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The Masking Effect in Sci-Fi/Fantasy

2nd of Jun 2012

I started re-reading Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, and in chapter two he mentions that cartoons, by virtue of their simplified forms, are easier for readers to identify with than more realistic drawings. Backgrounds, on the other hand, don't need as much reader identification, and so are often more detailed:

One set of lines to see. Another set of lines to be.

He calls it the masking effect, and the idea was floating through my head when I read The 5 Most Ingenious Worlds Ever Invented by Science Fiction:

No matter how intricate the book's plot, or how chisel-jawed that Hollywood manpile on the movie's poster might be, the universe is always going to be the real star.

Science fiction and fantasy get looked down on a lot for formulaic plots and relatively flat characters, whereas literary fiction is touted as superior because of its nuanced exploration of the human experience. It's hard to devote 50 pages to the exploration of a slowly crumbling father-son dynamic when oh my god the outcasts have developed telepathy and are burning the city to the ground! And when speculative fiction does address deep, meaningful themes of human existence, it tends to do so at a macro, structural level: How would human society change if our thoughts could be copyrighted? vs. What happens when people fail to handle significant changes in their loved ones?

But even that doesn't often apply to "traditional" save-the-world fantasy, or any of the millions of novels where their only claim to being sci-fi/fantasy is that they have elves or magic or vampires or robots or werewolves.

I believe the masking effect applies to writing as well, since writing also depends on closure. A simply drawn character has more empty spaces for the reader to fill with themselves, and let's face it. A great many people don't read books for their deep insights. They read them to be transported to another place and time where amazing happens constantly. A sufficiently bland (a.k.a. relatable) character that's unique enough to pique interest may be a strength, as long as the world is evoked so vividly that readers want to live there.

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