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.

showcase of villainy, part iv

Villain Month

As promised, here is the last showcase of the month-long villain series.

This ended up being more difficult than I thought it would be. Just spending time thinking about the antagonists was useful, and it was fantastic seeing other people join in. Thanks to everyone participating!

I spent the week focusing on my last villain of the four I meant to go over, Sorche du Remerdii. I also wrote a closing message and introduced a bonus villain-type, the king’s secret police, nicknamed after the silver masks that they wear.


Saint Know-All finished a few more drawings, and bid farewell to the month.


Nilah wrote a short article about human predators, in regards to the villain month project.


Aldersgatecycle focused on her last villain, Sally Din.


Nymeria wrote about Orion Novak, Dahlia Laras, and posted a gallery of her villain portraits.


And, last, even though she wasn’t actually participating, Worderella was kind enough to write up a few posts on villains on her blog as a kind of villain-month-tribute.


Closing links:

A list of participants
Showcase of villainy, part i
Showcase of villainy, part ii
Showcase of villainy, part iii

Thoughts? Comments? Shall we do this again someday? 🙂

A ‘hero month’ idea has already been put out, and I wouldn’t mind spending some time dedicated to world building as a future project…

weekly goal (and a long moment of cringing)

Over the weekend I didn’t get much writing done. This is partly because I’d had a tough week and needed to take a break, and partly because after that really climactic scene I needed to step back and figure out where to go from there.

So I started plotting out the next few chapters, and I realized that I’m only five chapters from the end of the book. I knew that I was close, about 30 or 35,000 words away… but even so. That puts a new perspective on things. My new goal is to write a chapter every week. I should have this draft finished at the end of July.

And… … because I’m an idiot… I accidentally erased my last twenty-five comments on my blog. I was trying to erase one (I referred to my own article and I hate pinging myself) and woosh! … Out they went. Excuse me while I go smack myself on the head repeatedly, and know that I really don’t hate you all.

a study in writing bullies

From Psychology Today:

Studies reliably show that [bullies] have a distinctive cognitive make-up—a hostile attributional bias, a kind of paranoia. They perpetually attribute hostile intentions to others. The trouble is, they perceive provocation where it does not exist. That comes to justify their aggressive behavior. Say someone bumps them and they drop a book. Bullies don’t see it as an accident; they see it as a call to arms. These children act aggressively because they process social information inaccurately. They endorse revenge. [link]

I was bullied constantly from the first grade until I managed to escape high school early. I always considered school to be a form of hell, a juvenile detention program invented by a sadist that really ought to only be served to those children who had already committed some crime. I have been to twelve different schools before making it into community college. Some are worse than others, but wherever I went I had a talent for attracting bullies.

The more I think about writing my bully character for the ‘Villain Month’ event, the more I just really want to go kill someone. Which really was my reaction back in school, too. Funny (or not) how that doesn’t seem to go away.

The good side? Well, I’ve had experiences with this type of person. I know what a really, really nasty bully sounds like, the tactics they use. And my heroine has the same reaction to bullies that I did (aggravate them further and make them really want to kill you). The bad side? I don’t think I could ever empathize with them, or get into their head without feeling ill, oily. I once tried to write about such a depraved character once that I felt ill for a week afterward. So I’m researching them academically instead.

Psychology Today’s article is quite good. I’m feeling sick already.

The lengths I go for this novel…

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…
Continue reading

weekly goal and a note

Current Wordcount: 47,669 words
Last Week’s Goal: 45,000 words
Next Week’s Goal: 52,000 words

If I can write an average of 750 words a day, according to my handy little desktop calculator, I should finish this book by the end of July. Next week’s goal puts me at a bit over six hundred words a day. But last week I overshot myself by almost three thousand words. Yeah!

*pauses to dance a happy dance*

This is the last day before Villain Month starts. It’s also two days before my twenty-fourth birthday (June 2nd, for the curious). I’m happy to add people who want to join in partway through the month– just leave a comment. Later tonight I’ll add an announcement post with a list and links of everyone participating.

50%!

As of last night, I reached 47,533 words. 50% of my projected length. Woot!

That said, I had an idea that again deviates from my intended storyline, but sounded very good last night. This morning I remembered the idea, and promptly felt sick. Oh, it works. But it’s dark, even for me.

This has happened before. I lay down to sleep and my mind races. I see dialog, chapter layouts, characters dancing in my head as I lay there, and when I’ve been especially productive it can last for hours. But when I wake, I realize that these 2-a.m. thoughts are always rock-lodged-in-your-gut disturbing or melodramatic.

Anyone else think their judgment is skewed by early hours? Or is it just me?

an invitation to villain month

While I was drawing up some ideas for what I could do for my four weeks of villainy, I thought that perhaps I could invite some of my blogging comrades to join in.

I’ll be spending one week on each character, starting June 1st. Activities will include sample dialog, sketches, scanned collages, and bits of story that don’t go anywhere, as well as the usual ‘character info’ pages that asks for full names and favorite snacks.

Anyone interested? Comment below; I’d love to see other people’s villain-projects.

weekly goal

Current Wordcount: 41,048 words
Last Week’s Goal: 41,000 words
Next Week’s Goal: 45,000 words

I made my word count! Even if I had to stay up till midnight last night to do it. Since my writing buddy is going to be gone, I increased my target goal slightly, and I should be able to beat it.

Villain Week begins the Sunday after tomorrow.