As human beings the one thing that is universal among all of us is that we will eventually die. Try as we might, you can’t avoid it. Modern medicine, technology, and society have allowed us to extend our lifetimes to twice as long as our ancestors, sometimes even longer, but we still have to face that one outcome in the hopefully distant future. Not that the fact we all owe a death doesn’t stop people from trying to get out of it. Hell, in ways we’ve built entire cultures around the desire to find a loophole.
When you really think about it, religions are based on this idea that we can somehow be eternal. Sure, there may be explanations for the world that create mythologies with a pantheon of gods or a single almighty deity, but the actual crux of a religion is that there is some part of us that is eternal and everlasting. If you do the right thing in the right religion you’ll go on as an eternal soul, or be reincarnated into a new life, or break free of the bounds of human mortality. It’s undeniable that we’ve gone a long way to follow stories of immortality – even inventing gunpowder.
So it should be no surprise to anyone that speculative fiction is full of possible ways out of it. Immortal beings have been a staple of fantasy for as long as “fantasy” has even existed. Methods of achieving a higher state of existence have been fairly common in fantasy and sci-fi for almost as long. And with modern medicine slowly creeping its way to resolving the biological aspect of aging, sci-fi still has new avenues to explore on the subject. Aliens, demons, gods and other entities walk through these stories timeless and unaging, a pinnacle of the dream that so many of us have and presenting to some a hope that maybe we could do the same someday – possibly before it’s our turn.
One of the great staples of speculative fiction is the idea of the idyllic utopia where all the world’s ills just cease to exist. These utopias are inevitably short lived in the hands of writers because we need to make a conflict of some sort. Perhaps a sudden alien invasion brings it crashing to an end. Maybe new threats or issues become known and catch the untested society off guard. Often it turns out that the utopia is in fact a dystopia in disguise. But, on a few rare occasions the utopian society will survive on through the events in question and just continue to be perfect despite the odds.
Usually when this happens it’s actually the old favorite shorthand of “utopia” actually meaning “post-scarcity”. Writers and audiences generally have trouble identifying the differences because at first glance they’re pretty much the same. A post-scarcity society is one where problems of resources are resolved and civilization is impacted in profoundly beneficial ways as a result. There are so many facets to that to go over, one for another day to be sure, but it doesn’t quite make something automatically utopian. However, when we see a “utopia” survive against all odds it generally happens to be a very orderly post-scarcity society. This isn’t because writers don’t know the difference, it’s just that true utopias are pretty damn hard to write about in an interesting fashion.
As is well known to anyone who’s followed the blog for a long time, the guy who writes it is a broken man who becomes crippled at the mere sight of flower petals. Allergens are my greatest enemy, and they’ve often made getting up in the morning difficult. Hell, today they made getting up in the afternoon difficult as I temporarily fell asleep face first on my desk. Generally that means that I’ve got a touch of derailed productivity, the need to step away from certain tasks to chase down others instead. And, despite my own advice, sometimes I still fall into the trap I described back when I first mentioned the phenomenon. It’s easy to think that you’re not doing your best if you give into some physical ailments, even if everyone around you tells you that it’s okay.
But, having finally come to realize that I was just being silly in trying to chase down my original task for the day, I’ve accepted that I should have listened to that guy hopped up on benadryl many months ago. I shouldn’t push myself to do a task that I know isn’t going to be getting my best effort. I shouldn’t damage the work just to appease my guilt over my physical failings. There are other things to be done, other tasks worth my time, which I can still do even if my head feels like it’s been stuffed with cotton and can only be relieved by the blessings of the MyPurMist given to me for my birthday.
In today’s era it’s fairly well established that everyone understands the importance of a suspension of disbelief. Long ago it was a bit less likely that someone would be compelled to stop reading or watching a story in the middle because of their lack of belief. The reason for it is fairly simple: most fiction at one time was thought to reflect the real world and how it works. Even the most fantastic of stories from those eras was, in part, believed to be representative of the world as it was. The earliest plays to feature gods and monsters were telling stories from the religions of the era. Works like Dante’s Inferno were, at the very least, thought to be a theory into what the afterlife might actually have been. And Shakespeare, while pushing some boundaries and making up some shit as he went (particularly words), was generally writing about events that everyone believed could happen – witches included.
So it often gets overlooked that suspension of disbelief, in its current form, is really a fairly new concept in the grand scheme. Sure, there was always a need for the audience to believe irrational behaviors, but the scenarios were generally plausible. This really applied to almost everything, no matter how silly or believable it may sound to us in the modern day. Two families bitterly feuding with each other and tearing young lovers apart? Happens all the time. Zeus getting frisky with a village girl in the shape of a bull? According to the things people used to believe…apparently that happened all the time too. So what we have as “suspension of disbelief” today is not necessarily what they used to have in the days of yore.
And this is a problem for writers and even audiences because that means, at times, it’s hard to gauge just when suspension of disbelief is going to become an issue. It’s especially true in speculative fiction genres that push some limits because we often find that audiences will reject something even after they’ve accepted something far less mundane. We’ve all encountered a situation where someone will believe that a character can fly, but then seemingly become irrationally upset with how believable another element of the story happens to be. As you’ve likely heard before, “you believe that man has superpowers, but this is where you draw the line?”
As far as suspension of disbelief is concerned, you would think that the more ridiculous premise would be the part rejected, not the more mundane aspects. For a long time I couldn’t quite reconcile these concepts myself. But recently something clicked for me that hadn’t in the past as I came to realize that there was something other than suspension of disbelief at play here. Because it’s ostensibly part of the idea of “suspension of disbelief”, it often gets overlooked as being something of a distinct phenomenon. It’s the root cause of those weird moments where someone will believe in a talking dragon but not in a character’s actions.
As spring time rolls around and certain holidays come to pass, a few questions inevitably start popping up. Our modern holidays, inspired long ago by more ancient traditions, don’t make a lot of sense to us in our modern frames of reference. For instance, the Easter Bunny references a spring hare that traveled with some old European deities. Coloring eggs for Easter is part of an old Norse tradition representing the dawn. And, as for St. Patrick’s Day, there’s a whole lot we don’t fully understand about these little bastards.
The Leprechaun as we know them today have been changed repeatedly over the course of centuries. Beginning as part of Irish folklore, they’ve since become entwined with Irish stereotypes and traditions that have long since lost meaning. With even the origin of their name not being entirely clear, with some sources citing “little people” and others saying it was referring to their jobs as shoe cobblers, it makes sense they didn’t stay firm in all that time. Even the color they wear and the way they behave has been altered to suit contemporary mindsets over the ages. By this point, they’re essentially an inkblot test of how you feel about the Irish – for better or worse.
But one thing that hasn’t really changed much about Leprechauns over the ages is the fact that they are magical, lucky, and generally holders of great wealth. Some stories say this is due to their workaholic nature, acting in a miserly fashion and hoarding every coin they could possibly get. Others say that it’s due to their magical nature and ability to do things no human could. And some even say they found the treasures lost or buried by people and simply kept them. But all variations of this story generally have one unifying detail: If you can capture the little shits, they have to bargain their way free – potentially even giving you the location to their treasure (which is one of the few things they’re bound to tell the truth on).
As I’ve often said before, I tend to approach the world as a bit of a classroom. Everything you read, watch, take part in, or experience is something that can inspire your writing and make you a stronger storyteller. Your life experiences are easy enough to explain, they form the well you draw from to inform your characters and stories. What you read or watch is just as easy, giving you a look into the viewpoints of others and seeing what the rest of your genre might be like. But for some things it can be hard to quantify the benefits to writers. These I’ve come to call “peculiar inspirations”. “Peculiar inspirations” are things that seemed like common sense to me, only to later find out that they weren’t much common sense at all.
Years ago, while a friend was in school for screenwriting, I mentioned to her how I thought it would be a good idea if writing programs would have their students take an acting class as well. I’d taken two years of speech and drama myself in high school and another friend had a mandatory class as part of her animation program. And, while I can’t say how well it helps animators, I can say for a fact that my writing after that class made great advancements. In fact, while it may not make sense to everyone, that drama class actually worked as a turning point in my life. Though I’ve learned a lot since that day, that class turned out to be the time my writing started to resemble something “professional”. Of course I would suggest someone else do the same thing.
My friend’s reaction made it seem like I told her every writer should learn how to fly a plane.
Her argument, and arguments I’ve heard from others, is that writers and actors fill different roles and need to know different things. The two people fill very different roles within the industry and have to have very different skill-sets in order to be considered good at what they do. And this is entirely true, the skill-sets required to be a good actor are not exactly the same as the skill-sets required to be a good writer. But I never actually suggested that writers needed to be good actors, nor that an actor would be a good writer. Rather, what I suggested, and took a while to explain, is that in the process of trying to act, even for a bit, you learn something that is difficult for humans to grasp on a fundamental level: putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Continue reading Peculiar Inspiration: Writers And Acting→
Long ago, at a time when people didn’t necessarily understand what stars were, a few points of light were seen against the night sky moving independently of the rest of the heavens. Called planets, for “wanderer”, these points of light in the night sky soon took on greater meaning as we realized what they said about the shape of our world and our very universe. We’ve looked at them for ages now, studying their features and making rough guesses as to what they would hold, and for the greatest time we had expectations that couldn’t really have been met by the rocks in our solar system.
But over time we came to realize something far more profound. For every point of light in that sky that wasn’t a planet, there was another sun or a galaxy that we couldn’t have realized was there with the naked eye. And for each star there was a promise of more, of a near limitless supply of other worlds that could hold not just possibilities for ourselves but for others we’ve never met. The more worlds exist in this universe, the more chances we have at not being alone.
Building a world is more than just the broad strokes. Every bit of finer detail gives a new layer of depth to your work that makes it feel more like a real, breathing world for your audience. It’s not that you want to bog people down in these details, but it’s good to have them available for when you can pepper them in without getting in the way of your story. And this is particularly true when you’re creating a world with more than just your run of the mill humans. If you’re including sentient creatures that don’t exist in our world, they need to feel like a real race.
A key aspect of making them feel real is establishing a culture for these creatures. Maybe they have their own kinds of music, their own foods, their traditions and rituals. Each of these is the sort of thing you’d expect to learn about another group of people in passing and learning it in passing about fictional characters can totally make them feel less fictional.
But this leads into some weird questions when you come to matters like faith. Religion, while not absolutely necessary, is part of the human condition. Even when you don’t actually believe in it, you’re still in part defined by the fact that you don’t believe in the same things other people do. It’s almost impossible to get through life without it coming up at some point, so it would be just as impossible for your characters to go on forever without it coming up in their lives. Perhaps it’s not something addressed in a specific story, but it still shapes a world view.
And this is the sort of thing you see handled quite well in some of the better speculative fiction. Alien races inevitably have an alien religion and those beliefs end up influencing their actions even when it’s not at the forefront. Even in a retcon it comes to make sense of things that previously would have seemed one dimensional. Why do the Klingons have such a war-like nature? Because they believe that where you end up in the afterlife depends on how much you lived like their warrior prophet Kahless who is essentially the violent Klingon version of King Arthur elevated to a messiah figure.
However, when the creatures in question are a little closer to home, like in a fantasy setting, the idea of these religions often becomes something of an afterthought. Because they’re from Earth it’s assumed they believe in one of the common Earth-born religions even if that doesn’t entirely make sense. As a result we often have three approaches taken towards these creatures. The first is to simply assign them whatever is the most popular religion of their time and location, regardless of levels of interaction with humans. The second is to give them the faith prevalent in the mythology of their origin. And the third, when people want to buck this trend, is to apply what I prefer to call the “triangle philosophy” based on the adage, “if triangles had a god, he would have three sides”.