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First, a quick announcement: while my authors are blogging on my site this week, I have a guest blog up over here, defining the genres and subgenres.  I hope you'll check it out.

And now:
I met Carol Berg years ago at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference, which is where she met her first editor as well.  I loved her work so much that although reading in the car gives me motion sickness, I just had to read excerpts from it to my husband as we drove.  We've been together ever since that first novel and Carol has since gone on to publish her wonderful Rai-Kirah series, the Bridge of D'Arnath series, the stand-alone SONG OF THE BEAST and her recent duology FLESH AND SPIRIT and BREATH AND BONE.  She also blogs here.


"Making it Personal, Making it Real" by Carol Berg


 Once of the coolest things about writing fantasy is the freedom to develop so many different kinds of stories in an amazing range of fictional worlds.  Like Di Francis, I love worldbuilding - bringing together all the things I’ve learned about cultures, politics, religion, social structures, geology, geography, and you name it - and creating a place that feels as vivid and "walkable" as the culture in which I live.  Of course, there’s a bit more to consider to making a magical story real and engaging.

An aspiring fantasy writer once told me that she had been working on a fantasy world for six years, developing a fascinating history, social structure, geology, and detailed descriptions of cities, villages, roads, right down to the hidden entrances to her castles.  It was astonishing and wonderful stuff.  And she had developed an elaborate plot, with all sorts of events that would take place in a great magical conflict.  But when I said, "So tell me about your hero," she said she hadn’t come up with anyone yet.

If the world and the plot are overly constrained before giving thought to the individuals who populate the world and their personalities, goals, and motivations, I worry that the writer will install cardboard characters to service the plot or expose the world.  The reader in me prefers - and I write - what some refer to as character-driven epic fantasy. 

Epic fantasies are big stories, not just in the number of books it takes to tell the whole thing, but in the complexity, scope, and scale of events.  They are grand adventures that dabble about those fascinating borderlines between nature, magic, myth, and the divine.  But if the adventure gets too grand, the events too large scale, readers can get left back on the ground and feel detached from the story.  The reading experience can become more like reading mythology than reading a human story.  Experiencing epic events through the personal lens of vivid, compelling characters enables me, as a reader, to connect to a grand adventure.

So what makes a compelling hero? 
Epic fantasy heroes and heroines get involved in larger than life difficulties, and it usually takes some combination of larger than life strength, endurance, and power, whether magical, spiritual, or intellectual to get them through.  But that doesn’t mean every hero has to be godlike!  Flawed, human people, with likes and dislikes, prejudices, vulnerabilities, doubts, fears, vices, and every other trait that we see in real life, make great protagonists.  Sometimes they’re not even very nice people all the time.  Heroes who question, who vacillate, who change, are much more interesting than all-powerful, one-dimensional players.  Flaws, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities that have to be overcome add tension and conflict to the story, and help avoid the deus ex machina instant magical solutions that make readers throw a book across the room yelling "cheat!"  They also leave room for character growth and ultimately satisfying resolutions. 

As a side note: The need for strength and power does not imply that females must be "chicks in chainmail" in order to become a great heroine.  Strength and power come in all kinds of guises.

Epic fantasy villains often turn out more interesting than the heroes and heroines (another great reason to smudge a hero’s shining armor!)  But sometimes villains are written to be so unremittingly vile, one believes they get up every morning thinking, "What can I do to be evil today?"  Well, ok, sociopaths can be interesting, but I prefer the villains who come outfitted in shades of gray and who bring more complex motivations to the table.  I look for nuanced people one can believe might possibly have turned out another way but for a single ill choice made along the way, or a single day on which a "good" person turned away.  Somehow the contrast of evil deeds and nobler human traits makes the resulting wickedness even more horrible. 

I can’t talk about fantasy characters without touching on secondary characters - those who carry "speaking parts," but aren’t the main actors - and minor characters - those who have walk-on roles to fill out the untidy jobs in the world.  First off, secondary characters don’t have to be elves, dwarves, or hobbits, and they don’t have to come in threes.  I like to think of every secondary and minor character as an individual who had a life before walking into the frame of the story and who will have a life when he or she (or it!) walks out again.  Which doesn’t mean every innkeeper must be fully fitted out with dysfunctional family, political secrets, and interesting hobbies, but only that he or she shouldn’t devolve into the "fat innkeeper in a white apron" so familiar in lists of fantasy cliches.

So how do I avoid over-constraint in my own writing?  (Every author works differently, of course.)  I always seem to begin a project with an idea of an interesting person in an odd - usually uncomfortable! - situation: maybe a depressed, world weary slave who was once a magical warrior (Seyonne in Transformation) on the slave auction block, or a broken musician who has been brutally imprisoned for 17 years and doesn’t know why (Aidan in Song of the Beast) getting kicked out of prison, or a tall, good-looking renegade sorcerer lying prostrate on the floor of an abbey church as if he’s taking holy orders, while mumbling, "What the hell am I doing here?" (Valen in Flesh and Spirit) 

I may have only an initial scene and a skeleton of the overall story arc in mind, along with a vague idea of the magic and a general impression of the world.  Something like: a kingdom much like Roman Britain at the time of the Roman withdrawal, only it is suffering a civil war and an environmental disaster that might or might not have its roots in "the realm of angels" (Flesh and Spirit).  Or a desert empire that’s outgrown its boundaries and is being secretly subverted by a race possessed by demons (Transformation).  

I flesh out the world and the magic as I develop the events that shape the plot, getting to know both characters and world just as I would get to know any new acquaintance, a layer at a time.  Plot decisions are driven by the personalities, goals, choices, and dilemmas of the characters.  Sometimes I have been known to use the old reliable method of figuring out the last thing my hero or heroine would ever do, and then scheming and conniving a way to make him or her do it.  Just because you treasure your characters doesn’t mean you have to be nice.  Sorry, Valen, Seyonne, Aleksander, Aidan, Seri, Karon, Gerick, Jen, Portier… 


Tune in tomorrow for  "
Walker Between Worlds - How to Make Your Fantasy Plausible in a Scientific World" by Sarah A. Hoyt.



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Comments

( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
lotuseyes
Sep. 18th, 2008 03:09 pm (UTC)
er 'blood and bone' or 'breath and bone' for the second book? the cover says one thing and you mention another in your post I mean.

going back to reading the post now!
varkat
Sep. 18th, 2008 03:35 pm (UTC)
Sorry, my error. All corrected now.
ext_106256
Sep. 18th, 2008 04:52 pm (UTC)
Carol, I am really looking forward to hearing you at Surrey. Even more so now.

This was excellent advice. I love vivid characters.

Just one oops moment. I do have a fat innkeeper in an apron in my book. Guess I should change that.

Thanks for adding your take on fantasy. I do have one question. Normally, I like very multifaceted characters. In my wip my antagonist is very much a sociopath. Even the demon she has summoned has more emotion than she does. Is this a major drawback in construction?
carolberg
Sep. 18th, 2008 05:58 pm (UTC)
Julie - look forward to meeting you at Surrey!

Yeah, we all find cliched placeholders in our drafts. That's why I always list it as something to look for in revision. Just a few minutes thought can make such characters more real.

As I said, sociopaths can work for villains (writers can make anything work!) You just don't want an all-evil, all-powerful villain that looks like every other all-evil, all-powerful villain ever written. What makes this person individual? To me, incorporating this kind of villain means that the conflict of the story will lie as much between the people on the "good guy" side, as between good and evil. Lord of the Rings is an example where Sauron is more a part of the universal landscape than an individual. The true conflicts come between the members of the fellowship and inside the individual members as they deal with their own fears and weakness. What brings tension to your story, ie. convinces your readers that this time, the bad guys might actually win?

Carol
(Anonymous)
Sep. 19th, 2008 05:36 pm (UTC)
Carol, thanks for replying. It won't take much to change the innkeeper. He just needs to be unattractive.

As for my sociopath, she's loosely based on a historical figure. I think I've done all right in the tension department. There is an entire cast of characters on the bad guy side so it doesn't all pivot on her. She is more of a puppet master.

I'm just finishing Barbara Rogan's Next Level workshop and hope Surrey will put the final touches one the revisions.

Thanks again for posting to this thread and for answering my questions.
ext_106256
Sep. 18th, 2008 04:54 pm (UTC)
Lucienne, there is definitely a reason another agent told me to check you out. I love this enthusiasm. Thanks so much for doing fantasy week. I'm as happy as a pig in mud.
varkat
Sep. 19th, 2008 07:50 pm (UTC)
Dear Julie,

I'm so glad this is working for you. I think my authors have outdone themselves with their fabulous posts!

-L
otterdance
Sep. 18th, 2008 10:11 pm (UTC)
*waves* Nice blog!
carolberg
Sep. 19th, 2008 02:40 pm (UTC)
Hey Lynn,

Merci! *waves back*

Carol
ruthannereid
Sep. 19th, 2008 02:03 pm (UTC)
Oh, oh, this is SO helpful. It clarifies some of the things I've been thinking on my own, and answers more questions I had no idea how to satisfy. Thank you so much for posting this!
carolberg
Sep. 19th, 2008 02:38 pm (UTC)
We aim to satisfy. Glad it tweaked your thinking.

Carol
(Anonymous)
Sep. 20th, 2008 05:57 am (UTC)
"I'm so glad this is working for you. I think my authors have outdone themselves with their fabulous posts!"

Yes, ma'am. They surely have. What a delightful and helpful group of authors.
ext_106256
Sep. 20th, 2008 05:59 am (UTC)
All right, that was from me.

I tend to own up to my blabbering.

ext_106256
Sep. 20th, 2008 06:00 am (UTC)
Good grief and the anon post didn't post.

"I'm so glad this is working for you. I think my authors have outdone themselves with their fabulous posts!"

Yes, ma'am. They surely have. What a delightful and generous group of authors.
rippatton
Sep. 20th, 2008 12:16 pm (UTC)
I love the point you've made about needing to people the worlds we create. I too have encountered the world-builders, those incredibly creative minds who walk the streets of their novels alone. Reminds me of Slartibartfast. One person I just encountered has been "working" on the same novel for fifteen years. Me, I start with the people and build worlds around them.
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )

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