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 The warrior keeps eating, perhaps becoming more withdrawn.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.

A Quick Update

I just thought I’d check in with you guys-I haven’t been the best blogger in the universe, I know. This is because my free time = Work, Tutoring, Writing, Editing, Character Design.

Regardless, the latter part of all of that means I’ll be posting new content sooner than later. And in the meantime, at least some new photographs? Eh? Eh?

The Hallucinations Will Not Come

It’s 7 PM and it’s at least 10 degrees hotter in the dining room than it is outside. The dining room, now full of the brain cell-eating tang of very, very strong markers and a cup long emptied of ice water.

Louis is ready to start hallucinating. He feels it’s the next step after the lightheadedness. But it does not come. Of course it doesn’t. Because hallucinating would be an escape.

He looks down at the picture he’s finished inking already-the one he’s attempting to color now, although you couldn’t tell from the fresh square of bleedproof paper beneath it. It’s not even a main character, that’s the thing. Louis will return to this and know that:

a) he cannot post it before posting a finished picture of Lethe, a picture that he hasn’t inked yet.

b) although this character is one of his favorites from the book (and his artist’s favorite overall), he’s still just a side character. A side side character even; he doesn’t make an appearance until around page 140.

c) tragically, although he’s completely ready for Tron, Louis cannot take another Tron: Legacy teaser break and be completely entertained.

And seeing this, Louis decides it’s time to give his world of distractions a little nudge, via text, like so:

“Dude. Will you be on tonight for gaming?”

and

“I know what I’m making for your Can You Smell What the Rock Is Cookin’? party.”

But these do not work. So he pops open Warm Grey #3, and sighs.

But then he looks down at Exelel. Exelel. His artist has done an awesome job and the inking is done. It’s done because Louis did it. And it’s not a hallucination-he’s certain.

But he leans in close to the inked cell anyway. When he’s satisfied that it’s really real, that he did it, he smiles.

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.

Starting a War

A Different Experience

From the beginning, my approach to story telling has been grounded in a desire to give readers something fresh. But I realized early on that different experiences go further for making stories fantastic than different worlds do; a novel set in a world full of dwarves, elves, and orcs gains strength from it’s familiarity and accessibility, no doubt, but it fails to be intriguing if the three races are engaging in another war for another magical relic, or fighting the same evil from the North.

How does this relate to War of Exiles? Simple – this first novel was a side project. Before, behind, and after it, I’ll be working on my masterpiece. However, I needed something to kick start my career – a debut that’s both familiar in appearance but truly fantastic in narrative. I believe Exiles achieves this. With deep characters, the unique, exiled setting of Ashiaden, and an interesting twist on the traditional quest narrative, War of Exiles gives readers something unexpected – a different experience.

A Different World

“And somewhere, in a direction he couldn’t discern and a distance he couldn’t fathom, there was a wasted continent where someone from his long-forgotten lineage had laughed, cried, fought, and at some point sacrificed themselves to ensure that his grandparents or their parents escaped, lived, and carried on the bloodline that eventually ended with him.”

I can’t boast that Ashiaden will be visually new and breath-taking. There will be barbarians – the Baerlungs. There will be short men somewhere far away who make weapons and tools that run on steam – the Steiners. There will be druids who can shape nature – the Ceudin. But these will not be orcs, dwarves, and elves. They are Ashiads, all human – their differences cultural, not racial – with a lineage that falls back to the unifying event of their exile.

About 300 years before the novel starts, the exiles touched down at Ash Landing. Having escaped the fall of an empire, the refugees settled there or escaped South, East, and North, only certain that this new land would be called Ashiaden, “ash home” in the Old Tongue, as the elders claimed. Centuries later, villages have expanded and fortified, but unified systems of law and rule have yet to be established. Baerlungs raid towns and rob weary travelers, bandits and the native creatures called Lessermen do the same, and the strongest bit of the Old Continent’s Magic exists only in Necromancy. Travel is dangerous, travelers rare – save for bards, who gain fortune from selling information whether through story or song and in truth or fabrication, and merchants foolish enough to gamble abroad.

Among the cities on this island is New Dawn, where the novel’s protagonist, Lethe Dega, is born. An austere rock just off the coast of the mainland, the veritable island fortress is as closed as any other city of Ashiaden, and kept that way by the sects of Sentinel and Rider.

Different Characters

Traditional character types are offset by unique personal situations. Lethe Dega, a Sentinel of New Dawn, is driven to rid Ashaiden of necromancers, despite how deeply it affects his relationship with his family – an already tenuous bond. Etalen, a druid of Clan Terra, finally decides to put her life on the line if it means she can escape her family’s intent to let her dwindle into obscurity. Semacien, one of the island’s bards, seeks a story he can live off of for years to come. And all of them and others grow and change  in ways that the strapping hero, plucky rogue, and wise old mage would not.

A Different Quest

Without saying too much, the adventure of War of Exiles takes a different approach that I’m sure will intrigue readers easily. When I decided to start off with a more traditional, familiar story, I knew that I couldn’t give my readers an adventure that spent hours on the road. Although authors like Robert Jordan and Garth Nix do well with such quests, I’d already heard enough of them that I couldn’t be satisfied giving another to my audience.

So instead, I looked at all the ways you could do a quest narrative without doing a quest narrative. In the end, I found an answer that could suit my needs, serve the plot, and give readers something unexpected, unfamiliar – different.

110%

I thought I’d start the day with a Word Press blog. And man, what a day it’s been, sitting at the computer, cycling through page after page of 110% confusion.

It’ll take some time, but I’m going to get a site for my writing career up and running or my name isn’t Louis Santiago.

Which it isn’t, actually. But–I mean–well… I’m gonna do it!