April 13, 2015

The magic of the mundane

Blogger John Hansen came up with a great antidote to the demand for "realism" in young adult literature: story pitches that are "very realistic." They double as examples of "high-concept" plots (turned into haiku by Twitter's 140 character limit), although the irony renders these decidedly "low-concept."

You can browse the whole Twitter list at #VeryRealisticYA. It's perversely entertaining.

Girl can't decide between two boys. The boys realize the girl is shallow and become best buds.

Teenage girl meets 300 year old vampire. They have a hard time connecting because he's 285 years older than she is.

Teen doesn't sacrifice safety, family and normalcy to go to extremes against her government for some random scrub she just met.

Girl leaves home to save the planet. Parents file a missing persons report, police find her, bring her home. She's grounded.

Teens suspect crime has occurred. They inform parents and police and go back to being teens.

Girl thinks her life is over after her high school crush dumps her. She grows up. Can't remember his name ten years later.

High school doesn't have a strict popularity system, just various groups of friends that somewhat overlap.

Girl overhears CEO's sinister plot to rule the world. Turns out her startup's founder is just really full of himself.

The survival of the world depends on girl learning to control her powers. Girl can't. Everyone dies.

Actually, that last one has been written: Madoka Magica, which turns on the inability of teenage girls to understand or properly use the superpowers they've been given. It's the recognition of this mundane truth of human nature that elevates it above most in the "magical girl" genre.

Spoiler: everybody dies but Homura.

Which brings me to the importance of the ordinary in fantasy. Fantasy is fantastic only compared to ordinariness. Without it, fantasy gets lost in superlatives. That's why Batman is more intriguing than Superman. A too super superhero becomes his own Deus ex Machina.

It gets to the point where the only scary thing supervillains can do in Hollywood blockbusters is destroy large-scale infrastructure. Well, so can earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes. Natural disasters are not entertaining (except in PBS documentaries).

Man of Steel shares the same problem with Thor: The Dark World and every other superhero flick that ends with the piecemeal destruction of a major metropolitan area: they're boring. (Avengers succeeds thanks to Robert Downey Jr. and by being genuinely funny.)

Kate points out the necessity of characters like Spike (from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) who are mostly content with their plebeian tastes and plebeian goals. They don't want to destroy the world or conquer the universe. They just want to get on with life and enjoy themselves.

Fantasy needs to be grounded in characters who live in the here and now, who avoid world-shaking existential crises. There is, in fact, a whole genre in Japanese fantasy about otherwise normal people with a single unique characteristic that hardly anybody notices.

In Kamichu! the heroine is a minor Shinto deity. Everything else about her life in a fishing village on the Inland Sea is (almost) completely normal. Rather than "Stop the presses! Inform the world!" she's treated more like "Local girl makes good."

Someday's Dreamers is about social workers who happen to be witches. They work in a government agency like any government agency that social workers work for. Except, you know, they're witches.

This is the low key approach I wish Angel would have taken: a noir detective series about a P.I. who happens to be a vampire. Instead, the whole vampire meme came to dominate everything, thereby exhausting most of the decent story possibilities.

Luke contemplating the Tatooine sunset and worlds beyond.

A little normalcy goes a long way, not only in slice-of-life stories but in the big heroic journeys too. A key to what made the first Star Wars movie so good are the mundane motivations at the heart of the story: Luke wants to get off that hick planet and Han wants to earn a few bucks.

The Buffy model, in which the teenage heroine wants to keep being a "normal" teenager, has become de rigueur in YA fantasy. But unfortunately, as in Buffy and Angel, so is the constant resort to dystopian futures and apocalyptic plots.

That's what makes iZombie a refreshing change. Like Buffy, our heroine deals with everyday life and the challenge of being "normal" when she is anything but. As a champion of justice, she is decidedly small-scale, her superpowers not terrifically super, and difficult to handle.

Blaine turns over a new leaf . . . for about five minutes.

Upon becoming one himself, the low-life who accidentally turned her into a zombie, the very Spikey Blaine, contemplates his navel for about five minutes. And then leverages his old skills--dealing drugs--into a brand new one: the culinary brain wholesaling business.

He's still a sociopath, but a surprisingly entrepreneurial one, and that's infinitely more interesting than trashing Manhattan.

As far as that goes, instead of destroying Manhattan, I'd tell Loki to ditch Asgard and run for mayor of New York. You know, like Mayor Wilkins of Sunnydale on top of the Hell Mouth. A much bigger challenge and a way better night life.

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# posted by Blogger Katherine Woodbury
4/13/2015 1:57 PM   
In a "great minds think alike" loop, I addressed a similar idea/problem in my post today regarding Person of Interest, Season 3. The amorphous (and dubious) motives of one of the (sort of) villains gives the season a far less satisfactory ending than Season 1 (Elias) and Season 2 (Hersh).

And I think keeping the problem localized (it's only about helping NYC and saving Lionel's job) would have prevented the downhill slide into "Huh? What? Oh, come on . . . "