Archive for fantasy


A Royal Scam

Since the book I’m working on falls roughly into the category of “historical fantasy,” I did a lot of reading about history to research it, and a lot of that involved reading about various royals. The more I learn about royalty, the more I think that the concept of royalty is one of the biggest scams ever perpetrated by and on mankind.

The earliest royals were probably tribal chiefs who won their position through some kind of conquest, whether defeating another leader and taking control or helping defend the group against someone else and being acclaimed as the leader. But then from there it became an inherited position, and they supported the idea of this as a divine right. If they’re in charge, that must mean that God wanted them to be in charge, and therefore any rebellion against the king is a rebellion against God, and therefore a sin. And then there was the idea that royal blood was somehow different from regular blood. The royalty, nobility, and gentry were physically superior to the peasantry. As late as the 1800s, the quite progressive for her time Charlotte Bronte had her character surprised that the coarse peasant girls in her school were capable of learning in spite of being of inferior birth.

And yet if you look at the actual royals, it’s hard to imagine these as superior human specimens. I don’t see how royalty stayed in power in Spain after the later Spanish Habsburgs who were so inbred as to be barely functional. They actually looked at these people and thought God wanted them to rule, and they were superior to the people they ruled? Well, probably not. This is a case of what I mentioned last week, where there was an infrastructure in place of people who benefited from the power structure and supported it. Most of the people didn’t know how sickly and deformed their rulers were, and the people around the rulers were hanging on to their own power, so nobody said, “You know, I don’t really think God is blessing this guy’s rule.”

Where it gets really wacky is the idea that royalty is so important that it supersedes ability or even being from the country they’re going to be ruling. For instance, when the British ran out of Stuarts they wanted anywhere near their throne, they reached back to the great-grandson of a previous king, someone who didn’t speak English, had never lived in England and knew little about it. Ironically, that previous king got his claim to the throne via an ancestor whose claim to “royal blood” was somewhat dubious (though his wife did have a bit more of a claim). I guess your blood suddenly becomes royal once you’ve put on a crown and your descendants forevermore are royal.

That even continues into modern time. When Norway got its independence from Sweden in 1905, they decided they wanted a king. Instead of finding someone in their country who would make a good leader, they imported a Danish prince — I guess because royalty was all-important. The current king is the first king of Norway to have actually been born in Norway in something like 800 years. His grandfather was Danish and his father was born in England (his father’s mother was a daughter of the English king). And the next king of Norway will be the first one in a long time who’s at all Norwegian, since his mother is Norwegian. Until now, they’ve been Danish and Swedish (and English, but in the English royal family, that meant German at that time). Greece also imported a Danish prince to be their king, back in the 1800s, which is how Prince Philip was a Greek prince without being at all Greek (he was Danish, German, and Russian).

I wonder if this kind of stuff is why there’s such a tendency toward “chosen ones” in fantasy. We’re trying to make sense of the idea of royalty, where there is actually something magical about it, some supernatural reason why this person is elevated above others. It makes it feel like the person might have actually earned it. That farmboy who turns out to be the long-list prince proves himself somehow, usually gaining acclaim from great deeds before anyone knows who he is, so it’s like he’s earned his throne rather than merely inheriting it. I love what Terry Pratchett did with the trope, where the long-lost “one true king” is just a cop. Everyone kind of knows who he really is, but no one talks about it. He’s capable of rallying the people when necessary, then goes back to working his beat after the crisis is over. He’s worthy because he’s a good man, not because of his ancestry or the fact that he has a birthmark in the shape of a crown, and because he’s a good man, he has no interest in taking power.


The Taste of Memories

Some fantasy novels are notorious for an emphasis on food. We get loving descriptions of feasts and know exactly what the characters eat on their journeys. Reading the Shire portions of either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings will make you hungry, since hobbits love their food.

Food can be an important facet of worldbuilding. I have a writer friend who creates cuisines for each of the cultures in his fantasy world, figuring out what ingredients and spices they’d have and how that would come together to make the kinds of foods that culture would eat and where food fits into each culture.

I don’t seem to be that kind of writer. I’m lucky if I remember that my characters need to eat. The copyeditor on my Enchanted, Inc. books used to joke that she was the designated Jewish mother of my characters because she’d make notes asking how long it’s been since the characters had eaten and suggesting I put in a mention of them getting food if they’d gone too long without a meal. Figuring out what they’d be eating so I could describe it wouldn’t even occur to me.

Which is odd, when I think about it, because I love to cook. I like trying new recipes, and I put a lot of thought into menu planning. I base my meal plans not only on what ingredients are available and what I’m hungry for, but also on the weather, the mood I’m in, and whether it’s any kind of special occasion.

I also seem to link food to memories and emotions. The food I’m eating when something that makes me feel really emotional happens will forever be linked in my mind with that event or emotion. There’s a recipe I’ve never been able to make myself eat, even though it was something I like, because the first time I made it, I got some upsetting news while I was cooking, and now in my mind, that food is what “upsetting” tastes like. There are also positive associations, foods that make me happy when I eat them because I associate them with something good.

This week, I’m reclaiming a couple of foods. One is one of my favorite bread recipes. I just about live on this bread from fall through winter and even into spring. It’s hearty and travels well, so I bake a loaf and cut slices to take with me to conventions so I can have tea and bread in my room before I have to face people. Until this year, my main emotional connection to this bread is conventions. The taste makes me think of quiet mornings in a hotel room. But this year, I’d just baked a loaf before the big deep freeze and power outage. It was good that I had it because it was something I could eat without needing power to cook it, but because of that, the taste started making me think of freezing mornings spent huddled in a blanket by my fireplace, worrying about whether I’d get power back, whether my pipes would freeze. After I got power back, I didn’t want to touch that bread. I was too busy cooking other things for breakfast. The last part of the loaf got moldy, which had never happened before. I’ve never made that bread last long enough to go bad.

I didn’t want to ruin this bread for myself, so since it got cool again this week, I made another loaf. I’m remembering how much I like it, and I’m trying to move away from the bad memories. I guess it helps that now that the cold week is well into the past and I know it came out okay for me, I can look back on it somewhat fondly as a kind of adventure (in the same way, I get nostalgic about things like having the flu because I don’t remember the misery, only the coziness of snuggling up in blankets and letting myself watch movies all day).

I also made chili for dinner last night because I’d started associating chili with that week. It was the first thing I made when I got power back. I’d run out of things I could quickly heat up, so I had to cook something when I got the chance, and this was the sort of thing that could be done fairly quickly or could simmer for a long time. That turned out to be the day I got power back for good, and that linked the chili to my power outage. Now I’ve associated it with something different.

Oddly enough, I don’t seem to have the same issue with the beef stew I lived on during the outage and reheated when I got power. Maybe because it doesn’t have such a distinctive flavor or because it’s something I have frequently while the chili is a relatively new recipe and I don’t yet have other memories built around it.

Anyway, maybe I should add more food to my books since it does link so strongly to emotions. I wonder what things my characters might avoid eating because the last time they ate it something bad happened, and now that flavor is what that negative emotion tastes like.

writing, fantasy

Names that Fit

I’ve discovered another issue with writing “secondary world” fantasy that’s becoming a challenge, and it’s even more of a challenge when reworking a story I came up with when I was about 21, and that’s naming both characters and places.

About the only name I picked then that’s sticking is the name for one of the main characters. The name of the other main character was the most obvious generic fantasy name, so I’d already changed it in the previous iteration of this book. Now as I revisit this story and do more specific worldbuilding, I’m finding that the names I’ve been using no longer fit and I need a lot of new names, but I haven’t found anything I like yet. There are a lot of placeholders because it’s silly to stop a story dead in its tracks to go look for names.

It’s a lot easier to come up with names in stories that are set more or less in our world. In a fantasy world, the names need to sound like they belong in a different world. It would be a bit disappointing to read a fantasy story about George and Ralph. You can sometimes do hearty, salt-of-the-earth type names like Sam that still fit in a quasi-medieval setting. But then you also need to have some kind of internal consistency, with names that sound like they come from a similar culture or language for the people who come from the same place. In a place where different cultures mix, you can have a mix of names, but names generally mean something.

If you’re Tolkien, you invent a language, then come up with names that mean something in that language. If you’re not that hardcore, you pick names from the culture you’re roughly basing your culture on, and then tinker with them a bit to make them more “fantasy.” Or you can just find names that sound “fantasy” to you and throw them together. That tends to be Celtic or Norse names in most American-written fantasy, and that’s a lot of what I seem to have done in my earlier pass at this story. But I find myself cringing at some of the names I used before, so I want different names.

I did do a name brainstorming session and assigned names to things, but decided that I didn’t like them. When I can’t remember what name goes with which person or place, that’s a sign they don’t fit. I’m hoping that as I write and get a better sense of the world and its people, I’ll have a better idea of names that fit and I can fill those in during the next draft.

Meanwhile, I’ve reached the part that used to be the beginning of this book, some scenes I’ve written so many times that I could probably write them out from memory, but now they’ve changed drastically based on different backstories and story concepts, so I have the new version overlapping the old version in my head, and I’m seeing things very differently than I did when I was in my early 20s. In a sense, I’m mourning the loss of the old version because there was a lot I liked about it — obviously, if this story has haunted me all this time — but then I’m also seeing it come to much more vivid life in a way that makes a lot more sense. The new version will eventually take over the old one in my head, but I’ll still remember that first one fondly because it’s been with me so long.

writing, fantasy

Making New Worlds

Since the book I’m currently working on started from a very old idea, I’ve been having to flesh out what was actually an underdeveloped world, and trying to figure out what that world looks like has made me really think about worldbuilding.

Since the only world we know is the one we live in, we naturally tend to base our imaginary worlds on aspects of our world. How close the imaginary world is to our world depends on the author. Even a really different world is probably going to be at least partially based on or inspired by something in our world.

Traditional “secondary world” fantasy (in other words, an imaginary world rather than an alternate history of our world) is generally set in a quasi-medieval European society. I’m not sure where that convention got started. Maybe it comes from fairy tales, which are always in the “long ago.” Or maybe Arthurian legends had something to do with it, especially during the Gothic Revival trend of the Victorian era, with the idealized depiction of the Middle Ages that was popular in art of that time. There was the sense that this was a better, purer time, with chivalry, and all that.

The Lord of the Rings, which is sometimes considered the start of the modern fantasy genre, is actually all over the map, timewise. The hobbits are essentially Edwardian English country gentry. They have that idealized pastoral life and even that attire. That waistcoat and suit coat look wasn’t just an invention of the movies. There are references in the books to waistcoats and buttons — things you wouldn’t have found in a medieval setting. But then the human and elf societies come across as closer to fairy tale medieval.

Anyway, medieval-ish Europe has been the basic traditional fantasy setting, though the genre is now expanding a lot, incorporating elements from other cultures and time periods. How closely these fantasy settings adhere to any actual history or culture is up to the author. Purists may try to stick as closely as possible to the clothing, culture, and technology of the specific place and time they’re basing their world on. You’re not going to find potatoes — something brought back from the New World — in this kind of world if that world is based on Europe before the 1600s. These authors may be meticulous about accurately representing the cultures they’re using as the basis for their worlds, even if it’s not actually presented as that culture. Sometimes it’s really obvious which culture an author is basing their world on, even if the author isn’t being that meticulous. I’ve read several secondary world fantasies that involve a fierce, warlike culture of mostly redhaired people who wear plaid, talk like “I dinna ken, ye wee lassie,” and probably live on the northern border. Or as I call it, Not!Scotland. There are a lot of Not!Lands in fantasy. It may not be overt, but you can figure out what the various cultures are supposed to be.

Others may figure that if it’s another world, anything goes. They can pick the clothing they like, change it up, throw in different kinds of technology that’s advanced at different rates, mix and match cultures, and move things around to create something fairly new. There may be whiffs of Not!Lands that give you a hint of what might have been the inspiration, but there’s probably a lot that doesn’t come from those places.

The really tricky thing for writers is that a lot of readers assume that your cultures are Not!Lands, whether or not they are, and they’ll expect you to have represented the way that land is in our world accurately in your imaginary world. Writers get angry e-mails from readers about what they got wrong in their totally imaginary world. Frequently, they’ve guessed wrong about what the writer based that culture on. I will confess that it does kind of throw me out of a story when potatoes show up in a quasi-medieval European fantasy world, and I have to remind myself that this is another world. Potatoes may grow naturally on that continent. The potato-growing continent might be a lot closer. The Not!Vikings might have made it farther south in their New World and brought potatoes back to their continent a lot sooner.

I’m having to deal with all of this in writing now because I’m doing my first true secondary world (unless you count the portal world of Spindled). Last year, I spent a lot of time on worldbuilding to create a setting for a series of books I’m still developing, and I think I went a bit overboard in trying to make it fit rigidly in the time period I chose to base it on. I’d picked a period when I liked the women’s clothing and some aspects of the men’s clothing, but there were also things I didn’t want to use about men’s styles in that era, and I had to remind myself that I was making it all up. It’s my world. I can make it go however I want to.

The book I’m working on now keeps trying to turn into a western. It’s that kind of terrain in part of the story, and there’s a small town that the loner hero arrives in. My mental imagery of how they’re dressed is closer to western than medieval, and yet there’s a lot of medieval in the structure of the society. I was struggling with the back and forth, then realized I didn’t have to pick one or the other. This doesn’t have to be an alternate history of the Old West in the United States. It can be a European quasi-medieval world with a western flavor. Heavy boots and twill trousers are a lot more practical in that setting than doublet and hose. The guy dressed kind of like a cowboy can have a sword belt instead of a gun belt. I’m not sure how much of this will actually make it into the book. It’s mostly an aesthetic, my mental images, and I don’t know if the way I describe it will give the same mental image to readers, but I think having this in mind might make my world a little different from the generic quasi-medieval European fantasy world. The important thing is that there be an internal consistency to the world that makes sense.


Fun Fantasy Worlds

One reason I wanted to do my deep dive into fantasy this winter was that I was looking to recapture some of the wonder I had when I first discovered the genre. I remembered wanting to crawl into the books and visit places like Narnia and Middle Earth, and it’s been a long time since I felt that way. I wondered if it was just because of being an adult, experiencing the difference between being 11 and being all grown up and aware of practical things like indoor plumbing, electricity, good beds, and not having Evil Overlords constantly trying to kill you.

I found in rereading The Lord of the Rings that I do still have that sense of wonder. I wouldn’t have necessarily wanted to join in the quest, but I’d love to hang out at places like Rivendell. I’m quite certain they’ve got good beds and have figured out things that work like electricity and indoor plumbing.

But now I’m wondering why I so seldom get that feeling from the fantasy worlds in more recent books, and I suspect that on some level, maybe we’ve (fantasy authors) become too good at worldbuilding. When the world is so fully planned out that you’ve worked out not only the magic but also the political and economic systems and cultural interactions, is there much room left for wonder? I keep seeing Tolkien on lists of “hard” worldbuilding, but I’m not sure I agree. Yes, he has detailed histories and created entire languages, but I’d argue that what’s in the books is pretty “soft.” The magic is really nebulous. There’s only a vague sense of what magic can do, who can do it, and how it works. There’s definitely no economic or political system of note (in fact, if you think too much about it, the economics don’t work at all). There’s a lot that remains totally unexplained. There’s a rich backstory and a lot of poetry in made-up languages, but that’s the extent of the worldbuilding. That leaves Middle Earth as a bit of a blank canvas. Readers have a lot of room to fill it in to suit themselves.

I’ve seen a lot of critiques of the worldbuilding in the Narnia books, mostly that there’s no consistency. Figures from Greek mythology are right there with things from northern Europe, and throw in Father Christmas and a lamppost, and none of it fits. But I think that’s actually the entire point of Narnia. It’s the ultimate fantasy world, full of all the things a fantasy/fairy tale/mythology reader would want to run into in a magical world.

Basically, it’s the fantasy version of Neverland. Neverland is a bizarre amalgamation of all the things a boy from that time period would have read about in the fiction (pulp or otherwise) of that day. There were pirates, of course, because authors like Robert Louis Stevenson had popularized them. And there were “Indians,” which were staples of pulp novels, plus Buffalo Bill had brought his Wild West show to London. Throw in some mermaids which, if you want to get Freudian, are the perfect women for boys of the age when they’re fascinated enough to want to look but not quite ready to touch, and it’s basically a heaven for a pre-teen boy of the late 1800s/early 1900s who’s read a lot of adventure stories and wants to have all the adventures.

I imagine Narnia was Lewis’s idea of a dream world, with all the things he’d read about existing in one place, with talking animals, naiads and dryads, unicorns, giants, witches, and dragons. And, what the heck, Father Christmas, too. If you’re going to visit one fantasy world, Narnia would be a good choice because it’s all there.

Have we lost some of that wonder and fun when we spend so much time on creating coherent worlds that have consistent cultures with religious, political, and economic systems? If the world feels too real, does it lose something as a fantasy world? I’m still pondering this question and how it might apply to my writing.

I’m sure there are other factors at work. With the popularity of “grimdark” fiction, the worlds aren’t really places we’d want to physically visit. Being in Westeros would probably suck. It’s fun to read about, but I wouldn’t want to go there. It would not be a fun place, even outside the events of the story. There are a lot of fantasy books I read, and even in my mind’s eye they’re gray and brown, full of mud and dirt. Yeah, that’s realistic. The real Middle Ages wouldn’t be a treat to people from our time. Some of the clothes are pretty, and castles look cool, but that life would be pretty unpleasant from our perspective, even if we lucked out into an upper-class life. But do “realistic” and “fantasy” have to go together? Should they?

I’ll have to dig back through my bookshelves and memories to think of other fantasy worlds I’ve loved and wanted to visit. And I’ll have to consider these things as I build my own worlds. It may be tricky finding the balance between a place where things can happen where there’s something the heroes need to do, and a place I’d want to visit.

Do you have any favorite fantasy worlds you’d want to visit?


All About the Journey

Since I’m in a fantasy mode, I did some digging around on Amazon to find a fantasy movie to watch (a lot of “people who watched this also watched this” rabbit trails) and ended up finding one called The Crown and the Dragon. It had a promising start. The scenery was lovely (it seemed to have been filmed in Ireland), the acting was quite good (the cast members don’t have very extensive IMDB listings, so I’m wondering if they were Irish and British stage actors), and I even liked the costumes. Early in the movie, the heroine and her aunt are traveling to take The Thing to The Place (as you do), and we knew the villain was looking for The Thing. The heroine and her aunt are set upon by the villain’s soldiers, who have with them a prisoner. The (handsome, of course) prisoner uses the guards’ harassment of the two women as a distraction to manage to attack his captors and free himself. The aunt is killed in the melee, the heroine grabs The Thing, and the escaped prisoner gets her to flee with him.

This was when I paused the movie to make popcorn because I could see the setup for what I’ve realized is one of my favorite fantasy tropes: the mismatched duo thrown together and having to go on some kind of journey/mission/quest, during which they bicker a lot, but they start to come together as they go through adversity and gain new respect for each other. That’s like catnip to me.

This movie hit all the expected beats. We had the bonding moment after the big ordeal in which they each saved the other’s life, so then they’re sitting by a fire, drying out wet clothes, drinking wine, and getting cozy. We had falling in with a group having a party and having a “moment” while dancing together. And, naturally, we had the moment in which his obligation is fulfilled, but he turns back for her, just in time for the climactic fight.

My favorite thing that fits this mold is Stardust, and this movie wasn’t nearly that good, but it sort of scratched a similar itch. But I found myself trying to think of other examples. If there’s something I love and know well enough to know when they’re hitting the right beats, there should be a lot, right? Other than Stardust, most of the things I could think of are animated films. That’s the Anna and Kristoff part of Frozen, Tangled, the animated Anastasia.

I remembered that there was an item on the Evil Overlord List that went around Usenet in the mid-90s to the effect of “If I’m ever the Evil Overlord and there’s a couple traveling through my realm who cooperate and get along, I’ll ignore them, but if they bicker constantly, except for when they save each other’s lives and have moments of sexual tension, I’ll have them executed immediately because they’re likely to be my undoing.” Or something like that. Anyway, if this was a known trope in the mid-90s and all my examples come from after that, I had to wonder where it came from. The main thing I can think of is the movie Willow, which is another good example (I haven’t seen it since I saw it in the theater when it first came out, so I’m iffy on it, but I recall being delighted with this aspect of it). I think Dragonslayer from the early 80s might also fit. In books, there’s an element of this in the Belgariad series by David Eddings, though my memory of that is fuzzy (not because I read it so long ago, but because I read it relatively recently, after I was already familiar with fantasy, so it didn’t make as huge an impression on me as it might have if I’d read it as a teen). The Elfstones of Shannara sort of fits, throwing in a bit of a romantic triangle, with the girl who has to take The Thing to The Place, the guy whose mission is to get her there, and another girl who joins to help. There’s another one I vaguely recall reading when I was in college that seems to have fallen into this category, with the guy having to get the girl and The Thing to The Place.

But these few things hardly make for a trope to the point of getting put on the “here’s what villains keep getting wrong” list. The TV Tropes site has an annotated Evil Overlord List with links to pages for the tropes, but there isn’t a separate trope listing for this specific thing. They link separately to the people thrown together on a mission trope and the hate to love trope, but the good examples I can think of for the trope I’m thinking of aren’t on the lists. I know it’s a big trope in the romance genre, with lots of books about the guy having to get the girl from one place to another, them hating each other at first, and then falling in love along the way, but they seldom bring down the Evil Overlord while they’re at it. I do think it shows up in a lot of fan fiction. If you think two characters who don’t get along would be hot together, then a story that forces them to team up and travel together is a natural way to explore the relationship.

It’s funny, in the early 90s I came up with my own idea along these lines, started writing it, and even won a contest with the start, but the book didn’t come together very well. I just this week, in thinking in terms of the trope, realized some of where I went wrong with it. Now I’ve found myself thinking about it again, and I’m tempted to give rewriting it a shot. I’ve allowed myself a couple of days to play with the idea to see if it starts falling together, and so far it seems to have done so. I may end up rewriting it. Or writing it again, since I’m not really rewriting the thing I’ve already written. I’m starting fresh with a new execution of the same basic story idea. It’s more a case of gutting a house down to the studs before starting a remodel than a case of repainting and new flooring. I figure if an idea has stayed vividly in my head for more than 30 years, then maybe I should do something with it.