On Fantastic Stories - Part 1: Plot
This is a new series in which I will attempt to describe my ideas about what makes a good Fantastic story. I will focus largely on the Fantasy genre, as my favorite Science-Fiction has more to do with Fantasy than Weird Fiction or Horror. Feel free to disagree in the comments below!
Today, I will focus on plot. In other segments, I will discuss setting with a focus on world-building and Escapism in the context of thematic elements. Let me know if there is anything you else you would like me to discuss!
When it comes to plot, I think the Campbellian Monomyth is the most powerful (as opposed to the American Monomyth). This is a story pattern commonly found in myths from all cultures, and, as a result, it is often followed in classically defined fantasy.
In this monomyth, the hero’s path can be thought of as a circle, beginning and ending in the same place. Campbell describes it in his book A Hero with a Thousand Faces, "The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula...separation--initiation--return" (30). He goes on to describe the cycle in more detail:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” (Campbell 30)
The effect that I enjoy most about the Campbellian Monomyth is the assurance that comes with it. The adventure is often forwarded by a legend or prophesy. While there is still risk and danger, the reader has confidence that, as long as the hero follows a prescribed behavior, he will emerge victorious.
Because of this assurance, the story itself does not have to include the return portion because it is implied by the cycle. The film District 9 is such an example.
Usually, the prescribed behavior is connected with a certain set of values, such as fulfilling one’s duty (Sam in The Lord of the Rings) or friendship (Anime), but it can also be maintaining confidence in one’s own ability to “play the game” (Jorg in The Broken Empire Trilogy). Stories that depict what happens to heroes who do not follow a prescribed behavior also exist (the Greek tale of Orpheus and Eurydice).
Prescribed behavior allows for a great deal of Fantasy's thematic ideas about the way that people succeed in life and gives it a unique ability to speak to the reader without being preachy or boring.
Now, I have faulted stories in the past for lacking drive because the ending was too certain, so I do think a good balance is important. When reassurance is done in the protagonist’s own voice, such as in A Natural History of Dragons, it takes away the uncertainty necessary to push a reader through the story.
An excellent example of this balance is The Lord of the Rings. The reader is confident that the Ring will be destroyed because that has been established as the sole way to victory; one of the prescribed behaviors is not caving to the Ring’s evil influence. Whenever a character does so by trying to claim the Ring or put it on, it gives the reader a measure of uncertainty and a desire to see how the characters will resolve the problem.
I enjoy the balance of confidence and uncertainty that results from the Campbellian Monomyth, and, as a result, am likely to review more highly a work of fantastic fiction that follows it and maintains that balance well.
What do you think? Do you like knowing that everything will turn out well before you finish a story or do you prefer to be completely surprised? Do you have a favorite story that you think follows a different pattern? What other elements do you think are important to the Fantastic genre? Comment below!