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Thread: Rationalist trying to Write Fantasy

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  1. #1
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    Rationalist trying to Write Fantasy

    My efforts to become a rationalist are causing me serious problems with my fantasy writing. I can't suspend my disbelief. I keep trying to make magic more scientific.

    I believe in reason. So does my MC. I want the world she lives in to make sense. How can I do that while still making it a magical world, with a sense of wonder and mystery?

  2. #2
    I've been around the block. lachlan's Avatar
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    Good question. I find that my magic systems tend to become fairly mechanical, too, and it bugs me when that happens. My (partial) solution was to dole out the information in small doses, so that the protagonist doesn't know how a lot of magic works.

  3. #3
    practical experience, FTW stephenf's Avatar
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    Rationalism and fiction are two different ideas.Putting Rationalism to one side.The idea behind fiction is to make things seem believable ,to make the reader suspend disbelief.It's all down to your skill as a writer. It has nothing to do with your own belief or if it's actually possible. Personally, I like fantasy but not magic.So my suggestion is, write fantasy without magic.

  4. #4
    Court Jester Shadow_Ferret's Avatar
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    I don't know what a rationalist is. But as far as writing fantasy, it's make-believe, and doesn't necessarily have to be based on our reality or explainable in scientific terms.
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    Hypatia, my professional background is in science and many people here consider me strongly rationalistic, but I write fantasy, horror, SF and other things. I don't see a contradiction in that, and I'm not alone. In the introduction of some editions of The Left Hand of Darkness, SFF author Ursula K. Le Guin wrote: "I write about gods, I am an atheist." Beliefs are interesting because they reflect the desires and fears of the people who hold them. Delving into the fantastical always somehow ends up becoming a dive into psychology or sociology, and that's what makes it attractive to me: being able to dig into thought and deed and humanity itself, while filing the serial-numbers off particulars of cultures and history.

    But whatever else it is, the fantastic should be fun. Its very improbability is its attraction -- it lets you drive characters harder and twist them up worse than we can easily manage by sticking to the probable.

    My advice then is to do it for fun. Madness has its own logic.

  6. #6
    A Gentleman of a refined age... thothguard51's Avatar
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    If you try to rationalize "love" long enough, you will realize love is irrational emotion and yet love exist all around us.

    Magic in fiction ain't much different. It's all about how you dress it up and present it to the reader so they find it attractive and hopefully fall in love all over again...
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  7. #7
    It's a doggy dog world benbradley's Avatar
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    I consider myself a rationalist, a naturalist (someone who believes in the natural world and that there is no supernatural influence) and maybe a few other such labels, but I don't let that limit my imagination. I very much like hard SF as my favorite genre, mostly because more often than other genres it expresses a rationalistic outlook on existence. But still, I've read (a moderate amount) and written (a little) in other, "less rationalistic" genres.

    Mystery author Lawrence Block has a writing book, I haven't read it yet but just the title is instructive: "Telling Lies for Fun and Profit." It's what we do when we write fiction. We tell lies, the reader knows they're lies (or that there ARE lies in the story, but not necessarily what they are), but the idea is to write convincingly and interestingly enough that the reader is willing to follow along for his own entertainment.

    And what Ruv said.

    Here's a link to a short story I wrote a few years ago. As you'll see when you read it the MC believes, just as I do, in a naturalistic worldview, but as "The Author" I put him in a situation that challenged his belief.

    If you haven't been to AW's Flash Fiction forum before, it'll ask you for a password (this is just to keep search engines from reading and indexing the writing). That password is:

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    Here's the link:
    http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=84639

    I like the idea of that story, and it's kind of the thing I want to write more of, to put people in strange or uncomfortable situations like that and see how they react. As Ruv said, it's the psychology and sociology involved in these characters and situations that (help) make it interesting.
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  8. #8
    Comic guy Bartholomew's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Hypatia View Post
    My efforts to become a rationalist are causing me serious problems with my fantasy writing. I can't suspend my disbelief. I keep trying to make magic more scientific.

    I believe in reason. So does my MC. I want the world she lives in to make sense. How can I do that while still making it a magical world, with a sense of wonder and mystery?
    You're the author, AKA, God, and can therefore set whatever rules you want.

  9. #9
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    I've raised this issue a few time with friends and acquaintances, that the act of writing fiction is similar to the production of a religious text in that most stories bolster a belief in universal justice (i.e., good people get rewarded, bad people get punished), when in reality there's no indication of any such thing. Or as I originally phrased it, fiction is the affirmation of divine influence in profluent events. Lies we tell each other to feel better about the shitty parts of life.

    Still, that hasn't stopped me from writing fiction (and fantasy in particular), probably because my stories generally don't obey the notion of universal justice. Is that a flaw? Perhaps. But I'm not willing to contribute to the perpetuation of false belief, even if it does make people feel better.
    Last edited by SPMiller; 05-14-2010 at 02:03 PM.

  10. #10
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    Quote Originally Posted by SPMiller View Post
    most stories bolster a belief in universal justice
    I don't think most fantasy stories are just. Rather, they favour their sympathetic characters and abuse their unsympathetic ones. Reader bias tends to see sympathetic characters as 'good', and unsympathetic characters as 'bad'. Fantasy also idealises its sympathetic characters -- making them symbolic of values sacred to our culture, while unsympathetic characters are made to embody taboos. The 'good vs evil' struggle we see in many fantasies is really a fight between the sacred and the taboo. Naturally, reader bias likes to see the sacred saved, and the taboo punished, but the morality of the fight might not withstand very close scrutiny -- ever wonder what happend to the Orcish females and children in Lord of the Rings?

  11. #11
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    Quote Originally Posted by SPMiller View Post
    I'm not willing to contribute to the perpetuation of false belief, even if it does make people feel better.
    I've been thinking about this for a couple of days, SP. It resonates quite strongly with me. Here it is in my own terms...

    Fiction is an emotional journey, and fantasy ornaments that journey with whimsy, whose main job (I feel) is to heighten mood, create romance and help articulate psychological and moral problems for the characters to solve.

    But not every fantasy is a romance, and I'd argue that a rationalist approach to fantasy dispenses with romance entirely. A rationalist knows that behind every solution is another problem, so how can we believe in Happy Ever Afters? Moreover, romance plays favourites with its characters based on who they are, and rationalism holds that the world responds only to what we do. So it's hard to carve the world up neatly into heroes and villains -- we're more likely to populate our worlds with characters of mixed morality. And any gods are likely to be transactional, idiosyncratic, flawed and political because that's the kind of character an indifferent world creates.

    But mostly as a rationalist I look for fantasy that handles consequences fairly and unflinchingly. To a rationalist, wars don't spare the good and harm the bad; revolutions don't create utopias; and heroes must juggle self-interest with service, and sometimes get it wrong. So as a rationalist I can enjoy Lord of the Rings, or Chronicles of Narnia or Le Morte d'Arthur, but I'd never try and write them because they're fundamentally romances. On the other hand, I'd argue that A Wizard of Earthsea or Shadow of the Torturer or Elric of Melnibon are (mostly) not.

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    Quote Originally Posted by SPMiller View Post
    I've raised this issue a few time with friends and acquaintances, that the act of writing fiction is similar to the production of a religious text in that most stories bolster a belief in universal justice (i.e., good people get rewarded, bad people get punished), when in reality there's no indication of any such thing. Or as I originally phrased it, fiction is the affirmation of divine influence in profluent events. Lies we tell each other to feel better about the shitty parts of life.

    Still, that hasn't stopped me from writing fiction (and fantasy in particular), probably because my stories generally don't obey the notion of universal justice. Is that a flaw? Perhaps. But I'm not willing to contribute to the perpetuation of false belief, even if it does make people feel better.

    I don't agree that fiction is "telling lies." Is a story in which good triumphs over evil and justice is done (when we know that's often not what happens in the real world) contributing to false belief? No more than a story in which magic exists. The danger that people will believe the good guys always win because that's what happens in the books they read is no greater than the danger that they'll believe vampires are real because they read books about them.

  13. #13
    Plotting her escape... Escape Artist's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by SPMiller View Post
    But I'm not willing to contribute to the perpetuation of false belief, even if it does make people feel better.
    This resonates very strongly with me as well, along with Ruv Draba's comment about feeling cheated as a reader if you are lied to, and I think what bugs me most is when I feel I'm being lied to about life in general. There is no Happy Ever After out there. There just isn't. And to be told that there is, over and over and over, tends to be... oh, what's the word? ...detrimental to my psyche. Because inevitably, you have to pull your nose out of that book. Inevitably, you have to return to the real world where good deeds are oft unrewarded and wrongs go unpunished, where good men die while evil men prosper, and it hurts. It hurts to know that life will never be what it is in the fairy tales.

    I think this is why some of my favorite books are also what many people would call depressing - The Road, 1984, or any one of the many books I have read regarding the Holocaust - but I like them because they don't lie. They tell it like it is, and I love them for their honesty.
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  14. #14
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    You can redefine or replace the terms however you like (within reason) and not lose the essence of the thing.

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    Swordsman zornhau's Avatar
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    Use the magic rationally as a tool to amplify and hence investigate your themes.
    (Newly Agented but unpublished author. The usual caveats apply.)

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    What Zornhau said. Fantasy tends to exaggerate things, but the things can still have their own logic.

  17. #17
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    No, we can't write Happily Ever Afters, which means the romance genre is right out (even if what we write is Romance in a classical sense). But the so-called Happily For Now is within reach, though I usually avoid that, too. For me, unhappy endings are equally distasteful, so I aim for the middle ground, which I describe as bittersweet.

    It does amuse me that what I would describe as "fairness" would probably be called "unfair" by a large number of non-rationalist fantasy readers, and this goes back to the issue of universal justice.

  18. #18
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    Quote Originally Posted by SPMiller View Post
    I aim for the middle ground, which I describe as bittersweet.
    Mine often end up the same way, SP -- or else sweetly horrific. But I don't aim for a particular mood. I aim for the story questions to be resolved fairly, convincingly and interestingly, and that's just what emerges.

    One of my closest writer buds is a romantic, idealistic sort and she has asked if I detest happy endings. I don't -- I can enjoy them in other folks' writing; I just don't believe them myself. For me, behind every solution is another problem, and nothing really ties off in neat bows unless we narrow the picture down to ignore the residual mess.

    It does amuse me that what I would describe as "fairness" would probably be called "unfair" by a large number of non-rationalist fantasy readers, and this goes back to the issue of universal justice.
    Some readers feel cheated if they're not made happy, but as a reader I feel cheated if I'm lied to, or if the author plays favourites with his characters. Fairness to me requires an unflinching honesty about a fair world; and in a fair world a lot of villains are just heroes in the wrong place; and a lot of heroes are just villains who got lucky, and that's what I write about.

  19. #19
    practical experience, FTW hlynn117's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ruv Draba View Post
    Some readers feel cheated if they're not made happy, but as a reader I feel cheated if I'm lied to, or if the author plays favourites with his characters. Fairness to me requires an unflinching honesty about a fair world; and in a fair world a lot of villains are just heroes in the wrong place; and a lot of heroes are just villains who got lucky, and that's what I write about.
    I believe the trope is 'Earn your happy ending.' The characters have to struggle for happiness because you're usually not happy unless you've had to contort yourself through hoops of all sizes and shapes to reach your goal. I don't like it when series get derailed because an author grows too attached to a character and decides to keep them around even though the book would have been awesome if they had died. I think I love the movie "Stranger than Fiction" because it plays with this very idea and flops it on its head.

    But back to fairness. Your characters can have different concepts of what constitutes fair. These ideas are likely cultural, and in judging a single character, you can slide in judgments on the entire culture of your world as well. The villian may be pitiable, but this is only because the culture that created them is terrible. Or the hero may be a raging idiot, but may never have been taught to really act otherwise to be successful. Really, the key is to keep in touch with current events and try to understand our own world. Then, you're just like, 'Wait! My story is totally about immigration reform or trade rights or nuclear warfare, but I just didn't realize it!'

  20. #20
    Lunch Break Novelist MGraybosch's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Hypatia View Post
    I want the world she lives in to make sense. How can I do that while still making it a magical world, with a sense of wonder and mystery?
    You can have a magical fantasy world that makes sense as long as you develop a set of fundamental principles that govern how your world works and stick to those principles no matter what.

    If it helps, I'll tell you my own story. I'm a lifelong atheist doing the third draft of a science fantasy novel. The MC learns over the course of the novel that he's an artificial entity called an "asura emulator". He gains access to magic, but finds that the magic is useless to him in most situations. If you wanted to throw lightning, you first need enough energy to generate the lightning. You then need to know exactly how lightning works, to have a firm grasp of the physics involved, before you're able to make it happen. So Morgan decides he's better off using a pistol.
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  21. #21
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    Smile Romantic vs Rational Magic

    I don't think that any of us are totaly rational or romantic, if we were we would all be locked up in the nut hatch or out chopping our neighbors up into little pieces. The world we live in is both rational and romantic, the worlds we write about are both rational and romantic.

    With that said, Hypathia take the romantic side of you and let it out. You're a writer, you're a magician, take that wand of yours and do your stuff, but at the same time use that rational side of you.

    I am working on a book right now that has to do with out of body experiences and astral projection, the romantic side of me I guess, but the rational side only lets certain people do this, and only when they have the proper means to do so. When you set up a magical system in your world you need to follow the rules you set and not deviate from them, the reader will know you are lying.

  22. #22
    Nurture Phoenixes AW Moderator RichardGarfinkle's Avatar
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    There's nothing impossible about a rational fantasy. I have (I hope) written some myself.

    The thing to understand is that a fantasy takes place in a different world from ours. That world will work by its own principles.

    There is, for example, nothing inherently contradictory about a world that is created by a deity with each species being made separately without any evolution. Such a world, however, would not look much like ours.

    The thing to do is to build your worlds so they make sense. Not necessarily scientific sense because science doesn't necessarily work in every possible world.

    Build your worlds up from their own principles toward the environment you need for your stories, make your characters and events make sense within the context of your world and suspension of disbelief will take care of itself.
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    I don't consider what I write to be pure fantasy; they're historicals. But before science came along to explain things, they were treated as magic. I use that to add small amounts of the inexplicable.
    You are more than welcome to take anything I say personally, whether it was intended that way or not.

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  24. #24
    Quote Originally Posted by Hypatia View Post
    My efforts to become a rationalist are causing me serious problems with my fantasy writing. I can't suspend my disbelief. I keep trying to make magic more scientific.

    I believe in reason. So does my MC. I want the world she lives in to make sense. How can I do that while still making it a magical world, with a sense of wonder and mystery?
    Weird, I find magic and science to be 100% compatible.

    Here's an old saying that I think should clear it all up: sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Salis View Post
    sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
    Another way of saying it is that if we're ignorant enough, we can think anything is magic.

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