Subtle Trope Shifts

I have terrible time perception; my memory is often suspect, frequently hallucinogenic, and sometimes outright fantasy, and I find it impossible to place events in a clear timeline in my own damn life. I can’t explain it. Something that happened 20 years ago will seem like it happened last month, something that happened last month will feel like a lifetime ago. And let’s not even get into my day-to-day memory – it’s a disaster. Yesterday I had agreed to meet my wife The Duchess at her office to help a friend of hers with some computer troubles, and I forgot no less than four times during the day, having the following conversation:

THE DUCHESS: I’m just calling to remind you about coming by here later.

ME: The what now?

So, whenever I’m tempted to write about past experiences or my perception of things over time, I hesitate. When writing fiction this is no problem – is probably a boon – but when I’m trying to write about the real world and make actual points, I get nervous, because it’s entirely possible that Ronald Reagan did not tap dance on national television in 1983 like I remember, and using the Reagan Tap Dance as an example of cultural revival in the 1980s might invite criticism from the peanut gallery. The cruel, unfeeling peanut gallery.

Still, to be an author is to be heroic, right? So I will tender this observation: When I was a kid reading fantasy and sci-fi paperbacks like they were oxygen keeping me alive, there were a lot of stories involving people (usually youngsters) crossing over into magical lands where they were no longer simply schoolchildren or loafabouts, but heroic warriors or skilled wizards. Today, however, this trope seems to have shifted: No longer do characters cross over into magical worlds separate from our own reality; rather characters come to realize that the world they live in is actually but obfuscatingly magical to begin with.

It’s a subtle shift, in a way. The books I’m thinking of from my youth – starting with the granddaddy of all crossover stories, The Chronicles of Narnia and running through a lot of the books I read as a kid (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, The Guardians of the Flame, The Darwath Trilogy, to name three off the top of my head) all involved mundane, ordinary people from my world being swept into a magical realm where they either had the opportunity to simply reinvent themselves, or where they actually had amazing new abilities they lacked here. Today, look at the obvious examples: Harry Potter and the Twilight series: These stories posit that the mundane, crushingly dull world we live in coexists, or actually is the magical realm where we can reinvent ourselves or discover we have amazing abilities. The characters in these books don’t need to cross over, they just need to open their eyes.

Part of this shift might be just simple innovation: After years of stories where ordinary shlubs travel to magical worlds, a little change to the formula was needed to spice things up, and when those changes proved popular they spread. Part of it is changing sensibilities, though, I think. I think there’s more of a sense these days that the world we live in is kind of amazing, and that magic and adventure might lurk around every corner, and not exist solely in a magical world we have to be very, very lucky to stumble upon. You can speculate endlessly on cultural shifts like this: Is it the way kids are raised today versus how they were raised in earlier decades? Is it the explosion of the Internet, which makes so much more of the world visible to us all, whereas in the past it was a dull murky shadow at best? Who the hell knows. Quite possibly it’s just that this subtle shift in the mechanics of stories makes timeworn ideas seem fresh again, which is a nasty trick all us authors use.

Now here is where my memory makes me uneasy: You see, it’s entirely possible that these plot tropes existed simultaneously back in The Day, and I simply don’t remember it. Sort of the way entire cousins of mine existed back in 1980, yet seem to have appeared fully-formed in 2008 out of thin air, demanding I appear at family functions. It could be that my childhood self simply preferred the sorts of stories where people had to find hidden magical doorways rather than waking up and realizing that they actually have magical powers in the real world. Who knows? I can’t even remember my own name some days, and have had a series of Memento-esque tattoos applied to my body in order to get me through the day.

In the end, of course, none of this has anything to do with quality: Either approach can yield fantastic stories, and everything old gets new again someday, when a cranky, forgetful drunk will write about it. It’s in The Prophecies. trust me.


  1. Elisabeth Black

    I love that you pointed out the shift in literature. I think this world is magical. Not like Harry Potter and vampires and stuff. I used to want to get into theoretical physics cause I thought amazing secrets lurked in physics. Which reminds me of Madeleine L’Engle. Didn’t her Wrinkle In Time books kind of bring magic into this world? Gosh, when were they published?

    C.S. Lewis, since you mention him, retold the story of Cupid and Psyche in Till We Have Faces, which is a really interesting (adult) book that twists up the spirit world in this one.

  2. Benjamin Mallow

    It appears that instead of ‘Bullet Time’ you have ‘Whiskey Time’ – which could explain all of what you experience and of course the pantlessness.

  3. Shayral

    You’re absolutely right about this trope. It’s wierd to see, and it also makes it hard to avoid, or do something different, as ideas evolve and mutate.

  4. Elisabeth Black

    I thought about this some more. I don’t think my L’Engle and Lewis references are the same thing as vampires and faeries in the woods. I take that part back.

  5. Patty Blount

    How many Twilight Zone (the Rod Serling series, not the Robert Pattinson one) episodes has this concept spawned? How many episodes of Star Trek?

    I’m with Shayral; it’s been around for a long time. Interesting to see how different authors treat it, no?

    As for me, I keep hoping I’ll one day stumble through a portal that will transport me… elsewhere.

  6. Diana

    “The what now?” — I love it!

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