I should so not be writing this post. Too much to get done before we leave Monday. No time! Aaarggh.
However, Gwenda’s writing a quest novel and thinking out loud about whether she can skip the whole boring refusing-to-take-up-the-call part. Also known as “but I don’t want to be a vampire Slayer!”
In a fantasy novel the odds of the protagonist not taking up the call to destroy the one true ring or whatever are pretty non-existent. If they say “no” then book is over, or it becomes something else which is most definitely not a quest novel. So why should the writer spend too much time on that part?
I equate refusing the call with the passage of disbelief. And, indeed, the two often go together: the protag is told, “You were created to destroy this one true ring and in doing so you will save the world!” Protag’s response: “There’s a one-true ring? I’m the chosen one? What now?”
Passages of disbelief can also be really tedious. I pick up a book called, let’s say, Zombie Apocalypse from Hell and am faced with endless setup chapters where the character blithely go about their day squabbling with spouse/children/boss, engaging in other banal and boring activities just so the reader can get to know them. Meanwhile all signs point to the undead walking the streets and eating brains. But the stupid characters don’t recognise said signs, oh no, they keep coming up with lame so-called rational explanations. Yawn. Have they not seen the cover of the book? It’s called Zombie Apocalypse from Hell for Elvis’s sake! Wake up and smell the putrefying flesh! Can we get to the apocalypse already?
One of the things I loved about Buffy the Vampire Slayer was how quickly and wittily they got through the different characters’ disbelief, culminating with Oz discovering the true nature of Sunnydale and saying, “Actually it explains a lot.”
Do I think writers can skip the refusal of the quest/passage of disbelief? Absolutely! I love books that start media res. Whoosh—straight into the action. Good writers can build character and action at the same time. Funny that. They convey their protag’s ambivalence about the role they’ve been thrust into whilst the character is busying saving the world. Two birds, one stone.
On the other hand, sometimes the passage of disbelief/refusal of the quest is the best part. Shaun of the Dead becomes a lot less interesting after they realise that zombies are real. The opening where the two ambitionless, slacker Londoners get on with their stultifying everyday lives (drool in front of tellie, slouch off to work, buy crisps, fight with girlfriend and/or flatmate) in the midst of the spreading zombie apocalypse is the best pisstake of and homage to zombie movies I’ve ever seen. I laughed so hard I wept.
In Magic or Madness I set up the passage of disbelief scenario a little differently by giving the protag a mother who’s always specifically denied magic’s existence. Reason’s been brought up knowing about magic, but negatively. And although it’s almost a hundred pages before Reason is hit with solid evidence that magic is real, it’s only thirty pages later that she accepts the existence of magic.
I guess that adds up to 130 pages of disbelief, which should make any hardened fantasy reader completely ropeable (sorry!). Fortunately she’s the only deluded point-of-view character. I guess I’m saying it’s cool to take a long time with a disbelief pasage if there’s other stuff going on.
To tie this more closely to what Gwenda’s talking about: one of the main things the writer has to balance is the gap between the reader’s knowledge and that of the characters. Afterall, the protag can’t actually look up at the top of the page to the title of the book (Zombie Apocalypse from Hell ) or chapter (Eat more brains!). Unlike the reader they’re not privvy to the back-of-the-book blurb (“In this scintilating debut all hell breaks loose as Chandler Hammer does battle with hordes of zombies with only her pet dog, Misty, and son, Dopey, by her side”)—they have to figure stuff out for themselves, but in a way that doesn’t bore either writer or reader into a coma.
Nothing easier . . .