Thursday, July 23, 2020

When No Real Locale Will Serve

Stephen King has Castle Rock, Maine.
Scott Turow has Kindle County, Illinois.
William Faulkner had Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi.
And I have Onteora County, New York.

     There are no such places, of course. Yet quite a lot of interesting stuff – headline-making, really – happens in each of them. I have no idea whether King, Turow, or Faulkner’s ghost is ever asked this, but one of the questions I get most frequently from readers of my fiction is “Why did you have to invent a fictional county to site your stories in?”

     Well, sometimes no real place will serve. Sometimes the general knowledge readers bring to the fiction they select is just too great – too likely to undermine what every storyteller must get from his readers: the willing suspension of disbelief. I know I’d be lost without it, because of the strangeness of my tales and the larger-than-life heroes I prefer to depict.

     It’s best to avoid the use of real places if your aim is to speak of world-class intellects and men of unprecedented moral courage. There’s a shortage of both varieties. The problem intensifies if you intend to create a whole lot of them – which I did.

     In part this is an aspect of the prevailing cynicism: the “people just aren’t like that” / “no real person would take such risks or make such sacrifices” attitude that’s endemic to our time. Yet it’s my firm conviction that people need heroes. We need to admire their deeds and hope someday to rise to their level. It’s why good parents still tell the great myths of Greek legend to their youngsters...and why far too many youngsters who never hear a heroic story grow up admiring sports figures and entertainers.

     But if you need a place where a gaggle of heroes can germinate and blossom into national or global stature, a fictional place will probably serve you better than any real locale.

     There are variations on this practice that ought to be compared. For example, consider the current trend in romance toward the employment of a very rich male co-protagonist: a multimillionaire or billionaire. There are a slew of such books out there, and from what I can determine they’re very popular. Yet how many ultra-rich persons are there really, and how many of them make it into their thirties and forties without being securely mated, pre-nuptial agreements and all, and thus romance-proof?

     I’ve used that motif too. However, I “flipped the script” in my short romance Love in the Time of Cinema, by making the girl the multimillionaire. That’s certainly a valid approach...but candidly, it’s even less realistic than the prevailing tendency, in which the male protagonist is the rich one. (“You can’t do anything the usual way, can you?” – my wife. Heh, heh, heh! Just wait till she reads Love in the Time of Capitalism!)

     Of course, the “extreme” pole of this practice occurs in the outright speculative genres of fantasy (The Warm Lands), science fiction (Which Art In Hope), and horror. Some things require whole new worlds – even whole new universes. That’s the case when you want to break a few of the laws of physics, not just those of Congress. And once again, the great ones, the Tolkiens and Benfords, do what they must to make it work.

     As I wrote above, it’s about the willing suspension of disbelief: getting the reader to accept the premises of the story. If you can’t win that from him, he won’t get full value from your tale. But this is a special case of the much larger subject of the rules of storytelling: doing what you must do to please the reader with the tale you hope to stell him. Ultimately, that’s the one and only absolute rule. All the others are useful guidelines. The aspiring writer must absorb and respect them, but as he matures he will learn that each of them, like all rules for doing anything practical, has a proper domain of application. Outside that domain – the regions on the storyteller’s map marked “Here there be dragons” in Gothic Blackscript – he may sometimes set them aside to his advantage.

     If he has a hero’s courage, that is. For that, too is an essential of the good storyteller. Why else would it be “To boldly go where no man has gone before,” eh, hero?

1 comment:

Paul Bonneau said...

Claire Wolfe has Hardyville...