Thursday, January 10, 2008

Portals: Cliche or Connection?

Of course, before I post any blog, it would probably make sense to introduce myself to those who don’t know me. I’m Amanda Thrasher, a junior at Appalachian State for music education. I write (obviously) YA, but have been known to write the random theological essay or two. I have written for as long as I can remember. My first “masterpiece” was Boo the Dog, about a stray that got into various scrapes and so on. I remember very little about it, except that I was in kindergarten and my teacher believed it a work of genius. She’s the one who really made me think I could actually write and be successful, so I’ve already decided that if I ever (when, Amanda, when!) get a book published, I’m dedicating it to her.

Now, on to a real blog…I was recently reading the archives of an agent’s blog that very specifically talked about how much she hated the idea of “portals” leading the MCs into another world. Her reasoning was that characters should be able to start in the world the story is in, and not have to have some connection to this world.

Although I can see her point that it might be cliché, I don’t think the notion of “portals” is wholly bad. Whenever I read, I liked reading books I could put myself into. I could fantasize about getting my letter from Hogwarts, finding a wardrobe into Narnia, or getting incredible technological powers from an alien. It was a little harder when I read about a character who was born and bred into the world to put myself there. As a reader, I always wanted to figure out some way to work myself into the story. When I couldn’t, it lost a little magic for me.

I want to give my readers I world they can find their way into. I want to give someone else the experiences that I got, the hours of fantasy and (shudder) fanfiction, (we all have that skeleton in the closet, don’t we?) just from one book.

So what are your thoughts? What do you need to really put yourself into a story? Or was world connection never a problem for you?


Jordan said...

It really does depend on the book--if this is a "normal" human from our world exploring some fantasy land they somehow got into...doesn't it make sense to get to know the character outside Fantasy and then follow them in? It's all about identification, as you said. The portal puts the character on our level, lets us explore the story world with them.

Now if this story starred a character from Fantasy and never ever even considered our world, there would be no need for a portal. We'd have to identify with the character another way, and we'd hope the author would facilitate that.

What is the story about? Discovering new worlds along with discovering ourselves, like so many MG/YA fantasy is about? Then a portal really is necessary. If it's about this new fantasy, say, The Giver was about that strange seemingly-utopian society...then of course we don't need a portal to help us get into the story.

But, yea. Always be careful with plot devices that tend to be overused, like portals tend to be. But, if handled correctly, I don't see a problem with them at all.

Trish Doller said...

I am confused by this agent. How does an outsider simply appear in another realm and not have an explanation, connection or portal to it? Unless she means she doesn't like the idea of a story in which the MC is an outsider to another world. Perhaps she likes stories about other worlds with an MC from that world?

Personally, I think the idea of reaching another place through a wardrobe was enchanting. But not everyone can pull it off like C.S. Lewis did. So perhaps THAT is her issue. If you're not going to do it well, don't do it?

Meggy said...

I thought this was more about literal portals, such as walking into a wardrobe or falling into a hole, but not about something like a Hogwarts letter wouldn't count, I don't think, since Hogwarts and the wizarding community are--in the books, at least--a part, albeit a hidden one, of our world.

I'm also guessing that the happening-upon-a-portal-by-completely-random-chance is what the agent really shys away from. This, moreso than a portal itself, is typical and convenient.

Of course, portals can work well. I'm just trying to look at it from the agent's point of view.

Anyway, thought provoking post!

Vanessa Concannon said...

Plot devices, like portals, are overused because they are...plot devices. They exist to make the plot flow smoother. So it stands to reason that poor writers are going to rely on devices that may read as cliche in their uncouth words. The same device, in more deft hands, can be perfectly acceptable. I think a compelling fantasy world is one which, from the very beginning, the writer assumed was real. And if the writer assumes it's real, it doesn't matter whether people get there through a portal or what--it feels real.

I think Meggy has it--this agent is PROBABLY talking about portals in the most literal sense, the way a novice writer would be most likely to use them.

bethany said...

I first of all had to say something about the uncouth words of those poor writers. ha ha ha ha ha ha ha....

And the important thing to know about cliches, is that they are cliches. So that you can tread carefully around them. Writers who just jump into a genre or in some cases younger writers (but none of the ones here, that I can promise you) often use clishes without knowing it, and it hurts their work.

And I for one was ALWAYS dissapointd as a child that the wardrobe in my parents' room did NOT open up to Narnia, or any other place. It didn't even have any nice coats in it....

Melissa Marr said...

Since I'm almost certain you're talking abt my agent & I've talked to her abt this, I'm going to chime in. :) The easy answer: I suspect she meant portals as plot devices.

More: The portals were part of a list that is a result of the extremely high number of certain elements that show up in her slushpile. It's also--like ANY agents' blog or response--just her personal taste.

All agents are readers first, so they have subjective opinions. That's really the best suggestion I had in reading an agent or editors' texts: reading these lets me see their taste. My agent, frex, is big on active MCs, so a portal wouldn't appeal to her. It's too passive. That said, she likes her "active" to be in both physical & emotional ways. It's not really abt she sold a "faery novel" (or vampire or werewolf or memoir or . . .) so she's into faery books (etc). It's about the other traits. The portal comment fits her taste.

. . . but it's also a comment abt the frequency of such things as plot devices.

. . . and probably reflective of the US market as she sees it. She's selling a lot of urban fantasy these days. Each agent has different connections & thru them they hear what editors want right now (but don't limit themselves to those editors only).

JMHO, of course . . .

Sophie W. said...

Actually, Melissa, I think it was another agent Amanda's talking about.

But on the topic of portals...

Portals, like any good fantasy stand-by, are familiar to readers of the genre. I've read tons of portal books. Yes, they get old, but I'm not going to chuck a book just because it has portals in it.

Herbie Brennan's Faerie Wars (can you tell I'm just a little obsessed?) involved a portal - but it was interesting because no one just fell through and popped out in Fairyland. Mr. Fogarty had to invent a way to activate the portal between worlds. So there's your active protagonist (stealing Melissa's terminology for a second here).

Un Lun Dun is another book that (I think) involves portals, and it's very well done. Jeff Vandermeer's Shriek: An Afterword alludes to a portal, although we never see it. Libba Bray's novel involves a portal, but that also has to be activated by the protagonist.

And those are just off the top of my head. I could list a bunch of other books where the MC travels to a new world - and yes, I know I just said that this was an old trope too - that I enjoyed. The thing is, I've also read perfectly wonderful books that don't involve portals at all.

So, like any other literary technique or plot point: don't use it if it doesn't improve the book.

Melissa Marr said...

"Actually, Melissa, I think it was another agent Amanda's talking about."

Then the agent is in good company as Rachel had a blog on this very topic :)

Jordan said...

I never even considered the passive quality of portals. Now that I think about it, I can see how just the very mention of one in a query would instantly turn off some agents--it's way too easy to allow it to become the magical answer to everyone's problems.

One book that involves a portal and an extremely active protagonist is Neil Gaiman's Coraline. The portal is a bricked-up wall between her family's flat and the neighboring one that seems just like her own (but is really an evil look-alike run by her very creepy other mother). She crosses the border because she's a curious little girl--and spends the rest of the book actively trying to fix her mistake. In the hands of the masters, a simple plot device can become something truly profound.

What a great discussion. Thanks, Amanda, for starting it for us. I never thought about portals that much.

bethany said...

The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub was one of the first books I read with two worlds. In that one they had to "flip" between the worlds and at first Jack used magic juice, but it turned out, of course, that he had the power inside all along. I LOVE that book.

The inactive portal user might successfully allow the character to show surprise and wonder and confusion, but too much surprise and wonder and the mc comes off as a wimpy sort of idiot.

Great stuff to think about!

althrasher said...

Yeah, I can see how portals can be unnecssary at times. I guess the point I'm making is that I want some kind of connection between one world and other. Not just, "Wow, a random vortex of doom! I think I'll hop in!"

And no, Melissa, it wasn't your agent I was speaking of specifically, but I have seen a couple blogs on the subject.

As some of you might have guessed, my WIP has a portal in it. I don't think it makes my characters passive in any respect--but then again, I could just be trying to justify it. Hope not...

JenWriter said...

Well, I am actually in the plotting face of a fantasy that involves portals. However, I have not even decided if anyone will use the portals. They just have to be there in order for the story to work.

I thought I had a good idea, but now I am starting to wonder if it is too much of a cliche...

Haphazard said...

I personally don't like portals.

Why? Well, because whenever a character from our world gets sucked into fantasyland, I automatically hold fantasyland to an entirely new standard, one on par with the complexity of our own world. I want to see a new world vast and complex and wide, and I want to see how everything there works, and how exactly it's different from ours and what made it different and how the portal works and why it's there, and who created it.

In a story without a portal, I'm more generous with the suspension of disbelief. Whenever the mundane world gets involved, most of my suspension of disbelief goes flying out the window. So, for me to understand a story in the real world, connecting it to the real world somehow makes it feel cheap and less and less realistic.

Although, what I'm writing now involves portals, so I should probably shut up now.

Donna said...

Yeah, still late to the game. Hey, if I see something that I feel the inkling to yabber on about, yabber I must.

My NaNo story has a portal in it. Actually the story was just my story before I decided to write it for NaNo so the NaNo part is pretty irrelevant. Anyway, mine isn't a swirling vortex of doom or something that sucks someone in. It's in a tree and throwing up the otherworld onto the "normal" one.

I'm in agreement that if done right, portals are fine. It's the cope outs that give portals a bad name.