There And Draft Again

A Fellowship of Fantasy Writers

In Need of An Oracle? June 29, 2013

One of the things reading epic fantasy has taught me is that oracles are not to be trusted. They tend to be elusive, philosophical individuals that are more about fudging the truth and being mysterious, than being a font of good advice. (Except maybe for the Oracle in the Matrix, she was kind of cool…).

But where do we go when we’re writing epic fantasy and in need of specialist help?

In our stories our heroes either go in search of Jedi masters (or the equivalent), or more often than not (especially in the case of Jedi masters) one just happens along at the perfect moment. Or they go to some amazingly well-known, usually exclusive, but endowed-with-the-knowledge-of-the-ages learning institution (that inevitably doesn’t have all the answers after all). Or they bypass the whole she-bang and learn through the school of hard-knocks (I get knocked down, but I get up again…).

So does the same hold true for us?

The Master Writer: It seems that there are many of us working on the great epic fantasy, but only so many masters of the craft to go around. Sadly we all can’t be the chosen one (son of Darth Vader / Anakin Skywalker), able to discuss the finer points of our writing with the Gaiman’s and Rothfuss’s of our time. But unlike (most of) our characters, we at least have the internet.

Many of our favourite authors are available, if not for a cup of coffee and a chat, at least to give us some great advice based on their own experiences. Websites and the ‘frequently asked questions tabs’ are great places to glean advice. Search interviews with your favourite authors, and check out inspirational speaking engagements on youtube (one of my favourites was Neil Gaiman’s commencement speech to the 2012 graduating class of the University of the Arts (Philadelphia) – check out the link here).

Higher Education: Maybe not Jedi-school, but a great creative writing course could be the way to go. I was particularly fond of the University in Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind and Wise Man’s Fear. Like a grown up Hogwarts it contained magical classes and opportunity for invention and advancement; not to mention fees that caused Kovthe no end of grief.

If you happen to live near a good school that understands and can nurture your talent for fantasy writing – and are able to attend – you are a fortunate person indeed (and I’m very jealous). However if not, you can always check out on-line courses (I can’t recommend any personally, but feel free to comment on your own experience in this area).

If you don’t want to pay to enrol (and gain the benefit of personal feedback) there are some helpful classes recorded on youtube. I stumbled across this Creative Writing Course for science fiction and fantasy authors taught by Brandon Sanderson at Brigham Young University, which contained all sorts of interesting genre-related information (such as some good general tips for map-making / world building – like making sure your rivers run down toward the sea).

A Band of Like-minded Peers: That really didn’t work out for the Jedi (bad bad Anakin), but when it comes to writing groups – there’s something to be said for getting together with other creative types and encouraging each other to push those  writing limits. I’ve often imagined being part of a group like The Inklings, the writing group that both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien belonged to.

In my own experience talking to someone else who gets the appeal of epic fantasy tends to help me spark new ideas, or challenge the ways I’m trying to tell a story. It’s not every day that the Tolkiens and Lewises of the world find each other, but at least on-line – through blogs such as this one – we can find other people to chat with, bounce ideas off and occasionally have a true creative meeting of the minds. Visit the blogs of other fantasy writers and get chatting in the comments, you never know who you might meet!

Trial and Error: For many of us this is how we find our way. We write 150,000 word first drafts (especially if we’re epic fantasy writers) that require epic editing more than anything else. We look at the fantasy novelist’s exam and realise we’ve ticked 80% (or more!) of the boxes. We discover that our clichés are very loosely veiled and aren’t fooling anyone (except perhaps ourselves). And sometimes our writing just sucks on its way to getting better.

But take heart, most of the pioneers of fantasy writing wrote without a road map. They believed in themselves, followed their vision and wrestled with words the same way we do, while they were writing their ground-breaking stories.

I don’t believe in oracles outside of fantasy, but I do believe we have plenty of resources available to help us realise our own fantastic stories. If you have any favourite places to go when you’re in need of expert advice (for epic or fantasy writing) we’d love to hear from you in the comments!

– by Raewyn Hewitt

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How to Create Memorable Magical Characters February 2, 2013

One of the reasons I love the fantasy genre is the scope it provides for unleashing the imagination – especially when it comes to wild and wonderful characters. Whether it’s a dragon, a talking lion, dryad, elf or three-headed cave troll with a penchant for peanut butter, magical characters can bring both colour and depth to any fantasy tome. But given they exist only in our minds, or the collective realm of myth or fairytale, – how do we make them feel real?

1. Use Traditional Concepts

We don’t always have to reinvent the wheel. There is a great wealth of folklore, and definitive works, that can provide a foundation for your magical character.  You can either adhere strictly to the well known – and accepted aspects of this folklore (which your reader will also be familiar with), or you can use it as a starting point for your own unique flavour of character.

Vampires, the (almost overdone) mythical creature of the moment, are an excellent example, with a rich history. Most people know vampires as undead, fanged, blood sucking creatures of the night, with an hypnotic sensuality, who may or may not be adversely effected by garlic, sunlight, holy water and crucifixes. In a perfect how to, The Twilight Saga, by Stephenie Meyer took the traditional vampire and gave it a sparkly, teenage, vegetarian makeover that resonated with a huge audience.

2. A Good First Impression 

A strong first impression is important when you’re introducing any character – but even more so when that character is magical. The reader needs some form of context to understand them, so pay attention to the physical traits and how the character impresses as being different.

For example if your magical character is a great golden lion who wields the oldest magic of all, his first appearance should make an impact. In The Magician’s Nephew, (the prequel to C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), we hear Aslan singing Narnia into being before we see him at all. And Lewis’s first description leaves us in no doubt that this is no ordinary lion:

It was a Lion. Huge, shaggy, and bright, it stood facing the risen sun. Its mouth was wide open in song…

And because it’s always worth a lesson in how to show not tell:

The Lion was pacing to and fro about that empty land and singing his new song. It was softer and more lilting than the song by which he had called up the stars and the sun; a gentle, rippling music. And as he walked and sang, the valley grew green with grass. It spread out from the Lion like a pool…

If you’re a purist, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was technically the first time Aslan appeared in print. But even there Lewis used a similar technique – having other characters talk frequently (and with great excitement and anticipation) about Aslan’s coming, before the children finally see him surrounded by an audience of Narnia’s magical creatures.

While you don’t need to spell out every detail of your character’s magical nature, at least give the reader an idea of how to respond to them. Are they good, bad, powerful or interesting?

3. More than Human

Many magical characters, at their core, are portrayed as humans with special abilities. While this allows the reader to identify with the character, some of the most memorable magical characters I’ve come across have noticeably different perspectives and attitudes. Star Trek’s Borg race – which values the collective consciousness is a good example. As are Jennifer Fallon’s Tide Lords, who bored with having experienced everything life has to offer, develop their own self-serving agendas – incapable of having regard for humans or anything else with a short (and by their standards, insignificant) lifespan.

Because we can never truly shake off our human-ness (don’t worry neither can the reader), try and think how your character’s unique characteristics impact on their world view – and in particular their interactions with humans. Comparison is a great tool in storytelling.

Like any other character, a magical character needs to be well developed. Make sure they have strengths and weaknesses, catch-phrases and preferences – and a discernible character arc. Most importantly make sure the reader can connect with them – and hopefully you’ll have created a character that not only lives on the page, but is truly memorable.

by Raewyn Hewitt