we get a half dozen or a dozen or a hundred dozen emails saying how wonderful our story is?

But shouldn’t the standard for our work be the same as for our lives—that we want to please Jesus? Who cares if a million people buy my book if God is not glorified?

And until He is pleased, with every word I write, with all parts of my writing process, with my work ethic and my relationships with my colleagues in the business, I have to dig deep, stay a little skeptical, look for my flaws, and resist temptation.

Published in: on November 30, 2010 at 6:10 pm  Comments (9)  
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It used to be a near-perpetual state whenever I’d checked out a book from the library in my youth. Less so when I became a teacher because there wasn’t time, it seemed, until summer rolled around, and then the pull eventually seemed to wear off.

I’m referring to that experience of losing yourself in a novel. When you feel so involved, it’s as if you’ve become one of the characters. When you neglect things like meals and sleep. When you know you really need to put the book down and do what you’re supposed to do, what you regularly do, but … just one more chapter … and one more after that … and why not just write off the day and commit to catching up the other stuff on the weekend.

Book-lost. That’s where I was today. Haven’t really been there in a long, long time. Oh, I’ve had small forays, but nothing so gargantuan as really being lost.

Where was I, you might ask. I’m chagrin to say. I was lost in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. For you that go by numbers instead of titles, that’s book 5, which is why I’m chagrin. When it seems the writing world has already dissected book 7 and moved on to something else, I’m just falling in love with Rowling’s books.

Maybe I needed to know where they were going before I gave myself over to the story, I don’t know. I know Rowling herself said this book 5 is one she wishes she could change, that she felt rushed in the writing. And there were some writing things that occasionally pulled me from the story. I even remember thinking at one point that it would be good for me to go back over the book later and analyze the writing, see what worked and what didn’t work.

I also had a friend say she thought Rowling forgot the fun in books 5 and 6, so I did think about that some. Granted, this book was much more serious than the first four. Harry was dealing with things in every phase of his life that were nearly intolerable. And yet … and yet … I became totally lost in the story, from about page 400 on.

I think what amazes me most is how old fashioned the Potter books seem. I mean, the story is told in a linear manner, in a single point of view. The chapters are numbered and titled, and the book is long—nearly 900 pages worth. In other words, it flies in the face of all the stuff you see some publishing houses doing to try to capture youth audiences.

Some of the herky-jerky style of writing feels more like MTV than reading a novel—points of view galore that shift every few pages, stories that a reader must piece together out of emails and journal entries rather than chapters. I don’t see how anyone could get lost in something so easy to put down ever page or so. 😮

Published in: on September 6, 2007 at 5:04 pm  Comments (3)  

The Tangled Web of Good Writing, Part 4

I know … my bias is showing. I believe good writing really requires all four elements—setting, characters, plot, and theme—to be well developed.

But what about “story trumps all”?

The story is what happens, but of course, it must happen to someone who is somewhere. And if it all does not really matter—has no purpose—chances are, not many readers will be telling their friends about the book they couldn’t put down.

Books I hate the most are ones that leave me feeling there was no purpose. I’m thinking of one particular fantasy in which the protagonist, who has been built up all book long as having a special purpose in the world, ends up dying. The book had some serious flaws in my opinion, but none greater than this act of pulling the rug out from under the reader.

What am I saying? The best stories expertly weave together all the fiction elements with equal attention.

Sure books that don’t develop all the elements will still sell—just not as well as they could have. Readers will still like stories with exciting plots—they just won’t remember them or take much away—and the readers who want to know the characters and understand their motivation will look for something deeper.

Without a doubt, some writers are gifted with interesting, fresh, creative story ideas. Others seem to understand how to make characters jump off the page and live, even linger long after the reader closes the back cover.

Christian writers of both stripes make no pretense about the fact that they want to please or glorify God in their writing. If that’s the case, it seems to me we should not be content with playing to our strength.

My challenge, then, is to identify what kind of writing I favor—plot-driven or character-driven—and work hard to improve the other elements, not neglecting any of them. Not even setting and certainly not theme.

Rowling did it all, and look what became of Harry Potter.

Published in: on August 3, 2007 at 10:29 am  Comments (4)  

The Tangled Web of Good Writing, Part 3

One of the writing books that is a source of information and inspiration is Word Painting by Rebecca McClanahan (Writer’s Digest Books). Today, while I was waiting for my car to be serviced, I started in on the chapter entitled “Bringing Characters to Life through Description.”

There are so many good reminders in the chapter of techniques to bring characters alive, but for the sake of this discussion—how the elements of fiction work together to create the good story—I’ll highlight just a couple.

First, from the subsection “Describing Characters through Their Environments”:

As the old saying goes, everybody has to be somewhere. Fictional characters are no exception … Often when I have trouble developing three-dimensional characters, it’s because I haven’t provided them with a suitable background against which to shine.

Unfortunately, in many seminars for Christian writers, THE way instructors teach writers to develop three-dimensional characters is by showing the good side and the bad of all the characters, heros and villains alike.

In thinking of Harry Potter as an example of a good story, I come back to the fact that the characters were believable long before any good could be seen in the villains (and I don’t think any good is ever seen in Voldomort) or any wrong is seen in the heros. However, the characters are most definitely situated in backgrounds that make them shine—realistic backgrounds with details that seem clearly to exist.

The second point is nothing new, but it illustrates how intricately characters and plot are tied:

Our characters, mere black marks on white paper, cannot actually walk, talk, make love or war, scramble eggs or strum guitars. But they must appear to. So after we’ve given them substance … we set them in motion. One character flicks cigarette ash onto the carpet, another character vacuums it up. In fiction, as in life, actions speak louder than words. We learn about characters by watching them move… Action-based description does more than bring a character to life by painting a vivid, moving picture. A character’s actions also reflect how a character moves morally and psychologically through the world of the story.

Interesting to note, I think, that Rowling improved her technique, at least up through book four. She said herself in the interview with NBC that she would like to change things in 5, that she was up against her deadline and had to let things stand that she wishes now she could change. But with her descriptions, it seems to me from pure observation, not study, that she did less listing off of description and more of characters in motion description.

Can a story be “good” without this character and setting development? Well, yes, if we’re talking about fast-paced and thrilling. Much like a car chase scene has tension and excitement and keeps people wanting to find out what happens, a book can hold some readers by nothing more than the tension and excitement and curiosity created by the events. But weave in interesting characters set against a background that makes them come to life, and your good story becomes one readers of any stripe will enjoy. At least that’s my theory! 😉

Published in: on August 2, 2007 at 2:10 pm  Comments Off on The Tangled Web of Good Writing, Part 3  

The Tangled Web of Good Writing, Part 2

Interesting that Randy Ingermanson brought up the question about what makes Harry Potter successful over on his Advanced Fiction Blog. The comments end up posing the question whether the books are actually character driven or plot driven.

I suspect in good stories plot and character are so intricately woven, a person can’t really distinguish the two. This is the tangled web I referred to in yesterday’s post. But add to that the theme. If it is skillfully woven into the story, then it should appear seamlessly, as an outcropping of the character’s development.

Which brings us to the fourth element of fiction: setting.

It is in the setting of her stories that I think J. K. Rowling excels beyond most contemporary writers.

In examining the primary setting of the early Harry Potter books, I find myself camping on people as much as I do things. Hogwarts comes alive as a place, not only because of the moving staircases or the horseless cart or even the portraits whose subjects move about but because of the cast of minor characters. What would the school be without the teachers, the bullies, the nerd?

Then for the special fantastical touch, the ghosts take on roles, the owls display unique personality, the dragons (book 4) are different from each other.

Speaking of the fantastical, Rowling does an amazing job of marrying the make-believe of wizardry with the known of contemporary life. So the brooms used to fly about have new, improved models coming out from year to year. Wizardry books have titles that could have been about history or geography or science, the curriculum of the school advances as the students advance. In other words, there is a feel of the known given to the make-believe.

Without a doubt, the Harry Potter books reflect what an author can do with setting. But the key point is, it all contributes to the story. It’s not just window dressing.

In book one when we learn the owls deliver the mail to the students, that seems like a fun tidbit, but in book 4 when Harry needs to communicate with Sirius, the owls delivering mail are vital to the plot.

Ah, the truly tangled web of good story telling! All the elements weave together. Does the spider plan out his web, or is he just connecting the available points within reach?

Published in: on August 1, 2007 at 11:20 am  Comments (3)  

Lessons on Story from Harry Potter

I wish now I’d read Shadowmancer so that I could intelligently compare it with the Harry Potter books. I think that would be instructive in discussing “story.”

Yesterday I listed three essentials I think good stories all have. But some do more. Perhaps all do more, just not the same exact thing.

Our commenters have mentioned a couple things some good stories have that make them good. One tool is humor. Without a doubt, J. K. Rowling brought a keen sense of humor into the stories, whether in her description of Harry’s muggle relatives or in the shenanigans of some of the characters, including the ghosts or pictures or moving staircases. She played with her world. Took realistically flavored jellybeans, for example, and gave them the potential of tasting like all kinds of unpleasant things.

The humor actually blends with one of the essentials—surprise. Rowling’s world is anything but predictable, even when people draw parallels with British boarding schools. She has created the unusual twist that adds a newness, an irony, and therefore humor.

Which brings up the second means by which an author can contribute to a good story. Rowling gives details such that the reader is transported to this other place. Granted, since the movies have come out, part of this “specific place” is either enhanced or hindered, depending on your reading experience. What can’t be denied is that Rowling gave the moviemakers the details to work with. I can’t recall an invention the movie people added to enhance the world, though there probably are some.

The point is, Rowling’s world is innovative, and it is textured. And it is delivered to the reader along with the action. There’s no slowing down to give all the details. Some are dribbled along here and others added in there. She doesn’t compartmentalize her prose into description sections and action sections, at least not in a way that’s apparent to me.

As I mentioned, I’m reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire right now, and I’m especially impressed with the way Rowling “recharacterizes” the characters who appeared in the first three books. Of course, she’s writing from the omniscient POV, which gives a little more leeway for an author to tell things the character would already know. Still, she reminds readers of who is who and what went on before without breaking stride.

All that to say, good stories often have rich settings.

I’ll look at more components of good stories next time. Feel free to add your thoughts, too.

Published in: on July 18, 2007 at 12:33 pm  Comments (3)  

Harry Potter, Shadowmancer, and the Good Story

Of all the things I mentioned in yesterday’s post, the one I least expected to be controversial was my comment about Shadowmancer. It seemed self-apparent that G. P. Taylor’s books have not lived up to the hype.

The notion that this is due to death threats that keep him from promoting his work must have eluded the press. I did an internet search and came up with nothing of the kind, at least in the 100 or so articles I previewed.

I am more convinced than ever that the initial hype was built much like J. K. Rowling’s was—the author’s human interest story and some controversy (most, from what I can tell, generated by Taylor himself claiming to have received hate letters from evangelical Christians). Add in the fact that here in the US, Shadowmancer was touted as the “Christian Harry Potter,” and the book did soar to the NYT best-seller list.

Where it stayed for a while. Yes, the movie deals came, and the sequel followed, also hitting the best-selling list. But it’s stay was oh, so short. Tersias, the third in the series? If it hit the NYT best-seller list, I’m not aware of it.

The point is, many, many people fell away after enthusiastically embracing the initial book. Why?

I haven’t read it myself, primarily because a number of other writers whom I respect told me their opinion. Consequently, I can’t say from first hand knowledge that Shadowmancer wasn’t a good story. However, when looking at the rise in popularity of Harry Potter and the decline of popularity in Shadowmancer and sequels, there has to be more than “he doesn’t go to America to promote them.”

When the book sold initially and then didn’t keep selling, that says to me, it was the story. People bought the book expecting something, and it didn’t deliver. I suspect that Shadowmancer is one of the fantasies CBA has pointed to as a proof that “fantasy doesn’t sell” to their buyers.

The truth is, GOOD fantasy sells to anyone and everyone. Narnia sells in CBA and ABA stores alike. Christians buy Harry Potter (see A Christian Worldview of Fiction June, 27, 2006).

If you’ve checked out the Fantasy Fiction Tour taking place up the East Coast, you know that sales in both Christian and ABA stores are doing very well.

I have to conclude that good stories sell.

And here we are again. What constitutes a good story?

A number of the comments yesterday spoke to this issue, and I think hit on the keys. Here are some of the things I think are essential.

1) Good stories surprise. They are not predictable.
2) Good stories have at least one character readers care about enough to root for.
3) Good stories have readers gripped by the danger—internal or external—and it intensifies rather than letting up.

So what about that ending, with good winning out—also a subject that came up more than once in the comments yesterday. Mir made the point that evil does win out on earth, though there are occasions that good prevails. Daniel does emerge unharmed from the lions’ den. However, eventually he does die. So yes, in this lifetime, evil does win out. But that’s not the ultimate story.

Ultimately, God wins. In fact He already has, because the resurrection is a done deal.

So I think the point is, what part of reality is a writer writing to? It goes to purpose, I suppose. Do we show God walking with us through the valley of the shadow of death? Do we show characters spitting in His face? Do we show Him turning apparent defeat into victory?

More specifically, how do we do any of that, or others I haven’t named, without writing a predictable story?

Is Christian fiction, and specifically Christian fantasy, similar to writing a romance? Romance readers aren’t so much in doubt as to whether or not the guy and girl get together. What drives the story isn’t really the end as much as it is the means to the end. So in the good versus evil motif, with not much doubt that good will win, because that is the reflection of ultimate truth, does the unpredictability come elsewhere, not at the end?

I’m nearly a 150 pages into Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and I’ve made some observations as to why this book is compelling me to read it over the other three I have started. But I’ll bring up those points another time.

More Thoughts on the Potter Double-team

If you’re wondering about the “more” part of the title for this post, you can find the first thoughts over at Speculative Faith.

The double-team I’m referring to is the release of the movie of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix last Wednesday and the upcoming (Saturday, 12:01 am) launch of her final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows.

Besides the phenomenal financial success of the movie at the box office in just the first five days, the book promises to be even bigger. News services report that at Amazon.com alone, two million copies of Harry Potter and the Deadly Hollows have been pre-ordered.

For a little chuckle, contrast that to the 500 books Bloomsbury printed of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone back in 1997. 😀

So, would the Harry Potter books qualify as good stories, do you think? And if so, why?

Certainly, millions of fans are sold. I attributed the early barn-storming success to the human interest news coverage of a single mom writing a popular story, followed by the controversy created by conservative groups wishing to ban and burn that first book.

But Shadowmancer generated that same kind of initial frenzy. Hear much about that series of late? Me, either.

No, I’d have to say, millions of fans think the Harry Potter books are good stories. I’d like to explore just why in the next day or so. For now, I’m just wondering if a Christian fantasy can ever be as good a story.

Here’s what I’m thinking. One part of what make Harry Potter good is not knowing what will happen next. For instance, one news report questions whether or not Harry commits suicide in this last book. In other words, could it be that evil will actually win out?

Now, I have my doubts that the series will end with such an ultimate defeat of good. The possibility keeps readers oh, so eager to find out, but the actuality, I believe, would make the series unsatisfying and ultimately damage their influence. My opinion.

But back to Christian fantasy. What kind of Christian fantasy would have evil win out? Knowing that a book is Christian almost precludes the evil-winning outcome, because, well, that’s in contradiction to reality. Good—God, actually—wins, in the end.

So do we write about the “not yet” part of reality, and bring our fantasies to unhappy conclusions, just to make the story more entertaining, to keep readers guessing?

I’ll tell you, I think Wayne Thomas Batson did about the best job, this side of C. S. Lewis, delivering an ending that keeps readers eager to find out what happens, while at the same time adhering to reality. I’m referring to the final book in The Door Within trilogy, The Final Storm.

But how frequently can a writer produce such an ending before it becomes a “done-that, seen it once too often” phenomena?

I guess, what I’m saying is, Christian fantasy writers have a big challenge—to keep our endings unpredictable and yet still reflect ultimate truth.

I wonder what Rowling ended up writing?

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