Limyaael's Rants

Rules on Fantasy in General

Written on 2003-07-10; Read the original post on LiveJournal

Because the idea bit me, and the short story idea I was going to start on is sulkily hiding under the bushes of my mind at the moment.

Personal, as per usual.

In general:

1. Remember that writers' tricks tend to be personal. There's a reason a lot of writing advice is prefaced with something like, "This is the way I do it. It may not work for you..." Adopt whatever tricks work for you. If listening to a certain song or playlist puts you in the mood for writing fantasy, great. If you work best in a cluttered environment, great. If you need character profiles, or a certain amount of time, or a certain mood, before you can write, great. The best trick is to know what works, for you, and use it. I used to drive myself into agonies because I kept trying writing exercises and none of them worked. I've since accepted that I just can't do it that way. I don't use character profiles, either, but that doesn't mean they don't work for other people.

2. Decide how much 'contamination' you're willing to risk. There are some fantasy authors- for example, Michael Moorcock- who don't read much fantasy at all, because they don't want to get influenced by what's already been done. This might be the way to do it if you want to write something entirely original, but I think you do have to have a good basic grounding in fantasy first, or you won't have any idea of what's been done before at all. If you love the field and have already been reading it for a few years, then your knowledge is probably good enough (and perhaps your style settled enough) to "risk" going either way.

3. Have a love for it. Yes, fantasy is genre writing. Yes, a lot of it is imitative and not very good. But I sincerely hope that most people don't sit down to write a fantasy novel thinking that that's what they're going to produce. Even mediocre fantasy was probably slaved over and worked hard on. I think it's impossible to write any good fantasy at all without a love for it. It's not something to be tossed off carelessly, unless you really are just writing for "personal entertainment" and not to write fantasy.

World-building

4. Have a physical sense of your world. The most important part of a fantasy novel, I think, is the setting. It's what categorizes your story, makes it different than a magical realism novel or a novel where people just happen to act slightly differently than they would in our modern world. You should be able to describe it in enough detail that the reader can enter it with you.

Methods of sinking into the setting vary. Some writers- for example, Kay does this- travel into the countries they base their stories on and stay there while they write. That's obviously not an option for a lot of people, but studying it and looking at photos would be. Or perhaps you're using the countryside around your house, for which you have a strong love, and can use that knowledge to make the setting real. Or perhaps you can imagine a place that's not like any you've ever seen, but can imagine it strongly enough that you make it real. If it's snowy, make us feel the cold. If it's a mountaintop, make us feel the height. If it's a city, what makes it different from a thousand other nondescript cities? Sometimes you can get away with a generic description; "village" obviously calls up a different picture than "town." But at least some places should be vividly described, or your world will remain Generic Fantasyland.

5. Don't contradict basic features of your setting- unless you're willing to go back and alter everything. In other words, if you establish that dragons are an important part of your economy early in the story, then it would not make sense to write absolutely nothing about them. Mention them in passing if the story won't focus on them, but get them in there. Some fantasy authors I've read (and this is true even of published ones) create rich details and seemingly forget about them, or state firmly that a law of magic has no known exceptions and then make one up. This is the equivalent of giving your hero a fourth wish to get him out of trouble. Just don't do it. If a better idea than the first really has hit you in midstream and you want to change your setting to include it, by all means do so- but then be prepared for the work, however tedious it might be, of going back and weeding out all the contradictions that now exist. Fantasy must be as internally consistent as possible, or you're going to remind the reader that this is an elaborate game of make-believe, one inferior to many of those children play, since the rules can change on a whim.

6. Accept that some details are not going to make it into your story. If you've spent a long time building up the mythology/genealogy/character profiles, the temptation will be to share everything you know about the world with the reader. This cannot happen. Some information just won't be relevant; perhaps Nandra the assassin really does like the smell of oranges, but if she's never around oranges, why should the author mention it? Some information would simply be tedious for the reader to sit through, such as listing all the relatives of the King or all the details of a certain religion. And some, quite frankly, are best kept out of the story altogether. Keep a careful eye on your pride in the details of your created world, and trim them back when they threaten to overgrow the plot or confuse your readers. A fleeting mention of details can give your story depth without requiring you to explain just what happened at a battle that took place forty years back in exhaustive detail. (Look at it this way: If the reader is curious enough about something mentioned in passing, he or she can always ask you).

7. Try to avoid self-consciousness. Being original is always wonderful, but if you find yourself destroying your own pride and pleasure in creativity by endless self-scrutiny, you're probably never going to finish the story. Say that you really want to avoid bringing up gender issues. The way to do this is to write the story and then see if it's a problem. Don't necessarily analyze every conversation your women and men have to see if you're treating them equally or making the women too feminist or making the men too chauvinist. (You may recognize the voice of experience here). If you actually have a problem, it will almost certainly show up. If you don't, then worrying about impressions the reader might take away from your story is ludicrous.

The Good

8. Consider ordinary features for your heroes. This applies to the obvious- for example, don't make your heroines the most beautiful things walking- but also to things that don't attract very much attention. Does your character have acne? Small scratches where their kitten climbed up their leg? Dirty teeth? Things like that are far rarer than attention-getting scars, the marks of disease, or stereotypical characteristics- like "intelligent eyes"- that people use to indicate their characters are on the side of good. Don't go overboard in making your people either beautiful or dramatically ugly. Most of the people who walk down the street are neither, and it's a fair chance that any given person out of many in your world will look ordinary, as well. "Ordinary" is a standard that may be different from Earth's, of course. If blue happens to be a common hair color in your world, the person might look startling on the streets of New York, but perfectly normal in the village of Taiya. Basically, just don't go overboard on the character's appearance.

9. Lose the platitudes. Sometimes, the best response to a dramatic gesture, such as self-sacrifice, that the heroes make is silence. One thing I dread in a fantasy novel is the speech at the end about how much better good is than evil, or how powerful love is, or how the heroes have won the day despite everything conspiring against them, and so on and so forth. A motif is one thing. Perhaps your heroine plucks a flower at the end that she first plucked when she was still a child. This can easily remind the reader of the beginning of your story, and make him or her reflect. If the character stares at the flower and goes into a paean about her lost innocence, it's a lot easier to lose your audience. Don't hit them over the head with clichés or symbolism. If you've done your writing well enough, then the meaning will creep up on the readers.

10. Avoid the melodramatic single tear and its ilk. Remember that some gestures, as well as words, have the force of cliché. Shedding a single tear that falls on the petal of a flower is the most gratuitous example I can think of, but there are many others, particularly the hero having time for a last glance at his love before going off to battle. If you feel you really need a gesture, make it one that's intrinsic to the character and will remind the reader of that person, instead of just heroism in general. Fantasy can use archetypes, yes, but it's much harder to write them as believable people. This is one reason that I detest Terry Goodkind so very, very much; he starts out with a gesture that has meaning to his characters Richard and Kahlan- Kahlan giving Richard a smile without showing her teeth, which is something she does only for him- and proceeds to beat it into the ground, by rhapsodizing over and over about it until you want to put the characters in the meat-grinder AAAAAAGGGH. Gestures, just like words and symbols, have to be used in moderation, and if you've done your work well enough they don't need the endless elaboration many authors are prone to using.

11. Consider making your deaths swift and sudden. Fantasy characters get to linger on and on for the death scene, usually, unless they're minor characters, and repent of their wrongs or make farewell speeches or whatever they feel they need to do. This happens even when the circumstance under which they're dying, such as a sword through the heart, wouldn't permit such a thing to happen. The opposite situation can actually have a greater effect. How will your heroine feel if your hero dies on the battlefield before she can get to him, never giving them a proper farewell? She may grieve, she may construct her own private goodbye, she may hate it, but either way, it's a lot easier to give more scope and avoid cliché without that lingering death scene.

The Bad

12. Give your villain a history. And I'm not talking about a case history, as in, "His mother abused him, so he grew up to hate women." Sadism, insanity, and child abuse are far too commonly used as the villains' motives in fantasy. Why can't the villain think he's right, and maybe even have some of the readers on his side? It doesn't mean that he has to win, just that his motive for conquering the world is believable. Kay does this very well in Tigana, by creating a band of "heroes" who stop at nothing, even slavery, to achieve their goal, and a "villain," Brandin, who is doing what he does out of love for his dead son. I personally found it a lot easier to sympathize with Brandin than Alessan, leader of the "heroes." But sympathy doesn't even have to go that far; making the villain a person whom the reader could sympathize with is often enough.

13. Don't use clichéd language to talk about the villains, either. Does it really have to be "the Dark" or "the Shadow?" Though I consider Robert Jordan the worst offender in this regard, many fantasy authors use the terms Dark and Light, and apply the same adjectives to the Dark: "foul," "evil," "treacherous," "horrible," "deadly," "malevolent," "monstrous." Ultimately this can grate as much as the speech at the end about how love is more powerful than evil. Put yourself in the Dark's shoes for a while, and ask yourself if your particular villain is really one who would use that label, or if he would come up with a new one for himself.

14. Give your villains some taste. Even the villain's pleasures are usually portrayed as debauched- he has sex with children, for example. This can be effective, but it's usually used more for shock value. Nowhere does it say that because someone wants to conquer the world means that he has no appreciation for the finer things. Why not make him a conoisseur of art, or of wines, or of music? (Yes, this is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it goes along with giving your villain a sympathetic history; he doesn't have to be evil evil evil through every fiber of his body.

Linguistics (Purely Limyaael's pet area, since she loves them)

15. Realize that your world probably does not have global communication. Unless a situation similar to Earth's exists, where people in far-flung areas are connected by more or less reliable systems of communication, then it's unlikely in the extreme that everyone on a continent will speak the same language. You don't have to make up 10,000 word vocabularies and working grammars for everything, but mentioning that other languages than just your hero's exist is a nice nod in the direction of realism. (This is another particular offense of Jordan's; people have accents and idioms, but speak the same language no matter how isolated they are).

16. Realize that language often plays a highly divisive part in politics. Look at Quebec, where French-speakers want to separate from English-speakers. Look at the tensions in the United States between people who think that English should be the official language of the country and new immigrants. Look at Spain, where a terrorist organization called the ETA fights for the independence of people who speak Euskara, the Basque language. Language can be an excellent motivation for political intrigue.

17. Keep in mind that your characters are not speaking English. This means that creating puns, riddles, and jokes that depend on English (for example, a confusion between "iron" and "irony") is going to be impossible. Do you really need the joke in there? Probably not. If you need comic relief, there are other places to look for it.

18. Keep in mind that some words are not appropriate for a fantasy world. Such words include not only obvious things like "telephone" and "refrigerator," but terms like "father figure," "psychology," and "feminism" (all of which I have seen in fantasies supposedly taking place in medieval-type worlds). I'm also picky about words like "herculean" that depend on specific legends or people or places in our own world. Not everyone is that nitpicky, though, but keep in mind that it works towards destroying the illusion of your world as a separate reality where they've never heard of Earth. Not something you want to do.

Non-Humans

19. Don't portray them as inferior to humans. One of a lot of fantasy authors' favorite tricks is to point out that, well, even though elves have long lives, they just don't know the value of love like humans do! This is a cheap trick, just like the tear falling on the flower. If you're going to the trouble to create a non-human culture, truly create it, rather than just using it as a cheap foil for the humans.

20. Don't make your elves humans with pointy ears. Or your dwarves short humans with beards, or your dragons lizards with wings... You get the drill. Dress-up makes for the same hollow game of make-believe that changing the rules whenever you like does. It may be emotionally satisfying to imagine humans with pointy ears and write about them, but if the reader really sees no difference between humans and elves, then there's no point in writing about the pointy ears at all- unless the author really is just writing it for his/her own emotional satisfaction, and not to give anything to other people.

Finally...

21. Don't end on a static note. Is your world going to end where the book does? Do we know just what is going to happen next? Fantasy, with its extremely high proportion of happy endings and its descent from fairy tales, runs the risk of this. A story may remain real until the end and then turn to cardboard because the author has tied everything up- rightful heir back on the throne, married to the woman he loves, everyone happy, the bad guys dead- and there is nothing else left to happen. It's best to let the world go on existing outside the story, because that makes it more alive. You don't have to end everything on an uncertain note, but even grace notes are nice. Tad Williams, for example, has two prophecies enter into the body of his Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy that don't get explained or solved in the books themselves. They're left there so the reader can imagine and wonder what happened next, but never really know.

22. End with a new note. If the story has been very serious, consider something humorous. If the story started in one place and returned to that place, then consider an ending that looks towards the future from a different place. This will help avoid the high-sounding platitudes and the conscious symbolism that fantasy authors seem to want to pile on. You may have a very pretty image of a white bird soaring over the sea, but if it's flying east into the sunrise and the heroine looks up at it and thinks about how her soul is like the bird and flying into the sunrise of hope and blah blah blah, you're a lot more likely to fall headfirst into the midden than keep walking.

Very biased, of course. But I like it.

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