Thursday, February 22, 2024

The Power of Whimsy

Whimsy: "Behaviour which is unusual, playful, and unpredictable,
rather than having any serious reason or purpose behind it"
(Collins English Dictionary. Copyright © HarperCollins Publishers). 

When we think of whimsical writing we often default to the same kind of ideas. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The Wind in the Willows. Mrs. Fisby and the Rats of NIMH. And typically books for children or young adults. But there's plenty of whimsy to be found in adult fiction too. Anansi Boys. The Left Hand of Darkness. Kim Harrison's The Hollows books. Something Wicked The Way Comes. (Just to name a few.) Some might even argue that pulp fiction and lots of action-adventure fantasies are nothing but whimsy stories for adults, feeding the hunger to see ourselves as the heroes unbound by the regular world. (Die Hard, anyone?)

How about you? Do you embrace the whimsy when you write? I figured that was a good question to put to the folks in the hot seat this week. 

How do you define whimsy for your writing? Do you think about it as you write?

John L. Taylor: For me, even in Horror, whimsy is a factor I incorporate into most of my work. I define it as a dreamlike quality that awakens a sense of wonder in the reader. It's one of the powerful aspects of fiction. being able to process the human condition through the lens of whimsy. Every truly successful classic of fiction has used it to some extent. Even Jane Austen and Herman Melville used small amounts of it to great effect, whether it was Austen's Regency-era visuals that seem dreamlike today, or Melville's legendary White Whale, the sense of whimsy helps the reader bond with the work. 

Susan H. Roddey: Whimsy is at the heart of my writing. It's a natural occurrence, probably because I write to escape the real world. 

Danielle Procter Piper: A bit of whimsy appears in my work when I add humor in a cheeky manner to either break up too much seriousness, to spin the storyline off in an unexpected direction, or to punch it up with a bit of humorous showmanship that is intentionally a bit unrealistic but fun. In one of my sci-fi stories, I added whimsy when my astrobiologist had to sedate a large, rampant alien, and when asked how he'd known what to do, mentioned he'd only seen it done on TV. It's unrealistic because he's serious enough about his job that he would never risk a life in such a reckless manner, but it's a pretty funny moment it exposes a bit of daring in the old boy, and it actually foreshadows an event further into the story. I might get a "joke" in my head as I'm writing and realize it will fit a section I'm working on, then include it, but I don't typically plot these moments. The muses flick them at me occasionally to see what may stick. 

Bobby Nash: Not really. I use wit and humor in my stories, usually character-based. I can't say I've ever thought about whimsy for whimsy's sake.

Jen Mulvihill: Whimsy is an important part of my writing because I write Y/A and I feel it shows how real the characters are and how they have not been fully jaded yet. My characters may have whimsical moments either in dialogue or by actions born of the spontaneity of the moment. There are a few characters who are whimsy by nature at all times. For instance, in the Steele Roots series there is a character named Raine who everyone thinks is just a bit touched. The truth is she just lives in her own little world and can’t be bothered with everyone else’s problems. She is no Lune Lovegood, but her comments and actions come off as unpredictable and out of step with the rest of the characters.

Sean Taylor: For me, whimsy is the power behind my writing before I ever start. I usually begin with "what if" questions, and that's where the whimsy sits enthroned. Only whimsy leads to questions like, "What if the mirror in Through the Looking Glass was the same mirror in "Snow White"? Or "What if a zombie writer came back from the dead and started writing her own posthumous work for her publisher husband?"

To what extent do you let a sense of whimsy guide your writing? Or are you more a meticulous follower of "the plan"?

Susan H. Roddey: I have a whole book series built on the most whimsical of premises (an Alice in Wonderland reimagining, as it were), so in the case of those books, I do let the whimsy lead. There's movement to it, sometimes hard and poetic, and sometimes goofy to the point of absurdity. The books are dark, violent, often gory, but also sensual and often funny. 

Jen Mulvihill: Other characters in my novels have whimsical moments and those are unpredictable even to me. I never plan them they just seem to happen as I write the story. It’s the characters who choose their moments and I simply journal the action or dialogue as it unfolds before me. I don’t think I could ever force or plan too much whimsy because I think it would feel forced and not flow properly or organically. But that is my style of writing and not necessarily the right way or wrong way of doing things, it is simply Jen’s way.

John L. Taylor: It's a cyclical process for me. Often a surreal or dreamlike visual theme or really moving line of dialogue occurs to me. I then go "so, how did this happen?" and create a plan on how to connect several of these through a linear plot. Sometimes that throughline will suggest new possibilities for the characters, adding further new scenes. Repeat until a finished first draft is ready.

Sean Taylor: I don't consciously think about whimsy as I write, but it does, as I said above in question one, drive the questions that create my stories. 

Danielle Procter Piper: I have seen that minimal use of whimsy in a story tends to be of greater benefit. Too much can destroy a story. Case in point; there's just enough magical whimsy in Raiders of the Lost Ark to open your eyes and make you question your beliefs briefly, which quickly turns humorous as we get to gleefully watch Nazis melt. There's too much in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which helped tank that film. If, for the most part, your stories are realistic...then, for the most part, keep them that way. If you've ever seen the original script for The Blues Brothers, you'll be glad Dan Aykroyd's whimsy was held in check. It's already a silly movie that gets sillier as it goes, but if you don't know, the Blues Mobile was nearly sentient and could perform on its own in a magical manner...which would have pushed things too far. 

Bobby Nash: No idea. When it happens, it just sort of happens. Usually, any sense of whimsy in my stories comes from my characters. You'd have to ask them. 🙂

Have you found that by embracing the "playful" and "unpredictable" as you write, you actually end up accomplishing the purpose after all? Why or why not?

Danielle Procter Piper: Playful moments in a story are certainly valuable, depending on what you're writing. I have found that my sense of humor seeps into everything I write even when I don't wish it to. Because I write's sometimes expressed in an incredulously dark manner, often extraordinarily disturbing if you're unable to recognize the humor in it. Again, to me, "showmanship"— that is, going over the top to grab the attention of the reader and drop a big hint on them they may not recognize until later, is often accomplished in a moment of whimsy. An example of too much whimsy would be Harvard Lampoon's Bored of the Rings, or Harry Harrison's Bill, The Galactic Hero series. They're both actually very funny and enjoyable, but most people don't like them because they're too "far-fetched" and silly. Chevy Chase's Modern Problems is another example of too much whimsy killing a project, while Three Amigos works despite a heaping helping of it because it's a screwball comedy.

Sean Taylor: I try to keep myself open to the playful as I work, but I don't automatically default to the most "out there" ideas. For me, a lot of it depends on the story I'm writing. Sometimes a story gets so serious or dark that something odd or flippant really needs to happen. For example, I'm working on a story for my next horror collection about a house for sale at a basement-level bargain -- with the following caveat: the dead squirrel in the jar must remain in the cellar, or you can't buy the house. Because of the way I plot by questions, my plots are pretty much set by the time I actually start writing, but I try to remain open to where whims can take me.

Jen Mulvihill: I think by embracing the whimsical you embrace being human. Those little whimsical moments in life when you trip over your own feet, or do something laughably stupid and then turn around and own it, this makes life real; this makes characters real.

I also feel the need for whimsy in writing given sometimes the seriousness of the subject or event taking place, a little whimsy breaks up a serious moment without damaging the message if done correctly and organically.

Bobby Nash: Unpredictability is my method. Trust the characters and see where they take you. It's not the most elegant method, but it works for me.

Susan H. Roddey: It's fun to play with every aspect of human nature, twisting them up into magic and exploring the blurred boundaries between reality and fantasy. [Just for reference, writing narrative poetry and iambic tetrameter is not easy.]

John L. Taylor: Playful more than unpredictable. I'm not afraid to blend elements that don't seem to go together. An example of this was my novella The Rocket Molly Syndicate. Despite being an alt-history pulp action story, we meet our protagonist in a scene with biplanes chasing pterodactyls. At first, the editors and proofreaders were like "What the hell is this?" but reviews by readers often praised that scene for its whimsy as a great metaphor for the chaos in the protagonist's life and making it read more like a 30's era serial/pulp tale than some modern pulps had. By going for the dreamlike aspects, much of the other out there visual cues like scenes on rocket packs or fights on airplanes seemed more grounded by contrast. Fear of whimsy is the death of imagination itself, the real mind-killer.

I used the above line to illustrate my point. In Dune, the Gom Jabbar makes no sense in the universe. Even with the Bene Gesseret having psychic powers, the Gom Jabbar is a magic box in a universe with no magic. But the scene is so powerful and establishes characters so well, and foreshadows later events that it becomes indispensable. That is the power of whimsy.

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