Literary or Real?

"Are you a real witch," asked Glinda, "or a literary witch?"
"Oh, literary, of course, dear," Griselda replied. As proof she pulled the Times Book Supplement out of her pointy hat and began to read.

Fiction is fictional, but some of it is more fictional than the rest. If I mention a real-world car or computer or a historical figure, the reader knows that the item or person is based on reality. But the historical figure in particular may do and say things not in the history books, so there is always some fantasy involved.

On the other hand, if I make someone up, like Glinda or Griselda, do I want you to think they're real? No. I just want you to think my character is realistic--and I don't think we ever call something real "realistic." Tolkien called this Secondary Belief: the belief we're willing to grant something fictional. He also said that it was dangerous to confuse Secondary Belief with Primary Belief (belief in real people and things), and sane people can generally keep them straight.

But what about fictional witches, for example? There are real people who claim to be witches, though their beliefs vary widely and none of them strike me as authentic. But they don't usually fit the literary stereotype of broom-riding hags stirring eye of newt and wing of bat in a cauldron. They're also a far cry from most "witches" in modern fiction. You see, most fictional witches (aliens, elves, superheroes, etc.) are literary devices: they have some gimmick that makes the story work, which is all that matters to the author. If that's all the magic is--just a gimmick--there's not much to worry about.

Slippery Slope?So are all fictional witches innocent? Isn't there a slippery slope that leads readers to accept what is wrong? There can be, especially these days. There are two main danger signs:

1. Instructions. If the witch (Red-Eye Knight, whatever) is purely literary, the author probably won't go into a lot of detail about how to do it yourself. On the other hand, if you have practically an instruction book on how to cast a spell, summon up a vision, or move a book with your mind, then it's not wise at best and probably plain wrong.

2. Preaching. I always get a chuckle out of Christians who don't want to write preachy spec-fic. It would be interesting to find out about their home planet. Spec-fic has been preachy for decades; consider Star Trek (all forms), Star Wars, and the Matrix. Any preaching there? And what are they preaching? But in any case, just as you should avoid something that preaches a false gospel, so you should avoid something that glamorizes witchcraft or psychic powers. (Tolkien and Lewis didn't; witches in "Narnia" are a loathesome lot.)

If these two things are missing, then the magic or other oddity probably is nothing but a plot device. If it truly makes you uncomfortable, you're better off avoiding it. But don't knock the gimmick.

Tune in again next time for "It's Not the Deus, It's the Machina":

"What the deuce is that?"
"Deus. Deus X. Machina. There's a god in this box, you see. Very useful."
"Must be rather small, though."
"Folds up nicely, that's all."


Frank Creed said...

The fatal charge of "preachy", I've always taken to mean: too much narritive world-view telling and not enough showing. Yes the works you've mentioned promote, but I'd not accuse any of them of downright preaching.
But, what of Mary Poppins? It's a jolly holiday with Ma-ry; so much so, that she's never questioned. Spec-fic Mary is loved even by legalists. She dosen't preach, but cleaning up your bedroom with a wink is pure witchcraft, no?
The lure of powre over an immature mind can be powerful.
But if Bib-spec-fic employs your definiton of "preachy", preach-on.

Grace Bridges said...

Good one, Steve! I enjoyed that. A friend of mine recently pointed out that she hates it when the preaching in fiction is super-cheesy. Preaching? Fine. Cheese? No thanks! This is where we have to hone our skills... It can be done!

Jedi Master Spock said...

One spectacular example of "preachy" speculative fiction is Heinlein's work - at the same time, it's perfectly widely enjoyed, even by those who disagree harshly with his ideals.

I think it is only when the story doesn't have enough literary quality to hold up under investigation when the "preachy" nature of the literature comes to matter. The difference between Jack Chick and Robert Heinlein isn't just in which ideals they espouse; it's in the quality of the material produced.

You can be much too heavy-handed when it comes to projecting your ideals onto the page.

Deborah Cullins Smith said...

:But don't knock the gimmick.:

Amen and amen! There has been quite a debate lately over what a Christian can and cannot write. You've expressed it so well, Steve. If you aren't comfortable with a specific genre, don't use it. Write as you feel led, but please don't tell anyone else that they "can't" do/use/create/write/draw/etc. a specific character. If God created our imaginations (and I believe He did...) He can channel it into constructive avenues.

Thanks, Steve. Good read!

Aisha said...

Hi Steve- Good read. I think my idea of preachy is a little different. Yes Star Wars and the others set up a "moral code" so to speak - define the boundaries of good and bad. Not so hard for me to swallow. Offensive preachy, in my opinion is a more direct, sermon type approach, condemning the less enlightened.

Your definitions are right on point - there are a number of teen series that glorify witchcraft, spelling out steps to "become a witch." Fiction or not, these are definitely worth avoiding.

Anonymous said...

"But in any case, just as you should avoid something that preaches a false gospel, so you should avoid something that glamorizes witchcraft or psychic powers."

Oh, for heaven's sake, it is fiction. What exactly is the problem with glamorizing something that goes against Christian doctrine? What difference is there; those that find glamour in something will find it regardless of how you present it.

Becky said...

(Ol' Mr Anonymous strikes again!)

Sorry I'm coming at this late, Steve. Really good thoughts. I'm speaking on this topic in a month and would love to incorporate your two types of witches deliniation, attributing them to you, of course.

As to the preachy issue. I'm big on believing that theme belongs in fiction, but like characters and plot it needs to be crafted well. When it is present and crafted poorly, it does come across as preachy, but when it is absent, that's poor crafting, too, and the story is berift of the depth it could have had.


Andrea Graham said...

What I am saying is you cannot call, or portray, as good what the bible calls evil and call your work Christian, because whatever you may be, it is not, period. And if you do portay evil as good, even if no one says a word and everyone on this planet praises you, it won't matter a lick, because, whatever the consequences your particular denomination says the encounter will have, you will have to answer to God for it. Don't write to please yourself, or, heaven forbid, the praises of man. Write to please Him.