My favorite kind of story is a gateway fantasy, the kind where characters from one kind of world wind up in another kind of world and have to deal with magic or technology they had no idea existed before and didn’t believe to be possible. That’s always fun for me, because I can’t help wondering how I would react in similar circumstances. Unfortunately though, while a well done portal story, or any story in which a character is confronted with the supposedly impossible, is fascinating, one that’s poorly done is just annoying, which is perhaps why the Fantasy Novelist’s Exam (dedicated to exposing the ridiculous in epic fantasy novels) makes fun of characters from other worlds in one of the questions.
People usually read a story to find out what might really happen in a given scenario. However, unfortunately for many fantasy novelists, the world we live in tends to be predictable, at least in the short term, so we have very little experience with what it would actually be like to react to the impossible. All our characters’ reactions after seeing anything strange for the first time, be it unicorns, magic, or alien spaceships, have to come from our own imaginations. To add to the problem, it’s difficult to find advice about writing reactions to “the impossible” online. Because of this, a lot of fantasy stories with “great discovery” scenes end up seeming a little fake.
Now, obviously there’s no one right way to write a reaction to the impossible in fiction, because the characters and the actual circumstances they face vary so much. However, there are certain principles that, if followed, will make a character’s encounter with the unbelievable much more believable to the readers.
First of all, there should be a period of doubt. This is especially applicable if a character’s first exposure to the other-world is having somebody else tell him about it. Good characters won’t passively accept it when you tell them magic is real. “Lucy, what do you mean there’s a fantasy land in the wardrobe? That’s just ridiculous.” “No Hagrid, I’m not a wizard. I can’t be.” And even if there’s immediate evidence that something weird just happened, most characters still need to go through a doubting period in which they wonder whether they’re dreaming or if they’ve gone insane. Ideally, these thoughts shouldn’t last too long, unless that character is prone to vivid dreams or already has doubts about his sanity, but it makes sense for them to be there.
Also, for a short time, it’s completely appropriate for character in an unbelievable situation to act like a bumbling idiot. After all, if he’s still trying to figure out whether the pink elephants in front of him are real, he’s probably not going to do a very good job of introducing himself to their owners. Faced with something too strange to believe, an angry character might begin yelling at everybody in sight, demanding an explanation for what’s happening. A shy character might just stand still for several minutes, unable to say or do much of anything except stare, and a naturally outgoing character might try “winging it” and bumble through the next several minutes hoping it was all a dream.
Pretty soon though, the character needs to accept the new reality and say to himself, “Yes, I think this is real. No, I’m probably not going to wake up. And since this seems to be a real situation I have to approach it rationally and decide what’s the best way to deal with it.”
However, even after initially accepting their strange new circumstances, well written characters will probably still experience some frustration as they deal with the fantasy world they’ve been thrust into. They may know now that magic exists, but they don’t know much about what it does, or about the culture of the people who use it. Maybe the dragons become terribly offended if you speak of their leader without some epithet in front of his name, or the aliens (for all their advanced technology) don’t see any problem with spitting their alien germs all over their spaceships, or nobody in the medieval fantasy world has any idea what electricity is. Who would have guessed?
In fact, I think this cultural adjustment stage of the story is where a lot of fantasy novelists run into trouble. We want the hero to save the day in this other world, right? So he has to jump right into things and integrate with everything else as fast as possible, right? Well, actually, no. It’s not that a person from another world can’t be useful in defeating the villain, but if he does it playing by the rules of a world he didn’t grow up in, then the author better show the readers how much hard work he had to do before he became competent enough to even stand a chance against the villain. Don’t just give him an easy way out.
And it’s even more believable if a character saves the day because of, rather than in spite of, his otherworldly past. Like in the book Enchantment, by Orson Scott Card, where the modern day hero stuck in the past is embarrassed at his inability to learn the skills of an ancient warrior, but in the end he recovers and uses modern day dynamite to help fight the villain’s armies instead.
So there you go, all the basic potential stages of a reaction to the impossible, doubt, shock to the point of acting incredibly stupid, acceptance, and culture shock, leading up to the resolution of the story, and hopefully, to a happy ending in both worlds.