Last week I posted about the difference between secondary belief and suspension of disbelief. This week I want to bring it home with an example.
If you know me at all, then you must be aware that Lord of the Rings had a huge literary impact on my life. In fact, my author bio gives this series credit for launching my writing journey. Setting aside critiques of Tolkien’s general style, he has to be commended for the incredible and meticulous world-building he committed to his series.
As juxtaposition, if you look at the Harry Potter series, while its universe might seem detailed on the surface, I assert that it lacks any real depth. As a disclaimer before I continue, if you’re a fan of Harry Potter, I hope you’ll forgive me. I’m not a fan, but to each his own. I’m not looking to bash the series here, or you as a reader. I’m simply trying to bring out a glaring deficiency that I’ve noticed in it.
While both of these series may have plot holes, the key difference that I find is in the details they ask you to believe. Both have magical elements. Both have lore and history attached. But LOTR fleshes out that history and makes the world come alive. It makes extraordinary events seem plausible by retaining as much reality as possible. Harry Potter, on the other hand, makes its world feel a bit too unbelievable in small ways so the major fantasy elements keep reminding you that you’re in a children’s book.
For example, the characters in LOTR go on adventures. While many might wish to go on adventures, Tolkien gives very specific missions to each of his characters. Frodo has one job, and really isn’t responsible for accomplishing it. Thus, this feels more in line with life. In LOTR, they also use magic. While many might daydream about the use of magic, Tolkien gives it rules, so to speak, and makes it feel like a true and dangerous power. Again, this brings the concept down to reality. Also, LOTR has unexpected heroes. While many might fantasize about being heroes whisked out of their routines, Tolkien makes his heroes flawed and gives them incredible obstacles with unenviable rewards. The balance makes the hero a less desirable role to cast oneself into, which again brings the story down to the realm of secondary belief.
By contrast, Potter’s characters also go on adventures. These adventures feel stuffed, however, like the opposite of “butter scraped over too much bread.” It seems as though Rowling sat down and made a list of everything she thought might be cool in a story, then forgot to whittle it down. Or maybe she didn’t want to whittle it down because she thought it would be more fun that way. But no matter her reasoning, if your characters do everything imaginable, the story begins to feel unrealistic. Additionally, Potter’s characters use magic. But Rowling injects magic into every facet of the story. Again, this might be more fun, but magic nearly loses its very nature when it’s ubiquitous. Also, Potter has unexpected heroes. Unfortunately, Rowling gives those heroes abundant and unwarranted acclaim. This makes these heroes seem like they’re special just because that’s what the universe decided. It tells the reader that the world revolves around you and you will get everything you want just as soon as you’re discovered for being so special.
My main concern is with the effect this crutch has on literature. I assert that appealing to all of one’s fantasies is lazy. It’s a “Vote for me, and all your wildest dreams will come true,” kind of promise. Certainly, touching on a few fantasies can be wonderful. But when one sits down and says, “What would my perfect life look like?” then writes that out, it requires little effort. What’s the difference between that approach and deus ex machina? Both are expressions of the writer saying, “I could take more time with this, but why bother?”
Note: Of course, writing out the novel and editing it requires tons of effort, but I’m really only touching on the storytelling side of things.