But why fantasy?
Is it enough to say that people the world over (including myself) have been fascinated with elves and dragons since Tolkien published his master-work and so we can simply continue in his footsteps? Haven’t many authors have done exactly that?
Surely, fantasy is an easy field to write – and do well in?
After all, the scientific understanding for writing, say, hard sci-fi is not necessary. And, because fantasy isn’t exactly high-brow, knowledge of fancy literary theories isn’t necessary, either – in fact it may even be a hindrance.
I’d argue that fantasy is hard to do decently precisely because of the reasons above.
So many people have done it to death, that the reader is jaded by the recycled materials. There is no powerful central scientific concept to bedazzle the reader, nor is there the fig-leaf of fancy
techniques to cover up the fact that a book sucks. An entire house of leaves might not be enough, in fact*.
There is only story, and the writer’s skill in creating a believable world wherein the reader can suspend disbelief in a fantastic reality. My aim when writing is precisely that: to weave a world around the reader, starting with the mundane, and slowly stirring in the spice of magic.
I’m a fan of the (slightly) slow start. Tolkien did it with the hobbits of Hobbiton, and Donaldson did it with the gritty reality that Thomas Covenant faced as a leper … before pulling out the big guns in the form of the Ringwraiths and Lord Foul, amongst others. It is all about the suspension of disbelief and achieving it before moving on with the story.
The story should have wonder built into it. It’s the writer’s responsibility to reveal enough of the plot to the reader so that she doesn’t feel lost, so that she feels that there is a sense of where the story is going … but not so much that the reader closes the book in disgust because it is so predictable. There needs to be, especially in fantasy writing, a sense of mystery, of something otherworldly just beneath the fabric of the mundane – if only we know the right mystical words to speak, or symbols to draw.
Oddly enough, many of the best writers of horror get this right. A particularly powerful scene that still stays with me was from Stephen King’s The Shining. One of his characters was busy clipping a hedge, and the hedge animals come to life, stalking him. King crafts the scene wonderfully, animating the creatures in tiny stages, drawing the reader along from where the character thinks the altered hedge-animal is a trick of his mind to where the hedge – lion actually sticks its paw out of its tended patch and the reader experiences a little climax of horror together with the character.
In my opinion, the worst sort of fantasy is the sort that pulls a new over-powered hero or villain out of a hat every chapter, and each absurd twist in the plot features the writer wracking her brain for some way to top the previously unbeatable new character. What is the point of that? The reader can practically see the gears moving behind the crudely cut-out stage props as they lurch across the page in the guise of characters that we are supposed to care about. Now, I don’t mind a good zombie story, but I prefer my characters a little more rounded.
In The Man from the Tower, there is really only one (two at the outside) character that is ‘overpowered’ – and this is only in the context of the book, since there are other fantasy universes that he’d be a wimp in – and that’s the primary antagonist.
Part of the fun of writing it was to take a pretty ordinary hero, stick him in way over his head, and watch as he tries to flounder in deep waters without a deus ex machina courtesy of the author, to save him.
If you’d like to see whether I managed to get it right or not, post a comment on this blog. I’d like to give a copy of The Man from the Tower in .pdf form to the first five posters that have something to say.
Thanks for reading.
* Although, writers like Atwood have shown themselves adept at both utilizing literary techniques AND weaving a good story. I do not pretend to belong to that stratosphere.