Category Archives: Two-World Tuesday

Fantasy, by the Planets- My Faults are in the Stars

A post first issued in 2013, now brought to my own site for the first time.

With a tip of the broad-brimmed hat to Ciara Ballintyne, whose wonderful post on the subject kicked my dusty brain into gear, I fell to thinking how to classify the various works of fantasy that I love so well. I’ve come to realize from posts at various sites, that my views are quite simplistic- also showing their age, frankly- but perhaps for beginners I can offer the following easy taxonomy. If it helps you to write, then it’s good.

  • I’m following a rule of three, split by Stakes and Mood, for a total of nine sub-Genres. Yeah I know- too tidy, old-fashioned, unconvincing. Sue me. I have simple tastes, and believe that many things folks call genres are better described as flavors.
  • Among those things you won’t see reflected here by name are Urban, High/Low, Historical, Dark and most likely others you’ve come to like. My, I’m being grumpy today. It’s just that I prefer a few categories, and then one can speak of works that split-the-distance, or bend the genre. That strikes me as the greater compliment than to give every great work that comes along a category of its own.
  • My model is a solar system- in fact, ours. The planets represent centers of gravity that define something qualitatively different about the writing, and of course the reading experience. But plenty of room between the heavenly bodies, and most of what we read doesn’t nestle down precisely in one atmosphere or another. Most planets have moons, and there are uncounted millions of asteroids: I know what you’re thinking, the literary genius goes on and on.
  • And here’s another point, before I lay the figure on you. It’s a solar system, which means there’s room outside it as well. Maybe you’ll find the stuff you really like is off beyond Pluto somewhere, and that’s cool. I know that some of my works to date have spicing from other genres such as Horror, Mystery, and Romance: if Fantasy writing was a country trading with its neighbors, I would say imports outweighed exports by about 10 to 1. Might be cool to consider that in a future post.

A Question of Stakes and Mood

So I’ll give the graphic representation here, which I hope is pretty self-explanatory (thousand words and all that). I hope you enjoy it, and then if you like scan as many of my notes as you want. I’m a heroic and epic fantasy chronicler, so believe me, this IS the short version! But stop whenever it’s not helping you anymore. I’m very happy as always to hear your thoughts too. You should be able to click on the picture to make it bigger.

One chronicler's suggestion
One chronicler’s view

I’ve suggested three major genres of fantasy- Epic, Heroic and Sword and Sorcery (down the middle)  with variations of Mood (across the top) from Cinematic to Morbid, and a second spectrum of Stakes (along the side) from Casual to Crucial. At each “planet” I installed a title that pretty closely fits the location: most of my selections reveal my age but I think they will still be familiar to many. One word of warning; these planets are not arranged in the same order as you might expect by the presence of the “sun” in the picture. More explanations than you could ever want follow here!

The Stakes of a Tale

EPIC Fantasy is defined by Crucial Stakes; the main character is called upon to Save the World. Combat is rare, humor limited and every act reeks of consequences. Things happen for a reason, it all ties together.

HEROIC Fantasy involves some kind of quest within more limited boundaries, to Save the Kingdom. Heroes fight more often, there can be humorous moments and even mistakes before the (usually happy) ending.

SWORD & SORCERY sometimes identified with “Low” fantasy, has the smallest, most Casual stakes; for the protagonist, the job  is literally Save Your Skin. Fighting and action ranges from frequent to non-stop, and nearly any vice you can imagine is on the table (sometimes taking its clothes off) while mistakes are common (and mean less). By the end, there has often been little or nothing accomplished. Except you’ve enjoyed a great story.

Getting Into the Mood

But these tales are also qualified by a tone or Mood which puts them in definable categories. The CINEMATIC (or Light) mood generally carries more humor, a higher level of action and suspense, and often brings more misadventures whose purpose either distracts or relieves tension derived from the main plot. Not surprisingly, fantasies with a Cinematic Mood make good movies. The Stakes are the same (a Cinematic Epic Fantasy is still a quest to save the world), but you can laugh along the way, there’s more of a campy flavor. There’s also less doubt that the world/kingdom/skin will, in fact, be saved. You don’t spend sleepless nights wondering how it will turn out. On the opposite side of the spectrum, fantasy tales of all three genres can be Morbid (or perhaps Dark), bearing not just on death but on a much grimmer prospect regarding the Stakes. You can certainly doubt whether “it” will be saved, or you might be uncertain if you want the main character to succeed. Many works hailed as deconstructions of fantasy, in another view, are Morbid.

THE BOOK TITLES: In case you were interested, some notes on the choices I made. I spotted my own works with initials in purple (TMM- Three Minutes to Midnight, and so forth). I think I have them in the right orbits, but let me know!

Epic: Lord of the Rings is the obvious call, hard to see how any work could displace it. I also include SRD’s Thomas Covenant series as a later, but still seminal example of the Stakes involved. Ironic point- Middle Earth is lost unless Frodo refuses to use the Ring, and The Land is done for unless Covenant decides to use it!

Cinematic Epic: I chose the 1980 version of Flash Gordon for two reasons. First, even though it’s about as silly and campy as anything ever put on film, the Stakes are unmistakably Crucial: Ming is moments away from destroying Earth and ruling the entire galaxy. It’s technically science-fiction, but the lasers and mind-probes are pretty soft-pedaled especially in this movie: the best moments like the stump-of-death and the tilting-floor duel are pure fantasy. Secondly, it’s a shout-out to anyone who was at Camp Dudley YMCA in 1983, when five hundred boys trooped to the movie-hall after four days of torrential rains, expecting to see another boring baseball series recap film. Instead, the pulsing drums of Queen preceded Max von Sydow sneering “Foolish Earthlings, who can save you now?” The cheering echoes up in the Adirondacks to this day.

Morbid Epic: I think Stephen King’s Dark Tower series stands well here, because of the grim tone, the gruesome moral choices made and the severe prices paid. I’m not sure who I want to win, nor whether anyone will. And the Stakes once again are the entire world (no matter how small). Should I have yelled “Spoiler Alert” a few paragraphs ago?

Heroic: I personally put Ursula LeGuin’s series on a pedestal just as high as Tolkein’s or anyone else’s, and the first book I think is a splendid example of individual heroic activity for big (but not yet universal) Stakes. There are two kinds of readers on earth- those who need to read Earthsea and those who need to read it again.

Cinematic Heroic: The book is better, yet the movie of The Princess Bride brings out the Cinematic mood just as well. But the book is better.

Morbid Heroic: Here’s where I would stash GRRM, personally, and for emphasis I laid him alongside Elric of Melnibone. I think Tad Williams’ Shadowmarch can also be classified here. The struggles going on in Game of Thrones et al will not bring the world down to darkness (most likely)- and with most characters showing a gleam of virtue already dead I’m not sure anyone would notice if they did. Heroes are saps. Even some of the bad guys are suckers, compared to some of the other bad guys. I count down from the top of my list of characters who are a) somewhat good and b) still alive, and here’s my top 3:

  1. The brave bastard (no really) who’s still alive because he lives at the polar ice-cap so none of his enemies can be sure where he is
  2. The girl who’s hoping to become an assassin
  3. the blonde guy who actually said no to boinking his sister for a change, and who might be getting a tad weary of being so evil all the time

Can you tell I don’t like Morbid fantasy much?

My choices for Sword and Sorcery are all nearly as old as I am and I cannot see into the darkness far enough to make out a Morbid choice. Perhaps you have some suggestions to fill in my star-chart?

Planetary Considerations (is this for real?)

Speaking of that, let me wrap up (this IS the short version) with a run-down of the various planets.

The SUN brings “light” of course, so the three planets closest to it are Cinematic and the furthest are Morbid. But that’s not strictly a distance thing.

Arranged to fit my own fantasy
Arranged to fit my own fantasy

Venus is where you should expect to find her, both the lowest and most light-hearted spot suited to the pursuit of, ahm, venality.

Neptune occupies the Cinematic Heroic spot because like many tales in that sub-genre, it’s turned on its side.

Pluto is Cinematic Epic because its very survival (as a planetary body) is at stake. Despite being so far away it is at least solid, and remarkably bright for its small size. So a nice combination of light and far-out.

Mars is the home of Sword and Sorcery and if Conan wasn’t so cool I’d have put Jon Carter there as a title in a heartbeat.

Earth is the home of heroes. Full stop. Keep looking, they’re there- and my Lands of Hope are the proof.

Epic Fantasy is the King (I know, the planet I used has rings, but it’s a great color). And Jupiter has many moons, lots of tremendous titles we all could name in its orbit.

Morbid S&S needs a planet where things are cold as hell but can move quickly and dangerously. Mercury, remember, doesn’t spin- the dark side temps drop to -350 F or lower. In a Morbid S&S your life could be over in fewer seconds than the days of Mercury’s orbit.

Uranus is appropriate for Morbid Heroic because it’s so large and full of gas. Deadly gas. Fortunately for me, it’s also far away. Did I mention Morbid is not my favorite?

And Saturn wishes it could be Jupiter again but will have to settle for second in size, still slow of speed, lots of material in its orbit too.

Sincere thanks for your patience, I’ve enjoyed the rant. Ar Aralte! (Hope Forever)

Sneaky World-Building Part 6: The Who

By now, you’ve probably got this whole thing wired. You build the world of your story sneaky by knowing which information is vital to the reader’s casual eye, by limiting how much you whack them with at one time, by keeping the information in a useful, interesting, and compelling context which ideally serves a second purpose (such as adding tension or doubt) at the same time.

Piece of cake.

But if you’re all done spit-taking, I want you to think about one last thing. And if you found this series useful, I’m betting you are likely already doing it. You can’t have achieved this much precision about what to show, when and where, without also having made a decision–perhaps unconsciously–about the character delivering it.

That’s the Who.

THEY Need to Know Too!

It would be not worth mentioning if it weren’t so crucial. The true omniscient third-person voice is a rarity these days (I think it’s one of the hardest): most genre fiction writers realize the tremendous advantages inherent in selecting a more personal point of view. First and second person speak for themselves (Genius! I kill myself), but the sympathetic third person–the one so many tales  are written in today, confronts you with a choice as author. Which of your characters should be the vehicle you use to bring the world to your reader?

wikimedia.org/12_Angry_Men_scene.jpg

The main character will often be the right answer. But always? What about some part of world-building that he or she should stay unaware of, some secret plan of the enemy or a fact that reveals whodunit.  I’ve read plenty of tales where the author changed point of view too often, “head-hopping” through the entire cast as if from a sense of duty, and giving us a two-sentence flash of how everybody’s feeling. Worshiping at the altar of Tell, instead of having one person scan the room and pick up on the signs that give us the same knowledge.

“A strong voice and good storytelling fills the reader with confidence, reassures them that everything has a purpose.”

— Jami Gold

But you can also see the opposite, when one character carries you through some bit of history, thinks about a prophecy or tries to assemble the clues, etc. yet gives the reader that uncomfortable sense that we’ve overstayed our welcome. Why are we here? What sympathy or relevance do these thoughts and feelings have for us at this point? Why is this character thinking about such things right now? That’s when the reader becomes suspicious, breaks the tapestry and spots the camouflage you’ve been erecting.

In other words, picking the wrong character can wreck your attempt to world-build just as surely as putting a phone book of genealogy out there by itself between two sentences of an argument. So don’t do that.

The Ignorant Narrator

One common and effective tactic to handle the Who of world-building is to choose an ignorant narrator. When they don’t know, it can immediately forge a bond of sympathy with the reader. They have a companion now, another character in this little boat piloting the unfriendly sea of your world. They share an important need, and learn (hopefully without realizing it!) about this new place as they voyage together.

Can it be overdone? Oh hell yes. One key for using ignorant narrators is to remember that they are still characters– you need to make them admirable or sympathetic in some way, because nobody wants to be cast adrift with a milksop or a perfect Mary Sue. My favorite example of a famous ignorant narrator is Doctor Watson. He and Holmes head out to the scene of the crime and you just KNOW Watson is going to miss it. Whatever that clue is, the smudge or disarranged paper or something that Holmes stops and looks at a moment, and then declares to be “probably nothing”… ah, THAT is where the action is. But Watson almost never gets it. He sees everything you do– in fact, he sees everything Holmes does– but you can use him as a near-perfect negative barometer. Holmes, of course, says nothing about whodunit until the very end, the stuck-up prig. Watson, when asked, always gives his view and it’s just about exactly wrong. The reader can use that to help deduce what’s more likely to be right, and while you might not catch up to the great detective, feeling superior to his sidekick pushes you further into the story and engages you. Elementary, really, and brilliant. But don’t forget, you LIKE Watson– he’s brave and loyal, domesticated and decent. Nobody marries and lives with Holmes.  It’s a classic example of how to tell, whoops, show the story. With the right character.

Notice you can also flip the script by choosing a villain to narrate. The reader should hate the character, thus gaining a sense of what NOT to root for, and so on. Like Watson, but without the pipe and niceness.

In Exemplum Gratia: Nine Princes in Amber

Our hero awakens in a hospital with his limbs in casts and doesn’t even remember his own name. He feels as if his legs aren’t broken, so he shatters the casts, rather easily beats up the thugly orderlies, and leaves. Corwin is the most classic of the ignorant narrators and a brilliant example of the line between the worlds. Starting out in the ARW, he pursues shady wisps of his memory, all the while displaying clear evidence to the reader–but not to himself–that the default setting for everything is under a caution flag. He’s too strong, he unconsciously behaves in a regal fashion. As Nick Fury so famously said of Loki, “He’s… not from around here.” And we discover this before Corwin does, in a way that presents constant threat, deep uncertainty, and raises our interest in the narrator’s success. I suppose this book gets tagged as a sci-fi/fantasy classic, but like some of my other examples it has elements of several genres (in fact, ALL genres!) blended into it. You don’t have to take in the entire series but the opening book is a bible for world-building done right and the tale just whizzes past. I’m so glad Mr. Zelazny is a time-traveler and came forward to read this series before writing it…

Writing Exercise: The Who

I can’t surprise you anymore by this time. Return to the Writing Exercise- look at that roster you wrote down and try to jot next to each item a name or character type who should be the one to bring it to the reader.  Should it be the main character, or a soul-mate, an authority figure, some kind of facilitator? And should it happen through thoughts (meaning, a sympathetic voice like first person)? Or with speech, or just hinted at in the way their actions are described? Spend a couple minutes trying to populate your list. Who would have these thoughts, based on what they need or desire?

Now, look at the results. You should have a nice list of things vital to include in your tale, a sense of the order to introduce them, an idea about the origins of this information (and maybe even some “raw material” to draw from!) and now a vision of which character will be bringing the news forward. Brava!

You’ve got it now. The reader will have no chance to avoid the world you build for them, in fact, they’ll be eager to know more. Not by learning it! No, your tale was far too interesting and well crafted to have taught them anything. They just saw it, experienced and enjoyed it. They feel a part of it now, and will boast to their friends just like the tourist who went to Bangkok for three days and is now an expert on Thailand, and Buddhism, and Asian food…

All World-Building is Really a Whodunit

{Actually a Whoshowsit!}

I can only hope you’ve enjoyed reading this series as much as I did crafting it. I probably sounded way too sure of myself, but I wanted to be encouraging and give you hope about a subject that too many authors despair of. Remember: your judgment must govern the process, and all rules can be broken by those who know why. If you don’t find resonance in what I’ve said, feel free to print out the entire series, wad it up and lob it in the trash. But don’t pretend the Patience Horizon doesn’t exist; don’t light that candle with a flame-thrower. Charm the reader into your lands and they won’t just put up with the build, they’ll run to that horizon and hold it up like Atlas to learn more.

Let me know your experiences and any questions you still may have. There are countless worlds out there, and you are the ARW’s leading expert on at least one of them! Let’s hear from you in your next published tale.