Liminal Fantasy and the Stupid Heroine

“I have the ability to tell the future.  I don’t know why or how, but I have it.”

“And what are you doing with this ability?”

“Selling peaches at a roadside stand and going to your Podunk school where I have no friends.”

– Any liminal fantasy book anywhere

BEWARE: Spoilers abound

I really like liminal fantasy.  Truly.  It’s like the marriage of realistic, issue-driven drama that I write and read, with the fantasy that the rest of the world writes and reads.  It’s a win-win compromise for all parties.  Something for everyone.

The definition of “liminal fantasy” is that the fantastic element is part of the normal universe and, though they may not like its effects, everybody seems to just accept it.  When literary fiction (click for definition) does fantasy, it’s usually liminal.

Common examples of this are the anime show Clannad: After Story.  It’s about as slice-of-life as anime comes, except for magical lights that can reverse time and change the course of the future at the end.

Freaky Friday is another one.  Here we have a normal world, normal teenager, and a normal mother (Well, as normal as Jamie Lee Curtis can be!), who suddenly find themselves with their bodies switched.  There is really no explanation for the magical occurrence, and you know, by the end, that it will never happen to this pair again.

Mary Poppins – involving one woman, a nanny, who can bend the laws of the universe a bit just for a chimney sweep and two kids, and who disappears into the air by the end of the movie

The Lake House – where one mailbox at one special glass house has the ability to send letters back and forward two years into the past or future

Click – a magical remote control lets a man mess with his life

Zapped – a dog training app lets a girl control all men

Death Note – a high school guy gets a notebook that lets him kill people by writing their name inside while thinking of their face.

You get the point.  Liminal fantasy is fun, because it takes a human being in his or her natural element, and gives reality a little twist.  It’s fun to think about what it would be like to have a little bit of a superhero power, or to watch people stumble around comically when their bodies change.

I just finished two recent liminal fantasy novels: When (by Victoria Laurie) and Ask Me (by Kimberly Pauley).

In When, Maddie can see the date when someone will die on their forehead.  In Ask Me, Aria has to answer any question she hears – even if it’s not directed at her – and has to answer honestly, meaning she often predicts the future.

Both girls are painfully, painfully shy, timid, and not very bright.  Unfortunately, both authors have to add the “smart trope,” which states that all main characters are geniuses.  Both girls get good grades, one is interested in an Ivy League school, etc.  This “intelligence” is pointless to the story, and utterly unbelievable.  Neither girl can figure out the murder mystery right in front of them, neither use their gifts and special abilities for much of anything, and neither girl can even make a friend if her life depended on it.  They are stuck in the proverbial box in the most painful way possible.

The main character is a super genius. Like, a SUPER DUPER genius. Mega smart. The smartest. Everything comes quickly and easily to them, and everyone wants them to be the center of their secret government organization or rebel movement. Maybe they’re even the youngest captain of a starship EVER. Be mindful of not making things too easy for your protagonist, whether it’s through super powers or super smarts. – YA Common Cliches by maybegenius.blogspot

The problem that can occur, with most liminal fantasy, is The Lazy Plot, otherwise known as Absent Worldbuilding or Lack of Ripple Effect.

A girl can tell the future by being asked questions she has to answer?  This is world-changing.  Not only would the government want to snatch her up, but she’d be a big commodity to anyone.  Forget solving small town murders.  She’s the next super detective, stopping crime completely.  Death Note does this well, with Light Yagami becoming a super villain and the secret dictator of earth – or at least Japan.

But American YA fiction falls completely flat usually.  Instead, our superhero protagonists spend their days barely scraping by (Aria can’t even afford a cell phone or new clothes, and Maddie spends her days trying to stop her mother from drinking herself to death, telling fortunes/death dates in a dinky back room).  They have no goals, dreams, or ideas of how to use their talents.  These are no Peter Parkers.  Otherwise we’d have another Marvel movie.

It is clear that the author desperately wants their story to involve average high schoolers in average situations.

Therefore, she has to dumb her entire world down – especially her in-the-know protagonist and the protagonist’s family members.  In order not to become a crime-fighting Spiderman alter ego, but to keep things simple and close-to-home in a teenage romance mystery, the main characters have to not only be as dull as dirt, but pretty self-absorbed as well.  Keeping their secrets to themselves, painfully shy, over-the-top introverted, and full of confused, angsty teenage thoughts, the girls fail to deliver.

The entire world fails to deliver.  Whether it’s FBI agents and police officers who are too stupid to do their job correctly, to love interests that suddenly take an interest in the main girl, to best friends who give lame small-minded advice, the entire world in the YA liminal fantasy novel is unbelieavable.

My epic-fantasy author friends work at it from the reverse angle.  Instead of saying, “Wouldn’t it be neat to have a small town girl solve a murder mystery with this ability?” and forcing their entire world to bend at their whim to make that one scene happen, these authors create entire worlds from the ground up.  Some have put in many, many years (even a decade) – thinking of you, Bethany, Abby, Heidi, Heather, and Nikki – to create languages, politics, cause and effect, and characters to make their speculative fiction as believable as possible.  Their characters act like human beings.  There aren’t plot holes created in order to keep their teenage protagonists stuck in high schools where they are misunderstood and disregarded.

I respect my fantasy author friends!  I like to write realistic, non-fantasy stories to keep things as believable as possible, and I’m not sure I could do what they do.  To me, realism and humanity isn’t worth compromising, even to entertain.  I respect the great undertaking that is creating a new reality in your fictional story that truly works!

The liminal fantasy books I recently read can be enjoyable on a mere mystery level, as long as you suspend belief enough to realize that the whole world has dropped about 50 IQ points.  If you can put up with the selfish, reclusive inner fears of the main characters, you might enjoy one of these stories.

However, in these novels, the only characters, who have these sorts of realistic, intelligent thoughts and bigger ideas, are the bad guys.  If the author merely took time to give her characters some creativity and brains, no one would still be stuck in Podunk town going to high school.  They’d be out changing the world, which would instantly take it out of the slice-of-life genre.   Therefore, the goals of the liminal fantasy writer can often be mutually exclusive.  You either write realistic YA teenage drama, or you write fantasy.  The two rarely work well together.

The exception is when the liminal fantasy element is negative, and not a desired ability.  I can see how body-switching wouldn’t be anything but awkward, undesirable, and comedic.  No one would be out saving the world as a man in a woman’s body – that is, unless you become a counselor!

Or how about the fantasy element in one of my favorite books, Ella Enchanted (NOT the movie)?  Ella has to follow every command given her.  That’s something I’d want to hide and be selfish about in order to protect myself, if it were me!

Still, even if your character was cursed, I’d think anybody with half of a brain would want to go dissect it and figure it out.  WHY can I see death dates?  WHY do solar panels and water damage make my phone app control human beings? WHY does this nanny show up with a talking umbrella?  Where’s the science, people?

Maybe I haven’t learned how to shut off my brain yet and just be entertained.  🙂