Here are the full notes for my Writing Fantasy workshop, given to the RWNZ Auckland Chapter in July 2005.
We’re not in Kansas, anymore, Dorothy! Writing Fantasy
By Maree Anderson
(This workshop is dedicated to Stephen Donaldson, whose brilliantly gritty ‘Gap’ series set me on the path to being a writer.)
When I first decided I was going to be a writer, I thought it’d be cool to write Chick-Lit a la Helen Feilding or Marianne Keyes. These gals are talented – they make it seem easy. But for me it wasn’t. I had a few goes and I really sucked – big time. My husband told me not to quit my day job.
So I consoled myself by doing something I knew I could do well – reading! I re-read a series from one of my favourite authors and since I’d already read the series before (and hence didn’t feel the need to rush straight into the next book) I discovered an afterword, where the author shared some of his ideas about his writing process. Something he wrote gave me an idea. For the next week or so I was an insomniac. I kept dreaming the beginning and end of a story until I become pretty sleep-deprived. And funnily enough, when I did finally sit down and have a go at writing it, the words just poured out. That story became book one of a Fantasy trilogy and finalled in the Clendon Award in 2004.
Why write Fantasy?
Why was it so much easier for me to write Fantasy than any other genre? I took a look at my bookshelves and discovered that’s mostly what I read! I discovered Fantasy in my early twenties and nearly two decades later, I’ve never stopped reading it. I do read widely – I’ll pretty much read anything, but I always come back to Fantasy.
Pure Fantasy can have incredibly different styles, settings, characters and plots. For example there’s epic Fantasy such as Tolkein’s LOTR. Raymond Feist’s A Faery Tale is dark, while David Eddings’ Belgariad series is lighter and character-driven. And then there are such consummate authors as Melanie Rawn, a writer who is gutsy enough to have half her characters die of a plague and kill off her hero, and I still want to continue reading, even through my tears!
I love Fantasy because I love immersing myself in another world – a world where magic exists, where I can experience the wonder and surprise of discovery that is the heart of every great Fantasy story.
I love to read it and that’s why I write it. Personally, my belief is that to write well in a genre, you must enjoy reading it.
What is Fantasy?
Fantasy is often linked with Science Fiction and it can be difficult to find a clear and concise definition regarding the difference between the two genres.
And to be honest, some of the excerpts I quote in this workshop are taken from writers who could be considered more SciFi than pure Fantasy. However, what we can learn from them applies to Fantasy also and indeed, any fiction genre. Isn’t any fiction novel a work of Fantasy? For me it is.
Brian Stableford has written a great book called: How to write Fantasy and Science Fiction and in it, he doesn’t even attempt to differentiate between the two genres. He insists it is exceedingly difficult and alludes to the Orbit Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, which he says, consists of no less than 6 columns of (and I quote) ‘dense and convoluted argument’ on this very topic.
Luckily, David Gerrold provides a delightfully simple definition which really speaks to me. In his book Worlds of Wonder, he writes, ‘SciFi is about what’s possible. Fantasy is about what’s not. And Fantasy is harder!”
Problems and pitfall of writing Fantasy
There’s no limit to what you can imagine.
In a Fantasy, you can assume anything is possible and you don’t have to explain it or root it in reality. In that sense, if you can make up what you like, Fantasy should be a breeze to write. Correct?
Not necessarily. The problem comes in making sure that your readers will believe in your made-up world. You must be consistent. Your Fantasy must have structure or your readers will start to ask awkward questions.
Gerrold writes, ‘Fantasy is not the abandonment of logic. It is the reinvention of it.’ That’s to say, Fantasy is the creation of an alternate structure of logic that is believable and rooted in the logic of the reader’s mind.
Nothing ever happens by accident – something is always responsible.
Logic and structure
If, in your Fantasy world, trees have feelings and souls, doesn’t it follow that you’d think twice about picking a flower? What about rocks and grass, too, then?
Can cats talk in your world? Yes? Then what about dogs and other animals, too? And if not, why not?
If a specific magic word makes something happen, what happens if that word is mispronounced? What is the consequence?
David Eddings illustrates the magic word premise well in his Belgariad series. There are sorcerers who use ‘the Will and the Word’ to perform magic. In his world, although sorcerers have great power, they are still limited by one rule in particular: they can ‘create’ but never ‘unmake’.
In Eddings’ Magician’s Gambit, the bad guy, Ctuchik, is losing the fight. Desperately he commands: “Be not!” Realization comes too late, for once the Word is uttered, it cannot be unsaid. Consequently, the spell rebounds upon Ctuchik, destroying him in wonderfully graphic detail. Yay! The bad guy destroyed his bad ass and the good guy is left without blook on his hands. Don’t you just love Fantasy?
Just like in the real world, everything your characters do in your Fantasy world has consequences. And every little fantastic detail you describe in your world has a consequence, also.
When I wrote my heroine as a blind girl, transported her to another world and made her a ‘Seer’, I had to have a logical explanation of why that happened, and how.
Let’s see: supernatural powers and Gods? Well, okay, but maybe a bit trite and boring. Needs fleshing out a bit.
Hmmm. Alright, how about this then: my heroine was the only hope for an entire race of people, yadda yadda. Their Seer was old and he needed her to take his place and save his world from evil – or whatever. He enlisted the aids of his Gods to bring our heroine to his world. And she was transformed into a Seer with supernatural powers. How? By an airborne spore, of course!
So now I have evil (nyah ha ha!), Gods and an airborne spore. Better.
Hang on… does anyone see the big fat flaw in this reasoning? Why doesn’t this spore just give everyone supernatural powers? Then they could damn well save themselves and leave our poor blind girl to her miserable, unfulfilling life back on Earth. Bugger!
And wait a minute… Fantasy world? Riiiiiight. She’s in another world, so I had to make that world real, too. And the further I got into my story, the deeper the hole I dug for myself.
But I love all this. It’s fun to invent stuff and I can make up any rules I want for my stories. One caution, though: once I’ve set the rules, I’m bound by them. Readers may suspend disbelief, but they won’t suspend common sense.
Hence, since I’ve insisted to my readers that my hero’s people always had brown eyes due to some genetic quirk, I’d better not describe my hero as being ‘tall, dark and handsome, with piercing blue eyes’, even if I do prefer my ideal man to have blue eyes. Well, actually, my hero’s people do also have gold eyes, but only if they’ve been transformed into… But I digress. If it’s ever published you can read the book!
How do you build a Fantasy world?
How do you make your Fantasy world real and believable?
You will have to ‘know’ everything about the world you create: location, scenery, seasons, culture, traditions, history, clothing, food… all that and more.
For example, I’ve drawn a map of the Settlement where my hero lives, detailing all the major dwellings and surrounding areas of importance. This helps me keep everything straight in my mind and also helps whatever I imagine to be accurately depicted on the page. Taking a leaf out of **Annie Featherstone’s book, I’ve got an exercise book full of little details – character descriptions, history, beliefs, family members and background, clothing worn, food eaten, tools used etc. etc.
Now I don’t mean bombarding your readers with so much detail and information that their eyes glaze over. More, that if you know all the details of your world, it will come through in your writing. Use all your senses to imagine your world as though you lived in it yourself, then your reader will be able to experience your story, too.
Here’s a short excerpt from a Robert Heinlein novel, that for me, illustrates just this point: ‘The door dilated.’
What does that sentence evoke for you? How is the image in your mind now, difference from what a normal door in our real world look like?
For me, when I read that phrase, I thought, whoa… we’re not in Kansas, anymore, Dorothy! Different world, different technology. The door is round and it opens like eyelids, with two partitions opening in the middle – one smoothly sliding up and one sliding down, into recesses. That’s what I imagined.
Dilated instead of opened… that one carefully chosen word made a world of difference.
But again, you have to be cautious with the words you choose. For example, if your story is set in a primitive world, how can your hero ‘steel’ himself to do something if steel does not exist? The same with any other relatively innocuous-sounding phrase. What about this: “That’s a different kettle of fish altogether.” Are there such things as kettles in your world? In mine there’s not. So the phrase became: “That’s a different net of fish altogether.”
I could hardly have a character say, “Let’s go to bed,” when I’d been referring to all the beds in my world as ‘sleeping platforms’, now, could I? And I’m forced to admit that, “Let’s retire to our sleeping platform, darling,” sounded rather clumsy, so I had to found other ways of phrasing this sort of thing.
My world has three Gods, too, so if one of my characters swore, he didn’t say, “Oh, God!” he said, “By the Gods!” Even better, he might say, “Wisaa’s wings!” which is an expression that alludes to the Goddess Wisaa and her favoured manifestation which is a Snowy Owl. If my character was really startled, he might have said, “By Shikaari’s hairy paws!” Yep, you guessed it: Shikaari likes to hang round in wolf-form.
Watch the metaphors carefully, though. Here’s a good example of how not to do it, from David Gerrold’s book:
‘The dwarf looked like something out of a Spielberg movie. He was only as tall as a fire hydrant, but he struck sparks off his sword like a welder’s torch. His eyes shone red as lasers, his voice rasped like Darth Vader’s. The king’s guard looked at him like a SWAT team studying a hostage-taker.’
Granted, it may bring a vivid image to mind. And you might even think it’s a fabulous example of metaphor, too… if you’re an adolescent reader of Colfer’s Artemis Fowl books – you know, the ones where faerie creatures sometimes escape to the Earth’s surface and the LEPrecon unite are sent in to recapture and ‘clean up’ so that humans will forget what they’ve seen. But adults would probably laugh themselves silly if you wrote that sort of thing in your book. Worse, they might even toss it aside.
I like to keep things simple. I tweaked my characters’ names a bit to make them a bit more exotic but not too hard to relate to. Like B-l-a-i-y-n-e for Blaine, L-y-a-m for Liam, C-a-i-y-l for Kale. I referred to the jobs people did as ‘Trades’ and capitalised them all, e.g. Potter, Healer, Hunter, Tracker. Same with significant places: the Gathering Place, Healing Hall or Elders’ Hall.
Throughout my books I referred to the supernatural power of seeing the future as ‘Seeing’ with a capital ‘S’. And I make certain my made-up worlds had their roots mainly in Latin, Greek or some such similar language, so they were still relatively familiar to readers.
Which leads to my next points:
Conversation, making non-human characters talk, and inventing new words
So, as I just mentioned, you can always make up new words. You can even go to town and make up an entirely new language for your novel. How cool would that be?
It could be great. Or it could be really tedious for the reader. Have you ever read a book where a character is speaking in some dialect and the writer has actually written his speech exactly how it sounds? Pages and pages of deciphering this sort of thing can be very tedious to read.
I’ll sidetrack a bit here, to give you some English examples. This one from D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover:
” ‘Appen yer’d better ‘ave this key, an Ah min fend for t’bods some other road… ‘Appen Ah can find anuther pleece as’ll du for rearin’ th’ pheasants. If yer want ter be ‘ere, yo’ll non want me messin’ abaht a’ th’ time.”
Reading too much of his speech would sure make my head spin!
How about this, from David Eddings’ Seeress of Kell:
“It is the sworn task of my steadfast companion here and myself to confront this evil. Know thou, however, that rumor, like a barking dog, would run before us, announcing – should they be known – our identities to the foul miscreant upon whom we mean to do war. Should, all forewarned, this vicious enemy learn of our approach, its minions would waylay us. Thus it is that we must conceal ourselves behind our visors and refrain from declaring before all the world our names – which have some smirch of honor upon them in diverse parts of the world.”
Phew! Wouldn’t want to read an entire novel of that, and luckily for me, Eddings is smart enough to know that and he didn’t subject me to too much of it. He did have a valid reason for writing in this style, of course. His characters had ended up on a remote island where the ancestors of Mimbrate knights had been shipwrecked. Homesick, the Mimbrates had gone to great pains to re-create their home country, complete with castles, knights, tourneys, jousting – the works. So the dialect was very relevant to that part of the story. However Eddings took care not to make the dialogues too long and tedious – that example I quoted was probably the longest speech by one character in this dialect. The hero and his friends only spoke like that if they were addressing a Native of the island, not amongst themselves. And once they’d completed the task they were set, they left the island and speech went back to normal – thankfully!
Eddings’ hero also converses with wolves and whenever a wolf speaks, conversation is written normally. How does Eddings handle this without confusion? Cleverly. His wolves speak in a very formal manner and by inventing this wolfly quirk of speech, Eddings ensures there’s no confusion as to who is speaking and which character can understand the wolf, as shown in this following excerpt:
‘There was a clicking of toenails from behind, and the she-wolf slipped up between them. “One wonders where you are bound,” she said to Garion.
“One and one’s friend go to speak with the master of this house, little sister, he replied.
“One will accompany you and your friend,” she said. “If needful, one may help to prevent missteps.”
“What did she say?” Zakath asked.
“She’s coming along to keep us from making any serious mistakes,” Garion said.
“This is no ordinary wolf, Zakath. I’m beginning to have my suspicions about her.”
“One is gratified that even a puppy may show some semblance of perception,” the wolf sniffed.
“Thank you,” he said. “One is happy to gain approval from one so dearly loved.” ‘
In my second book, my heroine came across a race of energy beings called the Ergeiiae. They’d given up their physical bodies, suppressed all ‘destructive’ human emotions and ‘ascended’ to a higher plane of existence. They thought they were pretty superior to humans, too. I wanted to show the reader just how different they were, so I gave them a quirky speech pattern – sort of like Yoda from Star Wars. I wanted it to be clear whether the person speaking is human or Ergeiiae and I didn’t want to have to put in any dialogue tags – not exactly appropriate for mind-to-mind talking! I also wrote all mind-speaking in italics. I don’t know whether editors like that, but one day I hope I’ll find out!
Anyway, of course I don’t want readers crossing their eyes trying to untangle the bizarre speech characteristics of the Ergeiiae, so I limited this type of conversation. Soon after she met them, my heroine got to deal exclusively with Yumaanos, the head-honcho Ergeiiae. Unlike the others, he could separate himself from the mind-link and manifest a human body of sorts, so he could converse orally. My heroine simply asked him to quit the Ergeiiae-speak and try to speak normally because listening to him waffle on made her head spin. My Fantasy – my rules. Isn’t it cool how I can twist the rules as long as I give a logical explanation?
Now, back to the made-up language stuff!
In my own writing, I did decide to sprinkle in a few made-up words, and as I mentioned before, all my made-up words have their root in Greek, Latin or similar. It’s fun to do, but a word of caution: I think less can be more. Nothing takes the reader out of a story my quickly that having to flick to the Glossary at the back of the book to find out what something means… presuming there is a Glossary and presuming you know to look for it. That’s what happened to me the first time I read The Great Dune Trilogy, by Frank Herbert. I ploughed through the book, only partially understanding the meanings behind some of the bizarre words, only to discover a wealth of information at the very end. Well, duh! I read it again and of course everything made much more sense, but it sure would have been easier if I’d known about The Terminology of the Imperium section the first time round.
And whatever you decide to do, again, consistency is important. I made sure all my plurals had the same suffix. The same with my naming of different peoples. Here’s some examples:
Dayamaariia is my country,
Dayamaarii are the people,
Dayamaaru is the language.
The suffix ‘i-i’ designates a ‘people’. Therefore, to name another Settlement of people, I used ‘Usehaanii’ or literally, ‘Seer-less People’ i.e. People without a Seer. And centuries ago, the Dayamaarii were known as ‘Kiyusaarii‘ which means, ‘Chosen Ones’.
Even with English words, if you put a twist on them, things can get tricky. Little things like using ‘Promising’ instead of engagement, and ‘Joining’ for marriage, might seem simple enough until you consider that because of my penchant for ‘Joining’ I ended up with ‘mothers-by-Joining’ for mothers-in-law. And even the relatively innocuous “Join us for dinner” took on a whole new connotation!
Anyway, you get the picture. You can make it up, but it has to be logical. I keep a detailed dictionary of words, terms and phrases so I can keep it all consistent. One thing I’ve learnt is, the more clever I try to be, the trickier it gets.
Robin D. Owens evokes a rich Fantasy world with her made-up words in her book HeartMate. Here’s an excerpt to illustrate:
‘His caff was cold. The pungent scent no longer wafted through the air. He looked around his home workroom. The large desk of gleaming reddwood stood in sharp contrast to the scarred workbenches. On the far wall, behind a protective spell, were his gems and precious metals. In the corner, hidden by deep shadows, was his walk-in vault. It was build large to accommodate a man of his size and magical ability. The vault held a smaller safe containing his most precious possessions, including the necklace. His HeartGift.
T’Ash rose and walked to the vault. After disarming the door with a routine spell Word, he went inside.
His HeartGift. An item created in three days after his last Passage, seventeen years before. It was the third and last Passage that gave mastery of psi powers – rather than just confirming the Flair, then releasing it. And it was the final Passage that indicated HeartMates. In the delirium of that Passage T’Ash’s Flair had spiralled to bond with his HeartMate, though he’d never felt the link since.’
What do we know about T’Ash and world now, just by reading that passage? Here’s my list:
– Caff is a drink, maybe similar to coffee.
– T’Ash has magical abilities and something called Flair. He uses protective spells and routine spell-Words.
– He has been through three trials of some sort, called Passages, which gave him mastery of psi powers.
– He created a HeartGift of great significance during his third Passage and learned he has a HeartMate out there somewhere.
Anything you can think of that I’ve missed?
Owens also sprinkles her story with simple, easily visualised words like bedsponge, permamoss, writestick and silkeen to highlight the alienness of her Fantasy world. I really had fun guessing the meanings and imagining what things might look like. One item she mentioned really preyed on my mind though. See if you can guess which one from this excerpt:
‘T’Ash extended his senses – his cook had not been in that day, Ioho, but had left several meals, both warm and cold, in the no-time pantry. T’Ash reviewed their images and chose a thick bifuth steak, potatoes, a selection of green vegetables, and a large carafe of willem juice. It would prime him for the Passage.’
– Ioho must be the day of the week. No problem with that.
– Bifuth steak and willem juice… except that I’ve discovered ‘bifuth’ is mighty hard to say aloud, I can visualise those.
– No-time pantry… so how does that work? I really want that one explained! It’s mentioned a few times and it sounds fascinating. I’m almost at the point of writing to Ms Owens to ask for a full explanation – which I’m sure she will have.
My point is, if you’re making up stuff like this, you’d better have an explanation, too. One of your readers is bound to ask!
Ten pieces of good advice
To finish, no matter what genre you decide to write, it’s your Fantasy, your story, and you owe it to yourself and anyone else who reads your book to do it well. Here’s 10 pieces of good advise from Mr Gerrold again, which I think could apply to any writer of any genre.
1. You are what you pretend. Pretend big.
2. Be your own biggest fan.
3. Be your own most ferocious critic.
4. Impatience is fatal. Enjoy each moment of your story. If you don’t, no-one else will.
5. You can’t write what you don’t know. If you don’t know, find out.
6. Show. Don’t tell.
7. Create expectations. Then defy them. Surprise yourself.
8. Write your own story.
9. Be passionate.
10. Aim for the stars.
And… as Mr Gerrold says, “Never eat anything larger that your lawyer.” Now that’s what I call a fantastic piece of advice!
Lady Chatterley’s Love, by D. H. Lawrence
Magician’s Gambit and Seeress of Kell, by David Eddings
Worlds of Wonder. How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, by David Gerrold
Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction and Getting Published, by Brian Stableford
The Seer, Hope’s Children, and Soul-Mate, (unpublished manuscripts) by Maree Anderson
**Annie Featherstone is a member of Romance Writers of New Zealand. She writes for Harlequin Historical under the name of Sophia James.