Light and darkness. Yin and Yang. Venus and Mars. Optimist or pessimist--half full or half empty. Protagonist and antagonist. A fantasy writer seeks out the duality at the core of any story line. Really, who wants to read a story about good and good? Despite the spin, it’s a binary world. Things do or don’t happen, and are or are not. As Yoda succinctly explained, “Do or do not, there is no try.”
Duality is everywhere, if one knows what to look for. Take numbers for example. Absolutes, right? Not necessarily. January U.S. labor figures came out showing substantial and continuous job growth. According to the commentators on channel 47, it’s good news. However, according to the talking heads on channel 48, it’s horrendous news. In fact, according to some of the talking heads, the numbers aren’t even real (which makes no sense since there are no “i”’s next to the reported numbers). Same numbers. Go figure. On deeper reflection, though, one should hardly be surprised. In the US, an octodecillion is a one followed by fifty-seven zeros. In Britain, the same number is one followed by 108 zeros. Similarly, a vigintillion is one followed by sixty-three zeros in the US, and 120 zeros in Britain.
One is the identity number. Number one gets parades and cereal box covers. Number two, well, who remembers who took the silver medal in women’s curling in Nagano in 1998? Gotcha, it was a trick question. Denmark took the silver, but it was their first medal in winter Olympic history, a fortiori, an event memorable because it was a number one. Generally speaking, however, number two fades rapidly into the mists of memory.
Two is twice one, and serves as the basis for our binary world, yet doesn’t even appear in base two. In base ten, we call “10” “ten”. In base two, we call “10” “two”, but does it look like a two to you? Of course not. It is a classic case of appearance versus reality, a fundamental precept in fantasy writing, which mercifully finally brings us to the point.
Writing is the product of a continuous subconscious stream of binary choices. At each step, the Muse is checking off countless boxes with yeses and noes. Each yes or no has consequences for the story which affect the story’s appearance, and thus, the reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief and accept your character’s actions.
Let’s build a fantasy character. Right off the bat, the binary computer goes to work. Since we’re dealing with fantasy, question one is whether or not the character is animate? Check “yes” or “no”. If “yes”, continue to question two. Is the character human? Jumping ahead, we’ve checked “animate-yes”, “human-yes”, “female-yes” and after several dozen more questions, we have “Mackenzie”, age 18, blonde, hair to mid back, C cup bra, honors student, lives with parents,sings in her church choir-soprano.
As Mackenzie stepped forward for her solo, he spied the dark stranger sliding into the last pew. Smiling, she....
She what? Well, that depends on a number of binary choices. What is Mackenzie’s basic character, sacred or profane? If your Muse checked “yes” for “sacred”, it is unlikely that upon viewing the dark stranger, Mackenzie felt her nipples harden and developed a tingling between her legs. More likely, “Smiling, she felt (‘joy’, ‘love’, ‘compassion’, ‘hope’, ‘vindication’)...” Conversely, why is the dark stranger there? Does he have designs on Mackenzie? Yes. Does he mean her harm? No. Does he want her sexually? No (at least not yet). Ultimately, the reader will learn that the dark stranger is there to save Mackenzie from the visiting imposter Episcopalian clergyman who, in fact, is really Formorii (Irish nasties--defeated at the Second Battle of Magh Tuireadh, but I digress).
The writer’s job is to get the story down in black and white. Like my holiday gift tee shirt says, “Even if it’s crap, just get it on the page.” Once it’s down, then the writer can go back and check the Muse’s decision making process, and flip the occasional yes to no or no to yes until the story has the appropriate appearance. Once that is done, the binary choice flips over to the reader who will like it or not. The rest is just commentary.
CK Copyright 2/7/12; Moral rights to be identified as the author of the foregoing article asserted worldwide (including in Great Britain in accordance with Sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patent Act of 1988) (See prior blog on Moral Rights).