Characterization in High Fantasy

A couple of weeks ago I finished reading a fantasy book titled Ombria in Shadow.  I have to admit I’m still in some confusion as to how I feel about it. It’s obvious that the author has a great grasp of language, imagery, and the craft of writing itself. What is less clear is whether she has a grasp on how to write a novel. 

The book is about a kingdom called Ombria and the crisis which occurs there when the king dies. He is survived by his very young son and heir, his bastard nephew, his low-born mistress and an ‘aunt,’ a strange woman who has been a shadow power behind the throne for longer than anyone can remember. Of course, a power struggle ensues between those who want to depose the heir and those who want to protect him.

The plot itself is nothing to write home about, though it could certainly be worse. Unlike a lot of literature that deals in politics (fantasy or otherwise), the plot of Ombria in Shadow lacks a certain richness and complexity. We are never in doubt as to who is bad and who is good, or who wants what.

In that same vein, the characters are also strangely lacking. Take, for instance, the mistress mentioned above. In the beginning of the novel she’s being thrown out on the streets, in all her regalia, by the domineering ‘aunt’ who has seized control in the last few days of the king’s terminal illness. The mistress flees back to her father’s inn, where she had worked and been picked up by the king years before.

In the following pages, nothing of her characterization convinces me that she was worth the love of a king who could, presumably, have anyone. She’s a passive character for most of the book and a bit of a wet blanket, to be honest.  And I had trouble with a lot of the other characters as well. They had underdeveloped backgrounds, made poorly explained choices, and often had moments of clarification that were not preceded by moments of actual discovery. Which just goes to show, I guess, that even if you can write, it doesn’t mean that your journey is over.

The character arc can be explored in numerous different ways, depending on how the author wishes to direct the story. For example, in Ombria, it was clear to me that the author was more interested in the world she had created than in the people who inhabited it. Therefore they often did things that altered the world and forwarded the plot, but made little sense in their own lines of development.

Properly understanding and motivating a character can push him or her far towards becoming more like a real person and less like a tool. Back when I was in high school, in order to flesh out my characters I made a 3-page character sheet detailing their physical features and abilities, their strengths and flaws, their phobias and their big psychological traumas. I haven’t looked at that sheet for years now, but it helped me think about different aspects of my characters so I can understand their motivation and what might get in their way.

When fantasy was just starting out as a genre (and even in the case of high fantasy up to the late ’90s and the Harry Potter era) I think it was easier to get away with less-developed characters. Now there’s so much competition out there that we fantasy authors have to make everything as good as we can. We shouldn’t try to focus on a good plot or good description to gloss over larger problems in our work.

Anybody have tips for making a well-rounded character?

The Art of Writing the First in a Series (and a Tangent)

Nice to see the blog again! I have to issue an apology for being so bad at posting on time. But I got a bit of a nasty shock on Tuesday – my thesis defense was on Friday, and nobody thought I was important enough to know about it. That’s university bureaucracy for you.

The good news is, I did well, I am now a Master of Egyptology (whatever that means), and I have been offered the chance to publish parts of my MA thesis as an article in an upcoming collection. Exciting.

Before I found out that I had to make a presentation and prepare to be raked over the coals by my supervisor and assorted others, I had been cogitating about something. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of books that are the beginning of a series. Now, I love a good series. Nothing’s better than immersing myself in a really good world when I know there are three or four books waiting for me.

The popularity of YA series such as The Hunger Games, Harry Potter and Twilight have led people to like series, and when one particular series is finished they’ll start looking around for the next big thing. So I understand why editors want to publish someone who says that they’ve got a series planned.

However, I think that perhaps some people more loosely define the term series than I do. Let’s take a book I purchased recently, Opal. Opal was published by World Weaver Press and brought some fresh perspective to the Snow White fairy tale. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, with one exception: I felt a bit cheated by the ending.

The book gears us up, provides mounting tension and excitement and gets us ready for a big finish. And then –

Then there’s an advert for Book Number Two, Coming Soon!

This is something that I’m starting to come across with more regularity. The same thing happened to a lesser extent in Cinder, which was a fun, action-packed, and overall brilliant adaptation of Cinderella. Without spoiling anything, the end of the book is a bit more climactic than Opal, but I still got the feeling that I’d been cheated of my proper conclusion.

It’s basically like ending The Fellowship of the Ring right after the Fellowship has been chosen at the Council of Elrond. Wouldn’t that have been disappointing?

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good ending that leaves you wanting more. And in a series, endings don’t have to provide all the answers. You can leave a lot set up for next time. But these days, it’s a gimmick. Everything’s set up for the big climax, and then you get to wait six months or longer just to get the end.

I don’t want to buy a book like that. I want a book that blows me away and leaves me reeling all the way through the last line. If I think the book ended on a cheap note in a blatant attempt to keep people interested, I’ll be disappointed in it. And if I’m disappointed in it, I’ll be less likely to buy the next in the series.

So that’s my latest pet peeve. Is it just me? Do you think I’m crazy?

The Experiment: Chapter One

A couple of weeks ago, I was about to dip my toe into the strange, self-publishing experiment Leanpub. The motto of Leanpub is, “publish early, publish often,” and the basic idea is that you publish a book as you write it, and people who buy the book can influence it in terms of what happens next and what changes you need to make to the existing manuscript.

I’m not going to recap my doubts and fears regarding this kind of assembly-line publishing. But I am going to discuss my thoughts regarding leanpub now that I have published the first chapter of Predestination.

1. User Friendly? What’s that? Leanpub seems built more for people who want to buy books than those who want to sell them. The site doesn’t have obvious tabs from which I can access my work in progress. If I go to the dashboard I can see my earnings, the books I’ve bought, and the books I’ve sold, among other things. At the moment, that means nothing to me – I haven’t even published my first chapter yet! Every time I’ve tried to access my work in progress, I’ve had to go through a maze of other tabs until I have finally stumbled upon the tab I want. In short, the website’s design is poorly thought out. It’s true, I’m slightly technologically illiterate, but let’s be honest: web sites should be made with the knowledge that idiots like me will be trying to navigate them.

2. All those text editors you’ve got? RUBBISH. Leanpub has put all its chips behind the text editing program Markdown. They claim that all other editors are insufficient. I have to say, I don’t think it’s very clever to back only one horse, and a horse that doesn’t seem too popular, at that. As far as I understand it, Markdown is intended to be a platform that helps people publish e-books in a way that means they don’t have to spend as much time formatting and messing around. Which brings us to the next point:

3. Our auto-formatting is AWESOME! No, wait…It’s not. After following the instructions on the leanpub page regarding the publishing of my first chapter, I previewed it. I ended up with three superfluous sections that I hadn’t asked for in my book. After tweaking it, I ended up with the content I wanted, but under the general heading ‘contents’ and an extra page that said, “CONTENTS” and nothing more. I finally got it to do what I wanted by copying my manuscript into Markdown – though of course, it didn’t format correctly and I had to go through it again to make paragraph changes.

4. Fiction is Fiction, Right? I was more than a little surprised to see that there are no subgenres of fiction. No romance, fantasy, sci-fi, comedy, thriller…As a reader, this seems like a really bad idea to me. It’s like handing someone a basket full of books and saying, ‘see what you want to pay for.’ If leanpub wants to cater to a large market, then they need to sort their fiction section so that we can look for what we want. It’s also annoying that they don’t list prices.

So far, to say that I am unimpressed is rather an understatement. I put Predestination up on Wattpad and it took me ten seconds. My suspicion is that leanpub, which sells a lot of books on navigating various computer languages, is striving for an audience that it doesn’t fully understand. If the company is going to make it with this novelty publishing method, then they’re going to have to make things easier on us. Otherwise, their writership will never grow.

Of course, I will love you forever if you go check it out – this is an experiment, after all. Or if you prefer, you can find it on wattpad.

Writer’s Syndrome

I hope you all had a happy bunny day, as my professor used to say to us.

I went to a writer’s conference this weekend. It was a relatively small and cozy affair, with talks and project discussions and lots of people meeting friends they hadn’t seen since last year, and so on.

One distinguishing feature of this conference is the hollywood-esque ‘awards ceremony’ on the last day. Every participant has the option to submit work, and at the end some are shortlisted for a prize, like the Oscars, and the final choice is announced during the ceremony. Prizes include best presentation, best characters, best mechanic, and of course, best piece overall.

This ceremony is intended to inspire people to submit good work, and to encourage people with talent to aspire to even greater heights. Unfortunately, it seems that some people take things waaaay too seriously.

Let’s take the example of my friend Tyler. Tyler wrote something for this conference last year, which was received very well by its audiences and, though the judges didn’t quite know what to do with it, they gave him two awards. Good work, Tyler.

Only now, Tyler thinks he’s the god of Writing.

This year, Tyler wrote a gender-bending piece about love. It was nicely done, it had good mechanics, and in general it was well received. But Tyler didn’t care about this.

Tyler was incensed that it was nominated for only ONE award. And he figured it wouldn’t win. So what did he do? He left the conference early, went home, and wrote an angry blog post about how nobody appreciated him. Sounds like someone has a case of Writer’s Syndrome.

Writer’s Syndrome is a term I came up with a few years ago, after reflecting on some of my own writing behavior and observing disturbingly similar behavior in others. To use myself as a case study: back in high school, I was accepted into a very competitive writing program. I won one of 10 slots, beating 130 other applicants for my space. As it was proven to me that I was good enough to get this competitive slot, it became apparent to me that I was so good that I could dole out advice like some great, benevolent writing fairy and the advice that I so lovingly sprinkled over the work of others ought to be taken with gratitude, because I was so great, right?

Basically, I was told I had a small amount of talent, and I became an arrogant little —- about it. The reality of my ability – that I’m good, but nowhere near perfect, that I have some advice to give but also a lot to get – didn’t come until five years later, when I witnessed a rather harsh – and well deserved – takedown of a story I had submitted anonymously to the university magazine.

Writer’s Syndrome is something I have observed in a number of would-be writers, particularly those who have been told by a higher power that they are talented. Tyler is one good example. Another is a girl I knew during my undergraduate days. When she didn’t think something was well written and I disagreed, her reasoning was, “well, I’m a Creative Writing major.”

This is, I think, what makes it most important for us to have a pool of peers willing to critique us. Of course we need a bit of self confidence, and we deserve to be told when our writing is good. But we need the flip side as well. Some of the writers I know are the most arrogant people on the face of the earth. I used to be among them. I hope to maintain the part where I’m a writer. But I’m trying to ditch the arrogance post-haste. And of course, a lot of writers experience the opposite of Writer’s Syndrome – crippling self-doubt.

Do you guys have experience with arrogant writers? Or maybe just ideas for critiquing someone without making them blow their tops (ahem, Tyler)?

Sorry for the rant. What did you do with your bunny day?