Tuesday, October 23, 2012

In Defense of Portals

So, there's a lot of talk in the Twitterverse and Blogosphere lately about portal fantasy.  Namely, that agents and editors seem to turn it away at the door.  As near as I can tell, this started with a brief mention at i09, and the discussion picks up on several other sites.  You can catch up on some here and here

Now, the portal topic is of great interest to me, not just because I've written a portal fantasy, but also because it's my favorite genre to read.  The concept of "Ordinary person is pulled into fantastic circumstances" is the single most compelling thing, for me, about fantasy.  For example, I only like urban fantasies where the main character is unaware of the magic that exists around them and becomes aware of it later.  When everybody already knows that werewolves are real or the subway is manned by trolls, I lose interest.  Entirely a matter of personal preference, but there you go.

Anyway.  First, I want to address the point tat Jennifer Rudden makes: Agents are passing on a lot of portal fantasy books because they're bad portal fantasy books. 

I'll believe this.  Aspiring authors always miss this point for two reasons:
-- They're not reading the slush pile, so they don't really understand exactly what the agent is seeing
-- They may not have the self-awareness to realize that their book sucks

If you'd like to experiment a little, try signing up to beta-read for some other writers who are seeking publication.  You might be surprised to discover that even people who can eloquently talk about their ideas and even write kick-ass query letters...often don't have very good books.  So every time you hear anybody at all railing about how "the publishing industry hates X because they always reject me!", treat this claim with suspicion unless you've actually read the book they're querying and know for a fact that it's publishable quality.

So, with that caveat in mind, what's wrong with portal fiction?  Why is it done so badly so often?

Jennifer suggests -- and I think she's onto something -- that portal fantasy is a fairly simple formula, which is why so many writers do it so very badly.  Because it's an easy structure, a lot of beginners start with it.  So I'll buy that a disproportionate amount of lousy first novels are portal fantasies.

The second problem with these books -- and I've read several amateur novels that have precisely this issue -- is that the "portal" world and the "real" world don't actually interact in any sort of meaningful way.

Here's a lesson for all you aspiring portal fantasy writers.  Your plot cannot be "Character X goes to place Y and does a lot of stuff, then goes home."  That's not good enough.  That's boring and contrived and it wouldn't matter if it was a portal fantasy or not -- anything that consists of a series of "this happens, so character overcomes it, then this happens" is NOT good fiction.

In order to be successful, the following things need to happen in a portal fantasy:
-- Character X needs to have a real, genuine problem (beyond "oh shit, where am I.")
-- Place Y needs to directly reflect or exacerbate that problem
-- When character X confronts the problems in Place Y, it needs to change the character in some profound way
-- Character X must become empowered through his/her experiences in Place Y, and then translate those changes and empowerments into his/her real life.
-- You have to do all of this in a way that's surprising, entertaining and not didactic or painfully obvious

For example:

-- In Coraline, the eponymous character's problem is that she thinks her family doesn't pay enough attention to her, and nothing ever goes her way.  The portal takes her to another world where everything is perfect.  Except that other world is a lie, and in order to escape from that lie with her life, she has to learn to grow up a bit and accept her own imperfect real life.

-- In the Narnia books, the kids have been stripped of their personal agency -- and ability to have fun -- by a war.  When they enter Narnia, they're thrust into the middle of a different war.  But this one they have the ability to affect.  They re-empower themselves and find a way to deal with the very scary real life issues by fighting a different battle.

Now I'm not saying that every single portal fantasy ever subscribes to this formula.  But I do think it's a formula that works, is deeply satisfying and is probably present in the vast majority of portal fantasies.  And based on that criteria, it's easy to see why it's so often done very badly.

But here's the problem.  Because we as writers have now internalized the message, "Portal fantasy doesn't sell."  The reason it doesn't sell is because 99% of it is terrible, but we don't know that.  So what do we do?  We stop writing portal fantasies.  What we really should be doing, if we actually cared about the genre, is writing good portal fantasies.  Writing portal fantasies so fucking amazing that they knock the socks off of anybody who reads them.  (Incidentally, I made a similar argument in the past about prologues.  Feel free to disagree with me -- but my feeling will always be, "If agents hate something, do it so fucking well that they can't hate it." rather than quitting.  I'm stubborn that way.)

"So, okay Tiana," you say, putting on your skeptic's hat, "What are you doing to improve the world of portal fiction?"

Well, I can't say with 100% authority that Tagestraum is "fucking awesome" enough to succeed, but I feel pretty good about it. Here's what it does:

  • It creates an adult portal fantasy, rather than a children's book.  It's also self-conscious of this.  It plays with the idea of this "otherworld" as a place for children, and just how inappropriate it is for adults.  In doing this, it also taps, thematically, into the notion of "the unintentional brutality of children", which is a primary theme throughout the entire novel.  
  • It's first and foremost a character piece.  It's a story about an OCD social worker who spends his time fixing other people's families so he doesn't have to confront his own very damaged family.  He's spent his entire life suppressing memories of his childhood.  In the "otherworld", he is literally confronted by those memories, fears and anxieties.  Hiding from them is no longer an option.  
  • He doesn't have to save helpless villagers from themselves.  Although he does play a role in removing a pretty nasty, powerful person from power, that doesn't exactly save the world.  Actually, it kind of makes things worse, in some ways.  
  • There is no doomed "true love".  The relationships are all a whole lot more complicated (and, in my view, authentic) than that, and play a relatively minor role in the larger scope of the story.  
  • The fairy world is not a wish fulfillment world where "everything was just fine before this" or idyllic.  It has some pretty big flaws and problems.  It also has some moments of sheer awesome.  And promiscuous lesbian fairies, which, that has to earn me points right? 
  • The MC's actions in the fairy world directly impact his own life, as well as other people in the real world and the fairy world.  It matters.  For some more than others, but it sure as hell matters.  
Now, all of that said, it's still quite possible that my portal story won't get published.  Maybe I haven't done enough to shake up the genre.  Maybe the book sucks and I'm too blind to see it.  I don't think that's true, of course -- I think my book is fucking awesome, and I'm usually pretty brutally honest with myself about these things.  But it's entirely possible that I'm talking out my ass here.  

Still: I issue this challenge to all you writers who are belly-aching about portal fantasy and how agents hate it.  Stop complaining.  Write a better book.  Keep writing better books.  Edit them.  Make them the best goddamn books anybody has ever seen.  That's how we save the portals.

Happy writing.


  1. I'm feeling that you just might be a little passionate about portal stories. Just a little, though...Also, if you are feeding that passion into your story, then there's no way it can suck.

  2. It's interesting to me that Portal Fantasy is an issue, when we've basically made REVERSE Portal fantasy a SUPER HOT genre -- think of all those fish out of water stories, where x superbeing finds himself in the modern world, totally perplexed and confused as to the way of things.

    That said -- I kind of hate Narnia because the kids always end up having to go back home and then what? You go from being Kings and Queens to... kids again, with no agency? That's just depressing. (Disclaimer: I have not read the books, beyond the very first one, so maybe I don't know what I'm talking about.)