📚 The Value of Philosophical Rants in Fantasy Stories
Reflections on the rants of Ursula Vernon, L. E. Modesitt Jr., & Naomi Novik
Once upon a time, I spent a lot of time on sites geared toward giving writers feedback on stories. Places like Critique Circle and Scribophile are great at connecting people with a community of fellow writers, and helping them learn a lot more about the craft of writing. Feedback on fiction is incredibly hard to get, and I'm grateful that these sites exist. But they come at the cost of misaligned incentives; readers are encouraged by the design of these sites to offer feedback on minutiae, and to look for things to comment on.
The most common feedback that I think hurt me the most as a developing writer was some variety of "cut this, it isn't necessary for the plot to advance." It turned me into a very minimalist writer who focused on only including things that were important for the plot – or perhaps key to characterizing a character. I rarely slowed down to "paint a picture" of the scene, or to describe the mechanics of a movement, and it wasn't until I watched my husband – not a fellow author! – try to follow my stories that I realized what I was costing myself trying to get people to stop leaving this sort of feedback on my stories.
And it wasn't until I got more into the habit of paying attention to things I actually enjoyed reading that I started to break the habit.
Critical analysis has taught me that including philosophical rants in fantasy stories is an important tool. Too often, amateur fiction is a portal into other worlds, and what we see on the page is reflective of the what someone in that world would see. But without access to their history, their world view, their background knowledge, understanding is inaccessible. By inserting a little bit of philosophy, we can better understand the author’s world and the characters inhabiting it.
I love reading philosophical rants in fiction. I find the juxtaposition of the absurd and the profound both entertaining and educational. I think that there is something special about seeing the world through the lens of fiction that allows us to view things in a new light. It is like getting a glimpse into another person's mind, and seeing how they process the world around them.
In some ways, the opinions of the author are just as important as the events taking place in the story. Unless, of course, the author wants to completely undermine the effect of their work. In which case, I suppose it doesn't really matter who is saying what, does it?
Ursula Vernon has a great story called A Mage's Guide to Defensive Baking and in it the protagonist rants that children shouldn't be solving the kinds of problems she's facing. She gets angry when people call her a hero, because she feels like the adults and authority figures should have been able to prevent things from getting so out of control. It's a great story and the messaging wouldn't have been nearly so effective without strong characterization, an interesting plot, and all that, but I think the reason it's so memorable for me as a story is precisely this crystalizing moment where the author basically comes right out and explains what I imagine is the emotion behind the book.
I should note that it's not really the theme.
I've always disliked being forced to analyze themes of works in school, mostly because I don't think it's possible to consistently do it well. Not least of which because a lot of authors don't deliberately work themes into their works at all. But also because the notion of "thematic elements" always felt so confused in my English classes. Sometimes teachers seemed to think it meant the sort of thing I would call a motif – a recurring element. Sometimes they seemed to think it meant a central idea. Others thought it meant something more like a point the author wanted to make.
Classification is difficult. This has been one of the recurring themes (common points? touchstone branding efforts? lol) of my philosophical thought processes in the past few years.
Personally, I care more about the ranty asides that crystalize an authorial opinion and exemplify the meaning of the book than whether it counts as the theme.
But it's not just the content of the rant that's valuable, it's the fact that the author is taking the time to step out of the story and remind the reader of what's going on. In a way, it's a form of audience engagement, a way of saying hey, remember that thing I said a few pages ago? Here's why it matters. And I think that's valuable, because it can help to keep the reader focused on the story, and on the things that the author wants them to be thinking about.
In Fall of Angels, which happens to be one of my favorite books, L. E. Modesitt, Jr has the engineer Nylan narrate a moderately grumpy line that goes something like "if this were a fantasy novel no one would ever dwell on this not-glorious part where we worry about building the tower with enough capacity for showers" and whatnot, it's a nice "people should care about glory" thing. Anna from The Spellsong Cycle makes a similar point when she's thinking about the importance of roads and postal services in keeping her adopted home safe.
Naomi Novik recently finished her fantastic Scholomance series, which I think is best described as an answer to the question "do boarding schools for mages even make sense?"
Once upon a time, boarding schools were associated with the elite, particularly in Britain. But in the modern day, boarding schools are simply not that common. Oh, they certainly still exist -- but they aren't the norm, and for the average American mom they probably don't conjure up wistfulness but rather a certain sense of "I would only send my kid to boarding school if I had to" -- they tend to get associated mostly with the trope of the rich but emotionally distant parent, or military school for a particularly bratty mess of a boy.
Yet in the wake of Harry Potter, there are so very many stories about magical boarding schools. Which is all very fine and good, but it does beg the question: why do we love stories with boarding schools in them? After all, they don't make a lot of sense, even within the context of a magic-filled world.
There are a few possibilities. The first, and most obvious, is that we love stories about coming of age. The second is that it happens mostly for the same reason that urban fantasy is so rife with stories about detectives – it makes the narrative simpler.
The Scholomance books, though, represent a sort of meta critique of this phenomenon by pointing out that the only real reason for parents of mages to send their children to boarding school is safety. And Novik creates a suitably terrifying world to justify parents from all over the world (and it is, refreshingly, a school genuinely for students from all over the world), with the goal -- doubtless familiar to people who have looked into homeschooling and unschooling as a result of the pandemic -- of eliminating the need for the Scholomance entirely.
Which is something I think a lot of parents would get behind, even if they don't have mages for children. Which is to say, it's not that the school is bad, it's that the world is bad. And it's also to say that the point of the book is not that magical boarding schools are great but magical boarding schools might be necessary but we should work to end the need for them.
So that's the set-up. The school is a terrible, dark place where the students are in constant danger of being eaten by monsters or otherwise killed.
And that's a problem, because it means that the students are essentially spending their time trapped in a cycle of perpetual adolescence. The students of Scholomance are constantly fighting against the limitations of their world, and in the process they're forced to confront the inherent flaws of the society that raised them. It's a powerful message, and one that I think a lot of fantasy authors are trying to get across.
That's what the author seems to be saying, anyway. And the fact that the author is taking the time to write a rant about it shows that they're thinking about it, and that they're passionate about the issue. And I think that's valuable, because it can help to keep the reader focused on the story, and on the things that the author wants them to be thinking about.
And if it weren't for that aspect of these stories, I don't think I would have enjoyed them nearly so much. I try to keep that in mind as I write, but it's pretty hard to have the self-confidence to pull it off after years of being told to cut anything non-essential to the plot of a novel ;)
Note: There are a couple of affiliate links & codes scattered around, but these always come from links I was already recommending and usually I share them because they benefit you too (i.e. getting you extra time on trials).
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