6 Degrees of Bad Fantasy

Most mornings, when pretty much everyone ever is still asleep, I’m shelving in the Sci-Fi / Fantasy section at my job and listening to an audio book on my iPod. It’s a new thing for me, listening to the audio book, but it’s something I enjoy… Well, something I enjoyed until I decided it would be a good idea to finish a series I’d run out of patience with. Out of respect, I won’t name names. But I will say that listening to book six of it resulted in the following list. Directly. Enjoy. Or if you are an amateur Sci-Fi / Fantasy writer, pay attention.

1) Sass and Snarky Characters

Fantasy novels are a lot like real life in the sense that sassy, snarky characters are only fun for so long. You meet one in a tavern, let’s say, and someone says, “Gendalin [just roll with it] is the best sorcerer EVAR!”

Then Gendalin says, “Yes, I am Gendalin. I was trained in the Bog of Eternal Win by the Super Mages of Uberstan. Who are you?” they spit, because, hey, you’re shit.

And you / your character says, “I’M the strongest sorcerer to train at the Bog of Eternal Win since Uberstan himself!”

The next few pages are a battle of “wits” that’s full of snark and supposed to be cool. There’s taunting involved, posing, and always some show of skill, and in the end, both characters look like stupid children and you’re supposed to be impressed. Oh, and one of them agrees to teach the other. Or (very, very often) in the case of mercenaries, the client pays up to the sellsword who’s just threatened or outwitted them. In the end, the scene is something that’s entertaining for minors in the same way as manga. To say it in other words, you just wrote manga. Congratulations.

“I’m the best ninja EVAR!”

“No, I am!”

“Oh yeah? Here comes my new attack!”

“Oh yeah? I’ll counter it and destroy you!”

It’s like third grade all over again.

I hope you’re proud.

2) Exaggerated / Unrealistic Reactions

When someone walks into the dining hall and says that they have news, everyone in the room freezes. Literally. Everyone is that tense. They all completely freeze, the warrior with a chicken leg dangling in front of his open mouth.

Does that sound right to you? No? That’s because it’s not. Because you’re not writing a cartoon. The warrior keeps eating, perhaps becoming more withdrawn. The wizard or sorcerer runs his eyes over everyone and nods for the message to be brought to him. The young protagonist awkwardly lowers his fork and it clatters against a glass. Perhaps someone takes a sip of water. But they all just don’t freeze.

In the same way, characters don’t have what a fellow amateur writer, Robin Solis, dubbed “tea parties”:

Character A: “The giants are destroying our house!! What do we do!?”

Louis: “Well, there’s that ship right there. Ya know, maybe that’d be useful?”

Character B: “The ship! Ah ha! Let us away!”

Narrator: “And so they ran for the ship, leaving the safety of the house to hurry as fast as they could when Character A stopped them for a chat.”

Louis: “Wait-what?”

Character A: “So we’re really setting out to sea?”

Character B: “Why, yes, my boy! To sail and salt! To freedom!”

Character A: “But will the ship truly sail?”

Character B: “It may not! We may be trapped on there! But we have to try!”

Character A: “Ah… Freedom!”

Giant: “Could you pass the sugar, please?”

Character A: “Oh, yes, certainly.”

Meanwhile, in reality:

Character A: “The giants are destroying our house!! What do we do!?”

Character B: Is already halfway to the ship. Possibly already there because he’s saved absolutely every breath for panting so that lactic acid doesn’t smother his muscles.

Character A: “Oh, right.”

Narrator: And so it was that Character B saved himself while Character A took a tree trunk to the face.

3) Forced / Stupid Character Quirks

A rogue character always rolls a pair of dice in his hands. Always. The singer always hums an appropriate tune that everyone knows is appropriate, every time, in every situation. Character quirks are fun, sure, but not if they happen constantly. I do voices – it’s one of my quirks. Sometimes I slip into them without realizing it, but most often I do them to be funny. If I did them all the time, everyone would hate me. Everyone, including myself. But I don’t do that and I can’t; I wouldn’t want to and it’d be too much work to keep up. It’s the same way I can’t constantly muss my hair, and the same way the rogue can’t always roll those damn dice.

4) Songs

Some fantasy authors, man, they love their songs. So much so that I totally skip over them every time now, unless it’s an author I haven’t read. But even authors I love tend to annoy me with their songs. That’s because sometimes authors go AWOL, putting in as many five-page long songs as they can. More often, though, I skip songs because they just aren’t worth the read; they usually don’t contribute enough to the story to warrant inclusion. Sure, songs are an easy way to add mysticism and romance to your world, but that would be the easy way. The easy, tired, obvious way. And besides, hey, we’re not song writers. Let’s be honest. We’re fantasy writers, so let’s just do that instead and stop pointing to ourselves and saying, “See? I can write one too, Tolkien. Hooray for me.”

Naturally, there are exceptions. Patrick Rothfuss’ Kvothe from a family of traveling entertainers and musicians, so you’d expect music to accompany his story, and it does. And Rothfuss makes his songs genuinely heartfelt by tying them to the drama of Kvothe’s life.

But when we get to page 80 of a generic fantasy novel and our young hero sees his first monster and remembers that it’s from a song and then all of the elves in a 100 mile radius pluck up out of bushes with lutes and, in unison, say, “This song?” and start into a two page ditty, you’re officially wasting everyone’s time.

5) Living Out Your Weird, Sexual Fantasies in Your Writing

Okay… Still not naming names. Just saying… I’ve read a protagonist getting tortured by a dominatrix with a magical, pain-inducing dildo for over a hundred pages… Just don’t do it.

6) Repetition

Okay. This one just… isn’t specific to sci-fi or fantasy, but it’s so, so important. You could make the other offenses all you want as long as we don’t have to listen to them twice. Easy trade.

Now, I’m not accusing anyone of being an idiot; authors don’t commit this travesty on purpose. They often repeat themselves to keep their readers informed, but it’s a thin line between recapping and belittling or annoying your audience. The author of my current audio book is a big time offender. In one chapter he expressed a character’s thought on some of his followers, saying something roughly like, “He didn’t tell them to stop. He owed them. So many had died for him already, and so many more would before he was through.” Not a half hour later, the narrator spat just about the same phrase, perhaps a few words off but exactly the same thought. My reply was, “Yes. Dude, seriously, I got it. It’s cool.” In short, it drove me crazy, because I was, in fact, talking to an audio book.

Imagine events like that happening more though; imagine being reminded continually that this character is sassy by having her sway her hips (and always sway her hips). Or imagine the pure frustration when someone reminds you for the eighth time in 2 chapters that the dark powers from the north were growing, and hey, you can totally tell from the way this magical stone glimmers. As if you forgot. Already. After a while it’s like walking into a wall, full speed, over and over. The same wall. Also, it’s grey-completely uninteresting. Imagine how all of that makes you feel, and then make sure you don’t do it to anyone else with your writing.

Fantasy NYC: Lev Grossman signing at Borders at Columbus Circle

From the start, Lev Grossman, the author of The Magicians was disarmingly awkward.

Well, not from the start. He eased into it, if such a thing is even possible. But still, it was disarming. I’d spent the previous night absorbing the first 100 pages of Grossman’s first fantasy novel and feeling dwarfed by it’s prose. It was real, familiar, and bold, and it almost immediately made me think that I should’ve written something as sharp of wit. A look at his website didn’t improve matters;  it was a clean, grey slab of modern design, solidly professional. So I expected someone stark. Someone completely calculated.
And that’s not at all what I got. Clean cut and fashionable in his blazer / Justice League T-shirt combo, Grossman walked onto the stage and gave us a quick outline of the night that included a 30 second awkward pause after his reading.

It made me feel better. A lot better. This was my first venture in my initiative to hear as many fantasy authors speak as I could, and I hadn’t been excited to find a group of peers who weren’t peers at all. Instead I found someone I could talk to.

Even though, again, I was completely awkward when the chance arose.
“Awesome shirt. Where’d you get it?”

“Online.” I offered no more than that. Aside from an intimidated smile. This is the problem with meeting celebrities I actually admire; I’m sure I’d be comfortable talking to Tori Spelling for hours. Well… not really. But you understand. It was depressing.

But I still got a lot out of the night. If unintentionally, Lev Grossman’s talk about his struggles with his career after college, a major theme in The Magicians, was incredibly inspiring. I told him as much in one of the fleeting moments of lucidity I had when I was directly in front of him. It’s harder than people think, being a writer. Especially an aspiring one. You spend so much time on your own, working on a project that you know might fail, despite how incredibly confident you are about it. You miss events, cancel hanging out with friends, forfeit job opportunities. You watch those friends advance their careers just by going to work. And all the while, you convince yourself that it’s probably easier for other writers. Perhaps others graduated from Columbia, landed a job in publishing, and pumped out their first novels at the same time.

But then you find out that maybe they didn’t. It took Lev Grossman four years to get The Magicians published. And this was after trying to figure out what to do with a degree in Literature for a long time. He’s 35 now. I’m 28. Suddenly, getting published wasn’t something I was struggling to achieve. It became something I’m doing.

Lev Grossman’s The Magicians marries fantasy and reality in a way that shows us the absurd beauty and horror of both. If you haven’t read The Magicians, definitely do so. It will not disappoint, especially after the story repeatedly veers away from being what you expect.

Games for Writers: Silent Hill 2

When I got serious enough about my writing career that I started feeling guilty for spending a bunch of my time playing video games, I started to rationalize my pass time by calling it research. Example:

“Yeah… I can play Final Fantasy XII today because, hey, maybe it’ll give me some inspiration.”

Not the worst logic. Until it’s applied to something without a strong fantasy element, like Bionic Commando: Rearmed.

Or, ya know, Hexic.

But there were times where I felt justified. There were games that had sound stories and characters that I’m glad I didn’t miss for the impact they’ve had on me not just as a fantasy writer, but a writer in general. In retrospect, I call them Games for Writers.

And when I thought of blogging about them, there was no competition for which came first.

G4W-SilentHill2

Okay. I know. You’ve probably seen the movie and know how lackluster it was. Or you didn’t see the movie because you thought it looked horrible or because you played the first game and either quit early or (God forbid) beat it and discovered that the story made no-and I mean NO-sense at all. Ya know what? On all counts, I don’t blame you. Seriously. Both game and movie go off the deep end with weird, mystic, hell lingo that took many viewers and gamers right out of the experience.

Silent Hill 2, however, was nothing like that. From the start, it’s story, characters, and mood grab you and never really let go.

You play as James Sunderland who’s received a letter from his wife, Mary, who died years before the game starts. In the letter, she urges him to come to Silent Hill, the resort town where they spent their honeymoon, where she’s waiting for him. Needless to say, an amazing hook.

It only gets better when you start playing and the fog sets in along with Akira Yamaoka’s eerie music. It creates enough intensity and dread with its mood that it’s easily a lesson in setting and tone. And also, because it can get so, so far out there, it doubles as a huge, huge lesson in originality. One that keeps going for the rest of the game.

But I think where things really pick up is when you meet Maria, a woman who looks exactly like James’ dead wife but acts nothing like her.

Suddenly, the situation changes. Cinemas and dialog become more interesting and frightening; James might be falling for Maria. He might be forgetting about Mary. But either way, the game does something surprising. It stops being about a town that’s cursed or a gateway to hell or whatever. It starts being about James. And Maria. And Mary. And the other people you meet in town, all scary in their own ways because each of them seems like they’re the worst in us. So then, Silent Hill 2 becomes about us and the terrible things we do. Yes, there are monsters you have to kill and puzzles to solve, but they don’t get in the way of the story the same way the story doesn’t get in the way of Silent Hill 2 being a game.

I won’t go on and spoil anything, but I will say that Silent Hill 2 is definitely worth a play for writers, especially if they’re already gamers. There’s a surprisingly intense and original emotional journey here that too many people have missed.

The Editing Process

Around when his eyes start to sting and his head begins to throb, Louis realizes he misses the writing process and very much prefers it to the editing process. Fondly, he remembers that the former was like this:

-Louis sits down at his computer and rereads the pages he wrote the previous day (or the day before that, or the one before that, etc.).

-He then remembers what he wanted to happen next. He contemplates the next pages, running them through a complex, mental filter.

-He then starts awake and remembers that he decided what he wanted to happen and how best to execute it around when he dozed off.

-Ready now, he starts. With “Then.” Or no-wait. “But then again.” Ah yes. That’s right. “But then again.”

-Satisfied with this start, Louis gets up and locates a snack.

-He returns to find “But then again” and sighs deeply.

-He starts awake again and realizes he needs to brainstorm.

-He lies down on his bed to do so.

In contrast, editing is a far more constant and steady business that is frighteningly portable (like Pokémon), so that it can dominate your life even when you think you’re safe (likePokémon).

And so, Louis squints at the red mess of a particularly bad page and realizes that there are no snacks. There is no “brainstorming” required. There is only the deed, so glaringly simple now (as it is, in fact, simply transcribing corrections from his massive hand edit to his computer).

But then again…

Character Design: Why Bother?

I was sitting in class at City College once, not taking notes – drawing instead. One of my peers looked over and asked what I was doing. I turned my book so she could see a sketch of one of my favorite main characters.

It wasn’t enough for her. “Who’s that?”

I told her and she asked, “You draw your characters? Why?”

Now it was my turn to be confused. “Why wouldn’t I?”

Writers are taught that in prose, it’s a clever tactic to leave the physical appearance of characters to readers. Give them guidelines – simple descriptors that create an image of the kind of person someone is. You could say, for example, that Rock Stout had golden hair, perfectly curled, and wide teeth that almost glistened when he smiled they were so white, and from that we’d generally get that Rock Stout was an ass – or probably an ass.

The same occurs in Fantasy writing. The simplest description in the world is “he had a chest like a barrel.” I’d almost be worried about quoting someone specifically, but this has been said in so many ways in so many stories that I believe it’s impossible to quote anyone specifically with this, and – furthermore – I’m not saying this descriptor is a bad one. The point is, we get everything we need to know from that phrase: this man drinks, laughs loudly, probably uses an axe or warhammer, probably likes wine and whores, is possibly a black smith. It’s simple – about as simple as Rock Stout’s description. Likewise, our hero can be simply described as “usually the tallest head in a room” and again, we get the idea.

The question then is, why bother doing more than this? Why devote as much time to character design and artistry for a media that barely needs it?

The answer is simple. Because I don’t want this to happen:

My... God.

This is the US cover of Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson’s The Gathering Storm. And, sadly, it’s probably the best cover for the series so far, or among the best.

Now, let’s see what happens when, Seamas Gallagher, who takes his time and, more importantly, cares, renders Rand Al’Thor:

Kind of totally way better.

So, what am I saying here? Is it that all fantasy writers should spend time trying to draw and design their characters? That even if they do, the artists assigned to do their cover art somehow will – or will even try to get it right? No. What I’m saying is that when War of Exiles is released, if it has a cover that looks as off base as this –

This book is not about a waterfall. It's - wait... Are those people?

– you can come back here and look at the awesome character sketches and art that I’ll have up by then until the pain stops and the tears go away. Mine and yours.

Where to Start?

I’m embarrassed to tell you exactly what hooked me into writing fantasy.

Embarrassed because, in retrospect, it’s shameful. Most writers will tell you immediately that they were turned by Tolkien, or someone very similar. While I feel such a start has it’s disadvantages, it’s definitely based in literature. And that’s good.

Because I got my start with J-RPG’s. Please, please don’t stop reading. I know, I said it and I’m sorry. I should’ve warned you. Well, warned you more. I just thought it was best to come out with it.

But it occurs to me that you may not know what “J-RPG” means and that’s great. Hold on to that. First,

Disclaimer: I’m not in any way married to the visual or narrative style of J-RPG’s. In no way is my writing just a vessel for convoluted plots that revolve around progressively larger weapons and star extremely pretty, teen characters with unfathomable hair.

That said, “J-RPG” stands for “Japanese role-playing game”, a genre of video games that’s only different from manga in two ways:

1. Manga is more often not set in fantasy worlds.

2. You can play J-RPG’s.

This poses an interesting question, I bet: How does such a start lead to a credible career as an American fantasy author? Alone, I would say it doesn’t. But following it up with plenty of sci-fi and fantasy literature creates a different perspective on things.

Yes, it is a bit embarrassing to have begun with J-RPG’s, but I often feel now that if I hadn’t, I’d be writing about orcs. The heroes in my stories would inevitably run into old mages who would send them on a 400 page long horseback journey. Not – and I stress – not that those things are terrible; dragons for example, are awesome, and someone like Brandon Sanderson can blow your mind with their approaches to magic. However, a basis in J-RPG’s can put everything on an interesting slant. Do there need to be dragons? Does there need to be that old wizard? Does my hero have to have a special power only he can pull off? But also, conversely, with tempering from American fantasy, do my characters all need unfathomable hair?

And, of course, such questions lead to more questions. Does my hero always have to win, unharmed? If my hero and his entourage win, will they be happy? Is it more believable for love to come out of nowhere or for it to, perhaps, be something my characters can – and do – miss?

The end result of all of this questioning and tempering is necessary, I think. At least it is to the kind of author I want to be. A different author, with the kind of style and visual artistry you would find in… oh… let’s say this picture.

Here, Ayami Kojima has rendered a stunning Alucard as he was in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Notice that he’s not simply wearing a doublet.

Now, this kind of style and a more serious, realistic tone?

Come on. You know you want it.