Scott Fitzgerald Gray on Writing and Worldview

There’s a great deal of precedent in the world of literature for the name Fitzgerald. The most famous, of course, is F. Scott Fitzgerald, the author of The Great Gatsby. My personal favorite Fitzgerald is John D. Fitzgerald, the creator of the wonderful Great Brain series (if you haven’t read those, then you haven’t truly lived yet).

Another Fitzgerald is Scott Fitzgerald Gray. Scott recently approached me about guesting on this blog, as he is promoting the release of a new book (a high-school coming-of-age SF techno thriller called We Can Be Heroes). He has a rather eclectic background in creativity and is a writer, story editor, RPG editor and designer, and member of the fantasy/SF collective Monumental Works Group. He maintains a blog called Insane Angel Studios where you can find out more about him and his writing. I haven’t read any of his books before, but he’s written a great many (highly inspiring to run across authors like this–I must write more!).

Scott agreed to write for us on the thorny topic of Writing and Worldview. I’ve always believed that writers should actively, consciously, deliberately understand their own worldview and how it instructs their stories. It’s all part of that old idea that an unexamined life is not worth living. Anyway, Scott’s a brave man. I don’t know about you, but if you ever find yourself in the middle of a pack of authors, try tossing out the issue of worldview. Typically, authors will recoil from it like it’s kryptonite or a Barry Manilow record or a plate of liver and onions. I have my theories on this, but let’s see what Scott makes of it.

—Scott Fitzgerald Gray on Writing and Worldview

As a reader and a fan of a lot of speculative fiction and fantasy, I’ve always been of the opinion that each writer’s worldview is like a fingerprint — a unique identifier that tags every page of a story. Different characters, different worlds, utopia, dystopia — it doesn’t matter. Whatever particular story is being told and whatever angle an author chooses to take to explore that story, there’s always an innate sense at the heart of the story of how the author sees the world — and of how the author, the characters, and the reader all stand in relation to the world as a result.

I’m not a person who puts more credence in my own beliefs than anyone else’s. However, if I’m asked, I’ll admit to following a kind of personal faith of the Richard Dawkins/Mark Twain variety. I’m an agnostic in the sense that I’m not possessed of enough conviction or arrogance to claim that I can prove the nonexistence of any of the supreme beings currently vying for top spot in earthly cultural mythology. I just don’t see a lot of evidence in favor of the matter of god’s existence, and think that if such a being does exist, he or she needs a much better PR department and a really good complaints desk.

But that’s not the point of this little bit of rambling, which is instead the idea that no matter what our moral beliefs, I think those beliefs are always the inevitable foundation of our best creative works. I write in the areas of fantasy and speculative fiction. My most recent novel is a contemporary high-school coming-of-age techno-thriller (We Can Be Heroes) that doesn’t spend a lot of time on theology. However, the story at the heart of the novel is entirely consistent with every story I’ve ever told and am ever likely to tell — that of characters alone, cut off from all the touchstones they once used to define their place in the world, and driven to the point where they question the meaning of their lives and are forced to discover a truer meaning for themselves.

To my mind, the fantasy genre is an interesting one to analyze when talking about these questions of the meaning of life — morality and ethics, mythology and culture, and so on. Epic- and high-fantasy is an allegorical and symbolic tapestry on which literally any story can be written. Good versus evil, corruption and innocence, the clash of civilization and barbarism, and all the other classic touchstones of the genre ring out at the heart of story after story, tale after tale back to Lord Dunsany and beyond. But what makes those stories unique — what allows the genre to continue to thrive rather than simply folding in on itself — is the worldview that each individual writer brings to bear on the archetypal foundations of the stories we tell.

My own fantasy writing is focused on a milieu known as the Endlands. The Endlands is a broad fantasy world that on its surface bears the obvious similarities to many other fantasy worlds (magic, heroes, good, evil, monsters, kings, yada, yada). However, as with any writer’s world, the dramatic and creative foundations of the Endlands feature some unique qualities as a byproduct of it being shaped by my worldview. One of those qualities is that the Endlands is a shared world, which means that a number of writers will eventually be playing around in the milieu and helping to shape and define it, because part of my worldview is built around the idea that collaboration gives rise to the best creativity.

Another of those qualities is that the Endlands has no gods — and that aspect of my worldview usually needs a somewhat lengthier explanation.

One of the oddest aspects of fantasy literature for me is the manner in which so much fantasy embraces a living theology — the idea that the gods are not only understood to be extant and corporeal beings, but that they often take a central role in the narrative as they control the flow of events, bestow favors on the mortal heroes they select for greatness, and just generally muck about with the world.

Now, the model for these kinds of narratives is no huge stretch to identify — it’s the myth-history at the heart of almost all human narrative. Our tales of the Olympians and the heroes of classical Greece. The emperors of Assyria ruling as god-kings. First Nations and aboriginal legends detailing the relationships between divine forces and the first humans. The great wars of the Hindu gods and the struggle for control of the world. On a less scholarly note, the milieu of mainstream superhero comics is built on a complex cosmology of alternate worlds, godlike races, and the struggle between good and evil. Even for atheists and agnostics, our lives are filled with myth-history from the word go, and myth-history thus rightfully helps to define our innate cultural sense of story.

As a result of that sense of our own shared culture, worlds in which mighty deities stride amongst worthless mortals and use their formidable powers to subtly shape the affairs of humanity blah blah freaking blah are the norm in so much fantasy fiction. And as a result, some of the most spirited discussions I’ve ever had with people regarding the Endlands start off with some variation of the question, “What do you mean, you’ve got no gods?!?” Though the Endlands isn’t that old as a creative milieu, I’ve taken a fair bit of flack and engaged in a healthy amount of debate on this topic, much of which consists of people saying that it’s flatly impossible to even address the concept of fantasy’s inherent alt-history without a living mythology.

I often find myself explaining that saying “There are no gods in the Endlands” isn’t the same as saying, “No one in the Endlands believes in the gods”, or “There’s no religion, faith, or mythology in the Endlands.” It’s simply a statement of behind-the-curtain intent and understanding at the heart of my own desire to shape the stories of the milieu. Characters in an Endlands tale can believe in the gods, can invoke the gods, can pray to the gods, and can carry out their lives in dedication to the gods. It’s just that you and I as co-conspirators in the people-behind-the-curtain author-and-reader relationship know that the gods aren’t real entities who have a discrete existence and possess potent magical power and muck around with humanoid affairs in the traditional fantasy fiction sense.

Because here’s the thing. For me, the most important stories — the best stories — are about the struggles of real people to define their place in the world. Characters alone, cut off. Driven to question and forced to discover the meaning in their lives. And my problem with fantasy built on a rich cosmology of living gods is simply that it undercuts those questions and that process of discovery where so much of the best fiction is made.

I’m a big fan of reasoned debate, and I love to talk to people who disagree with me. But when I’m arguing or debating the idea of gods in a fantasy milieu with people who don’t quite get where I’m coming from, I inevitably pull out the nuclear card, which is the following:

There are no gods in Lord of the Rings.

And then all at once, of course, the hue and cry arises from the Tolkien literati, who speak with a single voice and say, “Hey, moron! You remember The Silmarillion? Blue cover, came bundled with the Hobbit/Lord of the Rings paperback set you bought in high school? Spends several hundred pages talking about the gods, angels, devils, myths, creation, and cosmology of Middle-Earth?”

To which I typically respond “Nyahh!”, because I didn’t say there are no gods in Middle-Earth. I said there are no gods in Lord of the Rings. And therein lies the heart of what appeals to me about the Endlands and its objectively atheist cosmology.

Tolkien did, of course, create a complex and rich cosmology underlying his fictional works and the world they brought to life. Anyone who’s read The Silmarillion knows that Tolkien created an amazing hierarchy of gods and demigods, archangels and angels, and the ever-popular fallen angel/dark lord (because let’s face it, that never gets old). But the thing is, if all you’ve ever read of Tolkien is The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, it’s extremely easy to be completely unaware of that cosmology. Because even though the elves in Lord of the Rings occasionally invoke the names of the great figures of their mythology, those divine forces never take an active part in the story. Gandalf is the exception, him being not a wizard per se but an angel. However, if you haven’t read The Silmarillion, you’ll probably have a hard time extracting that fact from a reading of The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings.

Whether you like his works or not, Tolkien remains the father of contemporary fantasy. Tolkien created a cosmology and a myth-history as rich as anything that’s been written in fantasy in all the years since. His myth-history is as rich as any mythology of the real world — because remember that was actually his original point. But it’s worth thinking about the fact that even though he crafted this amazing living mythology, when it came time to tell his heroic tales, Tolkien left the gods strictly on the sidelines. Tolkien’s characters were drawn from a range of archetypes, from the hero born to save his people, to the innocent on whose shoulders the fate of the world hangs, and every other Joseph Campbell touchstone in between. But the one thing that all those characters have in common is the fear and the uncertainty that comes of knowing that no deity, no hand of fate, no arbitrary force of power or morality is guiding their actions or will step in to save them when the chips are down. Characters alone. Cut off. Questioning. Searching.

Those core concepts kind of sum up my take on life in general, because I think that as human beings, alone and cut off is largely what we are. Questioning and searching is what we do. And I get and understand the need for ritual and myth and faith, and I’ve enjoyed a ton of great fantasy fiction built on cosmologies of living gods. I’m not saying that my approach is superior to any other. But when characters have no external faith to fall back on, the only place they can seek faith is in themselves and each other — and for me, this is where the best stories are told.

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