There’s been some interesting discussion of portal fantasies, or fantasy stories where someone from our world (usually) crosses over into another world and has adventures there.
At Making Light Teresa Nielsen Hayden argues that portal fantasies aren’t gone, but are so basic a part of the fantasy-building toolkit that we don’t notice them anymore unless they’re the only/main thing going on–in which case that’s the problem. (With a side trip into the life cycle of book trends.)
Reading these posts, I’ve been thinking many thinky portal-fantasy thoughts.
I think portal fantasy may in a way be like rhymed picture books: bad rhymed picture books are so common and at their worst can be so truly awful that editors and agents often simply say they don’t want rhymed picture books at all (because one can only read so many works by authors who think they sound “just like Doctor Seuss” without thinking dark thoughts), when in fact an awesome one really off isn’t completely off the table. But maybe an average one is off the table, where an average unrhymed picture book wouldn’t be. But maybe if you’re writing portal fantasy, awesome is less optional than it is with other genres. But, of course, awesome is subjective, too. And no one ever says, “I’m just going to skip being awesome when I write my book.”
In general saying “I don’t want X” with an unvoiced “unless it’s awesome” at the end is both understandable and problematic to varying degrees depending on the specific details of each situation, and that could probably be the subject of a whole other discussion. It’s at its most problematic when X = an underrepresented group, directly or undirectly, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with either portal fantasies or rhymed picture books, which seem to reflect the diversity problems of other genres and also seem no better equipped than any other genre to address them.
The problem of whether the stakes are high enough in a portal fantasy has come up a lot. I think it’s a legitimate concern, because depending on the structure of a portal fantasy, the protagonist gets home afterwards, and leave all he has and hasn’t done behind, which isn’t true in either a contemporary fantasy or an entirely otherworld fantasy, where consequences have to be lived with.
Sometimes it doesn’t matter: we care about Narnia enough that we don’t stop caring when the Pevensies go home, any more than they themselves do. Though the last Narnia book is actually all about the connections between our world and Narnia–but the last Narnia book is also the most problematic Narnia book in the series.
Sometimes it does matter. Mostly, it’s an issue worth keeping in mind, how Home and Elsewhere are or aren’t tied together. Even in the Harry Potter books, the wizarding world’s struggles ultimately do pose a danger to the muggles, for all that the muggles aren’t allowed to join in its battles. Which is problematic in a different way.
I’m fascinated by all the books that have been brought up as portal fantasies that I hadn’t been thinking of as portal fantasies, such as Harry Potter and Spirited Away. There doesn’t seem to be a shortage of books about a character finding their way to Elsewhere on shelves. What there seems to be a shortage of is books about someone finding their way to Elsewhere Narnia-style. This is interesting to me.
I’m now wondering what other portal fantasies, recent and older, I haven’t been thinking of as such. Scott Westerfeld’s Midnighters series? A Wrinkle in Time? What makes me instinctively define something as a portal fantasy or not? Does it have to do with how much else is going on outside of the portal elements, or is it something deeper and more structural?
And now I’m also thinking about my own unsold portal fantasy, which I wrote a decade or so back and eventually stopped marketing because of the nagging sense that something was wrong with it, even though I wasn’t entirely sure what.
One of the comments I received, from one of the few people who saw it, was about the clichedness of how my protagonist got to the fantasy world, which she did by stepping through a magical door/window. I responded by rewriting those scenes so my character stepped through a magical Something Else instead, and thought the problem solved.
I think now I was missing the larger point: that it wasn’t the physical details of how my character traveled to another world that was problematic, but the larger portal fantasy structure that the method of transport fit into. For my particular story, I now think that structure was problematic. It’s not untrue that portal fantasies can be hard to do well, especially when the portal is in some sense a starting place for the writer.
Which makes me think a question that may be worth asking is: Is one’s basic story concept simply “protagonist goes to another world”? Or is it something else, something more that along the way requires that protagonist go to the other world as a natural consequence of whatever that something is?
Possibly the latter makes a stronger story. Or at least more often makes one, nothing about writing being absolute and all that.
Mirrored from Desert Dispatches: Wordpress Edition.