Writer’s Conundrum: Experience vs. Imagination

The age-old maxims states:  “write what you know,” and, indeed, many of us do write from experience.  This is true even within the genre of speculative fiction.  In fact, it may be especially true in speculative fiction.  The more fantastical our worlds and characters, the more important it becomes to ground them in something that feels, if not real, at least possible.  We might be writing about lovelorn giant squid or misunderstood zombies, but we often base them and their worlds around people we know or places we’ve been.

So, it stands to reason that  in order to keep our imaginations fresh, engage our readers, and seek new fodder for characters and world-building, we must continue to have new experiences.

A small example that set me thinking about this:  a few weeks ago I participated in my first-ever poker game (I know, I know…I need to get out more).  During a hand where I’d folded and was waiting out the action, I started pondering how I might write a story about a game of poker without it actually being about people sitting around playing poker.  The next day I wrote a draft of a tale that follows a high stakes poker game unfolding across the entire landscape of a post-apocalyptic, magic-shrouded Manhattan.  The experience of playing poker for the first time inspired me to write something new.

But here’s the rub:  while some new adventures are free and can be worked around or into our busy schedules, most of them aren’t (even the game of poker cost me a buy-in).

Another example:  I’m currently working on a novel set in the high plateaus of central Mexico.  Though I’ve spent a lot of time in other parts of Central America, I’ve never been to Mexico.  Sure, I’ve done research, found images and descriptions, listened to recorded sounds of native animals, and talked to my archaeologist friends who’ve done work in the region.  But that isn’t the same as experiencing the landscape firsthand.  I don’t know how those deserts smell, or what they look like at different times of day, or how sounds carry across the dry, open spaces.

Of course, this is where imagination in comes in.  And imagination can take you a long way, but still…those experiences are what help bring our writing to life.

So how do we prioritize?  Is it better to spend our time and money on sword-fighting lessons and books about military strategy to improve those battle scenes, or would a trip to the region where the novel is set pay bigger dividends?  Do you need to pay the money to shoot guns at a firing range in order to write a realistic gun fight?  Can another person’s words help you write a description of the Himalayas that exhilarates the reader even if you’ve never experienced that exhilaration yourself?

What’s the balance between creativity, imagination, and experience?  How important are new sights, sounds, tastes, and smells to nourishing our writing?  Or do you think it’s all bunk and a writer can get everything they need from research, interviews, and the rich soil of their own mind?

What do you think?  And what are your tricks for accruing experiences without emptying your bank account and getting fired from your job?

Yes, but is it realistic?

Lately, I’ve been pondering the role of grit and realism in the fantasy genre.  How little is too little?  Is there such a thing as too much?  And what does “realism” mean when it comes to fantasy, anyway?

It’s Joe Abercrombie’s “Best Served Cold” that got me thinking about this in the first place.  For those who haven’t read it, or who aren’t familiar with his excellent First Law series, Abercrombie populates his tales with characters real enough to make you despair for the fate of humanity.  Whether they’re obsessed, driven, or shiftless, his characters are pretty much all self-centered, deeply flawed, and prone to violence.  Their adventures make for good, if sometimes bleak, reading, but his books have also made me wonder if there’s such a thing as too much realism.

If Tolkein’s misty elves and noble kings-in-exile are at one end of the “realism” spectrum, then Abercrombie’s characters fall at the far, far distant extreme.  You may get pulled along by his stories, immersed in his highly believable worlds, and even come to root for certain of the characters, but there’s little chance you’d actually want to spend time with any of them.  They are, by and large, not nice people.

This very fact, of course, is what makes Abercrombie’s characters so human – they’re jealous and petty and do spiteful things.  They act against their own interests because they just can help it.  They almost never change themselves for the better and almost always resolve their problems by running away, stabbing someone in the back, or just stabbing someone, period.  We read about them and we recognize the baser, less lovable parts of ourselves.

This kind of writing, let’s be honest, is rare in the fantasy genre.  I mean, most of the stuff out there falls into the “brave band of heroes” camp, without reflecting much on who the heroes are slaughtering (after all, they’re the good guys, so it must be justified).  So, there’s an important place for Abercrombie’s kind of fiction.  But sometimes I wonder if he’s left out the most human elements of all from his characters.  Sure, his books have a smattering of forgiveness and loyalty, the occasional shred of redemption, and even a rare hint that people are capable of loving someone other than themselves.  But such aspects of human nature are few and far between.

Is that realism?  I don’t know, but I really hope not.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Abercrombie’s books and I will continue to devour them when they’re released.  But I don’t think they’re realistic.

I guess some people might find it odd to pair the ideas of “realism” and “fantasy” at all.  By definition, fantasy is the unreal, is that which we imagine.  But the best fantasy strives to make its imaginary worlds feel like they could be real places and its characters act in the complex and often contradictory ways that real humans do.

Consider George R.R. Martin’s Songs of Ice and Fire.  Here are characters that (to me) feel realistic.  The conniving and murderous are still capable of love, even if that love is twisted.  The honorable and brave can be stubborn and blind, their nobility dooming both themselves and others to death.  Jealousy can lead to kindness, love to betrayal.  Nor are these characters free of the mundane realities of being living animals.  They eat and vomit and shit and suffer and screw–and Martin’s descriptions of these acts leave nothing to the imagination.  You believe his characters are experiencing what they do not because he tells you, but because he shows you with unrelentingly realistic prose.  Martin, of course, is not alone in writing this kind of fiction.  Of the things I’ve read recently, both Steven Erikson’s Malazan series and David Anthony Durham’s “Acacia” both come to mind.

Personally, I’m of two minds about how to incorporate realism into my writing.  On the one hand, I have a generally low opinion of humanity as a whole.  Our history reflects poorly on us, unless war and violence against the weak is what we’re striving for.  And yet, we’re obviously capable of creating beautiful things, too.  Plus, on an individual level, people may be cruel one minute and commit breathtaking acts of self-sacrifice, kindness, and love the next.  We engage in both groan-inducing predictability and devilish unpredictability.

It’s possible that we err in focusing only on characters here.  This may be as much about world-building as character-building.  Perhaps our worlds should better reflect the rapaciousness of humankind and our characters better embody the contradictory and stutter-stop urges towards a more noble ideal.

What do you think?  Are Martin and others like him hitting the right notes of realism for you, or do you prefer Abercrombie’s grittier fare?  Can our characters have some good sprinkled in with their bad and still feel real?  Do we need to be careful of over-emphasizing nuanced “realer than real” characters at the expense of building honest-feeling worlds?