"Actual" Myths vs. Imagination (Speculative Fiction Discussion)

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Thread: "Actual" Myths vs. Imagination (Speculative Fiction Discussion)

  1. #1

    "Actual" Myths vs. Imagination (Speculative Fiction Discussion)

    To start this conversation, I will propose a spectrum. On one end, you have things like “the Vampyre” by John Polidori, which is “accurate” to folklore. And on the other, you have something like Tolkien, which is completely off-the-wall with no pretentious of being stuff people “actually believed.”

    Advantages of the folklore side of the spectrum:

    A) People are already familiar with the speculative elements. There can be a killer “oh, god, I know what that is” moment. (Especially pertinent for horror.)
    B) Characters can react to your speculative elements without straining suspension of disbelief. Something like “let’s avoid the graveyard because of the ghouls” makes sense if your story is set in ancient times, because people really did believe in ghouls back then.

    Disadvantages of the folklore side of the spectrum:

    A) If you can read folklore, so can other writers. You will have more competition. You will have to write significantly better stories than your competition to get published.
    B) It can feel stale or overdone if done poorly.
    C) Editors have higher standards for things they "see often" (their words)

    Advantages of the imaginative side of the spectrum:

    A) Less competition.
    B) It’s often fresher.
    C) the “weird fiction” genre is booming


    A) You need to spend more valuable time explaining your speculative elements
    B) it can feel less connected to reality

    I am inclined slightly towards writing the imaginative side of the spectrum. As a reader, I prefer the folkloric side.

  2. #2
    I think the Witcher series did a good job combining elements of both options.

    For background, the setting is set on a planet that was populated after a warp in a spacetime continuum, bringing over both humans (heavily implied to be Earth humans) and all sorts of mythological creatures
    This gave Sapkowski and the subsequent game writers a great amount of leeway to use a wide array of cultures and play them how I want. So you get The Little Mermaid, but with an edgy twist. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, but with a twist. So on. It's recognizable, but only if you squint through a dark lens.
    Currently working on: The Huntsmage

    "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch." - Robert Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

  3. #3
    As a writer, I love the imaginative side too. You get to create a whole world and build the story off all those layers. I can playfully hint at things in the larger world that aren't a part of the story in focus. I think deep and intentional world building that invited the readers imagination can fill the gap from reality that you mention... You attempt to ground them in another reality

  4. #4
    Good topic. For me, the issue of being less connected to reality is really significant.

    The problem with the 'imaginative' side of the spectrum is it can be subject to 'eye roll syndrome', that is: It can be really hard to get readers, especially adults, to give a poodles about it. That's somewhat beautifully summarized by such statements as 'As a reader, I prefer stories grounded in the real world...as a writer, I prefer stories that lack that grounding'. Of course, because as writers we want to be free to write without accountability to things like realism. Nobody can critique the realism of a made up world. It's like in the thread with the guy who was defending Tolkien's impossibly square mountain ranges because 'it's fantasy'. Sure, it's fantasy, do what you like! It's essentially an appeal to childhood anarchy.

    A lot of epic fantasy fails not because it is badly written but because it simply lacks the ability to mean something to people who work two jobs and ride the bus to work.

    We often talk about imagination as being something vital. To an extent that is true, all stories need some imagination. However, it's also fair to say that imagination is not the be all and end all. It is not necessarily something that is a major priority to all (or even most) readers of speculative fiction in endless quantities. Rather, most readers want something that blends the imaginative with the real world.

    What is the evidence for this? Well, for starters, the two biggest fiction markets are romance and crime. Both of those genres typically are set in some form of the 'real world' -- i.e. they feature human beings, on planet Earth, and within recognizable time periods and incorporating aspects of the everyday. Other forms of speculative fiction is (cumulatively) about half as popular as Romance and Crime combined, and that's not considering that a lot of fantasy, horror and science fiction is also set in the 'real world'. So, the data seems to suggest that the market for highly 'imaginative' books is relatively small. I definitely disagree it's less competitive!

    That doesn't mean very imaginative works aren't valuable! They are, and always will be. What it does probably mean is that the adult readership, as a whole, is naturally fairly skeptical, more so leaning towards dismissing works of pure imagination than accepting them without question. There isn't a huge market for readers willing to place endless investment in fictionalized, unrealistic worlds and what market there is probably has pretty high standards as to what will past the Bullshit Test.

    For that reason, 'the imaginative side' not only needs to be imaginative but it also needs to be compelling in order to make up for the lack of intrinsic meaning found in pure escapism. To write effective escapism requires, in my opinion, more literary talent than simply writing about the real world, pound-for-pound, because if you cannot smash down the door of natural skepticism through pure literary and storytelling prowess, you cannot succeed as an 'imaginative author'.

    It's a little bit like how the standards of musical technique tend to be higher for psychedelic, progressive rock and jazz music than for pop or punk rock. There's a reason why jazz musicians typically are much more advanced than punk rock musicians, why jazz needs to exhibit high-end musical talent, and that is because jazz music is focused on an escape to a certain state of mind, a certain era, a certain something that is NOT 'ordinary'. Conversely, popular and punk rock music can often get away with being 'basic' because that is it's appeal -- it's ordinary, working person music designed to be accessible and, in being accessible, it typically focuses on ordinary, working person problems. There's far less issue of 'this doesn't speak to me, it's just weird' compared to Cthulhu & The Elves Of Agamemnon. The flip side of that, of course, is that pop and punk rock music cannot spout gibberish in lieu of actual lyrics and put in a ten minute drum solo in lieu of a chorus.
    Last edited by luckyscars; November 20th, 2020 at 07:06 PM.

  5. #5
    The premise of the OP hits home for me. I'm 40K words into a first-person minor Olympian, who along with other surviving Olympians, are being targeted by a combination of unfriendly otherworlders and demons. My premise is that Olympians are also otherworlders who got here, liked it, and stayed. By otherworlder, I use extra-dimensional travel, not interstellar travel.

    I'm very deep into accurate mythology when I get to discussing the past, but it's accurate mythology with a twist. Word of mouth is rarely accurate, and gets less accurate as time goes by.

    This is true over the course of a week, so what is the state of 'word of mouth fact' over the course of centuries? My MC gets put in the position of saying, "Here's what you've heard. Here's what's right, and here's what really happened." When you study mythology, you find a lot of conflicting stories. So it's perfectly valid to choose one over the other as you please, and then give that one your own slant.

    I'm pushing the mythology in some cases for humor, and in other cases to state my own rules. It's my maiden voyage into first person, and I'm having a lot of fun with it.

  6. #6
    I love the imaginative side of things but like mentioned before, keeping things realistic so the reader can better imagine themselves in that very position, experience, or person's body. For me, the technicals of writing, drawing, listening, aren't what makes the art valuable or desirable, its the way it expresses itself and relates to me, and how I relate to it. How it makes me feel. That is the relationship that is developed during a reading, and if that relationship of realistic translation is not strong, I'd assume readers would simply not be as interested to read into it. It has to pull the reader in, so you have to build a door and open it enough for them to see in but giving them no control on their choice to walk thru it . . . like autopilot. That attraction, relation, is really important to keep realistic enough so the reader can continue to relate the experience.


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