Sunday, May 20, 2012

Chapter 81: In Which I Discuss Designing Your Own Universe

Writing is about obsession, pure and simple.

It is taking the themes and fetishes and interests you have to such an extreme level that you have to devote untold amounts of words to them. And if you happen to get published and kill a few trees in the process, it's all for the good.

All writing is fantasy. Now, there are writers who take on the Sisyphean task of mimicing the real world. Some even go to an extreme and call themselves "journalists.." What I appreciate is when writers embrace the fantasy. When they go all-out and create an entire universe around their obsessions, where the characters are in tune with these interests, and they play entirely by the author's monomaniacal rules.

Case in point:

The Lord of the Rings. Arguably the most in-depth fantasy universe ever created, documented from the beginning of time to when Middle-Earth becomes Our-Earth. You may notice the characters are very articulate. They speak a very high form of English, to the point where they'll just bust out in verse. And not just English. They babble on in three other fully formed languages. Every character, from Frodo to the Witch-king to Wormtongue, has the same love and dedication for language as an Oxford don of Linguistics.

The universality of linguistics in Lord of the Rings is unrealistic, and over-the-top, and undeniably one of my favorite aspects of the trilogy. Every time they bust out the high English I can just hear Tolkien hammering his typewriter keys with the intensity of Beethoven playing a symphony. I feel him. He's in the zone. He's enjoying himself.

Another example. I recently watched the classic 1990s melodrama Showgirls. Melodramas are great because the writers aren't afraid to let their freak flag fly. Joe Esterhasz is gleefully tossing his obsessions around, just as much as his predecessors Jane Austen and Harriett Beecher Stowe once did. The Las Vegas of Showgirls bears as much resemblance to our world as Middle-Earth. Yes, I know Vegas is sleazy, but in Showgirls-Earth every single last male character is an evil predator. Even that useless Glenn Plummer character is, at best, a weaselly liar and stalker. The rest are mustache twirlers devoting all their time and energy to using, fucking, and throwing away these women. Even the broke ones who don't work in the entertainment industry. While I know there are slimeballs in Vegas, I don't think all the men are like that. Eighty percent, tops.

It gets even better. In Showgirls-Earth, the natural pecking order for showgirls is decided by pushing other girls downstairs. That's literally how they get promoted (if they fail to fuck their way to the top). It is such an accepted practice that Gina Gershon's character not only forgives Jessie Spano for trying to cripple her, but gives her an affectionate goobye. "Oh, darlin'. How do you think I got my first leading role?" Well, I guess that makes it okay, then. Gina pushed a girl down the stairs, and its implied the next girl is going to push Jessie down the stairs, so the world is a never-ending cycle of pushers.

Showgirls is, of course, a comedy. But it's also a prime example of worldbuilding. Esterhasz and Verhoeven are obsessed with the concepts of sex, sleaze, and ambition. As such, their universe operates by these rules. Oh, naturally that girls a nymphomaniac! Of course she used to be a hooker! Hey, this guy's a dancer, too! Of course those guys are looking to get laid! Isn't that what all men want all the time? The best part is that the actors are in on it, the principals sleazing it up to a painful degree, especially Elizabeth "Caution Be Damned" Berkeley. In Showgirls they design their universe and go for it.

After all these years, I realize that's what drew me to Tarantino movies. Even before he went full-on fantasy with Kill Bill, he was creating his own worlds. His characters also love to talk. They all have an encycloepedic knowledge of film; this is to the point where you can sit down a Gestapo agent, an actress, a British spy, and two German OSS recruits, and assume coreectly that they've all watched the exact same movies. Because they love movies in general, just like Tarantino.

For Hard Times Blues, I'm revising a story called "The Piper's Christmas Gift." The story itself was a Christmas gift, written for my friends a few years ago (one day I'll have the time to make Christmas cards that are actual cards). It is a favorite of my editor Nathan, and I am including it. The story is my homage to turn-of-the-twentieth century children's lit, which is quite possibly my favorite school of writing. Seriously, what other period and genre can boast such heavyweights as Francis Hodgson Burnett, E. Nesbitt, Rudyard Kipling, L. Frank Baum, and Robert Louis Stevenson, to name a few. Whether it be Peter Pan or Tom Swift, the years between 1880 and 1920 were simply a golden time for literature.

"Piper's Christmas Gift" is the most fun I've had writing a story in a while. It is a weird piece, and fantastical, and unabashedly geeky. Certain characters are named for characters in classic kid lit. Some are pastiches of said characters. They all love the stories as much as I do. The New York City of "Piper's Christmas Gift" is maybe the most fantastical universe I've crafted. It's interesting that I'm doing lots of research for this piece, to capture what New York was like at the time, in order to finally create a place as distanced from our world as Middle-Earth.

And the best part is re-reading the old stories, and discovering new old artists. I had honestly never heard of Kate Greenaway prior to poking around in the little "Books on Children's Literature" section at Moe's. Now her drawings are up there in my list of influences. Did I mention those old books are all beautifully illustrated?

I encourage all writers to not be afraid of your obsessions. Follow them to their apex. See where they lead you. Allow your characters to love what you love. Craft a world that reflects you. Maybe not for every story. It's good to stay grounded, too. But try it once. So much fun.

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