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The Building Blocks of Fantasy – Other Fantasy

This is the fourth in a series of weekly posts in which I’m going to lay out what I see as some of the building blocks of great fantasy. It’s not gospel, but I hope it’ll help you take a look at your work and find ways to improve it. You can start the series here.

I suppose it’s no great secret that in order to write great fantasy, you need to read a lot of fantasy. I make mention of it here nevertheless because I sometimes catch beginning writers either underestimating or misunderstanding the reading they should be doing.

Reading in the genre is important because your fantasy novel exists in conversation with all the other fantasy novels your reader has read. That’s how the human brain works—it’s always looking for connections between previous experiences and new ones. So if I write gritty, dark military fantasy, it may astonish readers who’ve never heard of Joe Abercrombie, Steven Erikson, Glen Cook, et. al., but I’d better make sure I’m bringing something new to the table for anyone who is familiar with those authors.

And that last point is very important, because there’s a truth about writing fantasy that new authors sometimes miss:

Hardcore genre fans matter more than general readers.

I often hear people just getting into writing fantasy say that they want to write a book that appeals to a general audience. They want everyone to enjoy their books, not just genre fans. They want to write the next Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire. That’s a good, noble, and important goal, but it’s putting the cart before the horse.

Your first audience, and therefore your most important audience, is the reader who’s looking for a book like yours. If you write military fantasy, you must impress the military fantasy reader first, so that they will turn to the military historical fiction reader or the high fantasy reader or the general fiction reader and say, “I know you don’t usually read stuff like this, but seriously, this book was so good you have to try it.” If you fail to impress that first reader, the hardcore genre fan, you’re not going to reach the general audience you want to get to. Fantasy works that develop a general audience always develop a genre audience first—even if that genre audience is the acquisitions team at a publisher which then realizes the general-audience potential of the book and works to get it in front of general-fiction readers from day one.

Hopefully that’s established in your mind that you need to read deeply in your genre, but just in case, here’s another reason: readers, whether they’re agents and editors or just the regular kind, will not be enchanted by something they’ve seen before, even if an author hasn’t seen it.

Again, that statement may seem like common sense, but I often find authors just starting their careers ignoring it. Instead they’re afraid that if they read too many books that are like theirs, their imaginations will be squelched and whatever they write will become derivative.

There may be real risk there—I’m far from qualified to speculate about what makes each individual author’s imagination tick—but I will say that all of the successful fantasy authors I know are rabid fantasy readers, and I think there’s a reason for that. If you rehash the quest fantasy or the orphan-who-finds-out-he’s-a-wizard fantasy or the gritty-reimagining-of-the-Hundred-Years-War fantasy while thinking you’re writing something readers have never seen before, you’re in trouble. It’s very dangerous for a reader to start thinking that your book is just like title X, because that’s just one step away from “I’ve seen this before. Meh.” That risk will always exist, because you can’t read everything, but you should do your best to minimize it.

So I offer the following advice: Before you decide to call a book finished, find out whether there’s anything else like it. Take your log line (a one-sentence description of your book—“An orphan boy finds out he’s secretly a wizard and goes to wizarding school” for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) to your local SF/F bookstore, or the library, or a book club, or a Goodreads discussion board, and ask if anyone has read something like that. Then read the novels that come up during the conversation, and make sure that you’re contributing something new to the genre.

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The Building Blocks of Fantasy – Magic

This is the third in a series of weekly posts in which I’m going to lay out what I see as some of the building blocks of great fantasy. It’s not gospel, but I hope it’ll help you take a look at your work and find ways to improve it. You can start the series here.

If there’s any sort of structure to these posts, it’s a movement from more objective elements of worldbuilding to less objective ones. To continue that trend, I bring you magic.

Like myth, magic can be tricky to define. It takes numerous forms, each highly dependent on the culture it belongs to. Is a microwave magic? Is a lightning bolt? Is the Eucharist? And why or why not, under which circumstances?

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to use a definition of magic that I find particularly useful to storytellers: “Magic is a powerful force that some people can command and others can’t.”

The Eucharist would pass the test. The microwave would be a bit dodgier—if you had so little experience with modern technology that you didn’t know that punching buttons typically makes a microwave-shaped device do something, it would be pretty magical, but in modern Western society it’s decidedly mundane. The lightning bolt would fail the test because it can’t be controlled by an elite (yes, I know lightning can be simulated in a laboratory environment, but that’s not the same, and anyone can use a lightning rod).

So that gives us a bit of a sense of what magic is. Now why does magic—and this definition of magic—matter?

In part, it matters because it’s a genre marker. The presence of magic is one of the things that separates fantasy from other forms of fiction. Take the magic out of Harry Potter and you have a boarding-school story about a traumatized orphan. Take the magic out of The Lord of the Rings and you don’t have much at all—it’s that integral to the plot.

On a more technical level, magic provides an incredibly potent tool for creating a sense of awe—another thing fantasy readers often look for in a book. Because by definition magic works for some people and not for others, it will appear awesome (in the old, literal sense of evoking awe) to some people in your book, and that sense of awe, properly described, can evoke the same in a reader. John Tristan’s descriptions of dragons in The Sheltered City (I’m cheating here and citing something I worked on), are one of the most memorable parts of the book for exactly that reason.

Finally, magic provides you with a potent plot lever. I wrote recently about Jeff Vandermeer’s (over)use of a certain psychological principle as magic in Authority, but just because the tool can be overused doesn’t mean it’s a bad one. Power imbalances between characters, however they come about, create dramatic tension. You don’t need magic to create a power imbalance, and you do need power imbalances in your narrative that don’t come from magic. But when properly used (see Bayaz in Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy), magic can create great interpersonal tension.

That’s why magic matters. How do we create believable magic then?

Like history and myth, magic comes from real-world analogues. I don’t want to go deeply into “systems” of magic here because not all magic is systematic, so I’m going to restate my definition again: magic is a powerful force that some people can command and others can’t. One way to create believable magic is to find a potent force that fails the magic test in our world (like lightning) and give characters in your world the ability to control it. When you do that, you appeal to the part of your reader that yearns to control the uncontrollable.

Beyond that, anywhere you find a power imbalance in the real world, you find a situation that can be recast to believably inform the magic in your world.

If you’ve ever watched someone struggle to get their cell phone to send a text message while someone else uses theirs to check their e-mail, book a flight, and make a dinner reservation, you’ve seen one kind of power imbalance that could be used to inform magic in a narrative. If you’ve ever watched someone struggle to open a jar while the person next to them just twists and presto!, you’ve seen another. And if you’ve ever walked blithely through a building that no wheelchair user could enter, you’ve seen a third.

Those situations may not seem magical, but in their hearts they can be. The person who yearns to be able to understand that damn thing in their hand, or open the salsa without asking for help, or see the museum that ignored the ADA, is the person in a fantasy narrative who can’t use the magic. And the person who does those things without thinking twice is the mage who doesn’t understand their own power.

The flashy, common, external representations of magic (fireballs, lightning bolts, earthquakes, et al.) are just candy coating, and you can pick whichever flavors you like for them. What matters is the power imbalance that lies behind magic, and as long as you nail that, your magic will feel real to readers.

Continue reading the series here.

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The Building Blocks of Fantasy – Myth

This is the second of several weekly posts in which I’m going to lay out what I see as some of the building blocks of great fantasy. It’s not gospel, but I hope it’ll help you take a look at your work and find ways to improve it. You can start the series here.

Out of history, or perhaps parallel to it, grows myth. Defining what qualifies as myth can be a little tricky, but for my purposes, I mean stories that get passed down from generation to generation, regardless of truth, origin, or religious connotation. The story of Odin creating the world out of the bones of Ymir is myth. So are the labors of Hercules. So is the life of Jesus. So is the story of John Henry versus the steam drill, and so is the story my wife and I tell about how we met.

Like history, myths pervade our lives. Often, as in the case of Odin creating the world out of Ymir’s bones, they grow up to explain a mystery. Other times, as in the case of Hercules, myths are created to couch moral lessons in an exciting story. Myths may be created around a person or event to serve a specific purpose (read a bit about the Gospel of John to see this in action in Christianity). Myths can also serve to promote particular values (John Henry) or to create narratives that cast certain people, institutions, or ideas in a particular light (the story my wife and I tell falls into this category).

Myths aren’t necessarily true or untrue. Often they’re true in spirit, at least to their teller, but they can’t be proved or disproved factually. When my wife and I tell the story of how we met, everything we tell really happened, but when we take those real events and create a narrative out of them, we’re building a myth—one that will probably outlast us. When I tell the story of how my grandmother and grandfather met, I’m retelling the story they told to me as it makes sense to me, further filtered to fit the needs of the moment and molded into a form that I think will make sense to my listener; I’m very far from reciting history. A culture’s larger myths follow that same trajectory, even if they begin as a historical narrative and even if they’re written down.

So, like history, myths will be ever-present in the lives of the characters in your fantasy story. There will be cultural myths, like Tolkien’s tales of Numenor. There will be local myths, like the one Gandalf refers to about Bullroarer Took in The Hobbit. And there will be personal myths, like those Frodo creates in his own mind around Bilbo and his travels. Myths matter, in fantasy as in real life, because they color how we see people, ideas, and institutions. We also sometimes make decisions based upon them if we have nothing better to go on (consider Frodo deciding whether to kill Gollum).

Because myths of one kind or another will be important to your characters (even if only because they, rationalists that they are in your story, define themselves in opposition to myths), you need to be able to create a reasonably coherent myth. You need to have a basic idea of what situations inspire myths, how people use them (e.g. what prompts people to create them, recall them, or take action based upon on them), and what sorts of general structures they follow, both in their “canonical” versions and in the versions (often lengthened or shortened considerably) that people create when they retell them.

You can learn some of this by studying myth from a structuralist, academic perspective—reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces and its ilk—but I suggest, in the tradition of academic study itself, sticking with the original source material wherever you can. Pick one myth, like Odin creating the world out of the bones of Ymir. Read about it in the Elder Edda. Then read about it in D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myths. Then read about it in The Gospel of Loki. Then ask your friend who really loves Norse mythology about it. You’ll learn a lot about how myths twist and change between retellings, depending on the mind and purpose of the teller, and that will teach you how to use myth in a believable fashion in your world.

Regardless of how you come by your knowledge, you need to be able to use myth to write great fantasy. Myths are important in any narrative—even literary fiction set in contemporary New York City has myths, though they rarely involve gods and magic. But myths are particularly important in fantasy because many (not all, but many) readers come to the genre for them. They love looking at the world through the lens of ancient myths, with their tales of gods, heroes, giants, magic, and heroism. And to hook them, you need to be able to show them your world through that lens.

Catch the next post in the series here.

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