As the novelist Haruki Murakami says, “By viewing it through an unreal lens, the world looks more real.”
One of the reasons I enjoy writing fantasy and paranormal and have basically given up writing contemporary romance is because fantastical settings allow me to explore big questions in a way that isn’t mundane or implausible. I mean, a fantasy world is by definition implausible. As long as it makes sense in the story world, I don’t have to worry about what could “really” happen.
I can take a question like, “How far are you willing to believe in yourself?” (Lessons in Magic, A Certain Kind of Magic) and push the question far beyond the bounds of probability. But it is there, in the exaggerated moment, that we see what is really at stake. It is harder, much harder to see that (and to show it) in the minutia of our quotidian lives.
We can’t see what compromises we’ve made or what shortcuts we’ve taken because we are too close to our lives. But take a character and put them in a fantastical world and we readers can ask ourselves, “What would I do in that situation?”
I remember years ago reading a Jane Whitefield novel by Thomas Perry where the protagonist says, to paraphrase, “A little boy is going to die. You can either help him or not. And for the rest of your life, you’ll be the person who helped or who didn’t.”
Now Thomas Perry doesn’t write fantasy but he does write the fantastical: Jane Whitefield is a superhero even if we’re supposed to pretend she’s just like you and me.
That quote stayed with me for a long time, for years, and when my daughter with her significant medical problems was born, it was a kind of creed I lived by: I could either be the kind of mother she needed or not. And for the rest of my life I would have to live with that choice.
To me, this is the power of fiction, that it lays bare our choices and makes us think about them in ways we don’t normally do, while we’re working our jobs and buying groceries and watching Netflix. We make a thousand decisions a day with little awareness that we’re making them.
Fiction brings us to awareness. Fiction makes us think hard about our choices. Every novel is ultimately about the choices the protagonist makes, some good, some bad, with results that can’t always be predicted, just like in the real world.
In the real world we may not have to make a choice about whether to do a god’s bidding (as Lucinda in The Wanderer must do) but every day we make similar decisions: to do what a boss (or a client or a friend) asks us to do. And many times these choices are benign: Should we meet at Tara’s Himalayan or Auld Fellas?
But sometimes they are not. Sometimes the choice we face makes all the difference in the world. Fiction helps us understand how to choose wisely.