Friday, February 15, 2008

7 Personal Rules for Fantasy Writing

I think that I've been delving into the high fantasy genre for almost as long as I've been writing.

For the uninformed, "high fantasy" involves your basic, medieval, knights-and-wizards-type of setting. These are the kind of stories where people like Conan, Legolas and King Arthur hang out, a sort of alternate Middle Ages where Renaissance Faire garb would probably be the norm. (This lies in contrast with "low fantasy", which twists the modern world as per Harry Potter, the Spiderwick Chronicles, and the Highlander movies.)

Sixteen years after I first started out, my memories of my first works are more than a little hazy. The first "serious" short story that I ever wrote was actually set against a biblical background, and placed a slight spin on a quasi-religious event. From there, I went into science fiction because it seemed as though nobody was writing it at the time. I remember actually avoiding fantasy for the first couple of years or so because I felt that it needed a lot of work in order to pull off: Setting counts for a lot, after all, and it's the sort of thing that takes time to craft.

I think that the one primary inspiration, the one thing that motivated me to write fantasy was David and Leigh Eddings' Belgariad series. I had read a couple of other fantasy novels before, yes, but the Belgariad gave me the idea that there was more to the genre than merely putting together a universe and creating some characters to play around in it. In a sense, I hit upon the truth that makes most fantasy works palatable: In order to immerse yourself in them, you have to be able to empathize with them.

One decade, three fictional universes and more than a few attempts later, I have more than a few guidelines to work with. At this point, I'm proud to say that I can probably spin off a short piece of the high fantasy genre without first having to spend ages working on a setting and a history. That's not to say that I've stopped toying with universes of my own creation -- as evidenced by the number of "Antaria" links on the sidebar -- but I feel that I can work on both long- and short-term fantasy work as of the moment.

I try to follow a strict set of rules for high fantasy in this regard. These, I think, are "rules" in the sense that I try to break them as seldom as possible -- I feel that they're too critical to what I feel is the underlying logic and structure to a plausible work. As a result, I try to stick to these rules whenever I put the physics of a fantasy setting together, and I inevitably look for these personal standards when judging a work of the genre. In a sense, this is why I feel that high fantasy is so difficult to get right: I have all these unwritten requirements in my head that give me something to look for whenever I read somebody's work.

I suppose at least now I'll be writing them down for once. I'm aware, of course, that any of these rules can change with a simple paradigm shift. More likely than that, however, I'll probably end up adding more to this list over time.

1. Cut down on the details.
High fantasy requires a lot of details. These stories usually involve completely imagined settings, after all, and most of them are spun from nothing but empty air itself. Beyond that, you have to get the physics, history, and sociology right... and considering that you'll have a lot of gaps left over after you're done, you're going to have to explain those away, too.

As a result, it's extremely tempting to overburden a reader with these details: I mean, you spent months figuring out the politics and economy of that nice kingdom you put together, so why let it go to waste? You created an entire history, description and set of drawings for that suit of armor your protagonist wears, so how could you tell the story without describing it?

The catch is that all of these details ultimately amount to highbrow "fluff". It's all interesting when taken in a scholarly context, I'm sure, but you're not aiming for that here -- you want to tell a story. Unless something is absolutely critical to the story -- or unless something helps contribute to atmosphere or characterization -- I try to leave it out. I mean, I ramble on for long enough periods of time, and I'd rather not run the risk of boring readers further.

2. It may be a different setting, but it's the same humanity.
Humans are humans wherever they may exist, I suppose. Most high fantasy involves humans in some way, presumably because it's easiest for us to foresee and narrate their actions. I believe, however, that this also gives an opportunity to make the work speak to the reader and get him to put himself in the characters' shoes.

Empathy is the key word here, I think. When presented with a story that takes place in an unfamiliar setting with unfamiliar events, I believe that a reader will immediately try to latch on to its most familiar aspects. With most high fantasy, I think that this involves character empathy more than anything else: They may be looking at a completely different universe, but they'll still expect the human characters to walk, talk and act as humans would normally do. A reader may not know how it feels to, say, hold a two-handed broadsword, cast a spell, or fight a shambling throng of undead... but they'll understand situations where a character makes a promise, talks to a superior, or comes to the aid of friends.

3. The nonhumans must have a purpose.
One of my greatest pet peeves involves the use of nonhuman races in a human capacity. I mean, I don't see the point of having elves, dwarves, and orcs walk around in the same universe as a human contingent, especially when they're characterized according to existing aspects of humanity. Why have a graceful, fragile, long-eared elf when you can just as easily have a human character with those precise qualities? Why have a short, tough, bushy-beared dwarf when you can just as easily use a human counterpart? The whole thing just confuses me.

While I'm willing to accept the presence of sentient nonhuman races in high fantasy, I feel that there should really be some purpose to their presence there (apart from acting as set dressing). Tolkien, for example, used an alliance between humans, elves and dwarves to emphasize a united stand among completely different cultures. I'd like to see a little more thought go into the use of such races in fantasy literature, other than the "they just happen to be there" argument.

4. Use magic.
If there's anything that makes fantasy "fantasy" for me, it's the use of magic. Magic is the duct tape of literary concepts: You can mold it to whatever definition you choose for your setting, and you can use it to plug any gaps that you might find. You can leave it as part of the background so that you can focus on other concepts (as Tolkien did), or you can give it some significant screen time (Jordan's The Wheel of Time series comes to mind). Without the use of magic, a high fantasy universe runs the risk of being relegated to a purely medieval setting.

That's not to say that you literally need magic to write a plausible fantasy story, of course. (George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones series practically doesn't use the stuff, as far as I know.) But I find it difficult to pass off high fantasy as "high fantasy" without it -- it's the sort of thing that I simply don't find in any other genre.

5. Some technologies are indispensable.
One of the things I realized a long time ago was that, while fantasy literature might usually reflect a medieval setting, it simply does not provide an accurate picture of what medieval times were really like. Inns were not built like hotels with taverns to match. Dungeons with hidden treasure most certainly did not litter the countryside. Female adventurers did not go around wearing skimpy costumes that supposedly passed for "armor".

What I mean to say here is that I find it difficult to consider a plausible high fantasy setting without working some modern innovations into the picture. I'm not saying, of course, that people should try to work cars and trucks and vacuum cleaners into their feudal kingdoms. What I'm saying, however, is that we can sneak in a few contemporary concepts and technologies without breaking our stuff in two.

I know that scissors have to exist in any proper fantasy universe, for instance. I mean, without scissors, you wouldn't have proper clothes and costumes for the characters to wear. You wouldn't have proper hairstyles. Heck, you wouldn't have such things as ribbons or tassels or bows. I can make arguments for a few other things: Dental floss (otherwise your characters wouldn't have all their teeth), disposable paper or parchment (for all those books and scrolls), and gunpowder (because even if you don't have guns, you're likely to have explosives in some form).

We don't have to go into the details of why the stuff exists, to be honest. I think that we can -- and should -- suspend belief for these small things just so that our worlds can work the way we want them to. I don't think that the readers will mind, just as long as everything makes a sort of sense.

6. Equalize the genders.
Granted, the concept of gender equivalence obviously isn't limited to the high fantasy genre. I think, however, that the genre finds great benefit in using gender equivalence, perhaps more than anything else out there. When a high fantasy story turns an existing convention on its ear -- say, a female warrior as a main character -- then we're far more willing to accept it as part of the imaginary setting than we are, say, a female CEO of a major software corporation. Or, if you will, a male editor-in-chief for Cosmopolitan magazine.

The opportunity to perform a good bit of role-switching, I think, is too good to be ignored. It can result in some unprecedented casts of characters, or some situations that have never been seen before. I feel that stories that revolve around stereotypical archetypes (male barbarians, female sorceresses, and so forth) are missing out on a lot, as a result. There's some real potential here to shake things up and explore uncharted territory in terms of character interaction.

7. The stories should work by themselves.
Finally, I'll admit that it's not easy to cut a work of high fantasy down to size. Considering that you've created an entire universe and its corresponding population to play around with, it's easy to plot out some grand epic and start scribbling it down.

While you can probably accomplish such a task (and novelize it, to boot), I feel that it's not a very attractive way of going about things. First, you have an enormous task ahead of you -- it's like working on your first book and deciding right off the bat that you're going to put together two thousand pages of text. Second, there's no guarantee that you'll be able to finish it -- and if you suddenly lose interest three months and three hundred pages later, you've effectively wasted an entire setting. Third, the readers are almost certain to find that later installments of the story will make no sense unless they've read through several previous installments.

The only solution I can think of at this point would be to make sure that the individual stories can stand on their own. If you can finish a novel in one go, then that's all the more better for you. Otherwise, I think that we're better off serving our stories in bite-size pieces. Knowing that any story can conceivably be read independently of the others doesn't just take away a restriction on the part of the readers -- it also gives new readers an avenue to jump in.

Beyond these rules, however, I must consider that these are personal standards more than anything else. They're guidelines, and innovation often means scrutinizing these same guidelines for new and interesting ways to break them.

I might follow these items to the letter right now, but for all I know, I might be spending my next seven years figuring out how to make their exact converses work for me. After all, any genre is in a constant state of evolution. That the fantasy category happens to reward anything that is newer and more different than any previous works is an even better prospect for the rest of us.


Dominique said...

What I get from this post is: chain mail bikini on voluptuous female warriors is indispensable technology. Yay!

Great post, Sean (and I'm not just talking about the chain mail bikini part.)

Sean said...

Dominique: Ironically, I'm aware that it was perfectly possible to forge chainmail bikinis during medieval times. How I know that is absolutely none of your business, though. :)

banzai cat said...

Well, you know what that means: there was bikini waxing already during that time. I for one know that chain + hair = painful. ;-)

Ida said...

We have the same sentiments re the nonhuman characters. I try to avoid them as much as possible when I'm trying to write fantasy. :P

Oh, and if magic is what makes fantasy, fantasy, would you consider the romance novels with a medieval setting and some magical elements also under "high fantasy"? Just curious.

Sean said...

Banzai Cat: Thus we see extensive use of chainmail in womens' bra cups, as per Dominique's reference. :)

Ida: As long as there are working magical elements involved, I consider the stuff to be fantasy. I feel, for example, that fortune-telling, alchemy and sleight of hand are logical parts of a realist universe. However, prophecies that come true, transmutated substances, and telekinesis/teleportation would give hints of a fantastic universe to me. I think that a romance novel in a medieval setting without magic is just that: a romance novel in a medieval setting. :)