The fantastic cannot exist without the mundane

I’ve had a few thoughts bouncing around in my head lately and I’d like to try to articulate them.

So, I’ve been reading a bit more widely than I have in years, dipping into westerns and historical fiction and stuff like that. And really, the venue doesn’t matter as long as the story is a ripping good yarn. Good guys are good guys whether they carry revolvers or swords. Bad guys are bad guys whether they’re robbing a bank or assassinating a king.

One funny thing I’ve noticed is that there are two sides to all stories. There is the fantastic and there is the mundane.

The heroes still have to eat, drink, and sleep. They still have to live somewhere and hold down jobs. They have daily responsibilities, or they did before the story kicked in. They have annoying neighbors and coworkers. They have lives, because if there’s no mundane, the fantastic becomes the mundane.

I tried to read this really weird book that was weird for the sake of being weird. Eventually the flying beasts pulling the chariots and the floating orbs in the air and the weirdly shapeshifting monsters just became pedantic. This was meant to be super fantastic and immersive and interesting. Instead, it just was so weird that it was boring. I slugged along for a couple of chapters, trying to get to the plot advertised on the back of the book, but eventually I gave up. There was so much weirdness, the story never grounded itself in anything I could understand. I needed that mundane element, the slice of normal that makes the fantastic interesting by contrast.

As I’ve been reading historical fiction, I’ve noticed that all you have to do is change a few elements to make it fantasy. Change the names of Roman Britain to made-up words and you have an instant fantasy novel. Change the horses to spaceships and the western becomes a sci-fi. As long as the story and characters are solid, the genre elements just add window dressing. Because the story, itself, is grounded in the mundane. The fantastic is the icing on top.

The more books I chuck into my Read pile this year, the more I encounter authors who struggle with this balance. As a longtime reader, I tend to think that this is self-evident, but apparently most authors don’t read enough. So let me tell you, authors: build your story from the mundane up. I know the fantastic elements are the most fun to think about, but you need that mundane grounding. It keeps your characters human and lets readers connect with them better.


One thought on “The fantastic cannot exist without the mundane

  1. Very insightful. Isn’t that about life? Its the mundane that keeps you grounded. I know that when my life becomes so stressful, its the mundane that keeps me sane. The normal things like cooking,cleaning, and grocery shopping. Its doing the normal that gives me that security. You know since you are reading different kinds of books, I will recommend one that isn’t a style I would normally read, but the writing is beautiful and the story is more mundane that anything, but its lovely. Its called The Shell Seekers. By Rosamunde Pilcher. The Shell Seekers is a painting. I read this once a year around my birthday, and its just like eating chocolates slowly. Each one has its own taste and reward. I think that your article and your thinking resonates with me all of the time.
    I hope you have a wonderful weekend. I am over here practicing mundane. Because its peaceful in these days.


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