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Thursday, 14 August 2014

Editorial: Good and Bad Wish Fulfilment Stories.

Editorial: GOOD vs BAD Wish Fulfilment Fiction.
A Guide for Fun and Profit.

Who has two arms and got frustrated with the Sword Art Online fandom a few days ago for defending bad writing with 'well, it's wish fulfilment fiction aimed at young males?' That's right, me. Also, at least four other people. Shout out to them.

(I'm – not even sure Sword Art Online, which I enjoy, make no mistake, is even meant to be wish fulfilment, so much as it is a good concept being mangled by a writer who clearly can write good characters and yet chooses to focus on a poorly written one.)

Here's the thing, I have no issue with wish fulfilment stories – although that having been said, the Lynx-wearing teenage boy demographic has some of the worst wish fulfilment stories I've ever seen. But some of the best fiction available in the market is, I think, wish fulfilment, because those are the stories that, if done well, tend to have a sense of magic and wonderment to them.

'Wish fulfilment stories' is being defined here, incidentally, as 'a story which the viewer, reader or player might desire to be a part of, and which caters to that desire by providing the opportunity to imagine that. Nobody wants to be a part of Catch-22, and nobody wants to live in Panem, but you'll find no shortage of people who will want to stay a spell at Hogwarts before starting their Pokemon journey.

The thing – the sticking point, really – is that a story meant as wish fulfilment still has to work as a piece of fiction first. A story can't thrive on masturbatory fantasy alone, it requires conflict, struggle, stakes, interesting characters, a world you can get lost in, all that good stuff.

In that spirit, here are four comparison points for good vs bad wish fulfilment fiction.

GOOD wish fulfilment fiction builds a complex and imperfect world. BAD wish fulfilment fiction strays into bizarre personal fantasy territory.

This is probably the weirdest one, which is why it's first. Think about Pokemon or Harry Potter. Nobody's going to confuse them with real life, because in real life there are no monsters or magic, but in what some might think of as a bizarre twist, both rather take the time to establish the tangled and grimy trappings of the real world in their settings, even if it takes an idealised form.

We know, for example, about the healthcare and education systems of both the world of Pokemon and the Wizarding World. We know a lot about how the Wizarding World's government works, where it sends its criminals, how it polices its populace. I know far more about the transport infrastructure of the Johto region of Pokemon than I know about the transport infrastructure of the region I actually live in.

These systems aren't perfect or idealised, either. They're very similar to how the real world works: The train in Pokemon breaks down, and the power station goes out. The government of the Wizarding World is corrupt and its prisons are poorly maintained. These aren't perfect places.

It's one of those odd but necessary things, because even as children we're primed not to accept perfection, to see through it as being something false and deceptive. We're wired to seek out the flaws in things before we can identify with them, and being able to put yourself into the world of the story is a key part of wish fulfilment fiction. 

What a charming castle.

GOOD wish fulfilment fiction is consistent. BAD wish fulfilment fiction is not.

Pretty self-explanatory. Like any good story, consistency is key. Set up rules early and don't break them or bend them later on.



GOOD wish fulfilment fiction usually has an ensemble cast. BAD wish fulfilment fiction tends to focus on a single person to the exclusion of all others.

“Okay, well, that seems a little arbitrary.”

No, it is not arbitrary.

Here's the thing, the purpose of wish fulfilment fiction is for the reader to be able to imagine themselves in the world in question, doing things that the characters do. You can't do that if the only person getting a slice of the fantasy cake is a single author avatar character. Some stories, like the Pokemon games, get around this by having either a generic or a custom character. A lot get around this by having an ensemble cast. 

So French.

With an ensemble cast, after all, you can represent a range of different types of people, enough so that hopefully anyone will be able to identify with at least one – and if not, then you're at least showing that all of the great super-awesome stuff in this world isn't solely bequeathed to a single individual. It's a large part of why Digimon Adventure had no less than eight human characters, despite that being a pretty bloated cast size. It's a big part of why Bleach, which has a cast larger than the population of a small country, is so successful.

Your audience needs to be able to place themselves in that world, that's the entire point of a wish fulfilment story. They can't do that if you, the writer, are making it abundantly clear that only one super special person gets to have any fun.

Also, making one character super special and everyone else props to his or her greatness is incredibly dull.

See? See this? A central character, but also an ensemble
who all get character development and moments to shine!

In GOOD wish fulfilment fiction, there is still a sense of stakes, and the possibility of failure. In BAD wish fulfilment fiction, everything is a power trip.

Again, this is kind of self-explanatory, and I would have thought kind of obvious, but so many writers seem to not really grasp it. Yes, it might not be especially perky and happy and wish fulfilment-y to have your characters in danger of failing, but it is necessary, because you're writing a story first and wish fulfilment second.

If your characters are always succeeding at everything they come across, even when it kills the tension, even when it feels like they shouldn't be, and even when it's not any kind of dramatic pay-off because they haven't earned their victory, then there's a problem just with the basic bare bones of your story, and that's true no matter what kind of story you're writing.

There needs to be a sense that there is some kind of danger to your characters, that they're not invincible superbeings who will always prevail with little to no effort. This is one of the big issues with, for example, Superman, a character so overpowered and unstoppable that Kryptonite had to be introduced just to give him something that would up the stakes and tension. 

It also doesn't really count if the only situations in which they lose are ones which they can't possibly win because another party is cheating, because that simply doesn't ring true. 

Trumpeting 'it's wish fulfilment!' or 'it's fantasy!' does not excuse you from the basics of passable storytelling.

I was about to make a 'RIGHT, MR KUBO?' joke but he's
actually all right for this.

I profess, most of these rules are just good rules for storytelling in general, and ones which are often ignored - but they're points which are even more key if you want to create a world that an audience desires to be a part of and, judging by the enduring popularity of these stories, you might if you want to create a lasting impression and create a fandom that will survive long after your work has stopped being released. 

In closing, some recommendations of good wish fulfilment stories:

The Pokemon games.
Accel World.
Harry Potter.
World of Warcraft, for god's sake.
Dragon Age: Origins.
Sailor Moon.  

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