Time is something we all must submit to. There is no great ‘undo’ button that allows us to turn back time. But it is still something that fascinates and infuriates us, with many of us battling against time on a daily basis in one way or another. Time is therefore a great topic for fantasy writing as you can ponder the ‘what if?’ question quite dramatically. Manipulating time can also take you into the science fiction genre, but instead let’s look at in from a fantasy angle and in doing so explore works that have explored time in unusual ways.
Time travel as a disability – Many would think that having a natural ability to shift forward and backward in time would be an exciting thing to do. But what if you can’t control it and you are continually put in embarrassing or even deadly situations, and find it difficult to lead a normal life? Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, explores this scenario beautifully, where you can’t help but feel empathy for the involuntary time traveller himself and the people who love him.
Windows in time and space – This is a scenario that has been used quite a bit to great effect by many authors, where there are holes, windows, rifts, tears, wardrobes, mirrors, etc. leading from a familiar world to one of fantasy, such as the children’s stories Alice in Wonderland and The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. It is also a theme regularly explored in adult fantasy such as Raymond E. Feist’s work where he created numerous novels based on a magical ‘rift’ between a medieval-type European world and an oriental-type world. While the children’s stories I’ve mentioned tend to have worlds that remain separate and dream-like (i.e. you can step out of it and everything is OK again), in Feist’s work they collide, and with that collision comes war and chaos, with hordes of invaders streaming through the rifts (which can open just about anywhere). On a similar note was the film Time Bandits (created by members of Monty Python), where a group of dwarf thieves have a map showing all the time holes in the universe and use them to travel back and forth in time making daring robberies only to escape through the next available time hole before anyone catches them.
Unnatural ageing – Another fantasy scenario is one that treats the ageing process differently to the norm. John Boyne’s rather weak book The Thief of Time has a man who simply doesn’t age and his life continues on and on, his extended life mysteriously linked to the untimely death of his brother, and thereafter, a succession of nephews who also die young until finally he saves the last one. But the book which flips all of this on its head is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I find the film version of this story more endearing than the original short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, as it portrays the anguish of a man born old and his inability to have a normal life as he becomes ‘young’ instead of ‘old’, until he is a baby once more and dies in the arms of his lifelong love.
Living another life – What if you could live another life, but still retain your own? The 1998 film Sliding Doors explores two potential paths in a woman’s life when the heroine ends up living parallel lives after one version of her misses a train while the other manages to catch it, and her two opposing lives only come back together when one dies. A similar take on this is the 2000 film The Family Man, where a single, wealthy man who thinks he has everything, wakes one day to find himself in the alternative reality he would have had if he’d married a woman he’d known 14 years before. Films like Freaky Friday, Big and Peggy Sue Got Married, also explore other people’s point of view from within another person or a younger/older self – by working on the ‘be careful what you wish for’ premise. But I have to say my all time favourite for this scenario was actually in an episode of Star Trek called The Inner Light where Captain Picard’s ship is hit by a beam of light and the Captain falls unconscious. Then, while only minutes pass by for the people on the starship, the Captain spends 40 years of another man’s life and has all the things that he as a captain would never have, including a family. It was the most non-sci-fi episode of Star Trek that I have seen, but also the most endearing and heart-rending because it touched on basic human wants and needs.
Time travel as an ability – I tend to shy away from those stories where people can click their fingers and go back and forth in time without a care in the world. But I do like those stories where time travel is hard to do and has an emotional edge. Bid Time Return by Richard Matheson, which then became the film Somewhere in Time, made it very tough for the hero to travel back in time, he had to work at it through self-hypnosis and when he achieves this end he spends a wonderful time with the heroine of the story, as well as having the occasional run-in with the bad guys. Then when all appears to be well with his lover, he accidentally takes a modern coin from his pocket and is thrust back into his own time with tragic consequences.
Power to arrest time – Many stories also try to find that ‘fountain of endless youth’. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray provides a brilliant treatment of this theme, where a man’s ageing and his sins are transferred to a portrait rather than his own body after he sells his soul so that he might remain young. I’ve also read a book (can’t recall the title) where an artistic villain manages to transfer his mind, his control and abilities into a series of younger hosts as he ages, thus remaining eternally young. I’ve also explored this theme in my novel Cry of the Elemental, where the villain desperately wants to live forever and has the ability to warp and change flesh, including his own, so that it remains young by using the caged magic of beings that have very long lifespans. Another of the characters in the book also has the ability to take people into the stories she is singing, shifting them into another time and place where they feel as if they are part of that story.
These are just a few ideas on how you can use time in your fantasy writing. The books and films mentioned show how successful time can be as the central theme of a story. So… how do you think you might find a new way to bend time in your own stories?