writing fantasy: the dilemma of familiarity

Recently, my mother found a book at a library sale with very rich writing. It was an older book, hardback, the red of the cloth cover faded and an unexciting title, the spine gently folded and indented with use. Contemporary marketing would sniff. And then my mother pointed out the first page. The prose felt rich and alive, taking a broad image of Italy and expounding on it with beautiful, subtle analogies to paint a vivid picture. I read enough to know that it was a particular strength of the writer in question.

I thought about the style and technique the author used, and after a time it pained me to realize that I can’t do the same, not easily, in fantasy. Robert Jordan might have, but then, Robert Jordan’s work could be used as bludgeoning weapons in the military if they ever ran short. Non-series fantasy writers have to contend with the fact that if they want to draw in a sense of such familiarity with their world, they’re going to have to sweat blood to weave it. One doesn’t write that the spell growled like a Harley motorcycle when using a historical setting.

I once heard it mentioned that fantasy was the easiest genre to write, because there were no rules, but that fantasy is also the hardest genre to write well. To take full advantage of the blank canvas, the author is stripped of many of their literary tools. The more original the setting and story, the less you have to work with.

I’ve found people who can do this well; Patrick Rothfuss (who is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors the more I go into his debut novel) has such an intricately built world that his novel feels like a bath, completely submerged. Rich prose, mature characters make up for the unfamiliarity. A gripping plot won’t let someone put the book down. Yet, it seems that worldbuilding aside, the process of creating familiarity from scratch is not a well covered topic.

A few things I’ve noticed about fantasy books that are exceptional (and I consider most of these inseparably linked to each other):

Maturity. People are people. As readers, we can accept mostly fleshed characters and improbable reactions to situations. But I think at some level, we know that it wouldn’t happen like that. The behavior of people around, the background and the appropriateness of their reaction to what happens around them are vital. We know if someone is pulling something contrived– it’s what bothered me in the otherwise enjoyable ‘Lies of Locke Lamora’. Convince me that your people are people, even if they’re bugs, aliens, or elves. I know all about people.

Repetition. Repeating themes, or elements in the story, bringing old settings back later in the story settles the reader down. It’s a familiar place, or a familiar situation, and since they’ve seen it before, they know what to expect. One bad fight in the dark, written well, with consequences, will set expectations up for another. Realize the effect repeating elements, themes, settings, and characters have, and use them.

Depth. Also known as world-building, character building, and just about every other sort of building that you can do for a story. Know everything– be able to write hundreds of pages on the culture, history, art, economy, geography, mythology, and religions you’ve invented. Show very little of that, and only when required by the story. This is about as easy as swallowing a ring of car keys, reaching down your own throat, and plucking them out again.

(See? Another analogy that wouldn’t work in a fantasy novel quite as well). And last…

Consistency. High king of fantasy, duke of literature, lord of all he beholds. Cross him, and your literary efforts will crumble to ash and salt in your hands. Do not break the rules that you lay down.

villain: sorche du remerdii: introduction

Sorche du Remerdii
“Common sense really isn’t that common.”

Sorche du Remerdii

(Ideally read to the tune of Don’t Fear the Reaper, by Blue Oyster Cult.)

Sorche is my favorite villain in this story– I’ve touched on him before in my Kione excerpt, and have been working on him in the background since June began and I figured out what a smart-ass he was.

“Apologies, du Jadis.” One of the men in black bowed slightly. Rylan decided (for now) that he was the leader, and noted his unusually dark skin showing between his cap and scarf. “This is a rescue, despite appearances. We’d appreciate it if you would move quickly. We’re not to hurt anyone.”

Another man appeared with bandages while a third pulled out Rylan’s coat that he’d left in the other room, along with his hat, muffler, gloves, but not his swords. Rylan allowed them access to his wounded arm, and they bandaged it (sloppily– Rylan thought he could have done better, even with one hand). “Who do you serve?” Rylan asked.

“Now?” The leader glanced back to the men who were keeping the doors. No one had intruded on them yet. “Very well. On behalf of my lord, Rylan du Jadis, I commend you for your bravery, congratulate you for your victory, and condemn you for your idiocy.” He offered Rylan an exaggerated bow, and pulled back his left sleeve to show a golden bracer, celestite set into the ring on his middle finger instead of a sigil. “You can call me Sorche du Remerdii.”

Sorche is the adopted son of Remerdii, a landed gentleman who has managed to achieve great wealth, and foster brother to Kione Remerdii. Sorche was taken as a small child and given the name of the Remerdii’s dead son and brother. Sorche has always been considered a gentleman as long as he could remember, given good rooms and private tutors, encouraged to compete with his brother Kione. He’s better than Kione at the Mordache Art, fighting and other physical activities, but falls short at tact and diplomacy. Sorche just can’t help but take jabs when he sees the opportunity.

I’ve put another Sorche excerpt, longer this time, under the cut.
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good villains don’t pull punches

Easy to say. Much, much harder to pull off in writing. Why? Because realistically, there’s only so much that can be done to a character before they break. The more realistic the story, the more the reader identifies with the protagonist. The more the reader identifies with the protagonist, the more the events in the story don’t just happen to the characters– they happen to the reader, too.

I’ve toted my love of George Martin’s ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ series before. Why? Because a very well developed character, a beast of a fighter that had been developed painstakingly for three (long) books can win a fight, take an injury in the process, and die of tetanus. There are so many characters in his books that he can realistically kill a huge portion of his cast like that. It heightens your sense of danger for the favorite characters, it takes away the safety net, and the knowledge that some of these characters are not going to survive the next few hundred pages makes the material gripping. Good villains don’t pull punches.

The problem with imitating this style, however, is that stories that aren’t a series of 200k novels have a much smaller cast. You can hurt them, you can kill them, but know that whatever pain and torment they go through… it’s not just going to magically go away. These characters are going to have to last you till the end of the story. And a good villain, a good danger, is going to hurt what it comes across.

I’m about sixty percent of the way through my book. My heroine has already broken her arm twice, and during plotting for future chapters I’ve very nearly decided that I’m going to shatter her knee and kill a side-character that I’m rather fond of. There is no healing magic. She’ll never run again, or walk without her staff. Why? Because there’s a villain with the advantage who is clever enough to find her. Take away his advantage, let her win the struggle immediately, and he’s not much of a villain. On the other hand, give my antagonist what he seeks (answers for her possession of a dead friend’s mask) and he will kill her. Good villains don’t pull punches. There is no ‘before I kill you’ monologue. No last requests. No ‘by the power of sheer will’ victories. No drastic change in skill when it’s convenient for him to lose a fight.

Why do people love a good villain? Because that struggle between the characters, the wavering balance of power, the trade of victories and defeats is what makes the adventure. Without tension, conflict, that sense of danger and concern for losing something precious… there is no story.

villain: tarren kanichende: if the hero

A quick note on Danache linguistics–

The most common letter combinations are ‘ch’ (sh), ‘rr’ (split r), and ‘ii’, which is the same as the short ‘i’ but reserved for the end of words, such as the names Arielii and Remerdii. The letter ‘y’ is one of the most common vowel and changes from a hard to soft pronunciation depending on surrounding letters. ‘Rylan’ is hard (Rye-lan), ‘Wyrren’ is far softer (Were-ren).

Tarren II Kanichende
(tahr-ren kahn-E-shen-day)
“The elevated place.”

I’m thinking through the novel again and imagining how I’d write this book if, without changing any of the events, I tried to make Tarren the hero. If Blue Crystal had been told from his perspective, what would it turn into?

Different, certainly. Tarren has the unfortunate habit of stereotyping the people around him, with the exception of his children (but not his wife). Moreso than them, his closest companions are a pair of pet tigers, Time and Fate.

Things I’ve come up with so far…
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trudge trudge (logistics and fantasy)

When asked to describe ‘Lord of the Rings’, my mother replies with a series of sound effects: cling clang!, trudge tromp trudge, clang! cling, cling!. As she is a landscape and still life painter and not enamored of fiction (much less fantasy– she prefers very historical fiction, biographies, theology), I will forgive her for that.

One thing I remember from reading the Hobbit is that the trial through Murkwood forest took absolutely forever. For Bilbo, for the dwarves, especially the poor saps that had to carry Bombur, and for me. The chapter and descriptions were so long that one really did start to despair and get hungry before they finally are attacked by spiders. Like the company’s view, no end seemed to be in sight.

My real dad (biological father, lives across the state) once commented that Tolkien could take three pages just to describe the wind. When mentioned to a Tolkien fan, she immediately shot back ‘Yes, but he does a damned good job of it.’ Which makes me wonder. How does Tolkien do that?

Logistics and travel has always been a weakness in my work. I can’t stand traveling. My philosophy tends to be ‘If nothing is going to happen, then fast forward and get to the interesting bits,’. This can be good and can be bad, depending on how it’s used. I know that in my 0-draft for NaNoWriMo I skimped on descriptions and most of the scenery. It bored me, and I knew what things looked like, so like exposition, I’d write it when it was needed. This was something that my test reader commented on, along with, ‘it feels like it should be twice as long’ and ‘some parts are awesome, some parts need work’.

The reason my meter’s slowed down is because I’m working on a Wyrren chapter. The end is particularly climactic, but to get there… well, there are logistics. I have a character walking around in a series of dark tunnels with a company, and since she has a speech disability she’s not inclined to conversation. It’s gotten me thinking about how to detail this without just going to a summery or an internal dialog. So far I’ve mostly struggled through, sentence by agonizing sentence, partly with what descriptions available– the way an armed company makes people scatter like frightened birds, the sound of a waterfall in the distance, and the request to change paths so that she can see the water.

Are there any tricks to this? Does the richness of the prose make travel interesting? The characteristics of the places passed by? The thoughts and emotions these details evoke? What would Tolkien do? Is anyone any good at making these transitions interesting?

the role of a villain

A post partially inspired by listening to Tarja (formally of the band ‘Nightwish’– I adore gothic/classical crossovers in music) on the drive home from work yesterday. This month so far has done exactly what I intended it to do, completely re-examining my plot from the antagonist’s perspective. Sometime between the tracks ‘Poison’ and ‘Damned and Divine’ it occurred to me that everything would be better if the ‘romance’ between the villain and the heroine was genuine, not a set up at all, on both sides.

First off, if I do this it would mean that I’m missing a good part of the story focusing on the heroine. I would have to display their relationship as aside while dealing with a bigger problem. I’d have to come up with another plot to thread in with the two I’ve already got going. But it makes the story stronger, it makes the ending even more powerful, and it gives me the chance to really focus on some of the important characters that I’ve neglected.

Villains, I’ve discovered, subscribe to the principal that hate is not the opposite of love; that’s indifference. Give the audience good reason to love your villain, and it’s easier to twist. His betrayal of the protagonists is also his betrayal of the audience.


Also, I’ll be starting my first weekly ‘Villain Month’ showcase on Saturday, linking to everyone’s projects!

villian: kione remerdii: scene

“Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled. We called sadism a sexual perversion; but you must first have the idea of a normal sexuality before you can talk of its being perverted; and you can see which is the perversion, because you can explain the perverted from the normal, and cannot explain the normal from the perverted.” -C.S. Lewis, ‘Mere Christianity’

((A sample of Kione’s POV, to practice the details of my villain. We’ll call it free-writing, and I make no promises as to the quality of the prose.))

Kione had sat with his usual glass of firewine through breakfast, swirling the liquid and picking at his food though his stomach protested with every bite that he forced down his throat. He had imagined himself presenting a front of high spirits on this anticipated day, and though he had thought that he had better control over himself than this, had relied several times on his nerves, he found them failing him. The sensation worsened when young Prince Davyer Kanichende looked at him and asked, “You’re not sad, are you?”

“Sad, my prince?” Kione smiled and shook his head. “I can rarely eat before an event of importance. The coronation certainly counts, if nothing else in the world would. You must be very excited.”

“Don’t forget, we’re taking off the traitor’s head today.”
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villain: kione remerdii: entj

ENTJ: Extraverted Intuitive Thinking Judging (from the Jung Typology Test)

* slightly expressed extravert
* distinctively expressed intuitive personality
* distinctively expressed thinking personality
* moderately expressed judging personality

So I took this test with Kione Remerdii in mind, using what I already knew about him. It emphasized that he’s completely ruthless, hates ’emotional’ or personal problems (he especially grows impatient with phobias), and is naturally tidy. And then I found that the professional personality assessment article fit him to a T. It’s… rather scary, actually.

I’ve also decided that Kione really doesn’t see himself as evil. And on several counts, what he does can be perfectly justified. Sure, he had hundreds of unexpecting noblemen slaughtered by proxy. But on the other hand, the way things were going, it was faster and less damaging than a naturally occurring revolt, which seemed to be building up. Yes, he was double-dealing (quatrupal dealing?), but this was politics. What else could be expected? And those commoners down in the depths of the city that he set up to die… it was his only chance for change. One can not walk into a city in hopes of conquering it. One must rock the boat a little, send people scattering so that the man in question can more easily find his place.

He also has no need to explain any of this to anyone.

(Keep going for the personality test results, if they so interest you.)
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villain: kione remerdii: family

Just a villain-ramble. I tried to do a character-building sheet (he protested, saying that his tastes made him out to be a snob), then an interview (I protested– he was plotting to torture me until I agreed to let him triumph at the end of the book). So here’s some basic information on Kione.

(Oh, and it’s my twenty-fourth birthday today. At least three people have plied or are planning on plying me with food. 🙂 It’s making me wish I could eat more than five bites of anything.)

Kione Remerdii
Also, Kione, with diamonds in his hair, Kione, celestite lord, Kione, of blue crystal.

Kione is an only child, mostly due to his race’s high infant and child mortality rate; the Mordache are almost human, except for their access to ‘The Art’, a magic that comes too strong and often too hard to control at young ages. He had had a brother, who did not live past three. After he died, he was replaced with a bastard Mordache boy who showed great promise– or at least, good health. He was given the name of Kione’s dead brother, Sorche Remerdii, and raised as a noble despite the child’s outlandish looks– kinky curls and slanted eyes. Incidentally, Kione brought Sorche to Vastii when he traveled there, and upon his promotion gave Sorche real political power by binding him in gold: the symbol of a high-ranking slave, letting them represent their master in all matters and effectively turning him from the bastard foster-brother into Kione’s second in command.

That had worked out better than Kione’s father had intended. He had wanted his son to keep good company, but when none of his siblings had lived and none of the other gentleman’s children looked as if they’d challenge him, he picked Sorche for his promising talent and constitution, as a brother and a rival. Sorche has always been the healthier of the two, since Kione never grew above 5’8 and didn’t excel at the Art or in physical prowess.

Kione’s father, much like Kione, was a workaholic and a perfectionist. He was always finding ways to improve his holding, and under his care the Remerdii territory grew rapidly. Kione was often put in charge of people or places and given no help. The boy would grow and improve, or he would fail and be punished. By the time Kione reached his mid-twenties he was left to deal with the entire holding, then the diplomatic relations with other territories, essentially coming into his inheritance without his father showing any signs of growing ill. It was his father who suggested that the king was an incompetent fool, and that Kione should take his position from him, if he could. Kione surveyed the king’s city, found several weaknesses, and went to exploit them.

Of course, his method prefers double-dealing, treachery, and mass murder, but no one’s perfect. Right?

His mother was of relatively little importance. She acted more as a decoration than anything, always quietly in the background happiest when left to her own devices.