How our stories were found: On Matt Bell’s Baldur’s Gate 2

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Part of what created this investment was a precise lack of detail writers call “flatness,” a way of making room for the reader to fill in motivations, psychology, physical details, or other attributes of characters and settings…you begin to fashion explanations for this behavior, imagining its effects on the character you’ve conjured in collaboration with the game. (Matt Bell, Baldur’s Gate, Loc 685 Kindle ed.)


In this way I used to submit my impressions of life to my grandmother, for I was never certain what degree of respect was due to anyone until she had informed me. Every evening I would come to her with the mental sketches that I had made during the day of all those non-existent people who were not her. (Proust, Within a Budding Grove)

A special thing happens when you are reading two books in tandem, or working on two projects, or you watch two distinct movies or hear two musical pieces in succession: you are primed to draw from them the things that connect them–themes, ideas, phrases, words, myths, key-changes. It could be called synchronicity, but that would assume the connections are inherent, there to be found–rather, in truth, the connections are made only when there is an observer doing the connecting–the way a character might not live if an author doesn’t tell their tale. There is no sense without a perceiver. No character without an author or player. No self without a cognizant, conscious mind. Read the rest of this entry »

Fantasy as creation and subversion

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I have recently explored the idea that fantasy may consciously or unconsciously reflect aspects of our ‘real’ world. I argued that the more important reflection is of the unconscious reflecting of the writer’s culture/boundaries etc (their ideology) in the shape and form of the fantasy.

There is a notion of the fantastic as being the unreal—impossible—the ‘not’. But I think fantasy is most effective not when it merely creates impossibility, but when it defies the real. When it accepts and explores its boundaries, and challenges them fundamentally. That requires reflexive authorship. Again, this strikes at why horror can be so effective, because it works within the confines of the real, (presents the bounds) and then defies them by allowing the horrific (the fantastical aspect) to break through. This perturbs the psyche of the reader/characters. Read the rest of this entry »

Escapism and the genre wheel

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I want to continue this exploration of genre and how it functions as both a flavour of writing, and as a structural concept that informs both the subject of a piece of work or writing, and how it creates boundaries for that—what do those boundaries mean, and how do they inform us about the ideologies under which the writer strains? I’m exploring this not because I have a grand idea to organise these thoughts, but to help in finding one.

Generalising excessively, we can think about three broad genres of literature that are often considered to have at least some connection: fantasy, science-fiction, and horror. Of course, like so many other aspects, these bleed into one another, the boundaries are blurred, etc., but at their most basic, every reader has some broad concept of them as distinct. We can think of them as proto-genre. Each has become, in a way, a caricature, a defining structural characteristic, rather than an adjective that describes an event, or a theme, or an intrusion.

Each to some degree functions as a form of escapism—and also as a set of boundaries. But I think the most curious, and somehow defining, aspect is how they create escape by pushing against boundaries. Horror confronts fears, sci-fi seeks utopias (of course, I generalise), but fantasy is a more pure escapism, by virtue of creating a new set of boundaries.

Why? What do we need escaping from? Those are the questions that fantasy as a genre should probe. It is the safe dream that can drift away on gossamer threads on waking. Read the rest of this entry »