I love great fantasy and great science fiction, my favourites the great epics that I spent much of my youth reading and rereading; Tolkien, Stephen Donaldson, Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert to name a few. Fantasy and certain kinds of Science Fiction pose a very particular challenge to the would-be author, above and beyond other genres.
Its all about the world of a story. If a writer starts by placing us in 1940s London, then most of us will have a set of images and knowledge which we immediately bring to the narrative, we might imagine the Blitz, rationing, small children being evacuated or looking through rubble for bullet cases, silhouetted bombers flying over St Paul’s and so the list goes on. The author can even prompt our memories by referring to historical facts we once knew, and so we rediscover this partially familiar world within the context of their story. However, Fantasy writers, and certain kinds of Sci-Fi, have a very different starting point.
In most cases, the story plays out in a universe or world very different from our own. If an author is setting their work in a different universe, then they have given themselves the task of communicating that new world and the rules that come with it, to us the reader. We may have very little frame of reference, if a story starts in the Zaniful Galaxy of the 26th dimension, we really are starting from scratch! Will the characters be human? What is their planet like? Is it like ours or is it completely different? Is the physics the same? If they jump do they fly? How do they communicate? The questions are endless. So the author, not only has to introduce us to their protagonist, give us a sense of their dilemma or quest, but they have to give us all the rules that govern that quest, or at least enough to give it meaningful context.
Some authors have been amazing world-builders, Tolkien being the prime example, creating histories and languages that are not even strictly needed for the telling of the story. Others, such as Stephen Donaldson, create the world around the character story that he wants to tell, starting with an ending and reverse engineering it. The result is still an amazingly colourful and detailed world that we can visualise in our minds eye, but the process is different. Philip Pullman’s excellent, ‘His Dark Materials’, did something slightly different again. He set it in our world but different, so our questions become concerned with those subtle differences, although at least we know that our geography is correct!
What does this mean for our new fantasy authors? It means there is no one answer, but they have to arrive at a world that has internal logic that matters to the central quest of the protagonist. If the central character is striving for the hidden magic of flight, then it is likely he or she lives in a world where flight is completely unknown or talked of only in fairytales or ancient texts. The hero is striving for a dream, and the rules of that world align with the hero’s quest.
Fantasy is about dealing with aspects of humanity that require metaphor to delve into. Good versus evil, light versus dark, rural versus industrial, order versus chaos, God versus science, belief versus doubt and many more. They are real world issues that can be ideal fantasy subject matter. Most of the world’s ancient tales are fantasy, a distillation of stories that lose anchorage in material reality during centuries of retelling, but retain an essential truth in metaphor.
As authors set out to write fantasy, they need to know what the quest is, what the metaphor is, and be able to communicate the rules of the world that will govern that quest. They need to develop that character as they develop the universe around them. What is the order of the universe that has become disrupted and needs to be realigned by the hero? Or perhaps we have a hero that is unwittingly going to throw that world off its axis and deal with the consequences. The possibilities are many, but character and world go hand in hand, in a way that far exceeds other genres.
The author also needs to remember, and have a big sign above their desk, that the reader knows only what the author tells them. The exception is if they are referencing universes already known, such as the many authors who have created Tolkien-esque worlds, providing a shortcut for the reader to understand setting. Without that shortcut, the author is going to have to get that world from his head onto the page in order to successfully contextualise their story.
Give the reader enough knowledge of the world to understand the actions of the characters. That is the holy duality of fantasy writing. Get it wrong and you have characters hanging in a limbo of half constructed reality, or a detailed world devoid of character. If you get it right then you can really transport the reader to another world and take them on that journey with you, and stimulate an endless fascination with the world that has been created.
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