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.

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.

if e-prime was odd…

Here’s some more crazy things people have done with books.

Le Train de Nulle Part. Hat tip to Brad, my day-job minion, who in turn found this on Neatorama, which is always a fun place to look for odd events and interesting stories. Le Train de Nulle Part (The Train From Nowhere) is a French novel (233 pages) written entirely without verbs.

Lipograms. A specific letter is eschewed from the book. Gadsby has no e’s, and neither does La Disparition (another French novel, by Georges Perec). Les Revenentes, a novella written also by Georges Perec, contained no vowels but the letter ‘e’.

Others… Never Again, by Doug Nufer, doesn’t repeat any words once they’ve been used.

Frankly, some of these ideas scare me. E-prime is difficult enough; how did they do that?!

One of my ideas was to center my next book around, among other things, the golden ratio, implementing the Fibonacci sequence: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89 […]. I could plot out the major events to take place so many pages, pick important words in each chapter and reiterate them according to these numbers. Since the next book that I’m planning is actually a series of interconnecting short stories, it really plays into the experimental nature I’ve had pictured.

(If you’re interested, the book is called ‘The Marionette’s Waltz’ and loosely centers around demons, drugs, and a crazy woman fighting for the soul that she gave away. The book never distinguishes what’s real and what isn’t.)

But I think I’ll still keep my vowels and my verbs. 😉