Obsessed With the Unreal)
Why are stories so full of magic and surrealism? Why do fantasy and sci-fi novels dominate the industry?
Even stories based in the real world push towards the fringes of fantasy. The underdog succeeds more completely than we ever will, the boy and the girl are unbelievably compatible with each other, and the bully is an unbelievable caricature of pure evil. Shakespeare often wrote of real-life events and characters, but it is a sort of historical fiction, where the stories are still steeped in the fantastic. Characters are pushed and pulled by unseen humors, motives are based on the call of destiny, and outcomes are ruled by fate.
Even our most true-to-life stories and documentaries are chosen from subjects that are so extreme that they sound like an alien world to the rest of us. Tiger King was such a popular documentary series on Netflix because it dealt with such flamboyant and dangerous events that most of us will never experience anything like it in our ordinary lives.
So once again, why is this? Why do we almost exclusively select stories that are so heavily steeped in fantasy?
I reject the answer that it is because stories are just an escapism, a vehicle for getting away from our ordinary, mundane lives. Yes, these fantastic stories can be great entertainment, but there is more to it than that. A story steeped in fantasy doesn’t just feel entertaining, it somehow feels more right. There is something truer and more real about a story because of its unrealism.
The Truer Fantasy)
In my latest short story, Secrets in the Mountain, I introduced a character who lives an absolutely realistic, mundane life. He drives to the office in his ordinary car, works in his ordinary cubicle, and attends an ordinary meeting.
The monotony of his life is so stifling and mind-numbing that it begs for something fantastic to explode onto the scene! Which is exactly what happens. In my last post I had him look to the mountain as it grew inexplicably brighter and brighter, finally bursting outwards while a beam of light shot from its depths and destroyed the entire city before him!
And while these events could not literally be true, the emotions they conveyed felt correct and fitting for the narrative. They resounded with real inner feelings, if not our real outer experiences.
And this, I believe is the secret to why we love fantasy: because of how well it captures the stirrings of what is inside of us. Fantasy resonates because we are not only a physical body, but also an emotional soul. And that soul is not at all constrained by what “really” happened in the physical world, nor is it satisfied by only a portrayal of those outer events. For events are not fully understood just by being seen, they also need to be felt.
Like that time I was a young boy and wanted to pet my neighbor’s big dog. I was afraid to when the thing was awake, but one moment I found it asleep and thought it was a perfect opportunity to touch its back. Very slowly and cautiously I scooted nearer, then extended a trembling hand to its fur. No sooner did I touch it than the dog suddenly startled awake and snapped its head back to lock eyes with me! I jumped six feet into the air!
Well, I mean, I didn’t. Obviously that was an exaggeration. I just needed to let you understand how it felt when that dog suddenly bolted awake and electricity started to surge through me!
Well, I mean, it didn’t. Obviously that was an exaggeration, too. But it leaves something wanting if I say that the dog snapped around to look at me and I just felt “very, very startled.” I naturally revert into more fantastic expressions, not to lie about the experience, but to be more true to how it actually felt.
Making the Metaphor Solid)
Another reason for delving into the fantastic is to embody the things that have no body, but are still very real. Sometimes we feel pushed and pulled by forces in our lives, but these forces have no names or faces, so in our stories we invent ones for them.
Consider the sensation of a woman who doesn’t feel like a traditional housewife, but feels pressured by society to conform to a preconceived model. They might say that they feel like the world is trying to smother them and replace them with a perfect robot instead.
And so that’s exactly what the story of The Stepford Wives does. It takes that “feels like” statement and turns it into a literal manifestation, allowing the audience to grapple with these intangible ideas in a way that feels visceral and real.
This same approach is visible in Hellboy II: The Golden Army, which is steeped in an incredibly fantastical world. Superheroes and fairy tale creatures are realities in this story, and it is easy to think that the dramatic events have no bearing on reality. But actually there is a very powerful connection between this fiction and our everyday lives.
The main antagonist of the film is Prince Nuada, an elf whose father made a truce with mortal men eons ago, agreeing that humanity would keep itself to the cities and the magical creatures would keep to the forests. Of course that is a pledge that has long-since been forgotten. Humanity has continued to sprawl in an uncontrolled fashion, taking over both ancient culture and natural beauty, leading Prince Nuada to declare war on our species.
And obviously this is a commentary on Western society’s expansionism, which takes over real-life cultures and causes real-life extinctions in nature. And while the film is exciting and imaginative, it also brings the audience to appreciate the real-life fact that when one slice of humanity flourishes, it usually comes at a cost to other cultures and nature.
Our Need For Magic)
Putting magic into stories isn’t just for “fun” or “escape.” It is essential to capturing the deeper emotions of our heart, as well as the large, external forces that move us. Reality, it would seem, is much more than meets the eye, and story is the medium by which we make all of its invisible layers apparent.