The revisions are coming along slowly, as revisions tend to do. If you haven’t guessed already, my novel is fantasy, and I’ve always had a spot in my heart for that genre. Fantasy has been my gateway to a host of other wonderful, weird genres. I’ve come to appreciate science fiction, horror, strange future dystopias (YA and otherwise), urban fantasy, magical realism, and uncategorized experiments that seem to float between genres. Some are meta-fictions, reflecting our world back to us with ‘what if’ scenarios. Others are tightly focused on one subject, deeply exploring the subject matter with little reference to anything outside its own universe. Some stories are fun, irreverent romps; others are serious examinations of the human condition. Many of these stories contain more significant material than they’re given credit for.
As if confirming this point, I read just yesterday that George Orwell’s famous novel about a future surveillance state, 1984, was/is at the top of Amazon’s sales list right now. People are reading the proverbial tea leaves and they’re seeing grim things. It’s natural for the bookish among them to seek answers in the pages of such a book. Though fiction, it is a dire warning of what can happen if the government gets too much control over the population it’s supposed to serve, if propaganda becomes the new gospel, if service to the state is the highest purpose in life.
Orwell’s prediction was off by a few decades, but very on point with the scenarios. And it’s scary. But that’s the power of a good story.
How does an author come up with something so prescient, or moving, or frighteningly possible, when they trade in the realm of fiction?
Ask: What if?
Einstein spent time on thought experiments when he came upon a physics problem he wanted to understand better. He would run the scenarios in his mind, finding what upheld the observable natural laws and what fell short. I think authors operate much the same way. They see the world, make observations about it, and then ask ‘what if’.
What if aliens landed in major cities all over the world tomorrow and no one knew they were coming?
What if a girl had strange powers in a world of strange events, and she stumbled on a secret at the very center of that world?
What if a boy was witness to a terrible act of violence, which triggered something in his personality he didn’t know was there?
I wrote those three questions with specific books in mind, but I’m sure each one would cover hundreds of stories. Many authors might have the same concerns on their minds—the same ‘what ifs’—but each brings their unique voice and experiences and particular historical moment or interests to the narrative as they begin writing. The readers get their pick of perspectives on any given topic.
This is great, but how do dragons or monsters or aliens help us see our world more clearly?
Let’s start with the idea of power. Power can be good. In the simplest of examples, electrical power can run a household. Lights turn on with a switch, outlets provide access to power for innumerable tools and devices. But if something goes wrong, if there’s a short circuit or a bad connection, an electrical fire can start or a painful shock can be inflicted. Electrical power can be used to kill. It’s a good thing we take for granted, but within it, due to abuse or neglect, there is the potential for great harm.
In fiction, power harbors the same duality, though it may manifest in different ways. There are so many cautionary tales out there that center on the use or misuse of power. Yet the good ones read like an adventure and the theme might not be so obvious. Sometimes it looks like the message is ‘good will always triumph over evil,’ when the real purpose is to show how power is such a double-edged sword.
There’s a famous line early in the 2002 film, Spider-Man, where Uncle Ben tells Peter Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility.” It’s a cautionary statement, meant to tell Peter there’s danger in having too much power, and any power he has must be used wisely—and Uncle Ben doesn’t even know he’s Spider-Man. That phrase rings through the rest of the film, and it rings true. We see Peter use his alter ego for good. His powers help him put the world to right. Norman Osborn, however, uses his new powers for evil, in the guise of the Green Goblin.
I don’t think that his new powers are the whole reason he turns to evil, though. He was already corrupted by the power of wealth and position. The extra powers brought by experimental mutation only made it easier to abuse his position or power and block any guilty conscience. It’s almost like a Jekyll and Hyde split, where the hubris of Dr. Jekyll releases the full evil potential of Mr. Hyde.
There you have it. A superhero movie can be a lesson on the dangers of hubris and the failure of people with power to use it wisely. It’s a fun action movie with a little bit of romance and a lot of special effects, but it also teaches something valuable, if you look closely.
Writers know that words are power, too. So, figure out how to use your story, not just to tell a compelling story with well-written characters (although that’s important), but as a force for good.
What’s important to you? What do you see in the world that’s alarming?
You don’t have to write overtly political stuff to get your message across either. But make sure a message is there. I’m not sure you’ll even know what the message should be until the first draft is done, but if your story matters to you and you’re writing the best book you can, one will emerge.
Is love stronger than hate?
How do you stand for equality and human dignity in the face of tribulation?
What impact will disregard for the natural world have on those who depend on its resources?
How can observing the past save us from future disaster?
Pick your banner and wave it high. Write a darn good story, one that has twist and turns and characters the reader gets connected to. Ask tough questions. Offer some answers, if you can. Tell not just what matters, but why it matters.