Fantastic Writing

Recently a friend of mine, a fellow role-playing gamer, told me that he’s been working on a book, and I offered to take a look at the first couple of chapters. It’s a fantasy adventure–something I know a little about, having written one or two of those myself (and read dozens more)–so I was only too happy to take a look.

I was pleased to discover that the first three chapters are engaging, interesting, and well written. He’s made a few of the same beginning writer mistakes I made when first starting to write, but overall I think he’s got a great start. I went through his piece, making comments in much the same way I do for the MUG group, and then sent him an email with my overall impressions.

(A note about commenting, BTW. We generally do our comments in MS Word, then send them back to the writer with summary/etc in line. My friend shared his work with me via Google Drive, and the experience is a different one; he could see comments I made as I made them, and I usually do several passes over a piece, adding comments each time. As a result, the commenting experience was a much more organic one, as he had the opportunity to respond to early comments while I was still reading. Not sure if that’s good or bad – but it’s different.)

Having sent the email, I was struck by a couple of the more general bits of advice I gave him.  Here’s the gist of it:

So I said I’d talk about the snags of writing a fantasy novel. I did already, but I’ll reiterate: your world has to be different, unique, special in some unidentifiable way that makes the reader believe that it exists and want to learn more about it. Your characters can’t be simple cookie-cutter archetypes (unless they’re destined for short scenes/lives), because people have seen them before. Same for any writing, of course; you want characters that people can identify with. It’s doubly hard in fantasy, because there’s such solid preconceptions of what the archetypes are. Plot is the same, of course: there are a very few stories in the world that have not already been told. What counts is how interesting you can make your retelling.

The bit about the world building holds true for science fiction as well, of course, and as I mention the character and plot advice applies to any writing. I really think that writing genre fiction holds an even steeper challenge for the author. In any world the author builds there are rules to follow (and sometimes break). Establishing those rules is a matter of rote; is there Magic? Science? How does it work? What is the terrain, the weather, the flora, the fauna? Much fantasy (including my own!) is set in a mildly Western European Middle Ages environment. What, then, is the difference between the world you’re making and any other? Why is it different? And, just as importantly – how is it the same? The fantasy author finds him/herself walking a fine line between creating a world familiar enough that the reader feels comfortable when first introduced to it, but alien enough that the reader is engrossed, fascinated.

Characters in fantasy, especially fantasy that has been inspired by role-playing gaming, tend to fall into specific categories. Tolkien’s work is a good example, since Dungeons & Dragons, the granddaddy of all RPGs, was directly inspired by “The Lord of the Rings”; but Hickman and Weis’ “Dragonlance Chronicles” may be the best example, as that story was inspired by and taken from an actual D&D game. Character types include the Fighter, the Thief, the Wizard, and the Priest. Variations like the Barbarian, the Holy Warrior or Paladin, and the Monk exist, as do races like the Dwarf, the Elf, and the Orc. Here the fantasy author is obliged to make a decision; use these archetypes, or not. In either case, he/she must create differences, either inventing completely new types, or giving his/her characters not only personality that makes them stand apart, but also new variations on the old themes.

In the category of plot one finds the Quest; certainly not a trope limited to fantasy, but one overwhelmingly found within it. The idea of the Noble Quest dates back at least as far as Arthurian legend, with the Knights of the Round Table questing for the Holy Grail (and a variety of other things). It can be argued, quite successfully I think, that the Old English epic poem “Beowulf” is centered around two quests: the first, to kill the monster Grendel and his mother; the second, to slay the dragon which attack’s Beowulf’s kingdom in his old age. The trick in modern fantasy is not to fall into the commonly recognized paths of the trope; adventurers meeting at a tavern, quests given by a king, etc. Telling the story of the quest is, like world-building and character, a knife’s edge of writing; how to engage the reader in an obvious trope. Of course the characters are going to save the princess, find the criminal, recover the missing artifact, etc. But how to put them on that path?

The best fantasy find unique ways to bend or break the tropes. “Surrender None”, by Elizabeth Moon, is about a farmer that leads a rebellion against the noble class. The world is certainly Middle Age European, but the main character is not, nor does he ever become, a Fighter, and there is no Quest for him to follow. Richard K. Morgan’s “The Steel Remains” features a Fighter on a Quest, but he is homosexual in a world where that is heavily discouraged: the two non-human races are so far removed from Tolkien’s elves and dwarves as to be almost completely alien.

And, of course, in “Coming of Age”, the first of the Wizard and Warrior novels by yours truly, one character is a Barbarian who is born and raised in a ‘civilized’ land; and the other is a Wizard who starts off hating and fearing magic. They have no Quest to follow, instead simply living their normal lives until circumstances drive them into adventure.

Good luck with your writing!

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