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Saturday, August 4, 2018

Appealing to Wonder Powerfully in the Modern Age



You know that emotion we almost never talk about, unless you work in the speculative fiction industries? That awe-inspiring feeling you get when you see something new and cool and intriguing? It's like the way you felt when you first learned about star life cycles and dark matter or dinosaurs and the extinct Tasmanian tiger or studied how dreams and sleep affect our brains and how there are cases of people being hit on the head and mysteriously being able to speak an entirely different language after.

That's wonder.

But the way we perceive and when we feel wonder today isn't the exact same as it was even one or two hundred years ago, which is why I would argue that appealing to wonder powerfully today can be surprisingly different than it was before.

Some critics in the writing world have a problem with fantasy because "anything can happen." For those of us who read fantasy today, we'd probably argue against that statement. If anything can happen, then, of course, there is no tension. Almost always, fantasy needs to stick to its own rules and boundaries.

When discussing magic systems, Brandon Sanderson talks about how there is soft magic--magic that is not explained--and hard magic--magic that has specific rules. He's really great at explaining when and how to use which successfully, and you can read that article here.

Likewise, I would probably say there is soft wonder, and there is what I'll call medium wonder (I don't think I'd call it hard)

Soft wonder is when something wondrous is nearly completely unexplained or not understood. It might be a magical doorway into another world. It might be creatures we've never seen before. When I think of extreme soft wonder, I think of things like Disney's Alice in Wonderland--where things are strange and fantastical, but we have and get very little knowledge for why they are that way, how they came to be, or how they actually work. This extreme soft wonder was exactly the reason why I didn't like the movie as a child. It all just felt weird and had no reason to it. I know other people who still hate it. To be honest, when watching Alice in Wonderland as a child, I didn't actually feel a strong sense of wonder at all.



Earlier this year, I was watching The Men Who Built America: Frontiersmen. If you haven't heard of The Men Who Built America, you're missing out, because the series is freaking amazing (learned more significant information from it than my history classes combined. And when I saw Hamilton, I explained it to family members as The Men Who Built America as a musical, although they cover completely different people of U.S. history.) I like the original series better than Frontiersmen, but anyway . . . I was watching Frontiersman when I learned that Americans were afraid to go out West because of what may be out there, and even President Thomas Jefferson believed that mammoths and dinosaurs roamed those areas. In fact, that was actually one of the reasons he sent Lewis and Clark on the expedition, to look for mammoths. Later, he also sent Clark on another expedition strictly to collect "animal bones" (fossils).

Sounds really silly right? The president thought dinosaurs were in the West? But here's the thing. In modern times, we can't really relate to how people felt about traveling west. Today there is almost no frontier we haven't uncovered, and even those we haven't we still have a whole backlog of science and knowledge and a whole buttload of imagined concepts from movies, books, and video games that we've been exposed to. It hasn't always been that way. For most of the world's history, most people weren't even educated, let alone had access to knowledge at their fingertips. Most people couldn't even read.

In Jefferson's time, the concept that an animal could go extinct had only begun to surface. For most of the world's history, most of the feelings of wonder people felt were soft wonder experiences, because so much wasn't understood, and they didn't have the access to the knowledge we have now. Perhaps back in the day, you could write story after story of purely soft magic--of things just happening magically--and it was wondrous because that's how life was.

If you look at the best-selling, most popular fantasy today, I think you'll find that almost none of them are pure soft wonder. They may have soft aspects, but the fantastic elements are understood, somewhat. I'd argue that this is because the way human beings experience wonder today is different than it has been in times past.

A story with things that just are and just happen over and over isn't actually that interesting because it's so removed. Have you seen movie trailers like that? You know the ones. Where as you're watching the movie trailer, you are seeing wondrous thing after wondrous thing all in CGI glory and you can tell within seconds that the blockbuster-budget movie has no depth because all it focuses on is (what's trying to be) wondrous visuals? And it seems to have no great story or takeaway value? I could name a few specifically, but I think I won't.



We have so much access to knowledge, information, even imaginary concepts and ideas--far more than any civilization before us. We've seen aliens imagined twenty different ways. We've seen twelve different magic systems. We've seen 50 different magical worlds. When and how we experience wonder is different than it has been in times past.

So what makes something feel wondrous to the modern audience? Is it simply bombarding the audience with magical setting after setting, magical creature after creature, spell after spell?

No. Powerful wonder today is most likely to happen when audiences understand the magical somewhat.

Some element of wonder will always be the unknown, unexplained, and unexperienced--that's why it's wonder. But we feel wonder most powerfully when we understand something somewhat. Because that's how we usually experience it today. I mean, is there really anything in CGI that could really wow us anymore? Probably not much. (One I would argue for would be Interstellar because it provided the first ever visual example of what a real black hole looks like--but it was wondrous largely because it was based on actual knowledge and science.)

Sometimes when we are working with fantasy, we think the less someone understands about something, the more fantastical. But that's usually not the case. Furthermore, when we don't understand anything, we don't have enough context to feel tension which makes it difficult to become invested in the story.


Think about it. For us, wonder typically happens at this threshold between what we know (either through knowledge, understanding, or experience) and what we don't know. It's the cutting edge or the gateway to the unknown built off the known. It's something we understand that is somehow broken (the theory of relativity) or something we understand to an extent (dark matter).



An alternative is to work backwards. To encounter something we do not understand or relate to at all, but then to discover what it does relate to, how it works, its "rules" and boundaries, its history or how it came to be. That's what's interesting.

The spells in Harry Potter wouldn't be half as interesting if they didn't have boundaries, if they didn't relate to Latin. Middle-earth wouldn't be as meaningful to us if we didn't have its rich history. His Dark Materials wouldn't have been so riveting if its magic wasn't cutting edge. It's medium wonder.


Something entirely new and never seen before, doesn't need to be understood because it's so different than people's experiences--what they were even capable of experiencing, knowing, and imagining. (Previous audiences)

vs.

Cool concepts, new concepts, twisted concepts, that we understand somewhat. This gives tension. This makes the subject more wondrous for the modern audience.


You'll notice that in Disney's more recent Alice in Wonderland they incorporated more structure and boundaries--making more sense of what before was nonsense. This better suits the modern audience.


At least that is what I'm considering. Remember, today's generation of Millennials is the most educated generation of all time. How people experience wonder today is vastly different than in times past.

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