1.19.2016

Entangled in Text

The world of fantasy is a prolix one. The books in the genre tend to run long, entwining folklore and history with the author’s own imagination. Because plot points often turn on magic, involving a talisman or a chant, the freedom to roam is given a wide latitude indeed. After all, if a character can be a half-dead elf, who knows what properties he may possess?

This very freedom can lure the neophyte author into various traps. These snares are similar to those in historical fiction, with one large exception. The readers of this genre expect a filled-out world to inhabit. The hoariest example of this comes from the founder of the genre, Middle Earth of J.R.R. Tolkien. Everyone who has followed him has had the duty to create a magical world, populated largely with non-human species.

Devising such a storied place requires a tremendous amount of work. The less original writers tend to follow a single country’s mythology, for instance, the Ulster Cycle featuring Cuchulain. Because the research into the topic provides so many rich possibilities, an author can become lost in her embarrassment of riches. Even worse, in working out particular instances, such as being opposed by a malignant spirit while trying to cross a ford (common in Irish mythology), an author can spend pages upon pages updating the ancient lore in her own words.

The author controls how many elaborations will fill out this world. A fantasy that does not have a new exotic population waiting in the next forest can feel limited to a reader. Not only that, but the characters must have entire belief systems that govern their spheres. So besides creating the denizens in all their bizarre variations, an author must work out the many ramifications of mythical (or, mystical) beliefs.

What can be lost in all of these laborious proceedings are two elements vital to any story: character and plot. An author may be so eager to explicate why, for instance, dark knights ride winged steeds that the characters teaching and learning the lore become stick figures. The lore also tends to act like sucking muck in terms of advancing the plot. The reader is reduced to enduring lectures on the author’s proficiency in spinning out original material.

Here’s the rub: all of the great research and spinning out of ideas is merely stage setting. As an author you must proceed in two stages. Once the research is completed, you still have a novel to write. You still need great characters involved in a series of stirring feats.

Exercise: Use that favorite device of fantasies, a map, to guide your research efforts. Allot your various research topics to a region along the quest. Then look at your band of core characters. How can you make each region bring out a quality in a chosen character? In other words, put the research in the character’s hand, to manipulate as he will.

“Highly organized research is guaranteed to produce nothing new.”
― Frank Herbert

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine






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