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 »

White Noise for the Soul

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Most of us lead busy lives in a noisy world. From the moment we wake to when our heads hit the pillow we push through one goal to the next, driven, pulled, and otherwise compelled. Maybe the busyness is of our own making, or perhaps we blame it on something else—a job, perceived needs.

That time between the lights going black and our falling asleep is often the first and only time of the day the mind is allowed to quiet down and lift through sensation, to review its day, to make plans, to make art. I have always worked best when all others in the house are asleep. There is, though, nothing special about the night, as some would contend. I also attribute no great significance to habit.

It is all about the silence, the silence all about.

Sustained attention is difficult—meditation is a good example—or try making up a long sentence, or a passage of music, or envision a scene—hold its details in the mind. These processes challenge our short-term memory. Doing it in silence is, unsurprisingly, easier. But why?

There is a technique used in research into perception and memory called masking. A stimulus is presented (black dashes on a white square) then the mask (random black and white pixels—think TV static or a QR code) which shields, or rather replaces the visual imprint of the sensation. If presented quickly enough, it can remove the stimulus from conscious processing. It is the equivalent of white noise—patternless sensory input.

Auditory and subvocal short term memory holds longer than the fleeting afterimage of the visual system, but still not long—a matter of seconds.

People use white noise to help get them off to sleep. Tune a radio between stations for the hiss. Some use a station proper at low volume. I’ve noticed the drone of a pedestal fan does the job; the hum of an AC for others.

With such white noise blanketing my mind, I find it hard to maintain coherent streams of memory as I lie in bed, or to write a long sentence in my mind. Clauses butt up against a wall, fantasies jump about like dream storylines.

Perhaps this white noise is doing for the language parts of the mind what a random array of dots does for the visual afterimage on the retina: scours it clean.

We are surrounded by white noise all the time. Droning aircon at work, traffic noise, conversations from the next room, all the static of standby screens and fluorescent tubes. In cities, the world is not conducive to slow contemplation, and purposely so—they are an apt metaphor for the world we have created and the lives we lead.

So what do we lose in this sea of white noise? Is there a vast blue depth beneath the surface that we are locking out?

Is the necessity of silence for contemplation the same for everyone? Probably not. Maybe some people can block it out, essentially doing what meditators do. Or maybe they just don’t notice something is missing, but it is blocking them nonetheless.

Perhaps because we think in words, we think in coherent grammars of anticipation and remembrance, such noise blocks our creativity, our ability to think at all beyond automatic processes and rehashing of the mundane. Maybe it is different for someone who thinks in colour or otherwise relies on visual stimulation.

We shuffle on through, we sense and we react, and maybe we don’t think. We move through life, not with it. And why not? Thinking is dangerous, confronting. But it is also full of possibility.

Fantasy as a Child’s Toy Box

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The techniques at a writer’s disposal have been likened to a toolbox, craft techniques judiciously deployed to create effects in the reader: a metaphor that rings true or a cunning turn of phrase; the rhythm of a sentence or a dissonant syntactic tic.

As I gradually read less and less fantasy (and most of that re-reads) I often wonder what still draws me to it as a writer. Partly, it is familiarity—I grew up reading it, I’m comforted by its tropes. Those strange worlds (even their very unfamiliarity) are strangely familiar.

But it is the freedom the genre offers: the only limit is imagination. Where realistic fiction and the essay are limited to describing what we understand as physical reality, genre can stretch those boundaries, shaping anew the known. Realist fiction seeks new ways of describing the familiar; fantasy revels in the unfamiliar.

This castle has a slide!

The possibilities inherent in this freedom are often disregarded. In some ways it is not enough to create and describe the unfamiliar; it must be done with consistency and veracity. The fantasy I do still read gives more than just the sense of places or the genre tropes. Those stories are harmonious in their use of metaphor, and at different levels, and they are conscious of them.

Fantasy allows the writer to take a metaphor, a concept or a hypothesis and make it real. It can be a testing ground for possibilities. To take an aspect of a culture or society and stretch it to its logical extreme, to construct an entire religion or civilisation around a simple idea—the writer can just build it and see.

To create and not consider the broader implications of these symbols, if not exactly irresponsible, certainly can make them feel hollow. Mere tropes, generic adornment with no purpose beyond the wish to create an unfamiliarity (whose actual aim is familiarity—placing the reader in the genre). Too often books begin with a neat concept or an interesting setting, as if that in itself is enough, but fail to fulfil its potential because it is not explore from all angles, in all its depth.

If writing provides tools, then fantasy can be likened to the imaginative possibilities in a child’s toy box. Simple things can mean anything, only limited by the creative imagination. That freedom has a purity, a nostalgia to it—and no wonder the young are drawn to tales of strange worlds, magic castles, odd creatures. This doesn’t mean the mindset is regressive, rather it is unsullied and unrestrained. We like to hold tight to our invented social and cultural structures—they do, after all, give shape and meaning to our lives—but we bemoan them with the same breath. How many people cite escape as reading’s purpose?

(This is not to say such creation is limited to fantasy. While I’m not well-versed in science fiction, the same applies. Taking a concept or trend and bearing it forward in time to explore the possible outcomes around it. Iain Banks’s Surface Detail is a great example of taking a concept and building stories and characters around various aspects of that, seeing how many approaches to the idea can be taken, and creating something disparate yet whole. Horror, perhaps, is the metaphorical extension of our superstitions.)

Even child’s play has rules. Limitations are built organically into play, and children are adept at inventing complex rules to their fantasies on the fly. It is necessary for writers to create worlds that retain some sense of how we understand our reality—our physics, the seasons, gender (though all these have been confounded at times). The strangeness doesn’t have to have meaning from the outset—writing affords discovery throughout the process.

In fantasy we can revel in the unreal. The only limit is the internal consistency of the world we create—and even then, inconsistency within the world can be meaningfully built in and explored. Keep pushing the limits, as readers and writers, use fantasy as a space for mental exploration. The only real limit is our mind, and as far as I can tell those boundaries are distant still.