I’m thrilled to welcome Sarah Zama to Bookshelf Fantasies! Thank you, Sarah, for providing this terrific guest post.
FANTASY AUTHORS: WHY YOU’LL BELIEVE THEIR LIES
by Sarah Zama, The Old Shelter (see author bio below)
Tell me. Are you a fantasy reader?
As a fantasy writer (and reader) I often hear readers say they don’t care for fantasy and prefer to read stories that are realistic.
Let’s talk about it.
What is storytelling?
As Flannery O’Connor said, everybody knows what a story is until they try to write one. Defining storytelling is harder than one would think, but years ago I came across a fascinating definition. It answered the question, what’s the difference between chronicling a true event and telling a story? The chronicle and the story largely adopt the same elements and can even concern themselves with the same events, what then is the difference between the two forms of telling?
Let’s say there is a car accident. A journalist will try to relate events as close as possible to how they happened, trying to replicate the dynamics and the cause-effect evolution, adding all relevant info.
We already have a ‘problem’ here: how does the journalist decide what is relevant? How does she describe events that happened at the same exact time? We have two cars moving towards each another, there are people on both of them, and things are happening inside both cars. How does a journalist decide what to relate out of all this info?
The obvious answer is that she will have to make choices. Choose which event to tell first and which tell later. Choose what details she will actually mention and which she will leave out altogether.
This will colour her account of a personal flavour… and that’s where storytelling begins.
Where a chronicler will try to leave her personal judgment out as much as possible, a storyteller will push it at its utmost consequences, with the goal to give a meaning – a very specific, personal, carefully chosen meaning – to those events. When recounting that car accident, a storyteller will put special care in choosing who are on board those cars, what they’re doing and where they’re going. She will carefully decide what events she will tell first and what later and how they will intertwine, the chain of events and their timings, she will decide whether and how to tell the impact that accident will have on those people. And her goal won’t be to just recount how the accident happened, but it will be a carefully chosen message about something she thinks it’s important for her and for her readers.
Storytellers make choices all the time and every choice intentionally lends a meaning to the story.
So we could say that while chronicles try to manipulate events as little as possible to present them ‘how they happened’, stories intentionally manipulate events with the specific goal, the specific purpose to send out a chosen ‘message’. Where the point of the chronicle is the events, the point of the story is the message, or if you prefer, the theme.
Mimic and fantasy stories
Stories are generally divided into two big categories:
- Mimetic stories which mimic life as closely as possible. They may be based on actual facts, but even when they aren’t, they depict the world, people and the workings of life as we are accustomed to see them play out every day around us
- Fantasy stories which adopt elements who aren’t experienced in our everyday life. These fantasy elements may range from slight deviations from what we know (magic realism) to full-fledged reimagined worlds that look like nothing we’ve ever or would ever experience (high fantasy)
Readers and writers familiar with one realm are normally very hesitant to wander over to the other realm because they think they won’t fit in. Readers of mimetic fiction, in particular, think that what a fantasy story would ask them to believe is really too weird and unrealistic and so they will be unable to immerse themselves in the story the way they like to do.
Why would I suspend my disbelief?
Now, dear reader, be honest with me. You don’t believe for a moment that the novels you read are in any way true. They may be ‘realistic’ but they aren’t true. Beside, the fact that they are realistic is the important factor, because if they are, you can happily pretend they are as good as true and you can pretend that you can be part of that story.
This is a specific phenomenon called suspension of disbelief.
The term and concept of suspension of disbelief was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817, and refers to readers’ willingness to accept the story as it is, even when they recognise elements that challenge reality as they know it. Since Coleridge was a Romantic (by this I mean he was a member of the Romantic movement), he referred specifically to any fantasy elements present in the story. Since then, the concept has taken up a larger meaning encompassing the totality of storytelling.
The core concept is that authors can employ any element in their story, unlikely as it may be (being it fantastic creatures or very daring chains of coincidences) and the reader will accept it as long as the author makes it plausible.
Prof. J.R.R. Tolkien went even further. He theorized that an author needs to be able to create a fictional world that not necessarily adheres to reality (he was after all talking about true speculative/fantasy fiction), but that works in the same way reality does. This ‘secondary reality’ may be very different from reality as we know it, but the rules that governs it must be as stringent and logic as those governing our real world. It must have the ‘intimate consistency of reality’, no matter what it looks like on the outside. It must be plausible in that context. At that point, the author won’t even need to ask readers to suspend their disbelief, because given the rules that govern that secondary reality, the readers will accept this is exactly how that reality should work.
Along these lines, Prof. Rosalba Campra went as far as saying that all stories with a perfectly functioning secondary reality should be considered realistic whether they have fantasy elements (like Middle Earth) or not.
Have I messed up your ideas well enough? Good!
Now tell me, why would you suspend your disbelief in regard to any story? Well, as a reader, I have an answer: because – as it’s for storytellers – when we read fiction we are more concerned with themes then events. If events sustain the theme convincingly and plausibly, then we are willing to play along even if the element is in itself unlikely. If the story is worthwhile in terms of themes and involvement, if it enriches us as persons, then we are willing to believe the lie.
Why then, some readers think that fantasy is more a lie than any other story? Why some readers think that ‘it doesn’t exist, it’s not realistic, so it can’t give me any worthwhile experience.’
As a writer of fantasy stories, I often wonder: is the appearance of the story really so important to obscure its theme?
Commissar Montalbano: a case study
Years ago I read an interview with Italian mystery novelist Andrea Camilleri about his acclaimed series Il commissario Montalbano. If you are unfamiliar with it, this is a series of mystery novels set in Sicily, Camilleri’s homeland. Salvo Montalbano is a police detective who investigates murders in his little town, Vigata, following Italian police procedures… if sometimes interpreting them in his personal way, and juggling himself between strict magistrates, shadowy mafiosi, young ambitious entrepreneurs projected in the future and old Sicilians living the traditional way and only speaking dialect. The novels themselves are written in a mix of Italian and Vigata dialect.
All perfectly mimetic, wouldn’t you say? Especially if you think that the Siclianity radiates from every little element of Camilleri’s stories and he has often been praised for how vividly his stories depict the reality of Sicilian life.
So let me tell you that Vigata doesn’t exist. Montelusa, the province to which Vigata depends, also doesn’t exist. And even the dialect the novels are partly written in doesn’t exist.
Camilleri made it all up, just like Tolkien made up the Shire, in Middle Earth, and all its languages. Vigata works perfectly well and it sounds like reality because it mimics it so well and so close that readers are deceived into believing it is reality itself, when in fact it’s a very well crafted secondary reality, just like The Shire.
But there’s more. What I find particularly interesting is why Camilleri decided for a fictional place. He initially wanted to set his stories in an actual place, Porto Empedocle (which is indeed the set of the tv series), but because he knew from the beginning that he wanted to write a series of novels all set there, he quickly realised the murder rate of this town would soon exceed the actual murder rate of Porto Empedocle by far.
He could have played along anyway, pressing on the readers’ suspension of disbelief, ignoring that if that murder rate turned up in Porto Empedocle in real life, it would cause all kinds of political and social alarm. Or he could create a completely fictional place, although recognizably Sicilian, where he would be free to create his own custom made reality where he could decide whatever was best for the stories and their themes.
So yes, Camilleri created a fantasy reality so to make his stories more realistic. Although not true, Vigata does have the intimate consistency of reality more than Porto Empedocle would have had.
So tell me. Are you a fantasy reader?
About the author:
Sarah Zama was born in Isola della scala (Verona – Italy) where she still lives. She started writing at nine – blame it over her teacher’s effort to turn her students into readers – and in the 1990s she contributed steadily to magazines and independent publishers on both sides of the Atlantic.
After a pause, in early 2010s she went back to writing with a new mindset. The internet allowed her to get in touch with fellow authors around the globe, hone her writing techniques in online workshops and finally find her home in the dieselpunk community.
Since 2010 she’s been working at a trilogy set in Chicago in 1926, historically as accurate as possible but also (as all her stories are) definitely fantasy. She’s currently seeking representation for the first book in the Ghost Trilogy, Ghostly Smell Around.
Her first book, Give in to the Feeling, came out in 2016.
She’s worked for QuiEdit, publisher and bookseller in Verona, for the last ten years.
She also maintain a blog, The Old Shelter, where she regularly blogs about the Roaring Twenties and anything dieselpunk.
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