Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Reality, Impossibility, and Logic

What does a novel need?
  • emotion
  • setting
  • character motivation
  • tone
  • voice
  • inciting action
  • reaction
  • resolution
  • antagonist
  • protagonist
  • conflict
...and so on.

On my morning drive to work (a very boring time where I waver between flipping between radio stations and testing my luck with just how far over the speed limit can I get away with) I can up with a theory. Considering I just sat down, there's a chance this theory is crap, but...

I think that in any given novel (at least the kind of novels I like), you only need one thing in the above list to be real. This must be authentic, or the reader will not like your book. The thing that must be real is:
  • voice
Of the rest of the things in the list, you can waver between real and not-real. However, what is not-real must be logical. For example, in Graceling, Katsa's emotions are not real--typically, no reasonable person on Earth would have her emotions. However, her emotions are logical given her character and situation. Perhaps a better word would be fantastic (as in fantasy, not as in awesome). Such as Joss Whedon's Firefly series: science fiction setting is, by definition fantastic, but he has rules to his world that make it logical.

However, typically a novel needs to have more realistic elements than not. For example, in the Harry Potter series, the setting, inciting action, and even the antagonist and protagonist are fantastical--but the emotion evoked by the characters, their tone, their reaction to the inciting action, the character motivation, and the conflict itself is very real. In other words--everything is real in the story, aside from the magic. Everything is real in Firefly, aside from the space ships and genetic engineering. Everything is real in Graceling, aside from the Graces.

This applies to "realistic" fiction as well. I was watching CSI:Miami last night (cheesy, I know, but the sunglasses and dramatic music make me laugh). In it, a boy kills another boy for a very stupid reason--but it was a reason that everything else in the story led up to. So, while his character motivation was a little fantastic, because everything else--setting, inciting action, reaction, antagonist--was realist, the entire plot worked. Had anything else been fantastic about the plot--if, for example, the inciting action had been something weird like an elephant falling on someone's head--the story would not at all be believable.

Example: Euripedes's Medea. In it, Medea has magical powers of foresight and potion making. OK, cool, I can handle that. Everything else--the antagonist, the conflict, the emotion, etc., are all firmly realistic. Until you get to the end. Then dragons show up. Kinda random, that. With a protagonist who's magical, but with nothing else magical, having a resolution that's magical is overdone.

I think this is on my mind because I am formulating a couple of different plots right now, and trying to decide which elements will be fantasy and which will be realistic. Do I make this character magical--or not? Do I resolve the conflict with magic--or not? In the end, I am going to have to weigh how much fantasy should be in the plot...and to build the realistic elements around it.


lotusgirl said...

Voice makes the difference between loving something and hating it. Like I tell my kids, it's all in the attitude. To me the voice is the attitude of the book.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

You know, I used to think I didn't read fantasy and sci-fi because I didn't like the genre -- when most of the time, I'm pretty sure it was the voice I don't like. Because I love LOTR, and I love Firefly!

So... this is a GREAT post! I love what you have pinned down here.

I've thought it strange that many people like my novels, even though they are not normally a genre they would read. I think it's because of the voice! Nice to know this now. Thanks, Beth. :)

Michelle D. Argyle said...

That makes me think.... does Firefly have a voice, even though its on film??? Does it have to be printed writing to have voice?

Bowman said...


How are tone and voice different? I think of voice as a way of presenting material. Isn't tone part of that?

I don't know for sure since most people speak of "voice" like it is closer to magic than science: impossible to measure, unique to every person, etc.

This next part is barely on topic...forgive me.

I found Harry's emotional outbursts far from real, even for a teen. I'm going to make up a sentence here based on how I recall him behaving.


I HATED the overused Caps Lock key.

P.S. I used caps lock, so you'd know I really hated it. Extra oomph! :P

Gottawrite Girl said...

Awesome post, Beth! Stephen King talks about this alot, how the fantasy can be ridiculously fantastical, but it must be based in honesty emotion.... love this, as always!!!

Unknown said...

Justus: I can see how I was confusing on that one! I intended tone to be more along the lines of tone of the novel (i.e., dark, serious, funny, silly) and while that is tied to the book's voice, I meant it as something of a separate category in that way.

Voice is definitely something to be reckoned with. I used to have a hard time with it, too, especially since I wasn't sure what it was! Martha Mihalick's speech at the conference I attended was very helpful. To me, voice is was defines the narration--it's what it sounds like in your head. Such a bad example. I'm way too drained for this--but you've totally given me some ideas to include in a post at a later date!

(Also, re:Harry Potter--I don't know...I found his angsty-ness annoying, but also real...he sorta reminded me of some students who always speak in capslock ;)

Susan: Well, if King says it, it must be so! Love his book On Writing...

Glam: A movie can TOTALLY have a voice! Film is just audio books with moving pictures :) I absoltely think that a film can have a voice--and a good film has a strong one. Iron Man, Batman, Hancock (er, all super hero movies, but...) anyway, each of these movies has a very distinctive voice. And anything by Joss Whedon. And also Doctor Who. :)

Lois: Great analogy--and true!

PJ Hoover said...

Voice can do so much.
And I've never thought about analyzing what is fantastical and what is real. It's an interesting exercise.
OK, now off to work on emotion.

Bowman said...

Fine, I suppose some teens speak in caps lock. I must have missed that coolness gene. :P

Unknown said...

Blegh--trust me, Justus, those are the teens that drive me CRAZY (sorry for the caps!)