This is a phrase I used in critique during the Blue Heaven Writers Workshop; I want to pass the savings on to you, so to speak.
I first heard it while indulging in my favorite activity: writing while listening to director's commentary. Oh, it is wonderful! I almost won't buy a DVD without commentary. Due to years alone in Japan, I am somewhat phobic about silence and empty houses, and a commentary makes me feel like someone is there, talking about really smart things, and yet, it doesn't distract me from work. Occasionally, when, say, Guillermo del Toro or Baz Luhrmann is talking, I get great ideas about use of color and theme, about combining the surreal with the real. It's really the best of all worlds as far as whilst-working entertainment.
So, awhile back, possibly even in Japan, I was listening to an episode of Farscape, and the actors' commentary. Ben Browder was laughing about the Rygel puppet and exclaiming: "Oh man, they were always nagging at us to touch the puppets. It made the puppets seem real, and us seem more sympathetic." And at the time, I thought--heh. Neat. It IS totally awesome how real all the puppets seem in the Farscape world.
And during one of the Blue Heaven critiques, it popped right back into my head, in a somewhat oblique, metaphorical way, and it's now one of those phrases that I think about when shaping a story or a novel.
See, I'm a fantasist. Which means there are strange things afoot at the Circle K in my books pretty much all the time. My work is full of things that would take some pretty sweet puppetry to realize in any kind of corporeal way. So is yours, if you write SFF or horror. And no matter what else you're doing in a novel, no matter how many plates are spinning and motifs are on fire on your little pulpy stage, you gotta touch the puppets.
It makes me grind my teeth when the fantastic element just sits around wheezing its animatronic pistons and looking weird and little more. It's so easy to let it happen--to let folkloric beasties be mere walk-ons, running by the camera at top speed as if to say: "Hi! I'm a dream-eating tapir, colloquially known as a Baku! Aren't I cool and weird?! Those wacky Japanese! Bye!"
Sometimes it takes me awhile to realize what's bothering me: that nothing fantastic matters, just by dint of being fantastic. It's not real, not subject to the same examination as the human/mundane/reader insertion character.
If you're going to bother to write non-realist work at all, you have to sit down and figure out why you're doing it. It sure ain't for the money, so there must be a reason you need to have tapirs. If the only answer is: because it's cool? You're in trouble, and you had better find a way to make readers think it matters, or we're likely to wander off. The best SFF connects because it combines crazy stuff with genuine emotional content--and the very best wrangles the whole thing so that you couldn't have gotten tot he emotional climax without the erstwhile help of a Baku.
How do you do that? You touch the puppets.
The beasties, fairies, ghosts, aliens, AI, whatever--the protagonist must interact with them. She must be moved by them, to disgust or revelation. She must talk to them, touch them, eat with them, be threatened by them. They must become her friends, her enemies, her lovers. It must matter that they are there. They specifically, not interchangeable pointy-ears. This might seem like a basic rule, but often, as I have read a great number of books for review over the last half-year, I've gotten the feeling that the author is really turned on by something in the book--but it sure isn't the fantastic element. It's the high concept or the literary allusions or the very human desire to blow shit up. The rest of all that fantasy crap is just set dressing. Paper dragons, cardboard gods, tissue-paper ghosts. Matte paintings for the characters to walk off into. Non-Playable-Characters mechanically pointing the way to the end of the chapter.
When confronted with the tapir walking around in circles announcing "Our village is in peril! Our village is in peril!" the hero can walk right by on his way to the battle and the author can write off "awesome tapirs" on his or her book checklist. Or the knight can stop and grip the thing by the shoulders. Why are you like that? What happened to you? Why do you eat dreams? Do they taste good? Do they give you indigestion? Did you ever want to be a mechanic instead?
To me, one of these options is compelling, and one is boring.
Of course, the key to that is a really good answer from the tapir. It's hard to substitute any phrase or advice for "make it good." But touching the puppets can be surprisingly simple--a line or a paragraph, simple brush-strokes that imply the world. It's not just the hero that has to touch them, it's the author. Take a breath and look around, ask questions, let those creatures/magics/world/ships be fully in the story, rather than marginalia.
Or start writing realism.
Puppets are particularly a problem in the "Josephine Normal stumbles upon Magical Kingdom Type #441 (tm) and stares goggle-eyed at the array of suitably wondrous creatures around her" sub-genre. Which is a totally legitimate and time-tested plot frame. We all love our Alices. But it often feels like the hero is standing still while a filmstrip of MYSTERIES FROM AFAR flicker by. But all it takes is reaching out a human hand to touch the inhuman skin, and, as if by magic, the mysteries grow eyestalks and a sad, down-turned mouth, possess private tragedies and public humiliations, long histories and phobias and desires of their own. And the hero seems invested in the world, in discovering it, in fighting it, rather than simply paying the minimum of attention in history class. WALL*E worked because we believed in the private life of a robot, and believed, not coincidentally, in his overwhelming desire for touch. The Sixth Sense worked because we were so deep in the psyche of the fantastical element that we literally forgot how to see with normal eyes.
Advocate for puppet rights. NPCs need love, too. They are ends in themselves, not means to an end. Or at least you have to pretend they are to lift a book beyond the tired and mundane.
Touch the puppets. Make them real. Otherwise you're just playing with dolls.