Sunday, October 27, 2013

Dissecting Fantasy: Mazes

In this 3-part installment of "Dissecting Fantasy," I'll look at how to represent intellectual play in speculative fiction using mazes, riddles, and games.   Just in time for Halloween, the most horror-dripped of the three forms: the dread maze.

The Role of Play in Fantasy

Do you ever feel nostalgia for the play of childhood?  I have since junior high.  While technically still a kid, the relentless creativity and all-consuming games were starting to detach from my mind.  Even as I felt it drift, I yearned for it.  I think that's why fantasy appeals to me--it's an echo of "Make-Believe" with all its boundless possibilities, adventures, and heightened emotions.

But "Make-Believe" was far from the only game I played as a child.  Every now and then, I liked to mix it up with various puzzles and strategy-based games--things that appealed to my logic and problem-solving abilities.  That's why I get excited to see mazes, riddles, and games in speculative fiction.  They promise conflict, fun, and a certain amount of cleverness that balance out the emotionalism of fantasy.


Sources: Greek Myths, James Dashner's The Maze Runner

Why We Love 'em

It's one kind of scary to get lost in the woods.  But a much more sinister kind of terror comes from being trapped in a maze.  In theory, there's a kind of logic and structure to mazes; in practice, all the logic and structure has bent to the will of the maze's creator for the sole purpose of getting you lost.  In a natural environment, you have space to run and places to hide.  Not so in a maze, where narrow corridors and dead ends force you to confront deadly peril.  And even the most benevolent of mazes have some sort of nasty surprise ready to pop out at you.

How to Build 'em

Well, first you grow a lot of hedges....

You need some kind of material to keep your protagonist trapped, something that obscures the view and keeps him from climbing over.  Hedges are find for friendly mazes, but for more evil mazes you need something that can do more bodily damage: poisoned spikes, shards of glass, chains, swinging saws, slime, laser beams... whatever floats your boat.

Now there's a trick about mazes that if you run your hand against the right wall, you can eventually find your way out.   Try to make that option as unattractive as possible.  Set up barriers.  Make the characters have to choose between a deadly route--spiderwebs or swamps or bones--and the safe route that will only get them even more lost.  Or you can break your hero's concentration.  Animals that chase him, swarms of stinging insects, darkness, smoke, alarms.  Downright cheat if you have to--make panels slide open and shut.

You might want to consider how the hero enters the maze and how to make sure they can't get out.  The simplest method is a gate that shuts behind the protagonist, sealing him in.  In The Maze Runner, an elevator brings the boys up.  Try to get down the same way and you die.

Do you want the protagonists to suffer a quick demise or would you rather they linger in torment for days?  In the case of the latter, you may want to consider safe zones and even open spaces where the hero can rest.

Last but not least, include at least one really stand-out monster.  In Greek myth, the Minotaur occupied the center of the maze.  The half-man, half-bull devoured all those who entered his maze.  But your monster can be anything.  It can pop out and surprise your hero or slowly stalk him through the maze.  Although not strictly necessary, the monster in a maze adds action to what would normally be a tense, but tiring meander.

Also Consider...

The Creator

As a general rule, mazes don't pop out of nowhere--to build one takes a focused application of brainpower and resources.  But why expend the effort?  What's the purpose in creating a maze?  A simple hedge maze may exist to delight and challenge its participants.  But a humungous death trap requires more explanation.  It's tempting to just dismiss the creator with a "He's crazy" and leave it at that.   But there must be a method to his madness.  After all, there are far easier ways to torment people.

The creator of the maze is not easily ignored.  Let's say, for example, that the maze is an archeological relic, its creator long dead, its history obscured.  The people who run the maze now use it for their own purpose.  Why the maze came into existence has no bearing on the story--or so it seems.  However, if the hero wandering the maze starts to understand the creator's mind, he gains a significant advantage in solving the puzzle.  He might even use this information to outwit the people who currently run the maze.  In this case, the long-dead creator can actually be the hero's greatest ally.

The fact of the matter is, if you do not establish who built the maze and why right from the start, the question will gnaw away at the readers.  They will demand an explanation by story's end and be supremely disappointed if they do not receive one.  This is the unspoken promise of the maze, and it is not a bad thing.  Few things keep people turning pages like a good mystery.  Establish the creator in your own mind but hide him from the audience.  This will give you power over your readers.

Finding a Way Out

Getting out of the maze should not be easy.  If your hero fumbles and stumbles his way out, the anticlimax is palpable.  Ideally escape from the maze should involve a combination of wits and confrontation.

In Greek myth, hero Theseus enters the labyrinth in order to defeat the Minotaur.  Slaying the beast is the confrontation.  But getting out of the maze requires a trick.  Ariadne, one of the guardians of the maze, gives Theseus a ball of golden thread before he steps foot inside.  He ties one end of the string to the entrance and unravels it until he gets to the center of the maze, where the Minotaur lurks.  After killing the half-man, half-bull, Theseus follows the thread back to the entrance.  That's the wits.

This example, by the way, illustrates that solving the maze need not require any stroke of genius.  A small burst of insight is greater than a complex scheme.  So don't intimidate yourself.  The creator of the maze might employ 10,000 tricks to keep his prisoners captive, but the hero only needs only to exploit one little weakness to escape.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article and great start to a series. Made me think of the maze in the Harry Potter series.