Friday, February 25, 2011

Other Worlds

I'm having a flake attack day. I wrote a blog post last night for easy posting this morning, and that seemed to have triggered the thought that I'd already posted my blog for today. So I've only just now remembered that I only wrote it but hadn't yet posted it. I would say that I should probably hide out today instead of inflicting the flakiness on the world, but I'm in desperate need of groceries. Still, there's no telling what I might end up buying in this state.

That recollection the other day about Ethelinda's layered outfits maybe having been inspired by a scene in a childhood favorite book has made me look at other literary tropes I love to see if I can think of what inspired them. I've been thinking particularly about my fondness for "sucked through a portal" books.

Though I should clarify my terms here. I started using "sucked through a portal" as an umbrella term for stories involving people from our world visiting a fantasy world because my agent has ranted about the "sucked through a portal" trope on her blog. What she actually means is stories of this type where there's no reason for the person to visit the other world -- the protagonist is going along, minding his own business, when he's suddenly sucked through a portal into another world. She prefers it if the character actually does something, even if it's inadvertent or accidental, that initiates the travel or if the people on the other side have chosen this person directly, even if there turns out to be a case of mistaken identity. I can see the point, though I will argue that one of the most famous "sucked through a portal" stories ever, The Wizard of Oz, was a random event. I don't recall there being any particular reason why Dorothy, of all people, was whisked away to Oz by a tornado (though it's been a very long time since I read the book). Anyway, I jokingly say I've got a sucked through a portal story when I discuss an idea involving travel between worlds with my agent.

As far back as I can remember, my favorite form of play was making up stories. I'd have my dolls and toys act out my stories, or I'd dress up in my play clothes and act them out myself. If I was in a situation where I couldn't act anything out, like lying in bed before I fell asleep or in the back seat of the family car during a long drive, I'd just mentally write the stories -- yes, in narrative. And I remember that some of those stories involved travel to another world, though I don't remember any particular book or story that triggered the idea. Most of my obsessions can be tracked back to one particular book that sparked my imagination. There was the annual broadcast of the movie version of The Wizard of Oz, but in the movie, it's just a dream and Dorothy doesn't actually travel anywhere, and I didn't read the book until later. I did have a copy of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and the "story and the songs" record album of the Disney version, but I don't recall being all that captivated by it. The closest thing I can think of was the Land of Make Believe on Mr. Rogers, but as I recall, that was very explicitly about visiting within your imagination. Besides, I was mostly fascinated with the trolley. I really, really wanted a trolley like that.

I suspect this was a case of me developing the idea more or less independently out of sheer Mary Sueism. I was a big fairy tale fan. I not only had the all the "story and the songs" records for all the Disney fairy tale movies (what we had in the days before home video), but I had books of fairy tales that were less Disneyfied. I was fascinated with the world of the tales -- that quasi-medieval place with fabulous long dresses, fairies, dragons, brave princes, sword fighting and all that. I kind of thought that the heroines of those stories were wasting the opportunities that came with living in a world like that. I mean, you've got a fairy godmother who can give you whatever you want, and all you want is to go to a party? I did occasionally play Cinderella, Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, but that was more along the lines of starring in the Broadway show. I'd put on costumes and sing along with the songs on the records. More often, I'd make up other stories in that setting, sometimes with a main character in that world who was kind of like me having the sorts of adventures I'd want to have.

But sometimes, you just want to go there yourself. I suspect that the "sucked through a portal" subgenre came from that same impulse, of being so enamored of a fantasy world that you dream of actually going there and what you would do if you went there. When the real world seems boring and drab and you feel unimportant or unwanted, you can visit a magical world where you're a hero. I suspect there aren't too many fantasy fans who never daydreamed in class about a mysterious person stepping through the wall of the classroom and announcing that he was there to fetch the long-lost heir to a magical kingdom -- and then pointing at them. Or was that just me?

So, when I discovered that there were books about that sort of thing, they struck my imagination intensely. It was like, "Yes, that's it exactly!" I'd imagined opening a door and finding myself in a magical world long before I read the Narnia books. As I think about it and scan my bookshelf, I've realized that as big a part of my imagination as this trope has been, I haven't actually found that many books that fit it. There are the Oz books, of course (though Dorothy eventually becomes pretty marginalized and the books are mostly about Oz itself). And the Narnia books, which were very much like my childhood imaginings, with the characters from our world having big adventures in a fairy tale land instead of just lying around or doing housework. I liked Stephen R. Donaldson's mirror duology but couldn't get into the Thomas Covenant books. Alan Dean Foster had his Spellsinger series about a California rock guitarist who ends up in a magical world where his music is magic, and there were the Landover books by Terry Brooks (though I've only read the first).

I've tried writing a couple, without much success (though one of them involved characters from the other world coming through a portal and arriving here). They can be tricky. On the one hand, having an outsider as the viewpoint character gives you someone who needs things explained and allows you to use contemporary references and speech. You've got the fish-out-of-water thing going on for some humor. On the other hand, there's the issue of whether it's believable for the outsider character to survive and deal with things, and then you have to work out what to do at the end of the story. Do you just send the person home or do they decide to stay? If you're in young adult it's even dicier because you generally don't want a kid staying away from home and family forever, unless it turns out that the other world is where they truly belong. One thing I've liked about the Narnia movies that wasn't addressed at all in the books is how that experience would affect the kids once they returned to the real world. And then there's the fact that it's way too easy to Mary Sue these stories, since that's generally the seed at the core of that fantasy.

I guess that's one of those things that will have to simmer on the back burner for a while until I can figure out a way to do it -- and do it right. These days, it seems to be more popular to have the magical world coexisting with the "real" world, with no portal or wardrobe required for an ordinary person to become part of the magical world.

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