I’m becoming a big fan of the concept of Reality unless otherwise noted.  It is a fairly new idea when it comes to modern fantasy, a natural offshoot of the Urban Fantasy genre.  Although it’s actually much older.  H.G. Wells and Jules Verne usually set their stories in the real world unless otherwise noted.  It only seems like an otherworldly place now because of the passing of time.

Yet in the fantasy genre, your average person is often confused by the concept of a world where everything is the same as ours EXCEPT for a few fantasy elements.  An important distinction here is that there’s no “masquerade” of normality, no hidden world of the fantastic.  The fantastic is just part of the everyday world and nobody is terribly surprised by it.  This is how DC and Marvel Comics universes work.  The history of their world is nearly identical.  It just has flying people and radioactive spiders.  And Hitler was killed by an android and came back several times, dying a horrible death each time.  But Hitler is still dead, and the end result of WWII, even with superheroes running around, is exactly the same.  There’s a Metropolis and a Gotham City, but they haven’t replaced New York or Chicago.  They’re just additions to our universe.

My novel Divine Misfortune is set in a world where the gods are real, myths are true, and everything came out the same regardless.  Because that’s the setting that works best for the story and allows me to tell the story I want to tell.  I wasn’t interested in exploring how gods would change the world.  I was more interested in seeing how the world would change the gods.

The Automatic Detective takes place in a retro-future setting that actually occurs in some purposely ill-defined time between the 30’s and 50’s.  And while the world outside Empire City isn’t important to the story, it doesn’t change the fact that James Cagney is still a movie star in this world and Jane Austin’s novels exist.  Because what’s the point in creating a completely new culture when the story is about a robotic tough guy beating the crap out of mutants and evil-doers?

In Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, everything is normal except for absurd moments and the video game logic that pervades the film.  But nobody seems to notice that because that’s the world they live in.  Shaolin Soccer is another great example.  As is Kung Fu Hustle, though that one does have a justification at the very end.  And Comedy Central’s Ugly Americans lives and breathes this concept, taking place in a world where monsters and mutants are just considered minority groups in a familiar version of New York, aside from a things like the Grand Canyon being created by a demon and other bits of color that give us the same end result.

Worldbuilding is a great tool, and I’m not going to discourage anyone from using it.  But it’s okay to admit it isn’t always necessary and that it can even get in the way sometimes.  It’s cool to say “This story is not about how WWII played out if magic was real.  This story is about gods sitting around on a couch, watching television, and trying to make a living.”  It’s not being lazy to say that.  It’s being focused on the story that is trying to be told instead of the story you have been conditioned to expect.  Sometimes, the best thing in the world is to just say, “Here’s our world PLUS X, and that’s all you really need to know to enjoy this story.”

If the story is good, if it connects with the audience, then regardless of how little world building went into it, it works.  And if the story fails to do that, then it doesn’t matter how much fake history / geography / physics / politics went into it because I’m not reading a story for any of those things (though I know some people are).  World building is great if that’s what you’re going for.  But if its absent, it doesn’t mark the writer as a failure.  It just shows his efforts are being placed elsewhere.

There is no default way to tell a good fantasy story.  There are only stories that work and stories that don’t.  Regardless of whether or not the Axis had jetpack gorilla commandoes, Atlantis is still around and kicking, and some people have the psychic ability to control time.

Though, regardless of the justification, I’m always in favor of a good jetpack gorilla story.

Fighting the good Fight, Writing the good write,


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  1. Louis Arico
    Posted August 5, 2011 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    greetings lee,

    i am in full agreement with what your thinking points. One addition i would like to lend is vampire and zombie flicks. For the most part I find vampire films are a dime a dozen now a days with rules and lore for each one being predictable, unentertaining and down right yawn city. Modern zombie films are doing the same thing. Giving an excuse of “its a virus”, or ” infection”. It makes me upset and mad when an idea is manipulated and tweaked for no reason other than for the sake of just putting it out there. Do not ruin a good thing.

    there could be more fun out there

  2. Paul Rossi
    Posted August 10, 2011 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    My current obsession is stories in which the main character knows that he/she has somehow fallen out of reality. I’m currently read Rankin’s ‘Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse,’ where a witty young man unwittingly travels to The BIG CITY to find it populated by toys and fictional characters. Oddly enough–yet not so oddly enough–it’s a detective story. This story is type, of course, isn’t new either. See Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz–but with less of the fish-out-of-water appeal.

    I love these stories because, unlike your “accept all” position, I doubt there exists such a rational entity who doesn’t seek to understand his existential situation. This is why I can’t stand comic books. The people never question why there are superheroes in the their world. Seriously, when non-superhero characters in the superhero universe discover the Vinn diagram they’ll fall into a crisis that no superhero can save them from. How could anyone be so blatantly naive as to not question WHY? Why? Why? Why? Fish might not know they are fish, but humans (rational animals, mind you) question everything. Well, unless they have the IQ of fish.

  3. Paul Rossi
    Posted August 10, 2011 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    Also, could you imagine doing your job from one of your fictional worlds. What would you write about? It would read as if it were a biography–which would be paradoxical, since outsiders (people with non-magical abilities) aren’t able to see or conceive the paranormal realms in which they are not part of–your rule. And if you were writing such, would it cease to be fiction? Because in a universe where fiction is reality, either fiction or reality cease to be. And your only novel having written such, would be that you were able to perceive such an event in a non-transcendental way–as if these events weren’t happening all the time right under the normal people’s noses. But they would be happening all the the time in such a fictional universe, and such perception of writing would cease to make your novel novel. So what would you write about? Because you couldn’t write about humdrum reality (our reality), nor humdrum superheroes, monsters, robots, dinobots, witches and warlocks, and the like. You might be able to get away with writing historical fiction or romantic humor or satire but your choice would be limited.

    Blah blah rant blah. Something something something. Blah rant blah bullshit. blah blah crack head rationale blah. Something Something more utter bullshit about a fictional reality and blah. blah blah blah blah Something something something. Hence the fictional character would then question his or her existential situation, having understood all fiction to be reality. In turn the character would break character.

  4. Paul Rossi
    Posted August 10, 2011 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    And if characters broke character, then they would cease to be the characters in your book. And if your characters cease to be characters in your book, then you wouldn’t have a book. So, so much for living inside your book from a writers perspective, cause it would just be a paradox. And you would lose your point, much as I have. So there, how about that? The whole point is lost because of multiple incoherencies. I mean the whole thing is completely irrational, life and fiction. There is no rhyme or reason. It’s totally mad. You think you have a point and then it’s totally lost on cigarettes and cappuccino, the inability to focus on the subject at hand. And then you think, did I really have a point to make. I’m just rambling. Why am I rambling? Am i having amnesia….has something broken…have aliens coaxed Haitian voodoo priests to zombie parts of my brain? And we’re right back to the beginning where we question our existential situation.

  5. Paul Rossi
    Posted August 10, 2011 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Oh, and I totally forgot to mention Bears. Existentially aware teddy bears, who aren’t aware of universe where bears are not existentially aware, is something I meant to talk about. You see, in books where characters are aware of existential situation they avoid all problems I talked about. No paradox will befuddle their universe as yours would be if you were to enter it, including the event where you are a character, and writer, within the book. Well, other than the bootstrap problem, which I will deny deny deny exists (because it destroys my argument altogether). In fact, who said bootstrap problem? There is no bootstrap problem. I evoke the Mark Twain rules of rationality: Character can and do write their own stories. See, bootstrap problem eliminated.

    Where was I? Zombies? Haitians? Can you believe that the Haitian government didn’t give the people the money we donated to their relief effort? Was It something about injustice? Mark Twain? 19th Century bootstraps? Bears! I remember, I was talking about existentially aware bears who were not aware of a universe of non-existentially aware bears.

    Yeah, somewhere in there I wanted to say it was narrow minded of you to focus on non-existentially aware characters. So there! Give your book some bears. Mention Mark Twain. Never move to Haiti. Something about zombies. And don’t forget to where your bootstraps.

  6. Paul Rossi
    Posted August 10, 2011 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Dear Conspiracy Network,

    I’ve forgotten what I was going to write to you about, because I think aliens have coaxed Haitian voodoo priest to zombie parts of my brain. I do not practice Santeria nor have I ever been to Haiti. Well, actually, I can’t remember if I did go to Haiti to practice Santeria–I may have, it’s in my nature to such things. Anyway, I think the Haitians, or the Haitian government (whom I donated money for the relief effort) has has employed aliens to coax Haitian voodoo priest scramble parts of my brain. I feel less existentially aware of my situation. Most times I ramble, and forget the point of what I was saying. No more than ten minutes ago I was writing on my favorite writer’s blog. I mean, I Love Robert Rankin books. And I couldn’t even form a coherent thought. And A Lee Martinez, I think maybe I might have been on his blog, he wrote something void of non-existentially aware worlds.

    Wait, back up. I LOVE A Lee Martinez books but I think he shouldn’t deny existentially aware characters. And my point was Rankin. So I hope you get this. I need to get the parts of my brain back that have been zombified. I had something else to say, but I can’t remember what that was. Something about injustice. So, get to work. I have the utt most confidence that you can solve this problem between A Lee Martinez, Robert Rankin and Mark Twain.

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