Presenting the Weird

13897031_sFantasy storytelling is the art of presenting the weird in a way that feels real.

To some extent that’s true of most fiction. (The exceptions present the banal in a way that becomes interesting. I’ve never been good at that, though, nor inclined to become good at it.) It’s especially true of fantasy storytelling, though, more so than any other genre. Science fiction runs a close second, but even science fiction isn’t quite as weird as fantasy.

But here’s a curious thing. Sometimes fantasy storytelling of the past has become so successful in presenting the weird that, in the present, it has become not just real but commonplace. Hackneyed. Cliched. And hence pointless when it comes to telling a good fantasy story.

Keep in mind the etymology, original definition, and archaic meaning of the word “weird.” It can mean (and today often does mean) anything strange, unusual, or odd. Originally, though, the word “weird” had to do with fate or the Fates of Greek and Roman mythology. More recently, but still in the past, the word came to mean anything of an occult, magical, or uncanny nature, which of course makes it perfect to describe fantasy elements. By these older meanings of the word, fantasy is weird.

So the first step in presenting the weird is discovering it. How does one do that? It’s a matter of turning the imagination loose and not being satisfied with the world either as it is or, perhaps even worse, as someone else has already imagined it. At the same time, in order to be good fantasy, the weird one imagines needs to have mythic significance.

How does one discover the weird? There are two ways to do this. First one can imagine something that is wholly new and weird. This is quite difficult, however, and rare. Second, one can take something that has already been imagined and put it in a new context or give it a new twist or two. This is easier to attempt but less certain of success.

Either way, once something has been done a few times, it’s no longer weird (because it’s become part of the established fantasy genre) and one must seek elsewhere for weirdness.

Consider the vampire. When Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, vampires were weird; although they had been around in legends and myths for millennia, they had not found their way into popular fiction (in English anyway) prior to Stoker’s (ahem) rather badly-written Victorian-era vampire tale. He was breaking new ground, and established some conventions: vampires are bad guys; they drink blood; they have superhuman strength and awesome magical powers; they have certain vulnerabilities (sunlight, crosses, garlic, fire); they can turn humans into vampires. Thereafter, vampire stories with the same details could be written only a few times before the vampire became cliche and was no longer weird.

Since then, if one wishes to write a vampire tale, one must twist and turn the creature about so as to break, or at least bend, one or more of these conventions. For example, Anne Rice wrote stories from the vampire’s own point of view, so that vampires ceased to be the bad guys (in the sense of being antagonists). Stephanie Meyer in Twilight made the vampire a romantic figure. Jim Butcher in The Dresden Files introduced several different types of vampire, most of them departing sharply from the Dracula motif, and made one of them the half-brother of the main protagonist.

To do a little self-evaluation, my own novels have featured:

  • Sorcerers living in the modern world, rising above and beyond the occult traditions through the effect of “deep-tier talismans,” and engaged in secret conspiracies to change the course of history, while struggling with one another over what direction that should take.
  • Gods and goddesses and faerie-folk all of whom were once human; the deities are highly promiscuous and seek to transform humanity by seducing large numbers of them and creating children who are “god-sired” and “goddess-born.”
  • Aliens that blew each other to extinction, and then used magic to reincarnate on Earth as human beings and continue their age-old struggle with our planet as the battleground.

The reader will have to  decide for himself or herself if any of that rises to the level of weird; I’m fairly satisfied myself.

Having discovered the weird, the next step is to present it in a way that feels real.

The weird does not feel weird to itself. Nor does it feel all that weird to those who are used to dealing with it. The ideal achievement is to create a story in which the reader is immersed in one of these two points of view and so finds that a part of the mind accepts the weirdness as ordinary and to be expected or even identified with, while another part in the background shrieks, marvels, gasps, or stands in awe of the truly bizarre and unexpected.

There’s another technique that’s sometimes used that I call the meathead perspective. This involves introducing a meathead, a person of fixed modern banal viewpoint who can serve as a foil and express disbelief, skepticism, denial, and downright blinkered stupidity in the face of the weird. You know the type: the dim-witted imagination-deprived dunderhead who insists, contrary to the evidence of his own senses, that there’s no such thing as magic or ghosts or vampires or gods or whatever; that the wardrobe can’t lead to another world; that those mental powers can’t be anything but primitive superstition; that the horde of zombies shambling in pursuit, immune to anything but a head shot, have to be just teenagers on drugs. The value of the meathead perspective is of course to say, in a rather hammer-handed way, that yes, it is real, and look where Stupid, Blind Skepticism gets people (captive of the White Witch, zapped and befuddled by mental powers, or horribly eaten alive). I can sympathize with the desire to portray meatheads in an unflattering light, but find myself uncomfortable with the meathead perspective and prefer to avoid it. Meatheads in my fantasy worlds may exist, but generally don’t come into the stories much. (The closest I ever got was Arnold Bittermint, Johnny’s lawyer in The Green Stone Tower, and although he was a meathead he didn’t play the usual meathead role.)

Rather, present the weird from its own point of view or that of those who accept its reality. Let the weirdness come through in description, dialogue, and action, shining in its own preternatural light, without having to tell the reader how weird it all is. If the job is done well, that should be obvious and require no elaboration.

Image credit: ateliersommerland / 123RF Stock Photo

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