Fantasy Without Dragons: The Challenge of Messing With Reality in Adult Contemporary Fiction

When I was working on my first novel, The Rememberers, I struggled, like many writers, to answer the question ‘what is it about?’. First, understanding what you’re really writing about isn’t always obvious when you’re in the thick of it. And encapsulating a 75,000 word story into a soundbite isn’t easy, even for a professional copywriter. But early on I glibly told a few people:
“It’s like Narnia with sex and martinis. And no talking animals.”
This sometimes got a laugh and other times a raised eyebrow. But usually people are just asking to be polite and actually don’t want to get into it. But the experience got me thinking about the challenge of introducing fantastic elements into contemporary fiction without writing fantasy genre novels.
We’ve all seen the long term effects of the combination of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ magical realism and Tolkien’s epic imagined worlds on modern writing. Unfortunately, unlike those masterpieces, the results are often horrible, derivative copies of something that simply isn’t as easy as it looks. And then there are the contemporary masters who flirt with this territory, like Haruki Murakami and Michael Ondaatje, inserting magical elements or writing about things so exotic they seem almost magical. It takes mastery to play that game.
So when my story entered a layer of reality that could not logically be explained I felt very cautious. My goal was not to distract from the human story by creating imaginary worlds for their own sake. They had to be integral to the tension of the story. I didn’t want the reader asking a lot of questions about how these things came to be. The narrator entered these places innocently and they played upon his sense of what he assumed was real and what might actually be real.
So, no dragons, no talking animals, no werewolves, vampires or other magical beings. That was the plan. The theme was the unreliability of memory as we enter middle age. We forget a lot of stuff as our lives become more proscribed. How much is a lot? As my marketing copy says, by the time we are forty we have lived for over 2 million minutes, each filled with memory. That’s a lot of material to work with. Or forget. So I wondered what if these huge stockpiles of lost memory contained significant experiences that we had simply forgotten? And what if someone came along who could reignite them? We might experience something like a fantasy story that had actually taken place. Or was taking place.
Which gets me to the presence of magical beings. Most of the time they are so unsubtle, so radical in their powers and so extreme in their agendas that they bear no resemblance to anything in our reality. But Murakami, for example, regularly seeds his stories with magical beings that are only slightly magical, in an unsettling way. A cat may speak but only when necessary and without explanation. And I think these instances probably challenged him as a writer to keep them standing out too much.
My magical being is a catalyst in a very subtle (at first) manner. But that is balanced by the possibility that all the people in the story are magical beings, including the narrator. I don’t know if they are but that seemed to make it easier to have these creatures in my story without being labeled a fantasist (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). Humans are pretty mysterious and unpredictable in reality. With an added dose of lost memories maybe they would seem to be moving through an alternative world.
This was the challenge, to create adult characters with emotional lives that move through boundaries normally unseen, without turning into genre fiction. It scared me a bit because I wanted to write about what happens when a modern person is faced with the opportunity to take a real risk, that is one from which there may be no return. A leap of faith.
A lot of novels, arguably all the powerful ones, involve this leap of faith, a transformation. And it doesn’t require magic. But the results may almost seem magical if the writer succeeds.
There was another element that appeared as I wrote my first draft that seemed to indicate I was somehow heading off into fantasyland. A magical object. Actually a mundane object that it seemed like a good idea to keep around. This thing, called a Freezy #1, appeared without warning, though there had been some foreshadowing. As the writer I had not known what it might be until one of my characters pulled it out of her closet. These kinds of moments made me so happy that I didn’t care if I was running the risk of being pigeonholed by the reader. So far the main response has been ‘I want a Freezy #1’. I want one.
It interests me when storytellers create magic without playing tricks or conveniently granting powers at opportune moments to get their characters out of fixes. That kind of thing doesn’t happen, at least not in my experience. But if you give your characters experiences that start to change their perspective, then they gain subtle powers of transformation. That seems to me to describe good storytelling in general. No dragons required.

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