The weakness / achievement gap

Well, the Alan Wall Guide to Writing has arrived (you can also check out his music here), and skimming through it this morning over my breakfast toast I was already feeling sparked by it. For example, here’s Wall on one of fiction’s key obsessions:

‘Fiction is fascinated by darkness and misfortune, and ‘plot’ is usually the negotiation of this by those whom the darkness, however temporarily, enshrouds. What might horrify us in life tends to magnetize us in writing.’

Now that to me is a fascinating comment, and it chimes interestingly with an (I think) Darko Suvin comment on fantasy; that it’s obsessed with weakness, not strength. As Wall points out, it’s not just fantasy that’s fascinated by that – it’s fiction in general.

For the most part, narratives are about failure, not success. Once a character has succeeded in their key task (whether it’s throwing a ring into Mount Doom or just throwing a dinner party) the narrative resolves; the story is at an end.

The action of the narrative comes from the protagonist’s failure to achieve their goal, not their success. The narrative they’re a part of engages the reader by probing protagonist flaws and weak points. As Wall puts it, they face deeply testing ‘darkness and misfortune’.

Which leads – with a bit of a leap – to an interesting way of differentiating between more fantasised and more realistic fiction. You don’t look at the scenery (is it set in Mordor or Knightsbridge?) – rather, you look at the gap between character weakness and achievement.

Frodo is a short, hairy person; and yet he saves an entire civilisation. This, to me, isn’t particular credible, although admittedly he does have some help from his short, hairy gardener. Mrs Dalloway is an upper-middle class Londoner – and she manages to throw a dinner party. This is a gap between weakness and achievement that I can buy into.

That’s a comparison between two books that work in very different ways, written for very different audiences. But the same holds true for books within genre. Compare, say, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ with ‘Gormenghast’. The latter offers a richly imagined, entirely fantasised setting; but within it, Titus’ great achievement is to leave home.

The weakness / achievement gap here is – in human terms – entirely credible, and so the book has an emotional credibility that LotR lacks. It doesn’t need to be read as myth or metaphor to have a real, human impact; it dramatises a situation we’ve all faced, and uses the machinery of fantasy to universalise the weaknesses and failures that set the drama in motion in the first place.

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