Philip Pullman created a wonderful fantasy invention in The Golden Compass when he imagined humans having a dæmon as an external soul to share their lives. His Dark Materials I believe is the largest selling recent fantasy series after the Harry Potter books, so the idea must really appeal to many people. It’s a crying shame that the recent film version of The Golden Compass didn’t do well at the box office and I wonder if it’s failure was due to the fact that the dæmon invention was too complex for the mass audience.
This morning when I woke up at 4:30 am and was deliciously drifting in and out of sleep I came up with a fantasy invention that tickles my fancy. I wonder if it’s too complex to make a good story. What if on our birthdays instead of celebrating them with friends we spend them with time traveling versions of ourselves from each year of our life? Imagine a party of ninety where every person is the same person but from a different birthday along their timeline.
Think of the possibilities and ramifications of such a fantasy world. First off we’d have to have a POV (point of view) character. Remember we’re inventing a fictional fantasy world and not one that actually works – so things need to be logical within the narrative. Giving the story to one POV character as he grows older, and maybe even telling the story in first person will simplify conceptualizing the fantasy invention and plotting.
We can start the story when our character is about to turn five and he goes to sleep only to find himself waking up at a new kind of birthday party were all the guests are older versions of himself. They try not to scare him but they encourage him to do well at things that five-year-olds struggle with and they promise they will all be back for another party when he turns six.
Most people hate taking advice, but would you take advice from yourselves if you knew they knew the future? To complicate our story I’ll have this natural tendency continue and our character will be reluctant to change. We’ll have the kid learn over the next several birthdays that the characters who come to visit change in personality and in number. Because on some birthdays there might be ninety people visiting but on one birthday only twenty-two show up warning him that he could die young. Our character will learn that the group advice is good and following it has impact, but it can be conflicting coming from different aged selves.
Of course this breakthrough knowledge will come on his thirteenth birthday when our character gets surly and refuses to do any school work. He will be shocked by his future selves and their limited number. From then on he will try to act on his insider information.
Now that you have the idea how this fantasy invention works we can explore the philosophical and literary implications. How often on some talk show or documentary have you seen some old guy being ask if he would change anything about his life and then hear, “I wouldn’t change a goddamn thing!” I always find that mind-blowing. Even if I had been immensely successful, if I got a chance to live my life over I would do it all different just because life offers us infinitely more options than we can ever experience.
On the other hand most of us aren’t wildly successful and the chance to do things over would give us the opportunity to improve our lives. This fantasy invention would be a metaphor for that. This idea is a variation of one of my all time favorite books and fantasy inventions: Replay by Ken Grimwood from 1987. Jeff Winston dies at 43 and wakes up back in his old dorm room in 1963. He slowly realizes he gets to live his life over with the knowledge of his previous life. You can imagine the obvious plot line here. I mean, what would you do if you were in his place.
Jeff lives his life over, dies again and then wakes back up as his earlier self, but slightly later than before. Again he has to relive his life, but this time he wants to do something different. Now you see the meaning of the title. Most people won’t be familiar with this novel but will know about the 1993 film, Groundhog Day that essentially uses the same fantasy idea with a different gimmick.
My fantasy invention is a variation of these ideas but the character only gets to live one life. It’s philosophically about taking advice rather than learning the lessons of life through many repetitive hard knocks. To make the story more dramatic we can have the party also grow smaller each year because no character that is younger than the POV attends. Thus the story becomes a literary tontine.
There is a variation of this idea, but without the advice aspect, that was a biography of Ernest Hemingway. In this fictional documentary I saw decades ago the setting was a bar filled with men of varying ages, but the viewer quickly learns that all of them are Ernest Hemingway. The theme of this story is about how the same man disagrees with himself at varying ages.
Fantasy inventions are the wonderful aspect of fantasy writing. The possibilities are endless. I’m always shocked when I read a fantasy book that essentially uses a retread of an old fantasy invention. Just how many sexy fantasy witches like Samantha Stephens does the world need, but they’re still very popular in the fantasy magazines. I guess Heinlein should be very flattered because look how many books and video games today seem to be based on his invention of Starship Troopers. And should I even mention Tolkien?
It’s really hard to invent a totally new fantasy invention like time travel in H. G. Wells The Time Machine. As brilliant as it was Mark Twain had already written A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. If you follow the time travel link to Wikipedia you’ll see there were many previous works. I think there are essentially two ways to work with a fantasy invention. The first is to create a unique variation that is used for a philosophical statement. The second is to create a unique variation or retread to create a fun story. Even though Groundhog Day is a silly comedy, I think it makes a number of philosophical statements.
Now that I have my fantasy invention worked out will I write a book? I wish, but it’s very doubtful. I come up with these inventions all the time, thus the 001 I tagged this entry with, figuring I might write about the next 998 ideas that pop into my head. I wish I could write a book. I just don’t have the discipline. I’m using this blog to practice. You are actually listening to my piano lessons for writing, I would say. Hope all the banging and sour notes don’t hurt you too much. My blogs are usually around a thousand words. To scale up to a novel I’ll need the skills to compose something 100 times that large. For a few years I worked on short stories, but I have trouble organizing 5000-10,000 word pieces into valid fictional and essayist structures.
There is a skill involved with structuring of large wordy works. I can barely make these blog posts coherent. Most blogs are non-fiction. I wonder if I should practice fiction in these posts. That would be weird. However, it’s one thing to take a thousand words and lay out a fantasy invention, it’s a whole other thing to scale it up to 5,000 to 15,000 thousands words of a short story or short novelette. I wish I could. That gives me an idea for my fantasy invention character – have him become a writer, with the older versions giving him advice on writing. That would be a nice twist. I could even make the story into meta-fiction and have all the future selves represent experiments in characterization.
Not bad, not bad. Anyone like the idea?
6 thoughts on “Fantasy Inventions 001”
now THAT’S an interesting post. i actually want to read that story in a bad way. either give it a try or pass it off to a friend, pretty please….then repost it. very good idea. lots of potential. lots of ways to mess it up or make it ordinary, i guess, too…..
That is one interesting idea you have there. If you ever come to writing a book about it, I would definitely read it.
A few pieces of advice, if you don’t mind me giving any (I am a wannabe writer myself so I can imagine how you feel).
1. If you don’t write fiction every day yet, you should. It doesn’t seem to change or help much in the beginning, but after my first week I already started to notice how much more easily my prose flowed. It doesn’t have to be much – even a couple hundred words is sufficient if you don’t feel like putting down more. As long as you do it. This advice has been given by many very popular authors like Stephen King and others whose names I cannot recall at the moment.
2. A little tool I have found useful when constructing my larger-scale stories (i.e. novels) is the Snowflake Method: http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/art/snowflake.php
It has helped me a great deal.
Steve, anyone can take the idea and use it. I don’t believe you can own ideas. If I did then I shouldn’t publish them on the web. I think I get good ideas all the time, it’s only when I work on them that they become valuable.
And if any two people did write a story based on that fantasy invention I doubt the stories would even seem alike. But you and piimakoer are right, I should work on it. I need to get over my fiction writing block and begin work. piimakoer is also right that I should work at fiction every day. Maybe writing that post is my unconscious way to getting started. I appeciate the encouragement.
piimakoer, I’ve visted this snowflake site and I’ve started studying it. There’s a lot there to digest. I’ll take notes and try to apply his advice. It’s a good place to start. Thanks for recommending it.
I wouldn’t mind going back and visiting with my former selves. It would be pretty darn cool actually. It reminds me of the comic series Starman that was out several years ago: Great series by the way. It was a remake of an older DC character who had several incarnations in the past and the writer worked those other characters into the series. The main character’s brother, David I believe, was a former Starman who had died early and every year (possibly once a year in the series as well) David would come back from ‘beyond’ into his younger brother’s life to talk about things. The issues were entitled Conversations with David and I just loved those episodes. Really great stuff. They are reprinting these in some really nice collections and I cannot wait to get them and read the stories again. They had fantastic art as well.
I don’t mind the retread of old story ideas as long as they are done well. When they aren’t done well, however, the story is in some ways much worse as it becomes very obvious that the author was at best influenced by and at worst copying some author they admire.
When Conversations with David gets reprinted please let me know because I’d liked to order a copy. This will serve a dual purpose. I’m trying to learn how to read comics. That may sound funny but I have a hard time with them. I like looking at the art but I don’t like reading in the little boxes and circles. Comics always seem like defaced artwork to me. Yeah, I know I’m odd.
I think about the idea of advising my younger self all the time. I keep trying to work it into a story. My last story at Clarion West used this idea and it was my most popular story there. I think it’s an idea that will appeal to people if I can find the right way to tell it.
Wow, this IS a cool idea! Sounds so interesting… I personally have given up on novels, and am currently completely into screenwriting, and this idea is just wreaking havoc in my head =] it seems so cool!!
Personally, i always think about how i wish i could see my future self, see if i get anywhere – if the choices i am making now are really bad.
It sounds odd, but this plot idea seems like… a sereis of vigniettes. Although this is an interesting idea for a story, it has the danger of being a bit broken, perhaps even ploddy. Perhaps there should be a climatic point – a decision made, or something, that means that next birtday the boy appears in the room and there is only a single person there… or somthing simmilarily startling.
I love this idea – especially, perhaps, if you watch him through his entire life. I cannot think of how sad, powerful, and /amazing/ the scene where theres only three of them left, and they sit there chatting happily, unfazed, because theyve made a good life for themselves, and theyre okay with that….
great story idea. If you wrote it, i would read it, no question!!