My dad used to complain that my mother had “no sense of time…” And I understood. I was forever waiting for my dinner while my mum “just finished” a sewing project, a painting, or some crafting. My wife is the same.
Craft-orientated people like my old Mum, and my wife, get preoccupied by the creative project they are working on. It seems that they don’t have any “sense of time.”
Does this mean, though, that creative-people cannot “feel” the passage of time? Or does it merely mean that they are absorbed and distracted by their imagination and just want to get on with their project?
And, anyway, sorry Dad, but is chrono-perception (the sense of time passing) a real “sense”? Or is it just a pseudo-sense like humor and fairplay. If it is a sense, what organ does it use? Would an alien from another planet require time perception? If an entity existed outside earthly time & space (for example, a floating spirit or a deity), would it require time perception? If an organism counts eons instead of hours to develop and grow (for example, endoliths that live for thousands of years on the ocean floor or huge inter-connected colonies of fungi) — do they need time perception or, indeed, any “sense of time” at all? And what might all these things have, if they don’t have a sense of time? What other senses do such things possess?
If you’re a fantasy fiction writer, these are exactly the type of questions you are expected to ask. Because these are the kind of questions that spark new stories and facilitate fruitful imaginings!
I spoke about fear on the Myth & Magic Podcast, Episode 73 (aired 17th March 2021) and how you should use the hormonal cascade to impart fear in your story. On that show I mentioned that our animal brains are capable of “slowing down time…” when we face deadly danger. Although this phenomenon (known as “chronostasis” — the immobilization of time) is actually a disconnect between normal visual sensations and perceptions rather than any special new ability or sense, nevertheless, chronostasis is interesting, because it requires us to focus on how we perceive our surroundings, using our most important sensory organs: eye, ear, skin, nose and mouth. But what if there are other receptors? What if we unconsciously use other organs to perceive “other” mysterious things?
Well, it just so happens that we humans (most of us) do possess other receptors, and through these lesser known receptors, we do perceive other mysterious things! For example, most of us, if healthy, have a sense of balance. This is known as equilibrioception and, as in other animals, it prevents us from toppling over. The vestibular system (it’s a labyrinth inside your ear, so you can’t see it) does the work for us. When the sense of balance is disrupted, it causes dizziness, disorientation and nausea, which is why we feel queasy in a rocking boat, woozy after getting off a spinning roundabout, and why astronauts must be trained to deal with the sick feeling of weightlessness in space
We also have a number of other interoceptions (these are sense receptors located within the body, mostly organ-based and, like the vestibular system in the ear, they cannot be seen). For example, most of us can sense when we are “full up” after a big meal, conversely most of us can sense when we’re hungry. Also, most of us sense pain. We also have a vomeronasal organ V.N.O. for short that (weirdly) is also present in snakes and lizards and which we think (though nobody knows for certain) is used to sense chemical cues (pheromones) and might explain some of our curious mating behaviors.
Other animals have “exotic senses” and these are quite exciting: for instance, some snakes can “see” the body-heat of their prey, some bats can sense infrared light, and some birds can sense ultraviolet light. Some shrimp can perceive polarized light and multispectral images (it’s quite possible they see colours we humans wouldn’t recognise!)
Magnetoreception is the ability to use the earth’s magnetic field to navigate and some birds and herding animals possess this sense. While echolocation (used by bats and whales) allows an animal to interpret reflected sounds (in the same way that sonar works in submarines).
Sharks and rays (some whales as well) detect electric fields (electroception) though their skin and, as far as we know, the platypus does this as well. These creatures are likely to use the sense of electroception to hunt in very dark waters. Hygroreception is the ability to detect changes in humidity in the atmosphere and some insects use this sense before constructing shelters.
Your responsibility, as an ingenious fantasy fiction writer, is to mingle, merge or just “think up” new exotic senses for your human-like characters or, even better (in my opinion) dream-up fabled creatures that come equipped with extraordinary & fantastical senses.
To steer you in the right direction, I suggest the following approaches:
1: Think about why your fantasy creature needs such “power” in the first place. Is it going to be used for hunting? Will it be used to escape or camouflage itself? Will it be used to communicate with others of its kind? Is it used for mating rituals? Does it require the exotic sense so it can successfully achieve some other super-normal talent (for example, dragons might require some sense of altimetry (so they can judge how high to fly) and maybe they’ll need some sort of ion-detection sense (like an in-built smoke-alarm) so they will wake-up if they accidentally spit fire in their sleep!
2: Think of how the new sense might be contained within the physical body of the entity (within a highly specialized organ, perhaps, or a part of the brain? ) How will the animal/entity maintain the good health of the sense? Will it require a specialized diet? Will using the sense require practice? (Humans need to learn balance, for example, before using a surf-board or riding a bicycle, don’t they?) Does the sense grow stronger (or weaker) over time? We know, in humans, that sight fails as we age and taste buds are never replaced. Perhaps all exotic senses diminish through a lifetime? But what if some senses develop and grow as an entity ages? What if the animal develops a strange new sense later in life?
3: Think of synonyms for existing and better known senses. For example, see = distinguish, hear = understand, taste = acquire, smell = inhale, and feel = calibrate. Compile your own set of synonyms for better-known senses because you’ll need them for component 4 of this exercise…
4: Now for the fun part! Add your synonym (the word you came up with in component 3 above) to something that’s weird and either magical or scientific (don’t forget all the other main points though: your imagined creature/entity must require the new sense for a tangible purpose and it must somehow be contained within a body). Here’s my list of ideas:
Neil Mach’s list of exotic senses:
electrostatic distinction : an entity “sees” electrical charges
baryon comprehension : an entity “hears” interactions between atoms
ectoplasmic acquisition : an entity “tastes” spiritual energy
crystallographic inhalation : an entity “smells” crystal structures in solids
hydrothermal gauging : an entity “feels” the onset of hydrothermal activity
Hooray! it’s now time to think up your own exotic senses!
Work out how they might be used in your creature/entity (or your human like character). Consider the positives / negatives of possessing such exotic senses and how your narrative might alter if your protagonist (or antagonist) possessed such an amazing skill! Good luck. Let me know how it goes!
Seeing ghostly images in the mirror is a form of scrying. I’ll get into that shortly…
But let’s begin by agreeing that mirrors are, of course, portals to other dimensions.
Just ponder the rationality of that simple statement for a moment. When you look into a mirror, you don’t see yourself. Not really. You merely see a mirrored version of yourself. The tint, texture, and contour of the glass will slightly modify or manipulate the mirrored version that you observe. Therefore it’s not you. It’s a version of you. Remember this when checking your face in the morning!
What’s more (and this is even more difficult to understand, so take a breath): the person in the mirror is not the same person that everyone else sees. Not only is the person in the mirror not you (because it’s a modified version) but it’s not even the “you” everyone else sees! Others see a presented image of yourself. The mirror provides a reflected image of yourself. In short, if you really want to examine your “true self” ditch the mirror and don’t worry about what people think or say; instead look deep into your inner being. Right, that’s the Snow White “evil queen complex” dealt with — but it’s drifting away from the main point… so let’s get back on track —
It is important to stipulate that I am not suggesting (at this stage) that anything supernatural is going on when we look into mirrors. But on the other hand, I also think we should properly appreciate how genuinely weird a mirrored surface is. We take shiny surfaces for granted, probably because we’re staring at them for much of the day. Shiny surfaces have a magical authority over us… and even an absolute control over our existence in certain cases. If you don’t believe me, try taking someone’s phone away or denying them a television screen.
But back to common-or-garden mirrors, I think it’s because the symmetrical reality of the “mirror world” we experience (I call it the symmetrylity) seems so compelling and perceptive that we don’t recognize the deep and intrinsic flaws in our thinking. We honestly believe that the mirror world is real. However, it is not. It is another dimension. For example, how strange is it that when two people look into a mirror at the same time, they see different images on the same surface! And when a person looks at himself in a mirror, what he really sees is the front and back reversed! You need to be a mathematics teacher if you want to explain the inter-dimensional aspect of mirrors.
Although we might expect a “standard” mirror (perhaps the mirror in the hall) to behave in a rational way, and to always provide an accurate representation of the world around us (albeit in reverse) it’s not true. It won’t! When a glassy surface is not held completely flat then it will behave like a lens and will distort (magnify) what we see. And a mirror that is tilted even moderately (maybe not flat against a wall) will give seemingly realistic results, but it will skew images. While a mirror that curves even insignificantly will, nonetheless, reduce larger images.
If you add these factors to the strange ability that mirrors possess (they allow us to “see behind ourselves” without turning around, which is one of the most useful benefits of reflective surfaces, but it’s also a bit like looking into the past) — when all these attributes are put together you can guess why some folks claim to see visions in mirrored surfaces. And it’s why humankind, since prehistoric times, has used reflective surfaces to attempt to perceive future events or “see” outside the perspective space & time they found themselves somewhat limited by.
Mirrored surfaces, such as the still dark waters of a sacred pool, or the waters glimpsed in a baptismal font, or polished stones & jewels, or very shiny goblets, or glass spheres, have been used since prehistoric times — for clairvoyance (seeing into future), augury (interpreting omens), and divination (the gift of prophecy). When a reflective surface is used for these paranormal activities, it is called scrying.
Concentrating on the medium of exploration (the reflective surface) is said to help scrying practitioners “focus attention” and “free their mind” in much the same way that a guru might meditate or a priest might be prayerful before a religious service. Maybe it’s a kind of self-hypnosis. After this approach, a scryer might report “seeing” images in a reflective surface. Some scryers even report hearing voices. The famous French seer of the 16th century, Nostradamus, practiced scrying before making his famous predictions; he’d stare into a bowl of water or use a “magic mirror” to see the future world while in a trance. Mirrors seem to lift the veil between what we consider our physical realm and a glimpsed spiritual realm. And it is true that ancient civilizations (such as the Mayans) thought mirrors functioned as two-way portals between humanity and gods.
To understand how mirrors might act as portals, we need to recognise that luminescent surfaces are regarded by some as representations of liminal space and can therefore be thresholds between natural and spiritual realms. To learn more about the fascinating topic of liminality, you’ll need to listen to episodes 13, then episode 40, and episode 51 of my Myth & Magic podcast. I also cover the subject of liminality in depth, in my non-fiction writer’s manual “So You Want To Write Fantasy?” But I think it’s interesting to note that people tend to approach mirrors to ask important questions about their existence and future opportunities at liminal moments in their life (at any thresholds they might encounter.) For example, on a wedding night, getting ready for a funeral, before a big presentation at work or in the dark waters of a font at the moment of baptism. (Note: a child younger than 18 months cannot “see” a reflected image, but what do the godparents see?)
In literature (especially in fantasy fiction) there is a tradition of using mirrors to combine thoughts on mythology and cosmology and to describe a method of visiting multiple worlds that are typically outside a character’s limitations. I am sure you can think of a hundred examples. A mirror is a useful device because it allows the protagonist to wander (in mind and spirit) without having to leave a prosaic existence. Sometimes there is even the suggestion of a physical trip to an “otherworld”. Thus, Alice reflects on what it must be like to live on the other side of a mirror’s reflective surface, so she chooses to travel “Through the Looking-Glass” in Lewis Carroll’s much-loved tale. Alice discovers an alternate dimension in which everything is reversed, including logic (so, for example, running takes you nowhere, walking away from something returns you to it). She finds that her mirror world is divided into sections by streams (reflective surfaces too) suggesting there are a myriad more dimensions to choose from. Harry Potter comes across a “mirror of desire” perhaps that he might be tempted to use to turn back time (a mirror of Erised) or that can be used as a scrying tool to see his (dead) parents.
So, returning to the central question, can ghosts be seen in mirrors? Some people, notably those who are prone to such things, are almost certain to “see” puzzling images in reflected surfaces. Some reported sightings might be because of sensory deprivation (the darkness of the pool or the glow of the chalice), or skewed images that might prove unreliable because of a less than perfect surface. We must also take the mental state of the seer into account (is she at a threshold in life? Is it a time of stress and change?) And the health and mindfulness of the seer must be examined, plus their use of recreational, religious / mystical substances, medicines or intoxicants, and the seer’s lack of sleep, and a host of other factors.
There is probably a lot of pareidolia going on too. Pareidolia is the disposition of all observers to see recognizable objects, patterns — and even messages — in totally disconnected presentations. So, for example, we all see faces in everyday objects. How often have you looked at an electrical socket and thought it seemed to be a smiling face looking back? We all see visions in clouds. And we all see spooky humanoids in reflections. Pareidolia is not some kind of psychosis: it is a normal human tendency. And it explains many curious things.
We must also consider the subjective nature of experience: sometimes we too easily forget that we perceive our environments in a completely different way from those around us. The “seen and understood” universe that we experience differs entirely from the “seen and understood” universe that everyone else experiences. This is due to our sensory perceptions being unique to us. They say that each of us has a unique pattern: but we ought to remember that each of us also experiences a uniquely different world — and although our worlds overlap and seem to have many things in common with each other — each world is experienced in a totally different way. So anyone, at any point in their life, might experience what psychologists will call a benign hallucination on a mirrored surface. It is likely to happen to all of us!
Yes, ghosts are seen in mirrors. And that’s perhaps the least disconcerting aspect of reflective surfaces!
Agree? Disagree? Ideas or comments? Tweet me @neilmach
Three jaded words that should upset any fantasy author worth her salt…
It implies that the writer is fixing the events of a story in an imperfect & illusory moment in history. A time that is indefinable but, in some unspecified way, oddly familiar to us. If you were a gambler, it’s worth betting that the “when” of a story that starts with “Once Upon a Time” takes place in an abstract and (probably) spurious, eurocentric, medieval village. Yawn!
This lurch towards medievalism is presumably driven by a conscious desire by some writers to emulate their distinguished predecessors, notably Tolkien, CS Lewis, and George R R Martin, but might also stem from an unconscious desire to duplicate the fairy tale, make-believe, world of medieval Europe that was typified by Walt Disney. (Such a special & magical place that we became enchanted by the notion of it while we were still children.)
I’m not saying you shouldn’t set your fantasy story in medieval times… if that’s what you want to do, I won’t stop you. In fact, that’s why I discussed some “true” medieval insights in my non-fiction manual: “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” I even explored a range of tangible characters that you might want to use: the true knight, the minstrel, the castellan, the peasant: to provide you with (what I believe) is beneficial information about such roles, hoping to suggest some interesting opportunities for you while at the same time trying to thwart common misconceptions and stereotypes that some writers fall too quickly into: for example, peasants weren’t downtrodden morons, kings weren’t all-powerful, and women weren’t ineffective or helpless.
But back to the key point… In what period should you set your fantasy? The straightforward answer is: the period you know best.
I’m lucky, because I’ve been here a long time. Tolkein, C. S. Lewis, and George R. R. Martin were also older men who, like me, had seen a bit of life: I can set my adventure in the 1960s, seventies, eighties, or later. The three authors I mention could take their own experiences and rediscover and recreate the adventures in their novels. I am the same. I know “my times” and so they are easy for me to replicate and depict: I have a “feel” for my times. You do too. You know your time. They knew theirs. You will be passionate about your time in the same way they were passionate about theirs.
“It is no bad thing to celebrate a simple life...”
― J.R.R Tolkien
But if I ever tried to place my fiction within an unexplored time zone, a period in which I did not feel altogether comfortable and familiar with, then it would present me with additional problems over-and-above the standard task of simply writing a narrative — it would become an investigation project. That’s the problem with writing “costume dramas” (because that’s what they are): the author will have to use due diligence to recreate an authentic picture of a world they have never seen and never been a part of. And that requires mental work. It takes time. And if you don’t do justice to it, it will be gibberish. And you’ll be criticized. And it’s a rigmarole too. I am not suggesting that it’s not entertaining and even quite fun to undertake historical research… but does it not take an author away from the principal task: writing a wonderful story? I think historical research is a diversion.
I guess the hardest part of the writing process is the transformational ability to convince the reader that he/she is reading about a genuine person, something real, an actual place, or an authentic situation. This is what I believe to be the transpersonal element of fiction, and I suppose it will be more profound if we derive the representations or illustrations we pen from our own (author) experiences or consciousness.
So Tolkein never fought the hordes of Sauron in Mordor, but he fought in the murderous chaos of the trenches of the Somme, during World War I.
Similarly, CS Lewis never became an adult in just a few weeks after having travelled through a wardrobe and into a magical world, but he experienced trench warfare (also on the Somme) and the experience felt as if it lasted much longer than it literally did and he suggested it felt like an “absence from Earth”.
George R R Martin never experienced The Long Night, but he was a product of the Great Depression and knew great hardship. And though he was never a sworn brother sent to patrol the Wall, he was eligible for conscription in the Vietnam War (he got conscientious objector status) and did alternative service work as a VISTA volunteer for two years. He “patrolled” his wall.
You often hear them say “write what you know” but to be honest, I think that is utter nonsense. I prefer the affirmation: write what you feel passionate about. I think Tolkein, Lewis and Martin had close scrapes with destruction. They looked barbarism in the eye and witnessed atrocity and inhuman cruelty for themselves: and this inspired them: it is what makes their writing unshakable, moving and intense.
But let’s get back to discussing in what period you should set your fantasy: have you ever wondered why authors don’t set their fantasy tales during the First World War? Or the Second World War? Or Vietnam? Or during the armed invasion of Iraq? I guess it’s the impression that there is already “too much going on” in times of conflict and that the people involved in the comings and goings of wartime have little time for the whimsical or the fantastic.
But that’s not absolutely true: a supernatural entity protected the British Army from defeat at the Battle of Mons in Belgium in August 1914 (supernatural archers and an angel witnessed by several hundred military personnel) and there were frequent reports of angelic interventions, ghostly visions, “White Cavalry” (in Bethune), many prayer-provoked supernatural events, angels seen during air raids on the front lines and at home, visions of crosses in the sky, and many miracles involving chance mists that came out of nowhere to hide (and protect ) allied armies. Imagination and fantasy were alive and very real, even during war.
So, in short, be credible, try to use your own experiences (which will make your writing more exciting), avoid unnecessary research by setting your fantasy in a time period which you are familiar with; or try to establish your story at a critical moment in real-world history. Be resourceful. Be brave. Above all, be inventive.
Let me know where your “when” is… tweet me @neilmach
I heartily recommend the book shown below. It’s a sensible shape and size, written by someone who’s not at all famous and it’s relatively unhaunted: “Moondog and the Reed Leopard” is available for purchase now:
I wrote a fairly detailed chapter on creating your own monsters for your novel in my non-fiction manual: “So You Want To Write Fantasy?” and I don’t want to go over old ground — but I have been asked how crazy our quirks and extravagances can be when we are creating scary and grotesque creatures … and I guess the simple answer is that you should allow your sleeping brain (your dream mind) to do the creative thinking for you when it comes to Writing Monsters. Surrealism, with its emphasis on spontaneous, automatic, or subconscious creation, has always been the best place to find the most terrifying yet believable monsters.
The power of creative imagination is limited by the prosiacs of science, convention, and acceptability (perhaps even permissibility, in certain cases) but brain activity is not limited by social conventions or self-imposed impediments while sleeping, so the manifestations you experience in your dream state is said to be driven by your deepest desires (obsessions) or by your greatest anxieties. So the monsters of dream visions become:
Wild and untamed
Motivated by obsession
Spurred by desire
Unbound and unlimited
The 16th century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch created around 25 works of art (which we know of) but the best known is a triptych altarpiece called: “The Garden of Earthly Delights” (shown below)
There are three parts to this creation, on the sides (these are painted in wings, which fold inward) it represented the Garden of Eden and the Last Judgment. In the center, it depicted an image of an unholy existence that begins (as you look at it) to be a familiar scene, perhaps, a theme park or a holiday camp, but when you examine the ideas more closely, you see that it contains an a bunch of surreal monsters.
For example, there are giant unicorn cats, men who make love to owls, children with plums for their heads, and camels with human bums instead of humps. It is certainly driven by the artist’s subconscious cue: his dream mind. This is the first “surreal” art that became world famous, but there have been many others since. The right hand panel (the hell panel) contains images like a giant bird eating humans, which are excreted like eggs, only to fall into a vat of vomit that has been seasoned with pieces of silver released from another man’s butt.
A squashed albino flying fox holds another guy against a table and stabs him in the shins with wooden spoons. A pig wears a nun’s habit, while dogs in armor and thumbtack helmets bite into a man’s windpipe. I don’t know what Hieronymus Bosch had been doing, having such bad dreams, but I guess he would have kept the famous dream interpreter Sigmund Freud in work for a few years!
Be like Bosch. Try these techniques to create surreal monsters for your fantasy fiction:
1: Découpé aka chaos magic
This is where you allow your unconscious brain to decide the shape of your monster for you (from a set of inputs). It is often a matter of writing a few words on separate sheets of paper and shuffling and rearranging just two (maybe three) into a new “concept”. The trade-off, of course, is that your final creation has been limited by your previous original choices. Would your dream brain have done the same? Yes, maybe. Perhaps a brain that is asleep can only use images it has “cut out” of your day-time waking experiences (thus, découpé) and so derives from your conscious brain. In other words, you cannot come up with something completely new, but a variant of something you are already familiar with. The advantage is that if you’re thinking a thing up from a set of inputs given by society, then others too (your readers) will identify and appreciate the horror of what you imagine. That’s why “The Garden of Earthly Delights” is so horrifically monstrous, it’s because we recognize the demon within.
2: Razor blade chaos
This is more or less exactly the same as decoupé, to some extent, but the inputs do not come from your own brain but, instead, from the brains of others. So, using this technique, you find and cut out nouns from printed matter (hence the razor blade) and this is normally done from a newspaper or magazine and you mix them up and come up with new two-word creations. Apparently, the poet T. S. Eliot used this technique for some of his ideas in the 1922 poem, The Waste Land. And pop artists David Bowie and Thom Yorke used razor-blade chaos techniques to create surreal ideas for their lyrics. If you look for “monster nouns” in printed mater then employ the razorblade technique you might come up with truly innovative ideas.
3: Startle response
Regardless of what comes to mind, make sure your monster startles the reader — that is, your concept will be so totally unexpected that it will make them jump! You will know how much I dislike worn, hackneyed or overused themes in fantasy: spooky sheets, headless horsemen, flashy vampires, naive goblins, callous trolls, exalted dragons and so on. I call all of these monsters “scooby doo constructs” not only because you can find them in any kid’s cartoon mystery, but because the writer clearly does “not have a clue…” If you use shop-worn monsters, ask yourself this: where is the surprise? Where is the horror? Where is the alarm? A monster in your dreams will be so horrible it will literally knock you out of bed. It’s so scary it gives you ajolt. A real bad monster will flabbergast and awaken you. It will jab you into consciousness. Surprise represents the difference between expectation and reality.
4: Unexpected awakening
The appearance of your monster must be totally unforeseen and unprecedented. I don’t just mean that your monster shouldn’t resemble anything else in creation (it might) but its manifestation should be unforeseen. To bear witness to this, remember that millions and millions of people will have seen “The Garden of Earthly Delights” and yet the albino flying fox (to take just one example) is totally remarkable and the concept stuns the viewer. It’s adventitious — and that means it seems to be there by chance or whim rather than by plan (that’s the genius of Bosch) and is therefore not an integral part of our expectations. That’s what makes it so scary, so creepy. That’s what makes it surreal.
So the environment influences the nature of any interaction with your monster (in other words, the thing isn’t just weird, but it’s in the “wrong” place at the “wrong” time.) To capture this thought and represent such ideas in your work, focus on describing touch, body movement, how time “moves” when the monster is nearby, and the pitch, volume, and intonation of any sounds your creature makes; (remember that sounds don’t just come from the creature’s voice box either… they come from the bones, guts, butt, muscles, hair, skin, teeth, etc.) The monster will also violate acceptable social behaviors or act in a way that most readers wouldn’t anticipate (a good example of this type of monster is “The Joker” in the Batman franchise.)
Dreams overlap and play with duality and counterpoint in a way that can cause night terror. So you should use juxtaposition to create monster visions: with this technique you move two different or contrasting items closer to or next to each other to make a comparison. The obvious example of juxtaposition is Beauty and the Beast. Less obvious, but still explicit, is Jekyll and Hyde (it must have been a spectacular idea when it was first published.)
Bosch used juxtaposition when he painted those pretty songbirds eating humans. The best of juxtapositions places two elements side by side to allow the reader to form their own opinions. Don’t forget that both “sides” can be represented within the same body, so Jekyll and Hyde are one and the same. And a monster can be wise and greedy. Or crafty but forgetful. Or blood-thirsty but gracious. Nevertheless, there should be an easily comprehensible contrast between the two elements.
And once you’ve created your monster, don’t forget to double-check with the surreal checklist. Is your monster?
Wild and untamed
Motivated by obsession
Spurred by desire
Unbound and unlimited
If it’s not one or more of the above (the more the better) go back to the drawing board and try again.
Good luck with your #monstercreation. Tell me how you get on and share tips, ideas or experiences on twitter @neilmach
How to illustrate superstitious thinking in your fiction
Magical thinking is the belief that events are connected to each other even though there is no plausible link between them, except for some curious and inexplicable supernatural phenomenon.
Although most theorists think that magical thinking is irrational, the belief that one’s thoughts by themselves can produce effects in the outside world… or that a thought on its own can somehow correspond to something (usually bad) that happens, is a powerful and compelling assumption that most of us have, at some point in our lives, succumbed to.
For example, if you’ve ever said, “I don’t want to tempt fate” or you have casually flicked a coin into a “wishing well” or you used a euphemism for death to avoid conjuring it, or you “knocked on wood” after making a favorable prediction, then you are guilty (like all of us) of magical thinking
Lines like “I don’t want to tempt fate” and “touch wood” are mystical phrases that we use all the time in everyday life.
I think we’re drawn to magical thinking because — deep down — we’re still four years old, and we hold-onto that nicer time in our life when we utilized make-believe & fantasy to help us understand very tricky and complicated things: so we still believe in magic because it helps us understand problems that we can’t deal with or grasp easily — for example, we believe in the magic of special places (like churches, old stones or graveyards), we believe in the magic of special people (like priests, fortune-tellers, mentalists, or aromatherapists,) we believe in the magic of coincidences (thinking about somebody and then they call us on the phone or they turn a corner) and we believe in the magic of serendipity (solving problems by so-called lateral thinking) and the magic of good fortune (if you blow on a dice, it will roll the number you wished for.) It seems that we wander through this world with our kindergarten mind still open to magical thinking… we explore with the willingness of a child.
If you want to introduce an element of magical thinking into your writing, I suggest that you blur the boundaries between magic, science, and religion in your story. If you are describing something technical, give your technical object a dash of sentience, if you are describing something magical in your story, make it sound sound plausibly mechanical, and if you are describing something that’s spiritual in your story, make it sound pragmatic and tangible. Once the boundaries are properly blurred, you will find that anything can happen in your plot and, actually, the blurred lines will become your plot-drivers.
When using elements of magical thinking in your fiction, try to describe a character’s sense of joy when his/her magical thinking comes true, and their sense of loss when it does not. Also, do your best to describe a person’s everyday struggles with life and how they deal with challenges by using magical thinking. Also consider and explore the argument that if a person believes in something strongly enough, then that thing will happen.
Also, try using lots of
Good luck with your magical thinking. Please let me know how your fiction project goes. Share your thoughts on twitter @neilmach
— and why you should use the “banality of evil” to create your Demon King
The jury is still out on whether you should use a Dark Lord archetype in your fantasy fiction.
Most say the argument is this: if it’s good enough for Tolkien and good enough for Rowling, it should be good enough for me!
But that has never been an acceptable reason to imitate someone else’s artistry, has it? Why copycat their (undoubted) ingenuity? Is there another (an even better way) to portray a super-villain?
Well, yes, actually there is…
There is an interesting concept known as the “banality of evil” and it goes something like this:
Banal antagonists are not true fanatic sociopaths, but in fact they are extremely average and probably mundane persons of low-to-average intellect, who rely on cliched responses instead of thinking for themselves, and are motivated by “getting ahead” — promoting themselves beyond their limitations, to earn more cash and live a more relaxed lifestyle, instead of following any wicked or perverse ideology.
These guys really believe that success relies on them earning a little more money so they might feel comfortable in their down-time. Everything they do is motivated by this simple selfishness, although it might be interpreted as “good for society” by the wider world and their circle of sycophants.
In the “banality of evil” theory, Demon Kings and Dark Lords are motivated by complacency. They are totally unexceptional. They are not cunning, they are not shrewd, they are not devious, they are not conscientious, and they are certainly not talented. They are completely nondescript.
In the Wizard of Oz story, the Wizard character created by author L. Frank Baum (Oz, the Great and Terrible) is actually quite a pathetic con man who uses his magic tricks and ridiculous props to make himself look big and powerful.
A banal antagonist might be better described as a VILLAIN OF OZ — if you’re using the “banality of evil” theory — and he’d be clumsy, unworthy, woefully inept, and a second-class individual who somehow became the Supreme Ruler of the World — but through nothing more than a little underhand magic, sloppy showmanship, a good proportion of luck, with spare change in his pocket. This VILLAIN OF OZ dummy sees himself as a great sorcerer, and adored by his subjects. Although he is not. The VILLAIN OF OZ is not a great sorcerer, neither is he adored.
But how did a VILLAIN OF OZ antagonist gain power and influence, you might ask? How did he come to rule over an entire realm and inhabit the darker side? Well, the “banality of evil” theory answers these questions: it recognises there is potential in all of us… even in the banal nearly-men…
We can all make the world a better place. We might all achieve greatness. So when Oscar Diggs (the real name of the Wizard of Oz) becomes stranded in a magical country, after his promotional balloon failed and crashed, he used the few tricks and deceits he had at his disposal to survive in the world he dropped into. He did not expect the surrounding people to adore him: but since he had always been self-centred (although always too unprincipled and lazy to be truly ambitious) when he saw the opportunity to surpass his own limitations without effort, he accepted what was offered with both hands. The worst thing that could be said about the Wizard of Oz is that, in the end, he became grabby and indulgent. He was never actually “dark” at heart! He was never actually a Lord of Darkness — he remained the seedy con artist he always had been. So, when Dorothy met him she was unimpressed, disappointed and even disillusioned. When he put on his big show (to impress and scare her) it backfired.
So I think you should give your Dark Lord a list of flaws, but I also recommend that you use the “banality of evil” concept to create a truly believable Bad of Bads. And here is why I think you should go down this route:
There is a moral sense of conscience in all of us (unless the person has a mental disorder, I’ll talk about that shortly) and so the VILLAIN OF OZ type always tries his best to “be good” but his lack of intelligence gets in the way of his best intentions
Arrogance and lack of remorse are often used defensively by these types (Oz dudes don’t mean to harm anyone by what they say or how they act, they are just protecting themselves)
Their frequent temper fits are often caused by frustration caused by their own shortcomings
These Oz guys are often promoted beyond limited abilities so become prone to substance abuse and narcotic addiction; this doesn’t help with the consistency or coherence of their message
Their emotional ties are weak, and they will also have bad interpersonal relationships; they often make friendships based on manipulation and exploitation rather than strong bonds and genuine love
They are generally spineless and cowardly but hide these negative traits under bluster and ostentation
They dislike virtuosity or intellect because it casts them in a poor light, and reminds them how useless the really are, thus they minimise the efforts of experts and intellectuals to “big” themselves up
Relationships with family members and relatives are often strained because those close to them know “the truth” about their many limitations and shortcomings. For these reasons, the Oz types often exclude themselves from the family group or an inner circle of decision makers. Consequently, this makes them feel excluded and persecuted (even though it’s their own fault) and they moan about the exclusion
I think it is better to go down the VILLAIN OF OZ route when developing your antagonist, rather than turning your Dark Lord into a dastardly PSYCHOPATH. Why? Because true psychopaths cannot function in society, while the VILLAIN OF OZ gets away with it. (He even climbs to the top of the tree, whereas the true psychopath will whither on the vine.) Why? Because true psychopaths —
are fearless and have a high tolerance for stress, which means they will doubtless succumb before “their time”
have poor impulse control, so lack foresight (it means they take outrageous risks, so are likely to die sooner)
their poor impulse control means they will get addicted to substances rapidly. And, because they lack foresight and fearlessness, they will get addicted early to the most deadly narcotics or other dangerous highs
have a desire for immediate gratification, so quick fixes are common. It means they are unable to establish close interpersonal relationships
don’t have empathy, so will come across as mean & cruel to those closest to them. This means they are likely to be overthrown or even killed by their closest allies or loved ones. If they acknowledge this (probably too late, because their lack of foresight will mean they won’t recognise the signs) — it is likely to cause them to act even more capriciously and wickedly than usual, making them highly unpredictable
cannot use violence as an instrument: as they lack foresight and have poor impulse control. This means they only indulge in cruel violence to gain immediate gratification for themselves, but cannot use violence in any strategic or methodological way. Contrary to popular opinion, psychopaths don’t make efficient serial killers
have no place in crime syndicates. Although psychopaths are often associated (in our minds) with organised crime, economic crime, and war crime, they would be of little (or no) usefulness in any of these scenarios. Their poor impulse control, lack of foresight, and dependence on narcotics means they would find no place in any highly sophisticated criminal enterprise: they would never achieve greatness and would probably never get promoted beyond the rank of enforcer or the despot’s own knuckle-headed torturer
Think hard before creating your Dark Lord, Prince of Darkness antagonist. Please, I beg you, don’t go down the stereotypical and frankly cartoonish two-dimensional Dick Dastardly route. Think about the banality of evil.
Good luck with your writing. Please let me know how you get on.