September 27, 2020, 06:00:56 PM

Author Topic: Episodic Explorations of the Supernatural  (Read 836 times)

Offline Yora

Episodic Explorations of the Supernatural
« on: January 22, 2020, 12:07:26 PM »
I've been coming back to an old concept that I was never able to get into a form that felt like it would work. I think I originally started with drawing way too many red lines about things that I considered implausible and overdone, and ruling them out before considering how to use them better.

I always wanted to write episodic adventures, and the thing that I always found the most compelling in fantasy were the vague hints at a higher reality and supernatural forces at work in the world. Stuff like "The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force" or "I have no idea where this will lead us, but I have a definite feeling it will be a place both wonderful and strange.". Or weird worlds like in The Dark Crystal, Morrowind, or Planescape, and the obscure otherworldliness of Dark Souls. I just love all this.

My new idea is to have the adventures (all/most/some?) centered around a protagonist who wants to understand how the world really is, what magic really is, and some kind of enlightenment. She is bright and resourceful, but is also impulsive and has no patience, and no real ambitions regarding wealth or status. So she isn't interested in becoming a priestess and perform rites and ceremonies whose true meaning is known only to the gods who don't explain themselves, or to spend decades mastering the casting of spells as a sorceress. She doesn't want power, she needs answers. And she needs them now. And somewhere out there, there has to be someone who understands the true nature of the world and can give her the answers she seeks. But of course they can't, because she doesn't even know what her question is. And since I can't come up with something so amazing that it will blow everyone's mind, she's never going to get there. Perhaps the best closure she can get eventually is to understand that it's futile to search for an answer to everything because there isn't any.

But along the way she picks up a lot of small bits and pieces of knowledge about magic, spirits, and the supernatural. Not exactly the ability to cast spells, but knowledge on how to see the presence and influence of spirits, how to counter magic and break curses, avoiding supernatural dangers and the right way how to communicate with spirits. Using a concept from game design, her character progression is not an increase in strength, but an increase in options. She doesn't become amazing with a sword so she can fight dragons or monsters, get supernatural toughness to ignore the attacks of enemies, or become a super powerful sorceress who wipes out armies with fireballs. Instead, in each adventure she learns one new thing that normal people can do to avoid or counter supernatural dangers, that convinces spirits to be cooperative, or to make use of magical objects and phenomenons. With the increase of option she gains to deal with things, the range of obstacles she can't overcome and has to flee from goes down, and the risks for her go down. Things that used to be overwhelming in the past can be dealt with in the future. And since she can deal with things faster and more reliably, she can also handle more things at the same time.
Being able to dance around things that previously were a huge pain do deal with is extremely rewarding in games, and when you see characters doing it in books and movies it also often makes for very great scenes and character moments.

Making the character interested in learning obscure supernatural knowledge also solves one of the big obstacles I've been struggling with in the past. I'm not really that interested in mercenary characters who do what they do for the money, but I am also very often not happy with characters who constantly risk their lives against all kinds of enemies simply "because they are heroes". This kind of works if the characters are superheroic and at no real risk of serious injury or death, but it feels unbelievable when the protagonist is a fairly ordinary human who lacks superhuman power or durability. Coming to people's help when you see them in danger is one thing, but traveling the world in search for people who need help against monsters and dark wizards because that's what heroes do just doesn't feel believable.
But having the protagonist trying to get into hard to reach places and past dangerous creatures because she is looking for something that might give her answers to her big questions seems like a solid motivation that is both personal and not based on greed. She never intends to get into any fights or serious danger. The plan is to completely avoid all of that and just get the scroll or the enchanted idol, or find the ancient carving or drink from the magic waters. But being impulsive and compassionate, it often does not turn out that way.

I feel this is already looking pretty solid for a collection of fantasy adventure tales. But it also occurred to me that if the long-term character development is about her learning new thing about magic and discovering strange things in the otherworld, and I also want to create the same excitement and wonder in the readers, perhaps there should be no initial exposition of what what magic exactly is, how it works, what it can actually do, what spirits are, what they want, and what they do. The magic system I've refined over the past months is very subtle and invisible, and can even be quite abstract and indirect. And the setting has most people knowing only that spirits are unpredictable and dangerous, and that the safest thing is to stay clear of them. Only shamans and sorcerers really interact with spirits and they also tell people to just stay where its safe and call them if there's any trouble.
So it makes perfect sense for the protagonist to basically know nothing about the supernatural, and also keep it undisclosed from the readers. There won't be any one moment where readers are given a full picture that systematically lays out the basics. Just more fragments coming with no specific order as the protagonist gets them. And you're never going to get all of them. More information will pile up and patterns emerge, but the full picture will never be complete or in sharp focus. Which I think is really important because ambiguity is fascinating, while full explanations are rarely that mind-blowing. It's the same thing with horror movie monsters. Some vague shapes in the shadow and weird noises can be super creepy, but when you have the full monster in the light, it's just a man in a suit.
The Dark Souls games do something quite similar and are hugely popular and famous for their obscure worldbuilding. And they don't even have any plot. My idea is to make this only a supplementary aspect in addition to the adventure plot of "hero goes to a strange place and barely escapes from a weird thing". I think having this constant expectation to get a few more fragments of supernatural knowledge along the way can make a fairly unspectacular plot still very interesting and exciting.

What do you think about making this work? Is there anything you think I should watch out for in both the way snippets of worldbuilding and the magic system are handed out, and in how they should be designed to make it all rewarding for readers?
We are not standing on the shoulders of giants, but on a big tower of other dwarves.

Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor

Offline Bender

Re: Episodic Explorations of the Supernatural
« Reply #1 on: January 22, 2020, 02:36:18 PM »
First of all, I love the concept. If you ever get around to putting it out for readers, I'll be waiting first in line!

1. It cannot be restricted to one world. Like travelling to different worlds to explore mysteries, perhaps travelling to different realms (fae realm, daemon realm, spirit realm etc etc to name popular ones) to collect pieces of the jigsaw that the protagonist tries to put together.

2. You need a micro and macro plot. Micro plot should be related to the protagonist and this provides hints and leads the macro plot.  Protagonist has a goal and in process of achieving it she gains experiences..which may change the goal itself. Just pure knowledge quest isn't sustainable without influencing parameters.
"I shall hunt your firstborn children and laugh with glee as I tell them of your death in terrible detail, with many unpleasant adjectives!" - M-Bot

"Who needs science when you have a dragon?" - Neil DeGrasse Tyson in Sharknado 6

Offline Yora

Re: Episodic Explorations of the Supernatural
« Reply #2 on: January 22, 2020, 03:29:58 PM »
I am thinking on a much smaller scale. Dealing with multiple worlds would make the whole thing too big to explain indirectly in ambiguous fragments and you would get the added difficulty of having to tell apart what things apply to which world. Examples of fiction where I encountered something comparable really had just a very small and simple core. If you reveal it in pieces and without a map how it all fits together, you get a seemingly huge amount of material out of very little actual hard facts.

And I think having a macro-plot would not make it episodic anymore. It would require to have everything planned out from the start with a fixed beginning and end, which loses the flexibility that I really like in an episodic approach.
We are not standing on the shoulders of giants, but on a big tower of other dwarves.

Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor

Offline Neveesandeh

Re: Episodic Explorations of the Supernatural
« Reply #3 on: January 22, 2020, 06:45:40 PM »
I really like this. The idea of having a protagonist motivated by a quest for knowledge and understanding isn't used nearly as much as it should be.

Offline Yora

Re: Episodic Explorations of the Supernatural
« Reply #4 on: January 22, 2020, 07:04:04 PM »
Because it's not easy, as I have discovered.  ;)

I think the problem is that it's something that would be quite difficult to communicate. In most story formats you have an initial problem or mystery, and at the end you have some sort of solution or answer. But you can't boil down meaningful wisdom in a few lines of words. If your character gains enlightenment at the end, you basically have to withhold it from the reader, with the protagonist telling the other characters that they wouldn't understand or something like that. Or you do try to give some amazing answer at the end, but it's almost certainly not going to feel as amazing to the readers as they expected it to be.

I've come to the conclusion that if you want to have stories about a character seeking for wisdom and enlightenment, achieving it can not be the big payoff at the end. The dramatic question of the story has to be something other than "will the hero become enlightened?", and the satisfying conclusion at the end has to be about something else.
That's why right now I am putting my money on episodic adventures instead of a big continuous storyline. Seeking wisdom can be the motivation for the protagonist to get involved with the events of the story, but the goal of each individual adventure is something more specific that can then end in a relatively straightforward conclusion.
We are not standing on the shoulders of giants, but on a big tower of other dwarves.

Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor

Offline Bender

Re: Episodic Explorations of the Supernatural
« Reply #5 on: January 22, 2020, 09:24:11 PM »
Examples of fiction where I encountered something comparable really had just a very small and simple core. If you reveal it in pieces and without a map how it all fits together, you get a seemingly huge amount of material out of very little actual hard facts.

And I think having a macro-plot would not make it episodic anymore. It would require to have everything planned out from the start with a fixed beginning and end, which loses the flexibility that I really like in an episodic approach.

Have you seen Stargate SG-1?
"I shall hunt your firstborn children and laugh with glee as I tell them of your death in terrible detail, with many unpleasant adjectives!" - M-Bot

"Who needs science when you have a dragon?" - Neil DeGrasse Tyson in Sharknado 6

Offline Matthew

Re: Episodic Explorations of the Supernatural
« Reply #6 on: January 22, 2020, 09:32:46 PM »
Have you seen Stargate SG-1?

I got more of a 'Supernatural' vibe from it. Monster of week type thing, except your POV would be like a one off character who maybe survived an attack and then is desperately seeking the truth in the background of the action.

Trouble is, if they are only seeking truth, where's the thrill for the reader? Yora didn't seem to want a heroic character, and a mundane person wouldn't risk their lives over and over just for the truth. More than likely the stories would consist of a conspiracy theorist watching YouTube videos...

Offline Yora

Re: Episodic Explorations of the Supernatural
« Reply #7 on: January 23, 2020, 08:01:03 AM »
One thing that came to my mind was X-Files.  :D

Very big influence is Indiana Jones, and perhaps even more so Marion from from the first movie. And I guess perhaps Garret from Thief.
We are not standing on the shoulders of giants, but on a big tower of other dwarves.

Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor