Grounding Fantasy in Reality and Tackling Controversial Topics | Official Author Website of Melissa McPhail

Grounding Fantasy in Reality and Tackling Controversial Topics

Artwork by ShortCircuit123 on deviantart.com

Artwork by ShortCircuit123 on deviantart.com

A reader wrote in to me recently and mentioned that while she didn’t have the same visceral reaction to a particular scene (no spoilers) as many other readers had, she didn’t like that one of the characters had to use sex as part of the resolution of the conflict in that scene.

This is very interesting to me. Of course I put a lot of thought into why I took the route I did with the scene. The circumstances open some important (I feel) explorations for Kingdom Blades, A Pattern of Shadow & Light Book 4, and give a whole new look at immortality.

But these themes aside, I try to write my fantasy series with a grounding in reality. Even though you’re reading about fantastical characters dealing with epic problems, you should be able to find some real-world underpinning for every scene and situation. We all face conflicts of morality, of personal choice and consequence; conflicts that make it difficult to find balance in our lives. Our work and home life battle each other; our friends struggle with infidelity, divorce, abuse; our religious beliefs and practices cause friction with our neighbors or co-workers; we fight not to let our dreams for our children outweigh their own.

The confront of difficult topics grounds my series. And the truth is, a lot of people use sex as a resolution. I wasn’t trying to make any particular point about this by having the character solve her problem that way. I don’t take sides or pass judgment on the topic—here or in the story—yet to have written the scene any other way…it wouldn’t have been as true, as real, as honestly conflicted. It wouldn’t have opened the door to the future exploration I mentioned above for Kingdom Blades. If I’d solved it for her in a way more appealing, more politically correct, I would’ve been shying away from an important view into the subject and doing you, my reader, a disservice.

My characters feel like real people because they make choices that real people would make. Sometimes it’s impossible to make a choice without hurting someone in the making of it; sometimes our only choices are the lesser of two evils. Sometimes there is no easy way out of the morass we create for ourselves. Holding to one’s integrity in such situations can feel truly torturous.

My point in putting these kinds of conflicts into my story isn’t to lecture anyone; it’s to raise the questions, to highlight a particular aspect of our lives that often goes uninspected because it’s difficult to confront, controversial; because it makes us feel uncomfortable, or it’s just painfully complicated. Sometimes there aren’t perfect resolutions to problems; sometimes we have to live with unhappy consequences.

But the more inspected these situations are, the more likely we are to face them with integrity and strength. So I present these situations in a fantasy setting—not as my soapbox, but for your inspection. For your evaluation. For you to think about, converse about—argue about—take personal interest in, or discard as unimportant.

I love that this reader was unhappy with the decision this character made. I love that she thought to share that with me. I love the discussion that’s arisen as a result of that scene in Paths of Alir. Look at how many people are inspecting and talking about that character’s choice! Look how many people are worried about how it can all possibly be resolved (assuming it even can).

So yes, while the scene has raised a lot of hackles, it’s also gotten a lot of people to peep into a shadowed corner of life.

With all of these conflicts, I try not to spend too much time dwelling on the difficulties; only just enough time to make the character’s plight real to you. Then we move forward into what is ultimately meant to be an illustration: one character’s way of dealing with things (or sometimes several ways of dealing with a similar situation, spread across multiple characters). My hope is that you find these explorations compelling, even when they make you uncomfortable.

And never forget—even with all that has come to pass—it’s my firm belief that everyone can find redemption in the end. You should be able to find this theme prevalent in the story, also.

As always, I welcome your thoughts on this topic. Please share them in the comments below.


14 Responses to “Grounding Fantasy in Reality and Tackling Controversial Topics”

  1. Laura says:

    I felt the character’s pain at her choice but I truly felt then as I do now…she made the best choice of a bad at of choices and I love her even more for it. I am also very happy that her choice repaired an issue for a character I love. I am so happy you’ve explained some of the motivation for your writing. These books were a gloriously exciting, unexpected find. I am looking forward to the fourth book. Thank you for engaging us even while immersed in your work.

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Laura, it is my greatest pleasure being able to interact with my readers about the world of my invention. I feel far more sane in talking about all the people in my head when others can see them too. 😉

      I appreciate your thoughts about Isabel. Many of my readers feel the same about her choices.

      Thank you for reading!

  2. Tkeisha says:

    It was a tough and well-written scene, and definitely disturbing, but what upset me the most was that I expected more from him. I understood why he did what he did while thinking he was under the compulsion, but when he took her suggestion so easily (in my view), and just ran with it, I felt it was just another form of betrayal. He never came across to me as weak, but I felt he was at his lowest and weakest point when he did what he did. He seemed to know her well enough to know what effect this would create in her universe, so to me, his actions were worse than hers, by far. He should have more repercussions to face. I hope he does.

    • Bill says:

      Tkeisha,

      I disagree, I saw his acceptance as keeping his promise to Tanis by trying to choose another way. If you go back to book 2, both with the first healer and definitely with the second when Tanis interrupts him, their blood made him into a monster, another person. The moment Nadia jumps of the cliff and her blood is cold, he immediately changes back into himself. If the scene had progressed, if he hadn’t accepted the compulsion would have taken complete control and he would have become that other being, the monster from the cave. I do wish he had been a bit more invested in his own redemption, hadn’t received so much pleasure and enjoyment in the process but that’s a different topic than his willingness to participate. It was that or mutilate and kill her.

  3. Heidi says:

    I was agonized by the scene but the effect on me was exactly as you describe: it made me LOOK and question. Once I got over my shock and horror, I realized it was all about the bigger picture. More particularly, the relative insignificance of a body which – especially in a world where Returning is commonly accepted – is really just a shell, a tool for achieving goals in a lifetime. Looking at the bigger picture, using sex as that character did was brilliant and brave. There wouldn’t even be an issue if we didn’t have our identities so completely identified with our bodies.

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Heidi, what a great point about how we so often identify ourselves with our bodies instead of recognizing ourselves as immortal spiritual beings. I think you’re already channeling book 4!

  4. Bill says:

    I’m a bit confused..

    I didn’t sense her guilt, pain or anguish had anything to do with *her* view of her body or even the sex act itself. My impression, what she repeated over and over, suggested it came from the knowledge that in making the choice she would be causing pain to the person she loved and the question of if he could he ever forgive her?

    Did I get that wrong?

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Absolutely not, Bill, you exactly describe what Isabel was experiencing in that moment in regards to her guilt.

      I think Heidi was taking a forward look, or a broader look into future (the bigger picture). Her comment touches on an exploration I intend to do in book four, centering around the question of integrity to ourselves and how this relates to what happens to us, versus what happens to our bodies. In a universe where a being can have many “shells” can we separate out the two (i.e. what happens to us, what happens to us in the body).

      • Bill says:

        Melissa,

        That’s just it, I don’t believe the focus on Isabel’s body, her shell *is* a focus on the bigger picture. The biggest picture is the survival of all, and in that largest of pictures the Prophet/Isabel had to make a evaluate two choices and decide which had more value in the effort. With the fate of the world on the line, which resource was more important in that effort? Do you risk the alienation and participation of Ean to gain the allegiance of Pelas. Do you let go of the bird in hand, to gain the perfect bird; a bigger, faster, stronger, more beautiful bird? The answer was obvious, gaining Pelas is worth losing 10 Ean’s. The worry over Isabel’s body, what happened “to” her, her shell, doesn’t reflect the experience. She had enjoyable sex with the most beautiful, pleasing, caring being in existence, the protagonist of the story, women have endured much worse for far less. Her body, or even what happened “to” her was never the issue, the impact the choice would have on her relationship, if Ean could forgive her was. In this case, that risk was clearly worth the gain of a clearly more valuable resource in Pelas. She did absolutely the right thing.

        The larger point I’m making is, it really wasn’t that tough a choice or experience. The choice was immediately validated a few chapters later with Pelas’s defeat of Shail and saving Tanis. It was memorialized and set in stone by the eternal bonding of Tanis and Pelas, Pelas is now the central character of the story, the protagonist. I’m not suggesting that’s a bad outcome, Pelas is a wonderful character, the best!

        The Prophet couldn’t have picked a better champion.

        You’ve written about Pelas more than any other character over the last two books, in the most favorable terms, with the best outcomes… It was natural that she save him, in effect, his story now and Ean is a PINO (protagonist in name only). Now that you’ve opened the topic of tough realistic choices I just hope you take it full circle to some completion. In real life, those choices have outcomes, the valuations are validated or proven wrong. Obviously only you know which/if that turns out to be the case in this story but If it isn’t tested, what was the sacrifice? It wasn’t her body, it wasn’t the sex..

        The scenes are really well written, if I had one criticism it would be the two characters in competition weren’t close enough to make the choice truly difficult. I’m not a artist so bear with with my rudimentary effort but here is an example:

        While I’m not a fan, Twilight does an excellent job in creating conflict of choice with the Team Edward or Team Jacob.

        The choice looks something like this… the horizontal being, Emotional (kindness, sensitivity, intuitive, giving) and the vertical being Competency (strength, power, intelligence, ability) In a making a choice between Jacob and Edward you are making a choice in flavor…. a little more or less power, for a little more or less emotional strength.

        100
        ————————————–Edward—-
        90
        ——————————————–Jacob
        80
        ————————————————-
        50
        ————————————————-
        30
        ————————————————-
        10
        ————————————————-
        0 10 30 50 80 90 100

        In the Pelas, Ean situation the choice looks more like this (as both are currently written), hence no true conflict of choice for Isabel or readers.

        100
        —————————————————-Pelas
        90
        ————————————————
        80
        ————————————————
        50
        ————————————————
        30
        ———-Ean———————————–
        10
        ————————————————
        0 10 30 50 80 90 100

        You may not have intended Pelas to become the protagonist of this tale… but right now he is and it wasn’t even a hard side to pick.

        • Melissa McPhail says:

          Very interesting assessment, Bill! I can’t say that I agree with it entirely, but I’m so grateful for your viewpoint to add to the discussion.

          I think all of your views expressed here (though not exactly keeping to the topic of the post itself) very much strengthen the point I’m trying to make in the post, which is to say: I want my readers to be looking at and discussing these issues. That’s all I’m really trying to do – to bring them to light for your inspection. The fact that you care so greatly for the characters and the story shows that I’m achieving my purpose, at least with one reader: yourself. So thank you!

          • Bill says:

            Mellissa

            First thank you for the forum to express ideas and perceptions.

            Regarding keeping with the topic, I believe that a scene like this does not exist outside the story. The context of her choice, the conditions, the factors she considers when forced to make that tough decision define the decision. I can’t know what kind of feedback you get but I would imagine a lot more focuses on Isabel’s sacrafice in terms of sex, or Pelas’s salvation, rather than the true source of her pain, what her sacrifice really was.

            I also believe, she fell into the trap of over admiration for Pelas, turning a trade into less a sacrifice and more a true betrayal.

  5. Andy says:

    This scene seems to have accomplished your goal of getting us readers to talk about the issues raised like no other, a testament to your ability as a story teller and writer. The wonderful thing about this is seeing all the various interpretations of the characters and their motivations and reasons for doing what they do. The question I found myself asking was: how much about Pelas and Tanis does Isabel know? Is/was she aware that Tanis would meet Pelas, of the nature of their relationship and how this would affect Pelas? If so, then her choice made in the scene in question could be considered to be one of protecting Tanis from the potential of what Pelas could become by allowing him to control his compulsion.

    I feel the issue of Isabel betraying Ean in this scene is going to be coloured by the factor of Returning. Ean is only just taking of his Returning training wheels, so to speak, so he’s not quite Arion yet. My own view as a reader is coloured by the fact I have had no experience that can relate to someone that I loved having died and then coming back, but as a different person. Does she love Ean or does she love Arion? Are her feelings for Ean merely there because she believes that he will return fully as Arion? Does this mean Ean will no longer exist? Do Arion’s memories override Ean’s when he fully returns? Much of what we see as ourselves is derived from our experience and memories. Ean and Arion may be very similar people/personalities, but their experiences should make them different people, at least in my mind.

    In the end, it all comes down to if Ean is able to (or not) forgive Isabel. I personally feel that he should. It was this or the other team get another very big, very sharp sword, essentially. But I’m a romantic fool and although I believe I would forgive her if I was Ean, I do have the advantage of being able to read Isabel’s mind as a reader of the book, so my opinion on the situation is coloured by what I know from her point of view.

    Sorry if I rambled on. So glad I found this series. Just goes to show what you can find if you take a chance on a facebook ad. Book 4 cant get here fast enough.

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Andrew, I applaud your take on the scene and where we have to be looking as we move on from here. The only thing that’s truly safe to say about their relationship is “it’s complicated.”

      I quite agree that who we are is colored by our experiences. Ean cannot simply “become” Arion again, because Arion never had Ean’s experiences, including the experience of having someone else’s experiences influencing his choices and shadowing his conscience. Arion never had those concerns. He was certainly a different person.

      In Kingdom Blades, we’ll definitely be addressing how much Isabel understood about Tanis and Pelas’s relationship, as well as whether it’s Arion she loves or Ean.

      Thanks for your comments. I so appreciate being allowed to share in so many reader viewpoints.

    • Bill says:

      Andy,

      I agree 100% goal accomplished. I even posted as much on the reddit forum recommending the series. If nothing else the story, choices characters make and writing do cause me to think about the book at a deeper level than most. Also Melissa’s willingness to open the topics to conversation and inspection adds to the depth and enjoyment of the series. I agree with the point you make about the other team getting a very big, very sharp sword, the pragmatic choice. What I found really interesting in your post was the Ean/Arion point you make, it’s one I’ve pondered from the very start. Which leads to two very big questions for me…

      1. How are her interaction with Pelas really that much different than Ean at the core? That may seem crazy or over the top but the numerous equivalencies exist and are even made by her. She’s had sex with both but that’s really meaningless to her. She’s given herself to both out of sense of obligation or duty, rather than romantic love. She’s invested in both for the future; Pelas as a player in her brothers game, Ean in hopes of what he might become when he regains Arion’s memories and power. She draws the parallel, the equivalency of the two often in word and deed, first when she says, she saved one good man and betrayed another. Not saved a good man and broke the heart, a great man, her true love… but simply saved one, betrayed another.

      In my opinion, her love of “Ean” was never fully demonstrated before the encounter, IMHO the interactions aren’t much different. That’s why I made the point prior about the comparisons to Ean and Pelas. To me, Pelas has been fully validated in the story between book 2 and 3. We’ve seen him fight and win against impossible odds numerous times, defeating eidola with his bare hands and Shail. We’ve seen his kindness in dealing with Tanis and Socotra Isio, seeing her inner beauty despite her age. I don’t see as many comparable favorable views of Ean.

      Which leads to the second and much bigger question to me: is Isabel a hypocrite? I’m not saying she is, but it is a question I have. For all her talk of immortal souls, eternal bonds, love…
      Is the love between soulmates based on knowledge and power? Thus far Isabel has preached about immortality, shells and eternal relationships but really done nothing to demonstrate that truth. To me, the duty and obligation she’s shown Ean thus far isn’t much different than her duty and obligation in freeing/recruiting Pelas.

      There is a particularly poignant and somewhat ironic moment in the book when Isabel talks about how difficult it must be for Ean to be constantly held up to the memory of Arion, completely ignoring that she’s the primary source of that comparison….and that she made that comparison as part of the very the last conversation she had with Ean prior to going to meet Pelas.

      It’s questions like these that make me so anxious to read Kingdom Blades. As Melissa said….it’s complicated, and I love that!

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