by Quentin 'Cubist' Long
©2001 Quentin Long -- all rights reserved
A lot of people, if asked, will tell you that they like to see Realism in the stories they read.
A lot of people are lying, whether they recognize it or not -- especially where tales of transformation are concerned.
Take the transgender crowd, for instance. If any significant number of these folks truly were into Realism, transgender sites would contain a whole lot more clinical studies of pre- and post- -operative transsexuals, and a whole lot less "this guy got zapped by a mystical MacGuffin" stories. But even so, at least the 'gender fans are focused on a bodily change that unquestionably can happen here in the Real World, which is a damn sight more than can be said for many other subcultures within the greater transformation community!
And while I'm on the subject, don't think that devotees of so-called "mainstream" fiction are really any more enamored of Realism than we lovers of transformation. I can say this because there's quite a few things which are unquestionably Real, which happen over and over again in the Real World, but are never seen in "mainstream" fiction. Example: Even though millions of people around the world get randomly crippled and/or killed by drunk drivers every year, not one piece of "mainstream" fiction has ever had a drunk driver wipe out its main character in the first 2 pages. Would that be Real? Certainly! But it would also wreck the story, wouldn't it? Thus, even in "mainstream" fiction, Realism takes a back seat to literary considerations. And this is no bad thing; if Realism was what you really wanted in your fiction, you'd never bother to waste your time with fictional stories -- not as long as you could watch the 6 O'Clock News and read newspapers, at least.
All of which begs the question: If readers don't want actual Realism in their fiction, exactly what is it they do want? What are they misidentifying as "Realism"? In one word -- verisimilitude. Not the actuality but, rather, the appearance of Realism. Which is as it should be, because writers are illusionists; how can any wordsmith do more than provide his audience the illusion of Realism? He can't. The best a writer can hope for is to weave his illusion skillfully enough that his readers want to believe in the wonders he's setting before them -- "willing suspension of disbelief", in other words.
To do that, a writer must first understand what kind of illusion he's weaving. Intellectual understanding or emotional, either will do, as long as the writer has some way of telling whether a given idea does or doesn't mesh well with the story he's writing. And he's got to make sure that his illusion is supported (or at least not actively attacked) by every aspect of his story. One example should suffice to establish my point: You say you're writing a tale of high fantasy, replete with awesome magics and dripping with wonder? All it takes is one elf named "Billy-Bob", and your reader is forcibly dragged right back to Mundania where he started.
"Hold it," some of you may be saying to yourselves at the moment. "An elf named Billy-Bob wouldn't wreck my story, because I'm writing a comedy. So there!" Well, if that's true, you're only supporting my contention that a writer must understand what sort of illusion he's weaving. Comedy and high fantasy are two very different beasts, and is it any surprise that something which works for the former doesn't necessarily work so well for the latter? You've got to know what works for your story, what does or doesn't help establish the specific illusion you're building in that story.
Fortunately, this means that every idea is useful to a writer -- it's just a question of what kind of story the idea is suitable for. Here's another idea: Take two polarizing filters, and arrange them so their angles of polarization are at 90° from each other. Naturally, no light will get through the pair of filters. But neither filter is opaque by itself, so how can two of them together block the passage of photons? The answer is obvious: The filters don't prevent photons from passing through them. Instead, the filters alter the energy state of the photons in such a way as to render them undetectable by the human retina. In other words, the two filters turn an ordinary beam of light into an invisibility ray!
Yes, I know that the "invisibility ray" I've just described is nonsense. The question is, how can a writer make use of this idea, and in what kind of stories? If the writer presents it in such a way that the reader knows it's garbage (it's part of a line of patter that a con artist uses when trying to fleece the main character, for instance), it'll work in just about any kind of story, from the hardest of hard science fiction to modern horror to murder mysteries. Another option would be to present it as a speculative theory which hasn't been confirmed; if the writer goes this route, he could use the idea in a setting in which polarization of light is known, but not well-understood -- a historical novel, some kinds of fantasy, science fiction that focuses on a comparatively primitive culture. Finally, if the writer wants this "invisibility ray" to be solid fact in his story, he's pretty well limited to comedy (in which nonsensical glitches don't matter), or 1930s pulp sci-fi (in which scientific boners like this are expected and accepted).
Basically, knowledge is power. As a writer, the more you know about your story, the greater is your power to carry the reader along on the journey you're sending him on. Isn't that what storytelling is all about?