If you ask me why I wrote a fantasy novel, I’d have a lot of people to blame. Lloyd Alexander, for enchanting me with his Prydain Chronicles during my youth. Robert Jordan for picking me up where Alexander left off, carrying me into the complexities of world building and epic storytelling. King Arthur, Conan, Dragonlance, the Sword of Shanarra, The Dark Is Rising… so many series, so many tales. Later on I became acquainted with the more complex works of authors like Gene Wolfe and George R.R. Martin. I ate and drank books all my life, and fantasy stories were a mainstay. After reading so many it was only natural that I felt the urge to construct my own world, brimming over with tempestuous characters, sweeping landscapes, climatic battles, great and terrible powers, heroes and monsters.
But how to get there?
If you have respect for what came before you, simply trying to copy your favorite writer(s) won’t cut it. You want to make a contribution, carve your own niche, plant your flag in an acre of literary land that will be all yours. Sure, everything is influenced by something else. But that’s the beauty of writing. You take all of your influences and figure out how to make what they did work for you -but in a way that is unique to you. Whether that be through characterization, focus on little-explored territory, a unique world setting, whatever the case. The point is that you make it yours. Once you’re done writing there should be no confusion with any other story. Ownership, in a word.
My one rule of writing is this: I write what I like to read. In fantasy I like grand storytelling, epic battles, powerful villains, troubled heroes, moral quandaries, decisions with consequences, and diverse characters/landscapes. So I definitely wanted to tell a story involving those elements. As far as the plot, I wanted to stay away from several fantasy tropes, namely:
A) The Tolkien: character from a secluded and peaceful land is chosen to undergo a quest to save the world. Usually aided by a wise old man and/or a mixed bag of non-human races.
B) The Quest: The kingdom is dying/engulfed in war, and a hero/band of heroes must undergo terrible perils to recover the long-lost sword/staff/ring/crown to magically save it.
C) The Identity Crisis: Beggar boy is really a prince. Girl disguises herself as a boy. Horrible villain is hero’s father, etc.
D) The Badass: Swaggering, amoral protagonist likes to whore, drink, and kill his/her way through life. Flashbacks reveal their TERRIBLE PAST, excuses their behavior. Usually saves the day/quest as a bonus.
E) The Chosen One: A Dark Lord is unleashed upon a hapless world, and only the prophesied Chosen One can somehow stop him. Chosen One is usually a lad with a miserable job: sheep herder, swineherd, farmer, etc. A wise old wizard or crusty dwarf will usually be found nearby to aid the boy when all else fails.
There’s a lot more clichés and tropes I wanted to avoid. I definitely didn’t want to use the ages-old stock characters of elves, dwarves, dark lords, orcs, goblins, or crusty old wizards. Like the writers I greatly admire, I wanted to blend various cultures and myths, creating races, creatures, and lands unique to my own world. I wanted my characters to be moved and shaped by their circumstances, not because of some quest or prophesy. And I definitely wanted my heroes and villains to have reasons for their actions, not simply because of being ‘good’ or ‘evil’.
Did I accomplish all of my goals? Probably not. I’m sure anyone can dissect my story and find many clichés and tropes that have existed since fantasy stories began to be told. I’m not ashamed of that. Like any story, influences from before will always leave a footprint across the pages. And actually, I’m proud of that. I like to think that by writing the genre that greatly affected me, I am able to carry the torch that those writers held. It’s an honor and a great responsibility. All I want to do is tell the best story that I’m capable of, and hope that it will be enjoyed by readers who pick it up.
More to come in the next post, which will tackle the formation of plot and characters.
What do you look for in a fantasy story? And if you write, what do you look to accomplish in your fantasy writing? Leave a comment below, I’d love to hear your thoughts.