This is the second part of Wyatt and Walt’s ongoing series on writing in the fantasy genre. To read Part I, click here.
Alright. We’ve laid out our initial difficulties with writing fantasy (and why we feel the urge to do it). We’ll now turn to something more specific:
It’s pretty clear, intuitively, why this presents more of a problem in fantasy than say, contemporary fiction. If you’re writing about a supermarket, you don’t really have to spend too much time building the actual supermarket for the reader. As an author, you can assume your reader is familiar with the basic layout, what products are available, the types of people you tend to run into. Of course, there should be a reason your character is in a supermarket to begin with. Let’s say she needs to get Viagra for her husband. Certain details about the supermarket might, therefore, draw her attention. The author is able, through the things his character observes (a package of ballpark wieners, a particularly well-endowed cucumber, the pant-less Calvin Klein model on the cover of the newest Men’s Health magazine), to convey certain things about the heroine.
The point is that the author needn’t spend time worrying about the descriptive superstructure of a scene: it already exists in the reader’s mind. The author can simply move toward building their character.
Not so in fantasy. Everything is…new. The reader has no real frame of reference for anything on the page. Granted, it’s not like the author has to completely reinvent the wheel. If everyone in the book is riding around on horses, if women who can count to ten are being burned at the stake, if characters aren’t constantly checking their cell-phones, the reader can safely assume that the action is taking place at a time roughly equivalent to our own middle ages. This grounds the reader somewhat, and they begin to fill in potential blanks with their own imagination, drawing on their (potentially) vast reservoir of images gleaned from the History Channel and…Game of Thrones.
But as an author you still have to place your reader in this time frame. And if you don’t want your book to be just another Tolkien/King/Martin rip-off, you have to go about differentiating your work (this can be done in any number of ways, some of which we will delve into in subsequent posts—it’s just difficult). In terms of setting, this means having a unique world for your characters to inhabit. And this means writing quite a few details.
Which, in a certain sense, can be liberating. In fact, some of the most fun we’ve had working on our novel is constructing entirely imaginary places for our scenes to take place in. But it can also be incredibly daunting. How much is too much? Does the reader really need to know the angle of the buttress of a church? The exact height of a turret? Every article of clothing a character chooses to wear?
Details, objects, nouns: they all matter. They’re the blocks by which an author builds a story. They not only allow the reader to enter a narrative, but they provide the necessary inroads to a character. They’re the basis of that tired trope: show, don’t tell. But in writing fantasy, it’s incredibly easy to get lost in them. In fact, we’ve frequently found ourselves showing way too much, and do very little actual telling. In a way, you have to be even more cautious about the details you choose to include, but your options infinite. With every page we write, it feels as if we’re being asked to pick five grains of sand from a beach. Where does someone even start?
For us, as we’ve worked through it, it comes back to character. What we’ve discovered in writing this book is that our characters have become our guides. This story, which has much more of a classical “plot” than anything else we’ve written, would be impossible to tell without a basic understanding of the people that inhabit it. It’s an entirely different way of writing a story for us. With everything we’ve written before, our characters are strangers to us when we first begin. The details of a scene tend to emerge to us first, and then we place our character within it, and watch to see what they do. In writing fantasy, we find that our characters lead us to the scene and its subsequent details. In contemporary fiction, the scene is the light; in fantasy, the only light we have is the flickering torch of our character, leading us down dark halls, in a dark castle, in a dark world.
That’s not to say that we know everything about our characters. They still surprise us. But we find that having a basic, root understanding of them helps to ground us in their point of view. With this, we are able to see the world we’re creating more clearly. It helps us to pick out those five grains of sand for each scene. It allows us to say, enough showing already: let’s get on with the tale.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on this, and would love to answer any questions you might have. Stay tuned for the next post in this series. As always, we thank you for reading,
W & W Sawday