Dispatches from the desk: Dreams in Fantasy

Last night I had the strangest dream — to abuse an Ed McCurdy song — and it started me thinking about how dreams are used in writing fantasy. More so than in other genres, the presentation of dreams in fantasy is an inheritance from antecedents in myth, legend, and folk-tale, where the act of dreaming is always of significance, and where the dream warns, foreshadows, or parallels the action of the story in some metaphorical way. In modern fantasy a character may dream in a realistic, primary world way — disjointed images of the day, anxieties, nonsense, codfish lying on the feet because the blankets have fallen off — but very often, authors will use dream in a way that is consistent with the reality of the fantasy, but which would seem over-artful if presented in a ‘realistic’ novel set in the primary world. If magic — the interconnection of things through unseen forces, the sympathetic bond between ‘soul’ and matter, or however the story presents it — is allowed, then dream is allowed to become more as well, and that is — useful.

Dreams become a device for flashbacks, for rapid switches from action (recalled in dream) to contemplation on the meaning or of the aftermath of the action, for recapping or reminding of a crucial moment for those whose memory of the event in the first book needs refreshed. They function to foretell and create suspense. They warn, ominously, and provide clues the characters cannot decode but which the reader, with the benefit of hindsight several chapters later, can enjoy interpreting. They can be used as metaphor, to explore a character’s state of mind or stir up hidden depths the author doesn’t yet want to lay out in the waking world, but which need to begin stirring, to emerge in due course.

Like all literary devices, it’s possible to overuse dreams. I like dreams and do find them very useful, so I worry, of course, that sometimes I’m overdoing it. I’ve been writing a character suffering from a great burden of psychological trauma — something akin to PTSD, shellshock. There’s no equivalent term used in a pre-psychology world for that aftermath of horrors. The modern psychological understanding of PTSD needs to have a more metaphoric terminology to sit comfortably with the cosmology here. Nightmares are only one of his symptoms, and his nightmares are pretty much just that, flashbacks in the psychological rather than the narrative sense, though they can function usefully as those too. I’d written several versions of a scene where this person, in discussion with another who knows something of dreams in the context of this world, in both their realistic, ‘psychological’, and their magical aspects, did begin to find a way to grapple with some of his various problems (so as to have some energy to deal with the external side of the plot, which was not hanging about twiddling its thumbs — I wanted the two things running in parallel). The problem I kept running up against was that I could not believe in this person ever baring his soul to the extent that he would discuss — what I needed him to discuss — with this other character. Or with anyone, but she’s the one he ought to talk to.

This brings me back to my strange dream, in which (amidst some interesting but irrelevant set dressing involving a barn, a 1930’s passenger plane, and a grey rainstorm), I had a long conversation with a friend about something that has been preying on my waking mind for a while now. In my dream, I was definitely playing myself; I said all the things and made all the arguments and excuses I know I would have made had the conversation been taking place in real life. My friend pointed out things and made arguments that were deeply perceptive, pertinent, occasionally angering and upsetting, and persuasive. I woke up feeling I had gotten to the truth of the matter and that my friend was right and had shed a great deal of light on things, except of course, that I had been writing both halves of the dialogue, putting the words in their mouth.

That, I thought almost at once, is how I need to handle some aspects of this character’s problem. Not a real discussion with the character who might help him, the one it just doesn’t seem plausible he’d ever unburden himself to, but a dream, in which his dreaming subconscious can use the other character to put into words what he is coming to understand but can’t get out where he can see it. (And no, my dream wasn’t about anything half so serious, or I would not be prattling about it here!) The thing is, if I had just had the notion to do this, have my character dream his discussion, I’m pretty sure I would have then discarded the idea as unrealistic and too contrived: too artificial as primary-world dream, and too unsuited to this secondary world’s understanding of psychology. Now, having had a dream myself where I wrote, as it were, the whole thing, and yet surprised and unsettled myself by what was being dragged out into the light, I can’t deny it is realistic. Having granted that such a dream is realistic, it’s simply a matter of casting it into correct form for my character’s world, and for his understanding of that world. Which, I suppose, means he might feel he did discuss things, in his dream, with this other character or some aspect of her that had a separate existence from himself, rather than in the complexity of his own subconscious — and that he might be right. I read Don Camillo at an early age, and now I recall that all of Don Camillo’s arguments with his crucified Christ above the altar are doing the same thing, though they aren’t usually cast as dreams. Is Don Camillo’s Christ real within the story, or merely the priest’s own conscience or subconscious? One can read it both ways, and either interpretation is valid within the reality of those stories, which is why the device works so well.

So there’s another use of dreams that I’m likely going to resort to, the almost Socratic self-analysis with the dreamer’s own unconscious playing the role of the interrogator/mentor/counsellor/analyst; looked at from a certain angle, it actually seems a lot more probable in my character’s world than mine, and since I now know the mind really can work that way, I can do it with a clear conscience. Unless, of course, my friend shows up tonight to argue me out of it. #SFWApro

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About KV Johansen

The author of Blackdog, The Leopard, The Lady, and the forthcoming Gods of Nabban, epic fantasies from Pyr, I also write for teens and children, including the "Torrie", "Warlocks of Talverdin", and "Cassandra Virus" series, and the "Pippin and Mabel" picture books, as well as a couple of short story collections and two works of adult literary criticism on the history of children's fantasy literature. I have a Master's degree in Mediaeval Studies, and read a lot of fantasy, science fiction, and history. Blog at thewildforest.wordpress.com
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