Written on 2004-11-22; Read the original post on LiveJournal
1) If the object is in the possession of a certain family or group, give them a reason to keep it. I’m sorry, but I find it completely and utterly unrealistic that a family living in dirt poverty would pass a valuable emerald ring from generation to generation and never think, not once, about selling the stone. The likelihood is greater if the prophecy or whatever attached to it very vague. “Someday someone will do great deeds with this ring” wouldn’t sound that loud, I think, next to the siren song of hunger and the knowledge that that stone could buy food to feed their families.
Wouldn’t there be temptation? Particularly if the object was a sword crusted with jewels? Surely someone would start reasoning, “Well, the blade is the important thing. If I just chip off a few jewels, nobody will mind…”
There’s something romantic to most people, I think, about the idea of a family or a secret society hiding a ring or sword or jewel (it’s usually one of those three things) for generations on generations. The problem is that authors often don’t explain how it would work. In a society where peasants aren’t supposed to have weapons, how is the family going to explain it if the baron’s soldiers raid their home suddenly and find this sword under the bed? Perhaps they would get it back, but I don’t see why it should remain unproblematically in their possession forever. I think it would be interesting to read a story where the object is getting the stolen property back, not to accomplish a grand quest, but because the grand quest is still to come and will fail without the stolen property.
If you want there to be such a strong belief attached to the object that no one would dream of parting with it, try making it a curse instead of a promise of good times. A curse might mean something. A family that’s been living in poverty for the last six generations and losing their limbs and family members in the meanwhile wouldn’t have much reason to believe in “good times.”
2) If the object is the most powerful [insert noun here], why hasn’t it been used before now? I’m constantly amazed at how sadistic most authors portray destiny to be—unintentionally, I’m sure. Why should the country suffer for three hundred years instead of only three, or at all? Why doesn’t the destined savior come along when the problems start, instead of ten or twenty or a hundred years later? And why is this sword, if it can save everybody just by being uplifted, lying in a treasury or under a peasant farmer’s bed instead of already in a hero’s fist?
One possibility is that the object is “lost” and no one remembers the tale. But there always seems to be someone who does, a wise old wizard or mentor or sage who recognizes the plain sling the peasant boy carries as the Sling of Arpenath or something similar. (Actually, I have never read a story about a magical sling. I would like to). He usually smiles “mysteriously” and gives the object back to its owner, telling him to wait until he really needs it.
And I look around at the dying fantasy world, with its plagues and famines and Dark Lord’s soldiers running amok, and say, “Doesn’t he really need it now?”
But no, of course not, because authors care more about dramatic irony than making their heroes look smart or compassionate. So on the quest goes, while the powerful sword slumbers in its sheath and people who could apparently be saved by its power die in the hundreds. I stew. And on the quest goes, while the hero bickers with his lady love and people die of wounds the magical ring could have healed. I simmer. And then the quest finishes, with everyone thanking the hero for saving them with the Mystical Crystal--after thousands of them have already died. I shut the book.
What is the rationale for keeping an object cooped up, anyway? Why doesn’t the one person in the world who remembers it urge the hero to use it as soon as he recognizes it? Why doesn’t someone who knows where it is start using it to save the world, or heal the dying, or whatever it’s supposed to do? Usually, there is no rationalization, just “You will know when you need it” mumbo-jumbo. There should be a hell of a good reason for keeping an object that could change the whole world for the better off the streets.
And no, “Because it would ruin the suspense of my story” is not a good reason. You put the ultra-powerful weapon in there in the first place, you come up with a reason why they aren’t using it now.
3) If the thing is going to talk, give it a real personality. Talking swords usually have no more personality than talking animals. They want to drink blood, or they’re snippy to their owners until they realize that of course the owner is a towering paragon of compassion. (Funny. I mostly saw him as a towering paragon of wimpiness). Then they fight without complaint.
I want to see a lazy sword. I want to see a vain jewel that demands to be held and admired before it will act. (That might be a good reason that no one’s using it to save the world). I want to see a ring that does nothing but glow a bit, and the glow might mean it just saved the world or might mean it just blew it to kingdom come. You’ve taken the trouble to note that these things aren’t just things, that they have a role to play in the quest beyond “being carried around and used to save the world.” Now it’s up to you to give them the power to play that role.
One reason that Tolkien’s One Ring is scary is because it has a will of its own and can corrupt the possessor. It doesn’t speak, unless you count its showing images of what its bearer desires, but it can and will get a hold of you if you carry it long enough. The One Ring has more personality than a thousand talking swords who just mutter Blood at their owners. Give yours one at least as strong.
4) Avoid stupid names and UnneceSsary CapiTalizAtion. One problem with magical objects is that so often I laugh at what they’re called. The Sword of Mirkunmock? Um, right. The Stone of Fire? Try something a little less bland next time. The Orb of Aldur? Whatever you say, David Eddings.
Naming objects is something that many fantasy authors are no better at than naming places or people. The name sounds good, or might, but it gets silly to see it repeated again and again on paper. The capitalization takes over, and it gets worse when the word is long and complicated (like Shalidafianfree) or has apostrophes in it (I have a personal rule now that I quit reading a fantasy book when I see more than two proper names with apostrophes in them and there’s no clue how to pronounce them). The author is often oblivious to this, proceeding happily along in his own typing little world, not aware that the audience is snickering up its sleeve at him.
Some rules for naming mystical objects:
-Don’t try to be cute or ironic. A joke that might seem funny at first will wear on your audience’s nerves after a while.
-Don’t make the name too long. Same reason as the first one.
-Don’t combine a few bland nouns and declare yourself done. The Stone of Flame, the Harp of the Winds, the Sickle of the Sea… all are equally silly. In fact, stay away from elemental names altogether if possible.
-If you name the object after a person or a place, make sure the object has a history that corresponds to that person or place. I’ve read a few fantasy books where the object is named after some obscure place in the map, and yet it seems to have been kept in the same fantasy kingdom for a thousand years. Why wouldn’t the object eventually acquire the name of its kingdom instead?
5) Try making the object serve multiple purposes in the story. I hate the fantasy novels where the object is just there to blast enemies away any time the author wants it to. No suspense, once again. These are the authors who are the opposite from the authors in point 2; they’ve created an object that can dues ex machina their stories into the garbage, and see nothing wrong with using it. The hero will of course use it to call a magical firestorm at the end.
Instead, try to make the object have other sides. Perhaps the hero can control one of its powers, but really has to struggle to master the others. Perhaps the object only slowly reveals that it can talk, as it comes to trust the hero. Perhaps the hero really has to win the final battle using the Mystical Sword of Mirkunmock in combination with something else, and he’s not going to discover that if he just keeps wielding the sword by itself. Perhaps every use of the mystical object drains a year from the hero’s life. (Heh-heh-heh).
Really, just avoid plot coupons. They make the story much more interesting.
And, of course…
6) Why hasn’t the Dark Lord destroyed this thing yet? If the object is one that gives a valuable advantage to the side of good, why hasn’t the Dark Lord hunted it down and fired it into the stratosphere—or blasted it to pieces with his Dark Powers ™? Really, Dark Lords in most fantasies are idiots. They sit there and deny the hero has the object, or act all surprised when he does, and then they get blasted to kingdom come.
This is where I like Tolkien again, because Sauron had no reason to destroy the One Ring; he wanted it to back to use. And the good guys couldn’t use it against him without being corrupted and destroyed. So they had an excellent reason to keep it away and try to destroy it, and Sauron had an excellent reason to hunt for it. Nice, simple, and self-contained.
The problem with the way some authors defend magical objects is to insist that the Dark Lord can’t touch it because of some stupid prohibition, like “Only the innocent can touch it!” (Hello, David Eddings). That still doesn’t cover the problem of why he doesn’t destroy it. And it still doesn’t cover the problem of why the hero JUST HAPPENS to be the one person in creation who can use it.
Hee. That was fun.