The conflicting tension between metaphysics and good storytelling

If you’ve ever had the misfortune to read any fiction by Dion Fortune or others of her sort you already know what I’m here to talk about today. Don’t get me wrong, her Non-Fiction is terrific, in fact I’d highly recommend it. But when she tries to weave a story she can’t let her cosmological worldview go. It twisted the shape of the story to fit her belief system and the story suffers (and becomes insufferably boring as well).

I am in her camp in certain ways, under the same banner if you will. I base much of my fiction on the historical metaphysics of the Gnostics and Medieval Goetic magicians (as an aside, both these groups saw themselves as Christians, despite what Old Mother Rome might have thought). I incorporate a good deal of theological and spiritual research into my writing but this leads me to face the same trap all who attempt such an undertaking must face, dogma winning out over plot because the dogma becomes more important in the author’s mind than the story. It has to be correct and if that means long boring exposition than so be it. Nothing kills a story faster, because it’s entirely artificial. It matters to the author but not the reader and therefore it has no right to be in the story.

I personally try to handle this dilemma by doing all of the heavy theological lifting upfront. I’ve designed the cosmology of the world, I know the metaphysical underpinnings that make it tick. How the world came to be, the cosmic rules that govern the fates of gods and mortals, the hierarchy of the celestial and infernal bureaucracies. The world itself is shaped in accordance with the theology at a very basic level. I don’t have to tell the reader in excruciating detail how things work, I can show and suggest it instead. They can see the shadows cast by the powers and unseen forces of my world and work out for themselves what is going on. My cosmology is cohesive. It fits together and has an internal logic to it that can be pieced together. Or at least that’s what I hope and strive for when I write.

If you’re an author writing a story I’d urge you to take the time to examine the cosmology of the world your story is set in. Who are the gods or angels or God? What is the nature of the spirit world? How does it interact with mundane reality? Is there even a difference between the two? What is the nature of the soul? Do humans possess more than one soul? What about the influence of the planets and cosmic cycles? Why does life even exist? You don’t need the answers to all of them. Sometimes just knowing that the answer to one of these questions is fundamentally unknowable in your world is enough to answer it. Also, don’t limit yourself to these questions. The classical literature is full to bursting with interesting philosophical arguments about the nature of reality. Do some research and see what’s already out there.

4 thoughts on “The conflicting tension between metaphysics and good storytelling

  1. C.S. Lewis has the same problem. I can never get past his sales pitch for his brand. But giant fan of writers that do their ground work and let it seep into the story without long boring nuts and bolts talks. I don’t need to know how their world works as long as the writer does.

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