William Goldman isn’t the first person to comment on this phenomenon, but he’s the first person I ever came across who had an explanation. You know what I’m talking about: The difference between real reality and fictional reality. We all know about the lists of occurrences that happen only in the movies, or on TV – and the real life things that never seem to happen in movies or TV.
Like, the protagonist always finds a parking spot right in front of where she needs to be. She always has the right amount of money for the taxi already in her hand. She can always find a taxi when she needs one. And there’s always cell phone reception.
My personal favourite is how no one ever says “goodbye” on the phone. Not even so much as a “seeya.” Just try that some time in real life. Go ahead, hang up without saying “goodbye.” I dare you. Though the one I really wonder about is that people on TV don’t watch TV.
William Goldman, the screenwriter and novelist, is likely best known to us genre people as the creator of The Princess Bride – both the novel and the screenplay. It shouldn’t surprise us that, as an Oscar-winning screenwriter, he has an explanation for these phenomena. As he sees it, they’re essentially – and essential – short cuts. As those of us who are writers know, there are all kinds of real-life occurrences, that happen all the time, but that don’t advance the plot, or reveal character, and are therefore useless from the point of view of storytelling.
Unless, of course, they do, in which case the protagonist suddenly has no cell phone service, or can’t find a taxi or parking spot. Goldman’s point was that the writer, particularly the screenwriter, can’t use up valuable time fumbling for change. No, not even for verisimilitude. In fact, we’re so used to the fictional reality of film and TV that we usually accept it without analysis (willing suspension of disbelief strikes again). So much so, in fact, that we actually don’t notice these phenomena until they’re pointed out to us, usually in a list.
I’m thinking that we’re so used to this kind of thing that it may even be difficult for us to see them when we go looking. That’s why I’m trying to develop a list for fantasy.
If we’re dealing with contemporary fantasies, set in modern cities, then we can have the same list for any movie or TV show, involving modern technology and transportation. However, if we’re dealing with the far-more-common version of fantasy, which is either set in the past of our world, or in a pre-industrial version of another world, wouldn’t we have a different list?
Here’s a partial one to get us started:
Fantasy characters don’t go to the bathroom. This isn’t limited to fantasy, of course, fictional characters are rarely in bathrooms unless they’re shaving or having sex. John Travolta’s character in Pulp Fiction is a notable exception.
And while we’re on the subject, fantasy characters don’t step in horse poop. Or poop of any other kind, for that matter. You’d think they would, from time to time, given the prevalence of horses in most fantasy scenarios.
Fantasy characters eat all kinds of food that aren’t in season. Or that would be prohibitively expensive if they were in season elsewhere. Of course, this is true of other fictional characters as well, but it’s less notable for fictions set in the modern world.
No one’s clothes ever need to be cleaned, or have the bloodstains removed. I’ve certainly never had my characters wash their clothes, or even pick them up from the laundry.
Fantasy characters don’t get scurvy. They’re also not killed by septic infections, or childbirth, or any number of other medical conditions that would apply in the real world, given the same state of medical knowledge. I mention scurvy in particular because, among its other characteristics, it dissolves scar tissue, all scar tissue, no matter how old. Think about that for a minute. I can’t think of a single human character of mine that doesn’t have a scar.
Fantasy characters have perfect teeth. This is so true of fictional characters everywhere, that it’s easy for us to overlook it.
Have a quick look at The Princess Bride, either version. No one goes to the bathroom, no one steps in horse poop, everyone’s clothes are always clean, and they’re all in great health, including their teeth. Okay, they don’t eat much (they don’t eat!), so we can’t judge what’s in season, but otherwise I think Goldman is 6 for 6.
What do you think? Can you add to my list?
Violette Malan is the author of the Dhulyn and Parno series of sword and sorcery adventures (now available in omnibus editions), as well as the Mirror Lands series of primary world fantasies. As VM Escalada, she is writing the upcoming Halls of Law series. Visit her website:www.violettemalan.com.