Can contemporary, realistic fiction mix with fantasy? The quick answer is: Of course! But the more difficult question may be: How?
How does one create a balance between realistic cities and settings verses making up a new and interesting world? Between believable and likeable characters verses amazing, heroic personas?
Are these elements mutually exclusive?
These questions have been on my mind a lot now that I’m deep into writing a spy thriller, set in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. and in Belgrade in the 1990s. The plot follows the run-up to the 1999 Nato bombing, but I take fictional liberties to help explain why I think Serbia got attacked. And, I’m considering infusing my novel with a healthy dose of fantasy.
I’ve started by asking two intelligent writers their thoughts; one is a memoirist, the other a novelist.
Honesty and Truth in Memoir
When I wrote about a bipolar delusion in which the main character believed that she was a bionic spy for the Illuminati who had inadvertently perpetrated 9/11, it was a memoir, called Adopted Reality.*
The most frequently asked question is: Is it really true?
I asked memoirist Kathy Pooler to give some insight. I asked, Was it inappropriate for me to try to pass off my delusions as true, within the memoir genre? Here’s an excerpt from her response:
I have worked in psychiatric units as a nurse, so I fully understand how real the events were to you from your psychotic break. The intensity and drama pulled me in and gave me a sense of the terror you must have felt. Having been drawn into your experience also made me appreciate and admire how hard you had to work to recover. Therefore, I was able to celebrate in your recovery and gain a fuller understanding of the impact your illness had not only on you but on your family.
Like I said in my review, your memoir read like a psychological thriller.
Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
Four Ways Authors Can Integrate Fantasy
Kathy’s responses make me think there are a couple options (actually I’m sure there are plenty more, but this is just a blog post, not a book!) for getting the reader to “go with it.”
1. Show You’re “In On It”
Writers can let the reader know they, too, are “in on it,” which was what I tried to do when describing the delusion.
Without breaking out of the bipolar experience that the main character was entering, I subtly hinted that I the writer knew that all of this was crazy talk. (Perhaps I didn’t do this enough, hence the “But is it really true?” question.)
2. Be Convincing
A writer can help his audience “suspend disbelief” by going into the fantasy entirely. Everything is seen through the non-real lens, so the reader trusts the writer to stay-with-it.
Stephanie Meyer spends pages and pages in the Twilight series justifying how it is that vampires and wolf shape-shifters can exist in the “real world,” attempting to convince readers to go along with her on the journey.
3. Use a Dreamscape
The writer creates an alternate reality or dreamscape (Alice in Wonderland), one that takes up the largest part of the book.
4. Infuse the Real World With Fantasy
The storyline is set in the real world, but infused with non-real aspects.
An existential fable with magical elements
For me, the fourth technique interests me the most. Who could the magical character be? What is her purpose? How will her powers further the theme and the storyline?
I chatted with writer, Corie Skolnick, author of ORFAN* about her use of magic in her novel about a young adoptee, Jimmy Deane, who remarkably starts a relationship with the long-dead film star, James Dean. I asked her why she incorporated this magical character into her novel.
I wrote the character Jimmy Deane as an allegorical lodestar for adult adoptees who have felt “alone” and misunderstood. I wanted to normalize a radical (“creative”) solution to extreme loss, (plus, in Jimmy’s case, abuse and more loss), and to delineate the difference between the adaptive and creative response, and a maladaptive and destructive one. I also wanted to empower the adoptee to make a conscious choice between these choices.
In other words, the magical James Deane character serves as a psychological delusion, an emotional outlet for the main character’s pain (Jimmy Deane), and he helps to further the plotline in a satisfying way for (this) reader.
All of this gives me much to consider when it comes to my own work-in-progress. How far will I take the fantasy?
What do you think? Is this okay? Have you considered incorporating fantasy elements into your realistic writing?
In what ways have you, or do you plan to, incorporate magic, or fantasy elements into your fiction? If you write strictly in the paranormal or fantasy genre, what advice can you give to writers who want to infuse their reality-based storyline with fantastical components?
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