Saturday, July 25, 2009

Subcreation and Success

Allow me to preface this by saying that I will probably have contradicted myself about 23 times by the end of this post.


Now that that's out of the way...

I was doing some thinking about subcreation. Also, how the thoroughness and consistency of a creator's subcreation can heavily affect the success or failure of the narrative in question. Now, two things to note about that last sentence:

1. I used media-nonspecific terminology (creator instead of author, narrative instead of book or story). That was on purpose.

2. The word can. I didn't say does, because that would seem to indicate that narratives live or die by their subcreation.

Before I go any further, though, a word on subcreation.

The theory of subcreation is that whenever someone sets out to deliver a narrative (book, movie, radio play, graphic novel, holographic re-enactment, whatever), the narrative must have a subcreated background, a world in which the narrative takes place. Of course, many creators do very little subcreation, setting their story on modern-day Earth or some point in Earth's past history. However, technically even a narrative that claims to be reality will have some degree of subcreation: creation of fictitious characters or fictitious speeches delivered by real people, even, are subcreation.

Of course, there are brave and wonderful creators who decide to go ahead and create something from scratch, or roughly from scratch. Every subcreation will have hints of reality in varying measure, in part because it's SUBcreation: the human mind is not programmed to create ex nihilo, even hypothetically.

Good examples of the brave and wonderful set are J. R. R. Tolkien, author of the classic Lord of the Rings trilogy, and J. K. Rowling, author of the wildly popular Harry Potter series. Tolkien takes subcreation to an extreme, creating a world which may or may not (it probably doesn't) have any physical connection to the universe as we know it. Tolkien's masterpiece, Arda, is its own entity, complete with multiple sentient races, racial tensions, definitive cultural and linguistic qualities specific to each race, and countless other signs of a highly sophisticated subcreation.

Rowling's subcreation, though less abruptly other, nonetheless deserves respect. Rowling sets her novels on the planet Earth--mostly in England, in fact--but operates from an intriguing premise: that there is a hidden European (if not global) community of beings like humans, but with special abilities and with access to special knowledge; that these beings know about humanity, though humanity knows practically nothing about them; that many "human" innovations were actually pioneered by members of this hidden community. Rowling's subcreation is complete, and yet patchy: her wizards divide into factions over the proper use of power and knowledge, yet wear sneakers and dye their hair (although it's not technically dye, but a magical ability, that allows the change of hair color). Part of what makes Rowling's subcreation almost more compelling than Arda, perhaps, is that patchiness, where the reader can relate to the struggles of the witches and wizards on the page.

Perhaps the best example--the prototypical subcreation--is the concept of the comic-book "universe" (as in the Marvel Universe or the DC Universe). Somewhere, someone concieved the idea of allowing heroes, villains, and everyone in between from one storyline cross into other storylines and interact with the characters. While this may have begun as an infrequent practice (I don't pretend to be a comic-book expert), it has become the norm. While at first glance "universes" may seem to be shoddy subcreation, in fact they are highly sophisticated and thorough. Laws of physics are bent, implicitly, to allow Superman to fly, laws of biology are bent implicitly to allow Spiderman to shoot web from--wherever, laws of chemistry are bent to allow Scarecrow to infect people with his hallucinogens. "Universes" must, of necessity, be thorough and painstakingly consistent; comic-book devotees will spot any inconsistency and bring it loudly to the public's attention.

An interesting iteration and aberration of the "universe" concept is the subcreation behind the 2008 superhero film Hancock, starring Will Smith and Charlize Theron. For the record, spoilers follow. In the film, Smith's character Hancock is a drunk who can fly, who seems indestructible, who recovers from injuries abnormally fast; he turns out to be what's called an "immortal", who only is vulnerable when near his spouse. The appeal--the peculiarity--of Hancock is that it seems to begin using a minimal and realistic subcreation, but over the course of the film, a much more extensive and fantastic subcreation is revealed.

Subcreation is difficult to do correctly, and examples of failed subcreations abound. Perhaps the saddest is the world of The Matrix, a subcreation with considerable potential. The Matrix subcreation was unique in that part of the subcreation was a subcreation: the titular Matrix is an apparently realistic computer-generated construct in which people consciously exist. However, outside the construct is a post-apocalyptic Earth where machines run things. The subcreation obviously had potential, but the sequels to the original film focused more on the post-apocalyptic Earth section of the subcreation rather than the CG construct section. (Be that as it may, it's irresponsible to blame Matrix Reloaded and Matrix: Revolutions' failure on merely poor choices in expansion of subcreation.)

C. S. Lewis, friend and associate of Tolkien, knew subcreation well. Two of his series deserve especial notice for their subcreative differences. The first, controversial and anomalic, is The Chronicles of Narnia. A series of children's books, Narnia's subcreation is notoriously sloppy; Lewis blends elements of Greek, Roman, and Teutonic myth, not to mention the extremely strong Judeo-Christian influence. While Lewis may have thought that the consistency of his subcreation didn't matter, the inconsistency does tend to be distracting from the overall excellence of the series, at least for me. However, the series has stood the test of time, so perhaps I'm just being overly picky.

Lewis' other series, the Space Trilogy--a hidden jewel, in my uninformed opinion--has a much more intriguing and complete subcreation behind it. The subcreation of the Space Trilogy really needs to be experienced, so I won't say much about it. Suffice it to say, though, that in true Lewisian style, the subcreation skirts the edge of rationality and intellectual believability. This is a true accomplishment; to develop a subcreation that not only draws the experiencer in, but seems nearly believable to the reader, is quite a feat.

At the other end of the spectrum, far away from Arda and Rowling and the Space Trilogy, lies well-researched, respectable historical fiction. Jeff Shaara's historical fiction has perhaps the least subcreation of any narrative I've ever experienced; Shaara's work invariably is impeccably researched and almost pure history. His books have subcreation, but it's exceedingly minor: he relies on history to provide a backdrop for his works.

The title of this (very long, now I look at it) blog is Subcreation and Success. I haven't dealt much with success, but I will note that while extensive subcreation often accompanies success (Tolkien, Rowling, comic-book universes), sometimes it doesn't assure success (The Matrix subcreation) and success can be had without complete or exhaustive subcreation (The Chronicles of Narnia, Shaara's novels). While subcreation can be wildly popular (see the Halo series of video games, for further proof), excellent storytelling, good characterization, and relatable themes also contribute largely to success. As a rule, if something has an extensive, well-crafted subcreation behind it, it's more likely to be worthwhile, but one shouldn't take anything for granted.

Wow, this was long indeed. I'm interested in feedback: what are your thoughts about subcreation? What subcreations can you think of? Can an extensive, well-crafted subcreation ever hamstring a narrative? Talk.

Long live impromptu philosophizing!

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