On Thinking Small

I admit it – I’m tired of saving the world. Honestly, can’t the place just stay saved already?

Sure, I like the occasional epic fantasy; Independence Day was great, and the Lord of the Rings will always be a classic. But the casts of thousands, the endless nightmare landscapes, the ever-exploding firestorms/alien rays/arcane disintegration spells – a steady diet of Save the World is like a steady diet of Death By Chocolate dessert. Sooner or later you run screaming for something else. Anything else.

I want more small stories. A tiny cast of characters. One special unit and the people they know, one magical circle, one lab, one small town. I want books I don’t have to flip through twenty pages of characters in the back to figure out who we’re dealing with in the latest chapter.

I want longer-lasting story lines, where you can read more books in the setting, lots more… and if it’s a world-ending crisis in every book, sooner or later you just can’t suspend disbelief anymore.

I want stories that have problems more of a scale I could imagine dealing with myself. Because I want stories that let me get out of the world as it is, and for that I want to be able to put myself in the hero’s shoes. “If it were me in this mess, what would I do?”

And if, despite everything, a world-threatening Evil Overlord should pop up – I want more of that classic line from the Mighty Ducks: “Nobody takes over the world from my precinct!

28 thoughts on “On Thinking Small

  1. Yeah, it’s one reason I’ve stopped reading comics, and am not a fan of the later Marvel movies(not dislike, just they don’t keep my interest), is because when you raise the stakes too high, then they usually make the characters seem much smaller or completely unrelateable. Heck, the only reason Ego worked for me in the Guardians movie was because even though technically the threat was galaxy spanning, all of the character beats were intensely personal.

    That and publishing has pretty much made it that unless you’re doing romance, books tend to have to go up and up in threat level to keep the series going. And I’ve seen some pretty good sci-fi/fantasy/urban fantasy romance, but it’s not really my favorite reading material.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Spiderman and Ant Man do a good job of keeping things small. I can’t think of a single Spiderman villain that wants to do more than kill a guy or rob a bank or just beat Spidey one time Jesus Christ.

      And Ant Man was basically a heist movie.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. This isn’t a genre that I’ve seen you in before, but what you’re talking about sounds like Cozy Mysteries. Stories often dealing with a small recurring cast. They have a couple of personal subplots and one major crime and often one minor crime. Like classic Halmark Mystery Movies. They are often written parallel to a romance plot though. I can usually do without that.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh, I adore cozy mysteries – the older ones at least. Mrs. Pollifax, Brother Cadfael, Peter Shandy – I can and have spent whole weekends with them.

      But as you mentioned, the more recent ones tend to have too much romance for my taste. Also, I’m not sure I know enough about how a stable community works to accurately portray one.

      That said – “Tell No Tales” is the closest thing I’ve written to the category of Cozy Mystery yet. In an urban fantasy vein, though. Hoping to have that done editing and out in a few months, and maybe then readers can tell me if I should try more like that! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Hm….”Have wand, will travel”? A magical hot-shot team, that goes around putting out the campfires before they have a chance to become wildfires…..

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Me, too.

    Sure, Suzy down the road being saved from being munched on by Monster of the Week can be a running gag….but so is “gosh, what are we going to save the world from THIS week?” and it avoids the whole dehumanizing aspect of “kill someone to show we’re Really Serious righ toff the bat.”

    Now I wanna read “hometown mythology cops.”

    Liked by 4 people

      1. They did sort have one person, though, iirc? Or at least in the later Seasons, it was usually focused on preventing the Hellmouth from opening by one antagonist or another, afaik.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Assuming you haven’t already, you might like “The Circle of Magic” by Tamora Pierce. It’s two sets of four books and a further two and while the problems the heroes face are serious, they aren’t world ending.

    I’m also a huge fan of The Heralds of Valdemar. There’s maybe two world enders in the series, but most of it is just about the nation of Valdemar. That one is by Mercedes Lackey and is over a dozen books.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I’ve read most of those. You might also check out the fanfic “Friends Across Borders” on AO3, it’s a great take on “how did people in Valdemar and Karse really get started overcoming centuries of hating each other’s guts?”

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I have much the same opinion. One of the narrative devices that gets tiresome for me is when in battle scenes one faction is set in scene, driving all before it. Resistance Is Useless, Die Pathetically, Mook Units! Then, suddenly,
    (Anti)Hero Unit! The attackers now Die Futilely! In return. Unless… oh, a wild Countering (anti)Hero Unit Appears! All mooks leave the field post haste, there’s no surviving that!

    Or various variations of that theme, happens a lot in the Gundam franchise. Along with All Factions Are Assholes, protags Flail Around, Accomplish not Much.

    Or when the Antagonistic faction seems too March Unstoppably to Victory! Until the plucky heroes finally find The Fatal Flaw in the Enemy Plan!

    Things usually are more nuanced than that, but in video and pictorial media, there’s usually constraints on how much of “the see-saw battle” can be portrayed in regards to publication deadlines, budget…

    The 1632-verse, while also have a big cast of characters in the main novels, does have the Grantville Gazette anthologies (along with worldbuilding-reasearch segments, so authors and prospective authors have some factual/historical foundations) GG is pretty much “official” fanfiction, but a number of those authors have written official sidestory novels in the setting, or have had their GG series contributions collected into a published book. And those almost always focus on ‘slice-of-life’, how X,H,J, and P find their feet in the new paradigm. Often involving some effort to make use of “UptimeKnowledge”, artifacts, or the social upheavals. Or all of those.

    Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash, springs to mind, where the characters are faced with their own efforts of survival and adaptation, and not any grand world-shaking events…

    Saving Private Ryan had a great glimpse I thought, of being a small part of that great conflict, and trying to carry out one low key mission in all that maelstrom of conflict.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Oh, Vathara, have you seen Durarara! (Or to that effect). Some parts Modern fantasy, Urban Legend, crazy Gang conflicts, since of life… sounds like it would appeal to you?

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I’m finding some of this in my plotting of my Fairy Dance replacement.

    Lots of people are stressed about some fairly big things, but Kirito doesn’t have the information they have. If he sees any of it during the story, he won’t have time to process it, and internalize it to the point that the stress changes him in the same way.

    The thing the bunnies are poking at for Swain’s “black moment of despair” (when the focal character has made the hard choice at the climax, and thinks that they have lost everything, /before/ they discover that doing the right thing had a rewarding outcome) is Kirito’s “treat NPCs as people, in order to avoid becoming insane”. Kirito works very well in this if he is chasing smaller scale things. Like Asuna’s safety, or family relationships.

    The stuff like a possible PLA version of Operation Downfall, or the many possible, potentially more serious magical disasters are best if I know, and Kirito mostly doesn’t, and I’ve not worked out the details on who knows what. (The PLA invasion? Adults outside of the game heard a prediction, dismissed it as coming from a maniac, and many of them are now having a creeping dread that they were wrong to dismiss it. (Kikuouka is wrong for a different reason.))

    Of course, in real life, the ideology I struggle to live is that small scale we can hope to see predictable results at, and large scale is so unpredictable that it becomes an attractive trap.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. I’ve just thought up a delightfully insane reason for Minetaka to have gone so far obtaining the career he is in. Gonna have to test it, and also see if it fits best with current project.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I wonder…

    Part of the attraction of grand world-saving epics is that they are so different from the workaday life that one normally experiences.

    But if everything one reads for entertainment or hears on the news is always only about grand world-saving heroism or (more commonly) grand world-destroying disasters, perhaps one might get the idea that that there’s something wrong with not having a life wherein one is part of one or the other.

    And maybe, due to that, one seeks out a life wherein one is part of a band of world-saving heroes (under the assumption that no one wants to be a villain, of course).

    Trying to be a world-saving hero is always a believable excuse for neglecting the small things in life – the things that make the small portion of the world that one actually controls clean or pleasant or beautiful or restful or orderly or sound or sustainable.

    And if one neglects the small things long enough, one might wake up to find that one’s small portion of the world is falling down around one’s ears, because one was trying to save the rest.

    How many people, at that point, blame the world they were trying to save for the collapse of their own tiny world?

    And how many tiny-world-collapses do you need to have before they themselves constitute a world-ending disaster?

    Do small disasters invite larger disasters? Or do small disasters just make large disasters less survivable?


    Maybe Saving the World is simply like…. doing the dishes. No matter how many you wash, there’s always more to do. ^_^

    Liked by 4 people

  10. One of the things I do like about video games is how “side quests” are a thing. If they’re done correctly, they can be a bit of a break from the “saving the world” plot and focus more on world-building and helping out normal people with their problems. They serve to expand the world a bit more and give more personalized reasons for wanting to save the world.

    It is interesting to see how different mediums can play around with scale easier then other mediums can.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I feel like side quests actually take away from the story, not add to it. If you have a save the world quest, FOCUS on saving the world, at least.

      Saving a cat up a tree when a meteor is about to hit just hurts the urgency of that thing you’re ignoring in favor of side quest material.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That depends on how it’s handled and what type of sidequest it is. Sometimes it’s like you described “the sidequest is totally unimportant, it can fix itself, but the end of the world is on a time limit and you can’t afford detours”. Sometimes, it’s a case of “oh, woe, the author wants drama and angst, so the sidequest can only be solved by the main characters and they must choose to sacrifice either the sidequest or the main quest, and obviously they’re going to eventually sacrifice the sidequest but only after wasting lots of time and angst on it (that would have been sufficient time to actually solve it, so them still being able to solve the main quest proves the angst was pointless)”. And yet there’s also ones with a similar sacrifice plot not intended for false angst and drama, but instead for characterization (often in those, the character ends up deciding that he can’t sacrifice the sidequest and still stay true to his ideals/friendships/etc, despite the cost to the main quest, tho they’re admittedly not normally in end of the world scenarios).

        And sometimes, the sidequests are actually interesting parts of the plot, and deciding the cost/benefit of them is useful. The enemy army outnumbers us, so are we going to just prepare with what we’ve got and head out to meet them? Are we going to take a detour on the hope of a longshot to get allies, tho it might not work and thus might have just wasted time, effort, and danger? Etc. Look at LotR, and see how many sidequests there are, and how many of them are actually important and serve to make the urgency more visible.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. So here’s a weird trick you can do.
    Take a story in digital format and do a find/replace.

    Figure out a good name for whatever mcguffin the plot is centered around and replace it with something innocuous.
    So in LoTR, replace “The Ring” with “the recycling.”

    “We need to take the recycling and throw it into Mount Doom!”

    Oddly enough, Gollum actually makes more sense that way.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. If a Small Story is what you’re looking for then might I suggest the Goblin Slayer series? It’s a light novel/manga/anime series set in an RPG fantasy world complete with ogres and dragons and Demon Lords that try and take over the world every decade on the decade. Only you’re not following the heroic adventures of those fighting to destroy the demonic hordes. No, you instead follow the story of a man who hunts, you guessed it, goblins – the smallest, weakest, and most abundant monster out there.

    The World Building in particular is beautiful with some rather refreshing twists. Such as the various deities people pray to being tabletop RPGrs who, while they can set a potential story and design their ‘characters’, are ultimately powerless as everything is decided by a roll of the dice. Everyone is at the mercy of the dice…except Goblin Slayer. One of the book taglines is “He does not let anyone roll the dice”, meaning if he, or someone near him, gets a ‘bad roll’ then he’ll basically deny it and find a way to make things work anyway. And he has no idea he’s doing this.

    The clearest example is with how he meets the first of his eventual party, a Porcelain-rank Adventurer known as Priestess. She and her party were being directed by the goddess Illusion and set to go on their first adventure in a Goblin Den, only Illusion rolled multiple Critical Fails which resulted in the entire party being wiped out in brutal ways and Priestess next on the list, until Goblin Slayer showed up. Illusion didn’t realize Priestess had survived until later, but by then had already set up another Adventurer(s) to guide.

    This trait means that, while Goblin Slayer is a minor character in the world at large, his actions do influence the world at large in relatively small but meaningful ways. Mainly when he messes up the gods’ rolls for other characters just by hunting goblins. While this isn’t really mentioned the author does occasionally include snippets hinting at the overarching World Plot.
    (Fun fact: The pantheon all adore Goblin Slayer because he’s such a random factor and no one ever knows what will happen next when he’s in the area)

    The series makes use of a number of Tropes I think you’d enjoy, ranging from but not limited to:
    Reality Ensues – as the TV Tropes page puts it: “The series starts as a Deconstruction of the Heroic Fantasy Role-Playing Game Verse as a Crapsaccharine World where clueless, headstrong glory-seeking young adventurers come to die.”
    The driving force behind the story plot are the goblins, the weakest and most common monster to exist. They multiply rapidly (as in gestation alone being implied at ranging somewhere between from several weeks to several days) and “have the size, strength, and intelligence of a human child”.
    Take a moment to think about that.

    Boring but Practical: Goblin Slayer walks around wearing cheap and filthy gear because A) if he dies he doesn’t give the goblins anything they didn’t already have access to, and B) goblins can smell clean metal at a distance and realize there’s a problem, but if they smell blood and guts then it’s just business as usual

    Combat Pragmatist: Goblin Slayer is not the strongest Adventurer, or the best fighter, however he has a consistent habit of coming at problems sideways and is always picking up random bits of trivia that might be useful and is not shy about experimenting. Some of his methods are downright inspirational. Such as his creative application of a Gate Scroll, heh. You’d love that one.

    Then, of course, there’s the characters themselves. An ongoing theme is Priestess, along with various others, working to humanize Goblin Slayer which results in numerous awkward and adorable moments in turn when their attempts run headlong into Goblin Slayer’s one-track-mind and general obliviousness to anything not goblin-related. Then there’s Goblin Slayer himself who is a genuinely good person but is so very much Asperger that his people skills are nonexistent (though he is aware of this and does try to compensate accordingly when needed).

    It’s adorable.

    …Was this too much? I think I may have over done it but I’m not sure how to abbreviate things further.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. My favorite part of Goblin Slayer is probably the very occasional short smash cut to The Hero (a teenage girl) fighting a dragon, or a lich, or something with over-the-top bombasticness and melodrama and action movie heroics, and then it gets back to the mundane daily grind of Goblin Slayer again.

      And the anime gave her a character design that’s a clear nod to Suzumiya Haruhi, clearly living her best life, the cheeky buggers.

      It starts off pretty goddamn grim, though. The little brother of Miura’s Berserk, like.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Dresden Files is pretty close to what you’re looking for I think. The books and stuff. They do dip into the world saving and we have it by word of author that the series will wrap up with a cosmic level save the world event, but the book series starts out street level and pretty much stays that way until a last minute “Oh shit!” moment in most of the books that do have world-ending stakes.

    And then the next book will usually go back to either the street level stuff or something very personal to the MC and focus on that so that if there are potentially world ending shenanigans going on they’re an afterthought to the MC in favor of what he’s actually doing.

    Liked by 1 person

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