Apr 8, 2012

H is for: Heaven and hell, a discussion of fictional honesty

There is a certain supernatural novel I read recently. In it, fallen angels are handsome, dangerous boys who happen to be close to the MC's age. They're immature, full of conceit and irony, and for some inexplicable reason, make the MC almost pant with yearning despite the fact the one she likes blows so hot and cold, she'd have more success using a hair dryer inside a freezer.

Then there is the tale of a girl angel, bound to protect a certain handsome human. She, of course, falls in love and is caught  in a snare of her own emotions. He is mortal, she's got a hot-demon rival for her love and however will they make it work? Especially in fifty years when she's the same age and he's an old geezer...

Basically, these stories are romance novels. The angels and demons don't behave like their namesakes- which aren't human, can't reproduce and have a specific, limited purpose on Earth if one reads the Judeo-Christian stories. The authors lifted certain elements in these stories out of context - while still relying on readers' understanding of those traditions - yet substitute in no new rules for the ones they discard. In these stories, an angel is simply a girl with wings who lives a really long time. A demon is a misunderstood young man who, inspired by his pure love for a girl, fights against his twisted nature.

Now, I have no problem with either of these character types. What I question is their titles. Let's say I want to write a book about animals and my MC is a raccoon. We all know what a raccoon looks like, right? Striped fuzzy tail, cute little hands, a mask around its eyes, can hiss like a cat. In my story, I don't have to waste words describing this animal  because almost everyone has seen one and knows how it behaves just from reading its title. This is called prior knowledge.

But I've decided that my raccoon doesn't have a tail. In fact, it has wings. And four sets of hands. And its fur shoots lightning. It still has a mask around its eyes, though, but instead of scavenging for garbage and living in attics, my raccoons rule the world.

Right there, I took your prior knowledge and stamped it to pieces. I've manipulated the concept of a raccoon beyond all recognition. So why did I insist on calling my MC a raccoon? Why not just call it a ransflog? Or a coopcat?

Authors like Tamora Pierce, Juliet Marillier and Frank Peretti build their worlds from almost whole cloth. Marillier weaves her settings around Druidic tradition while Peretti stays true to the Christian idea of angels and demons battling it out in unseen realms. And Pierce pulls an entire world's mythology straight from her imagination. All these writers stay consistent to the rules of their chosen tradition - whatever they are - drawing the reader into a satisfying conclusion. They don't need a bait-and-switch to keep you hooked.

So what do you think? Is it possible for an author to be lazy in their worldbuilding? Or should anything go in fiction?

14 comments:

Kyra Lennon said...

This is an excellent question. I completely agree with you about the titles given. Sure, if a story is fiction then a writer is free to do whatever they want with their own characters BUT there has to be a degree of realism, even in fantasy.

Kimberlee Turley said...

I've avoided reading any of the fallen angel/demon stories because I can't forgive the lack of new world building.

If the author would take the same story, stick it on another planet, rename angels to the children of the Queen alien, I'd probably really enjoy it.

I've also never really been a fan of the idea of angels having wings. It's like--you expect me to believe you have the power to grant miracles yet you need a pair of bird wings on your back to get around?-- I prefer to think they get around more like ghosts and can just float up through the floor.

Kimberlee Turley said...

I've avoided reading any of the fallen angel/demon stories because I can't forgive the lack of new world building.

If the author would take the same story, stick it on another planet, rename angels to the children of the Queen alien, I'd probably really enjoy it.

I've also never really been a fan of the idea of angels having wings. It's like--you expect me to believe you have the power to grant miracles yet you need a pair of bird wings on your back to get around?-- I prefer to think they get around more like ghosts and can just float up through the floor.

Lynn Proctor said...

i don't think there should be any limits---but that is not to say, that i would find it interesting--great question!

Linda Jackson said...

Interesting post, Melodie. I don't have an answer to your question, but your insight is quite thought-provoking. :)

M.J. Fifield said...

I agree with Kyra's comment. If an author is lazy about world building, the story suffers.

Lisa L. Regan said...

I tend to agree with you. If you're making something that is basically wholly new then just put it out there as new, don't try to pass it off as something readers have prior knowledge of--and call it something new to avoid confusion!

Suzi said...

I'm sort of mixed. On one hand, it is fiction, but on the other I can see your point too.

I just read a blurb about a book that takes place in a state that I am familiar. The setting doesn't fit though. I won't say what it is, but it would be akin to saying a story took place in the rainforests of Alaska. (And I'm not talking about a post- apocalyptic climate changed world). I've never been to Alaska, but I'm pretty sure there are no rainforests there.

So in the case of this book, I immediately question the author's ability if she can't get such a basic setting issue right. So even though it's fiction, I would go back to your point, how many liberties can an author take?

I don't know. For me, it probably depends on the story and the liberty taken.

Interesting question. Good to see other people's opinions.

Andrew Leon said...

I agree with you entirely. It's one of the reasons I can't stand Twilight. Her whole "vampire" thing is just stupid, because they're -not- vampires. It really bothers me when authors do these kinds of things.

Daisy Carter said...

I don't mind at all when an old idea is turned on its ear, like Twilight or Shiver or whatever. But I do mind when the premise/world building isn't set up to support the twist. That said, I've only read one "angel" book, and it left a bad taste in my mouth. Maybe because I really believe in angels, so I was distracted by all the holes the author punched into their makeup. I don't believe in vampires or werewolves; maybe that's why I didn't mind the twist.

Sky Luke Corbelli said...

Personally, I don't mind creative liberties, as long as the author gives a reason for our currently flawed interpretation. For example, if, in this story, "angels" and "demons" only ever appeared to hot and bothered tweens, maybe it makes sense that our lore is wrong. I mean, would you trust a person like the MC to really get all the details right?

As long as the author addresses the preconceptions that they are giving their reader and gives a somewhat plausible and hopefully clever explanation for their variance, I'm cool with it. Check out Peeps by Scott Westerfeld for an example in the vampire vein, it's probably the best vampire book I'll ever read, specifically because it's very cleverly done.

Deana said...

You have a really great point! I actually like a lot of these angel books, but you're right, they are so unlike what we read about them conventionally. That is also why I would say they are fiction. so as long as the works building is solid, I'm game:-)

Tobi Summers said...

I think there are different interpretations to angels and demons, same as most supernatural creatures. For example, I've read stories about werewolves where they transform fully to wolves, and stories where they're half man-half wolf. So I don't generally have a problem with the name an author uses, as long as they're consistent with its usage throughout their story/series. Sure, there's a line where they might stray too far (and I agree with Andrew's point about Twilight), but I think it's much easier for a reader to accept a new twist on a familiar concept than it is for us to understand a brand-new supernatural being.

Nicole said...

My gut says yes, writers can sometimes get lazy in their worldbuilding. But, then again, sometimes I really enjoy it as a reader when authors turn the 'accepted prior knowledge' on its head. :)