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Author Topic: Extraordinary things in a fantastical world  (Read 1569 times)

Offline Yora

Extraordinary things in a fantastical world
« on: October 05, 2017, 08:39:54 PM »
There are a lot of amazing things in fiction, in particular adventure and horror fiction, that seem like great additions to fantasy stories but are based on the characters encountering things that go against the assumed rules of reality. Magic and monsters tend to be amazing when they show up unexpectedly. When you try to adapt such images into fantasy, you run into an obvious problem. When the whole world is fantasy, what makes some fictional things more amazing or horrifying than others? Especially when you have fictional creaturs and magic as part of regular peoples' everyday life.

A simple example would be zombies. What makes a zombie more horrifying and frightful abomination than an orc? They will kill you the same way and zombies are probably even a less dangerous threat being slower and really stupid. But one of them is a man while the other is supposed to be a nightmarish violation of nature.

One common solution is to make the regular life in a fantasy world as expected and as close to the popular image of medieval life as possible. It works really well, but then you end up with another very generic looking world. A 14th century England looking world. Which has its merits, but do we really need more of those? What other methods might writers use to create a separation of the "fictional ordinary" and the truly alien and weird?
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Offline Lanko

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Re: Extraordinary things in a fantastical world
« Reply #1 on: October 05, 2017, 10:38:50 PM »
A simple example would be zombies. What makes a zombie more horrifying and frightful abomination than an orc? They will kill you the same way and zombies are probably even a less dangerous threat being slower and really stupid. But one of them is a man while the other is supposed to be a nightmarish violation of nature.

I don't think they kill the same way, unless I'm basing myself on Tolkien's orcs. But orcs are less frigthtening because they'll kill you on the battlefield, they'll have tactics that can be discovered and planned around, they need to eat and drink, they tire, feel fear and will try to avoid wounds.
More importantly, as barbaric as their society may be, it's a resemblance of society, and anything resembling organized society with humanoid looking beings already dents in some manner the fear factor because you start to visualize or try to comprehend them through our own lenses and perhaps can even make meaning out of them that way.

Meanwhile zombies are less intelligent... but completely uncontrollable and illogical. They'll kill you slowly by chewing you to pieces, it doesn't matter if they are slower because they don't need to eat, to drink or even get sick, so stalling in a fortress for months or years is actually worse for us, who actually need supplies.

But what makes them really frightening is the fact they feel no pain, fear and don't care for wounds received and you'll just keep mindlessly and frenetically coming for you no matter what.
Cut their legs? They'll crawl to you. Made a blockade with fire and spears? They'll keep coming burning and impaled like it's nothing.

Orcs won't do any of that.

Looking like a butchered human corpse does contribute, both for the gore factor, the possibility of someone we know being "corrupted" and forcing us to kill them for something it's not their fault or that they know they're doing, seeing people like us acting  like how humanity would look like if we had the sentience level of a virus and perhaps above all, the fact that dieing to them will turn us into the very same thing.

Perhaps this last part is what does it, as it's too alien to rise from the dead, also giving the impression of not only us, but our loved us, the loss of self-control, consciousness, mind, dignity... well their humanity simply stripped away.

Being cut in half by an orc's axe has none of those considerations!
« Last Edit: October 05, 2017, 10:50:25 PM by Lanko »
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Offline RobertS

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Re: Extraordinary things in a fantastical world
« Reply #2 on: October 06, 2017, 12:56:01 AM »
There are a lot of amazing things in fiction, in particular adventure and horror fiction, that seem like great additions to fantasy stories but are based on the characters encountering things that go against the assumed rules of reality. What other methods might writers use to create a separation of the "fictional ordinary" and the truly alien and weird?

Here is where the perceptions of other characters really matter. If you bring me to trust the perception and intellect of a character, then that characters wonder, especially if it is added to other characters wonder, can help elicit the feeling of wonder.

A brave man, who has show bravery suddenly turns and yells for others to run. Or the mother turning to shelter her child can tell the reader that these characters are now more scared than they are used to being.

A greedy character who has shown frugality is suddenly willing to toss money freely to find out where a particular thing is kept. Even if it is a bottle of dandelion and burdock, this will give it a value greater than the obvious reason to covet such a thing.

I live in Texas, If I saw a bottle of Fentimens on a shelf I would probably shell out the outrageous price that they would probably be asking for it. Scarcity creates a value on it's own. I just checked Amazon. Fentimans Dandelion and Burdock is unavailable. Now I must widen my search. I must get some, if only to share it with my wife. I must get two of them. She will insist that I drink most of it if I only have one.

I do love Fentimens, but just then I used the method I described to elicit the elevated feeling of value. If you just count on your description of it you are not conveying the entire wonder. Sure, I can tell you that Fentimans Dandelion and Burdock is cool and refreshing, kind of like the rootbeer of your dreams but with a subdued sweetness. I can tell you that it is an ancient recipe and give you a history that sounds like it might actually be a magical potion. But there is no point. Making it important to a character is the secret to conveying importance.

I must go now. Jet.com may have Fentimans available. The website is not opening so I should probably reset my browser. I pray they have not run out.

I am back and editing this, That site has major issues and they want to sell what they want to sell. I found a source for Fentimans but it is three bottle for $24.95 and then I have to pay for shipping. Way too much, but this is FENTIMANS! I must have it.

This is an illustration of how a mundane object, in the normal world can be turned into an important one. "Herald and Kumar Go to White Castle," is another example of this method.

Sure in magical lands across the sea, such as England, such things are common. Remoteness can also add to the value and wonder of an object. All you need to do is associate wonder with the destination and you build it even more.
If you are one of those lucky bastards that live in England, the magical kingdom, you can prance around taunting other folk with your easy access to health care and Fentimans. Here in Texas we all know that we will die without any Fentimans while suffering in poverty unable to afford medicine that would cost a few bucks somewhere else. The wonder of someday obtaining something made by the near mythical English is perhaps too much to even believe in. Such is the way of the world.

 
« Last Edit: October 06, 2017, 01:46:29 AM by RobertS »
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Offline The Gem Cutter

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Re: Extraordinary things in a fantastical world
« Reply #3 on: October 06, 2017, 05:31:23 AM »
When the whole world is fantasy, what makes some fictional things more amazing or horrifying than others? Especially when you have fictional creaturs and magic as part of regular peoples' everyday life.
Scary settings and scary monsters leverage the same two fears: the fear of them as an individual, and fear for characters we are connected with. And of course, they often work together - but again, usually either by terrifying me for my sake, or terrifying me because I care about characters (even walk-ons, I'm very empathetic).
You can go with expected fears, like werewolves, or juxtaposition (three drops of blood isn't scary till you lay them on the floor beneath a crib, for example). You can exploit the real (like rabid dogs, which exist and can kill you three ways), or the unreal - like fire-breathing dragons that can boil you in your skin. You can exploit the taboo - which answers your question: orcs don't eat you (usually) - but zombies do. You can undermine people's sense of self, the way real death does; exploit our inherent but usually subdued paranoia and worry; you can show us terrible pain we can really imagine, like nails through feet, or ones are not real (and yet, can imagine). You can go for specific fears not everyone has - like my intense fear of dogs and heights and claustrophobia.
This is my top-whatever list, anyway. There's an endless number of fears and probably multiple ways to use each of them - alone or in tandem. Some are obvious - like something that is obviously happening and is after you - or subtle ones like bombs you cannot avoid that MIGHT turn you into a fine, red mist.
« Last Edit: October 06, 2017, 05:43:33 AM by The Gem Cutter »
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Offline bdcharles

Re: Extraordinary things in a fantastical world
« Reply #4 on: October 06, 2017, 10:29:33 AM »
There are a lot of amazing things in fiction, in particular adventure and horror fiction, that seem like great additions to fantasy stories but are based on the characters encountering things that go against the assumed rules of reality. Magic and monsters tend to be amazing when they show up unexpectedly. When you try to adapt such images into fantasy, you run into an obvious problem. When the whole world is fantasy, what makes some fictional things more amazing or horrifying than others? Especially when you have fictional creaturs and magic as part of regular peoples' everyday life.

A simple example would be zombies. What makes a zombie more horrifying and frightful abomination than an orc? They will kill you the same way and zombies are probably even a less dangerous threat being slower and really stupid. But one of them is a man while the other is supposed to be a nightmarish violation of nature.

One common solution is to make the regular life in a fantasy world as expected and as close to the popular image of medieval life as possible. It works really well, but then you end up with another very generic looking world. A 14th century England looking world. Which has its merits, but do we really need more of those? What other methods might writers use to create a separation of the "fictional ordinary" and the truly alien and weird?

I think it's just about introducing things that the POV character is not familiar with. They may be normal parts of the world but if the reader, in the head of the MC, doesn't know about them then they will be surprising. If you want something entirely new to the world I imagine you just have to go all out imaginationwise. I suspect that is why dragons are so popular. Pick a creature - any animal - and make it massive :) Have it do something odd - rather than a dragon spewing fire, maybe a mile-long caterpillar whose mucus causes the creation of parallel worlds for those that touch it. Why not make it a mile-long subterranean caterpillar, and just getting to its den is a quest of epic proportions. Have it spoken of in kids' books in your story, so you manage the buildup that way.

It is also worth reading about other cultures' mythologies. Much fantasy seems to have this Greco-European vibe to it. But there's Creole voodoo, there's various tribal legends all over the world, there's an absolute ton of stuff in Hindu mythology (some of which, like the Naga, has made it to modern fantasy).

But also - think about what would surprise dwellers of 14th century England. One of the reasons I write (and in particular the story I have written) is because, in history at school, I used to daydream about how it would have been if Henry VIII had had AT-ATs. Yes. Yes, I did :) So I gave the dwellers in my world some new technology that isn't so outlandish to us but to them it changes everything.
« Last Edit: October 06, 2017, 10:33:49 AM by bdcharles »
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Offline Yora

Re: Extraordinary things in a fantastical world
« Reply #5 on: October 06, 2017, 02:32:09 PM »
I think the standard techniques of horror might be useful: Don't show it for too long, keep it partly in the shadows, and don't overexplain things. The vague expectations of what is hidden in the blanks can never be reached by whatever spelled out explanation you can come up with.
The important part is not to tell the story in a way that makes it look like the mystery is the driving force behind the plot. The implied promise of the story can not be an amazing reveal at the end.
We are not standing on the shoulders of giants, but on a big tower of other dwarves.

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Offline Skip

Re: Extraordinary things in a fantastical world
« Reply #6 on: October 06, 2017, 06:02:20 PM »
I'm mystified. Fantasy writers do this all the time. It's meat and potatoes. Peter Beagle *starts* with a unicorn and still makes the Red Bull startling and terrifying. Tolkien *starts* with an invented creature and still delivers a dragon, elves, and an utterly unique creature.  I must be missing something in the question.

Also, ftr and imo, orcs are scarier than zombies. The only way a zombie is scary is if there's a kabillion of them. Otherwise, I just trot away. But the orc *chases* me.
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Offline Yora

Re: Extraordinary things in a fantastical world
« Reply #7 on: October 06, 2017, 07:51:41 PM »
The question is how you get the notion across that something happening in the story is an absolutely unusual event that should make the people in the story freak out.
We are not standing on the shoulders of giants, but on a big tower of other dwarves.

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Offline cupiscent

Re: Extraordinary things in a fantastical world
« Reply #8 on: October 06, 2017, 10:44:49 PM »
The question is how you get the notion across that something happening in the story is an absolutely unusual event that should make the people in the story freak out.

You show the people in the story freaking out? :)

If you really want to underline the point, you first show them reacting in a yawn-ho-hum-just-another-day-in-the-office to things that are real-world-weird, but your-world-ordinary. THEN you show the unusual event and have them freak out. The difference in response makes the point obvious.

Offline JMack

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Re: Extraordinary things in a fantastical world
« Reply #9 on: October 07, 2017, 01:18:09 AM »
The question is how you get the notion across that something happening in the story is an absolutely unusual event that should make the people in the story freak out.

You show the people in the story freaking out? :)

If you really want to underline the point, you first show them reacting in a yawn-ho-hum-just-another-day-in-the-office to things that are real-world-weird, but your-world-ordinary. THEN you show the unusual event and have them freak out. The difference in response makes the point obvious.

The obvious example is the nearly unflappable Gandalf freaking out at the appearance of the Balrog. If he’s terrified, then this is holy shite time!
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Offline Yora

Re: Extraordinary things in a fantastical world
« Reply #10 on: October 07, 2017, 06:02:38 AM »
It's certainly required, but is it enough? There is always the chance that readers will considered a panicked reaction unnecessary because it's expected to be mundane in a fantasy story. And that would totally kill the story.
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Offline cupiscent

Re: Extraordinary things in a fantastical world
« Reply #11 on: October 07, 2017, 08:47:16 AM »
This comes down to your worldbuilding and character depiction - in short, to your writing. It's your job to convince the reader of what you need them to believe. So you need to show them how the characters are, and show them how the world is, and use the two to develop the situation. Any story that immerses me so completely in the world and the characters that when something terrible happens, I gasp, because I completely understand how it's terrible in this place at this time... that is an excellent piece of writing.

My go-to example on this is actually The Northern Lights - when it's revealed what dastardly thing has been happening, I was genuinely shocked, because the author had been so effective in his worldbuilding that the thing he was outlining was as totally unthinkable to me as it was to the people of that world.

The more important it is that a thing be totally believable to the audience, the more effort you should put into it. (Effort does not necessarily mean words, but how much work you put into making sure every single word is the right one.)

Offline Yora

Re: Extraordinary things in a fantastical world
« Reply #12 on: October 07, 2017, 11:10:34 AM »
You are making a strong point here for more worldbuilding instead of less. I was very much considering dropping many of the more unconventional elements I had in mind. Making them more prominent to make them more familiar and thouroughly understood is an intriguing alternative.

I also think of a kind of foreshadowing. Establishing things that are known to exist but barely understood and which people are afraid of with explanation why they are considered weird and unsettling. When they later make appearances, reader will have knowledge to understand that it seems wrong and recognize that the reality is even stranger than the reports.
We are not standing on the shoulders of giants, but on a big tower of other dwarves.

Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor