Monday, February 14, 2011

I read fantasy because I lack imagination.

When I was in fifth grade, my class read On My Honor by Marion Dane Bauer, the story of two boys who sneak off to the river to go swimming without telling their parents even though they're not supposed to. One of the boys drowns, and the other agonizes over whether or not he'll tell anyone. If he does, everyone will know he disobeyed the rules. If he doesn't, he's the only one who will ever know what happened to his friend. When we finished the book, our teacher asked us what we would have done. The class was divided over "tell" or "don't tell" and each side had good reasons for their beliefs. I was horror-stricken. This question was irrelevant! I wouldn't have been at the frakking river in the first place! Their parents told them no!

I was a goody-goody child. I did what I was told. I had a disobedient brother who was always getting in trouble and I was smart enough to learn from his mistakes without making my own. Mom gets mad when you don't do the chores like she told you to, so just do the chores. You got in trouble for lying about the thing you broke, so it would have been easier to fess up in the first place. You broke the thing because you were playing ball in the house; that must be why mom told you not to do that. Watching my brother get in trouble for his antics instilled in me a deep fear of authority and I grew up doing as I was told.

This had the unintended and unforeseen consequence of ruining realistic fiction for me for the duration of my childhood, and far into adulthood as well, because I couldn't imagine myself in the main characters’ shoes. To my childhood self, moral dilemmas were a stupid basis for a plot: Everyone knows these things don’t happen if you follow the rules. How stupid can you be?

You know those people who talk to horror movies? ("Don't go out there! The killer's outside, and you're in your underwear!") I talk to realistic fiction. "Don’t lie to her about that! Lying only causes problems!”

However, I’ve never had this problem with fantasy. The more unbelievable it is, the easier I find it to identify with the characters. If I were the good, true, noble knight in the story, would I be able to do the right thing, tell the truth, and stand up for what I believe in? Duh, of course I would. I know these things about myself.

But would I be able to slay the dragon? Have the courage to confront the evil witch in the scary castle? Could I trek across Mordor to cast the ring into the fires of Mount Doom? Finally, some questions I can’t answer! I’m interested in the outcome for the fictional characters because I don’t know what I would be capable of in these situations.

As I get older, I find more gray areas so I'm more and more able to read books in other genres, but it took years to convince me to pick up any book without a dragon on the cover.

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