Welcome to another new monthly slot, the Sunday Showcase. (You can tell I've been trying to become more organised recently, can't you?) In this one, my intention is to share some of my work with you: bits of finished books, pieces of up-and-coming projects, maybe the odd poem or two. If I get enough interest, I might even turn this slot into a serial story. But for now, here's an excerpt from the very beginning of Dawn Rising in which Alyssia has been asked to describe her earliest memory. I'd love to know what you think. What did you like? What didn't you? Would you want to read more?
My month of blog swaps has now come to an end – many thanks to my wonderful contributors Andrea, Lindsey, Tricia and Will for participating. I thought I'd round things off by giving you my own view on Reflections of Reality and why I chose it as my website title in the first place.
Every piece of writing – whether a book, a blog post, a newspaper article or a shopping list – is in some way a reflection of reality. The act of writing, in effect, is the act of holding up a mirror to the world around us. Yet it is in the nature of a mirror to distort the truth. Even the smoothest and most finely crafted mirror contains minute flaws: a hairline scratch here, an almost imperceptible ripple there. And even if that were not the case, the very definition of reflection is one in which right is left and left is right. A mirror shows reality – often with great clarity – yet it can never be reality.
In the same way, even the most 'factual' piece of writing can never be a fully accurate representation of the real world. We all see things reflected in our own individual 'mirrors': the beliefs and experiences and preconceptions that make us who we are. Like the people in Plato's Cave, we are looking at shadows rather than reality. And as a result, our writing says as much about us as it does about the world.
Not only that, of course, but not all writing is intended to be an exact reflection of reality. Sometimes we deliberately hold up distorted mirrors to our surroundings, those that stretch and compress and bend things into new angles. All fiction does this, to a certain extent, and perhaps fantasy most of all. The 'mirror' of fantasy is curved and pitted and full of ripples, and the image it returns to us can be something very far from what we know as reality.
Yet as much as a mirror can misrepresent and alter, it can also reveal. Who hasn't glanced into a reflection at some point in their lives and momentarily seen the world in a whole new way – whether it's the surprise of a fleeting glimpse in a shop window, the familiar made unfamiliar in a fairground hall of mirrors, or the sense of eternity that comes from seeing a lake reflect the sky? And then, of course, mirrors and their kin (reflections, shadows, photographs, portraits) are the only means we have of seeing our own faces. Mirrors reveal us to ourselves – and so does writing.
Here, I think, we have reached the heart of what reflections of reality means to me. Every piece of writing, every painting, every poem, every song is an interpretation of the world from a specific artist's perspective. And however outlandish or alien they may be, each one holds a kernel of truth about the world. The more we read, the more we look at art and listen to music and watch films and plays, the more we learn – not only about the reality we inhabit, but also about the people who share it with us.
Perhaps this is our responsibility as writers. We can't help but say something about reality when we write; every time we set pen to paper or fingers to keyboard we are creating a mirror, even if we don't realise it. Yet although we don't have any choice there, we do have a choice over what kind of mirror we create: what view of the world we are going to present. And, in fact, the quirky curved mirrors of fantasy are particularly good at this. By stripping away the everyday details that surround us and replacing them with new and unfamiliar settings, they are able to reveal the fundamental truths that lie at the very core of what we call 'reality'.
So there you have it. The way I see it, every good book is a reflection of reality, revealing the world to us in new ways, holding up a mirror both strange and true. That's what I hope to achieve in my writing – and that's how my website got its name.
Here we are at my fourth and final blog swap, and I'm very pleased to welcome Will Macmillan Jones to the stage. Fire away, Will …
Welcome to the third of my birthday blog swaps! This week my guest is Tricia Drammeh, who will be talking about the future of fantasy. Over to you, Tricia …
I have to admit that I'm a secret fan of this cliché.* You know how it goes: hero devotes his life to defeating bad guy. Hero finds out he's related to bad guy. Hero undergoes serious mental trauma as a result. It's one of the oldest and most venerable fantasy clichés, with roots steeped in mythology.** And yet it endures to the present day.
The appeal of this cliché is obvious. We like our protagonists to suffer, and what greater torment can there be than learning that you're closely related to the very thing you despise? That kind of discovery can only lead to self-examination, self-doubt and maybe even self-loathing – exactly the kind of internal battle we love a hero to struggle with. Not only that, but it's a battle we can relate to. We all have a sense of our own identity: a few fundamental characteristics that define us in our own eyes and underlie everything we do, like the pillars holding up a temple roof. Take one of those supports away and the whole edifice begins to crumble.
And, of course, there's still more to it than that. Deep down, I think we all fear that we'll turn into what we hate. Indeed, perhaps we hate certain things precisely because we have the sneaking suspicion that we could easily become them – because we know we have an affinity with the darkness. That's the undercurrent that flows between Skywalker and Vader. Between Holmes and Moriarty.*** It's the conflict between angel and devil that lurks in all of us. In that sense, the I Am Your Father cliché is successful because it speaks directly to our own fundamental anxieties.
This is a cliché that has a valid psychological rationale behind it, and for that reason I'm sure it's here to stay. But like all clichés, it has to be used with care. The straightforward implementation that's exemplified by Darth Vader would probably seem too much of an obvious plot device to a modern audience used to such things. Put your own spin on it, though, and it will be one cliché that still has a genuine impact on the reader.****
* Well, not that secret, or I wouldn't have mentioned it online.
** Probably Oedipus. It usually is.
*** OK, I'm not aware that Moriarty turned out to be Holmes' father, but you get the point.
**** Particularly if you can avoid using the line 'I am your father/mother/brother/great-great-aunt …'
You may be wondering what's wrong with that. Surely having a beard is part of the very definition of a dwarf, just as being tall and ethereally beautiful is part of what defines an elf. But what I'm getting at with 'all dwarfs have beards' is one of the more unrealistic and frankly dangerous fantasy clichés: the notion that the members of any non-human race may be principally characterised by their homogeneity.
In fact, it's not the physical details that worry me. Every species has certain key physical characteristics: humans walk on two legs, eagles fly, dragons breathe fire. So as far as I'm concerned, the dwarfs can keep their beards. But with these physical details tend to come a host of behavioural and psychological characteristics that are much harder to swallow when applied to the species as a whole: all dragons are wise, all elves are brilliant archers, all dwarfs love their beer. And fantasy writers don't stop there. Some even generalise about their own species (does 'all humans are short-sighted aggressive destroyers of the natural environment' sound familiar?).
Part of the problem seems to be a confusion between cultural and personality traits. Different human cultures have different traditions, beliefs and moral structures, so it's reasonable to assume that different sentient species would too. The framework through which a dragon views the world, for instance, is going to be very different from that of a human. But cultural standards are not the same as individual characteristics. The point about cultural standards is that the individuals who share them can examine them, question them and deviate from them to a greater or lesser extent. Giving an entire species a shared personality trait, on the other hand, assumes that everyone who is subject to the same cultural and environmental influences will end up the same kind of person – and that's where authors go wrong.
It's perfectly plausible that all members of a religion might salute the sun each evening to ensure it rises the next day. It's not so plausible that all those members would be identical in their level of belief in such a ritual. Successful worldbuilding requires a careful examination and understanding of which features of a race or species are cultural, and therefore may justifiably be applied across the entire group, and which are individual and therefore can't. As I said at the beginning, not doing this is dangerous. Why? Because it leads to lazy characterisation based on stereotyping and generalisation. And just as we wouldn't (or shouldn't) accept this for different human groups, we shouldn't accept it for different fantasy races.
I am ashamed to say that in the first fantasy book I ever wrote, I actually used the word 'quest' to describe what the main group of characters were doing. I may even have referred to said characters as 'questors'. In my defence, I was probably about twelve and had no idea what was a cliché and what wasn't. And at least I was being honest – because the Quest, in varying degrees of disguise, is alive and well in fantasy today.
The classic example is, of course, Frodo's mission to destroy the One Ring. And then there are the various quests to find a magical item that will enable the defeat of the Dark Lord – the search for the Horcruxes/Hallows in Harry Potter 7 being the most famous recent example. This kind of thing has perhaps become what many people think of when they think of fantasy. So has it been done to death, or is there still room for a quest or two?
The thing about this cliché is that authors use it for a reason: it gives them a clear (dare I say easy?) structure to work with. The plot essentially becomes that of a computer game – reach these milestones and collect these tokens to win. In theory, this leaves the author free to concentrate on other things: complex subplots, perhaps, or incisive characterisation. For that reason, the best quests are barely recognisable as such – the quest simply forms the invisible core around which the real story is wound, like the stick at the heart of a big cloud of candyfloss. On the other hand, for the lazy or novice author the quest may be the be all and end all, and therein lies the danger. Because reading a simple quest story is very much like watching someone play the aforementioned computer game: it may be briefly entertaining and even visually flashy, but it's repetitive, shallow and involves no emotional engagement whatsoever.
Despite this obvious pitfall, I don't dislike the Quest cliché nearly as much as perhaps I should. And I think the reason for this is that at heart, almost every plot is a quest. Because a quest is really nothing more than the desire to achieve something – and without that, you wouldn't have much of a story. In that sense, the search for a magical object and the search for an end to conflict and the search for love are all the same thing. It's the details that determine whether or not the quest feels old and tired, or transforms itself into something new.
After a two-week baby break, I've managed to scratch out a bit of time for blogging again. (I wrote this one in a notebook while the baby slept on my lap and I gradually lost all feeling in my left arm.) So I thought I'd continue my series of posts on fantasy clichés with one of my favourites: the gratuitously uneven fight.
All fantasy fans enjoy a good battle, whether between individuals, groups or armies. And we also like seeing our heroes overcome the odds. There's no tension in a duel if the protagonist is by far the better trained and better armed. The Lord of the Rings wouldn't have been the same if the mighty hordes of Gondor had been facing Sauron's tiny ragtag army. We all appreciate a good underdog. Trouble is, it's easy to take this desire to weigh the scales against our characters too far.
An author's thought process might go like this. Say we have a swordsman being set upon by a bunch of thugs in an alley and fighting them off single-handed. Obviously there has to be more than one thug to give the scene its edge – let's make it three. But then, even your half-decent swordsman can defeat three antagonists without breaking a sweat (or so some fantasy would have us believe), so make it five. No, ten. And it would be more impressive if the hero was incapacitated in some way, so let's give him a wound. And take away his sword so he has to fight with a knife. And hell, why not blindfold him as well?
At some point, this stops being impressive and becomes ridiculous – first, because it's completely unrealistic, and second, because if the protagonist is so damn good that he can fight off ten men wounded, weaponless and blindfolded, then he's no longer the underdog. He's pretty much invincible. And invincible is boring.
I'm not advocating getting rid of the unequal fight. They're fun to write and fun to read. But authors have to tread a fine line when constructing them. It has to be physically possible for the hero to triumph, while still being an extreme enough situation that the reader gets that sense of awesomeness when he does – and, of course, the outcome has to be close enough to the wire that next time a similar problem arises, there's still tension in it. This may all seem obvious, but achieving that delicate balance between dull and laughable is easier said than done.
The Web is full of lists detailing fantasy clichés to avoid. Some of those lists have so many different items on them that it would be simply impossible for a writer to avoid them all – and, of course, there's a fine line between the clichéd and the pleasingly familiar. All genre fiction, by definition, contains a certain amount of cliché, and it's not so much what you do as how you do it … but I digress. Because the point of this post, the first in an intended series, is to examine a common fantasy cliché and consider what it is, why it exists and whether it can still work in current fantasy literature.
So to kick off, I've picked the mother, father and perhaps entire ancestry of all clichés: the Chosen One.
We're all familiar with it as a plot device: ordinary person discovers he (or she, but it's usually a he) is the one person who can defeat the forces of evil. Think Harry Potter. Think Rand al'Thor. Think Neo from The Matrix. There's usually prophecy involved, noting the signs by which the poor sap can be identified; typically these culminate in the prediction that to defeat evil, the Chosen One must also die himself. (Though as we all know, foretelling is a tricksy business, and frequently it turns out that the prophecy can be read in another way that means our hero isn't doomed to die after all. Which keeps everyone happy.*)
The main thing to note about the Chosen One cliché is that it tends to go hand in hand with a simplistic good-versus-evil morality structure. You can't have someone destined to save the world without also having someone or something it needs to be saved from. Where there is a Chosen One, there is also a Dark Lord. And although there may be shades of grey layered on top, the foundations of this type of plot remain black and white. There's never any doubt who you're meant to cheer for.
I'm not saying there's anything wrong with this. Despite the cliché, people like stories of good versus evil. They like reading about characters who turn out to be special in some way. And, after all, it's hard to get away from this cliché altogether. A POV character will inevitably be involved in whatever great events the story concerns – to the extent of playing a key role in their resolution – because otherwise he or she wouldn't be a POV character. No-one wants to read about a character who sits at home twiddling their thumbs whilst life goes on elsewhere. But the Chosen One is more than that. The Chosen One is drawn in not by choice, but by destiny.
I think it's here we see both the main interest and the main drawback of this cliché. Personally I always enjoy reading about a character who is forced to accept a role greater than they could have imagined: how they come to terms with their own importance and the burden of a vast responsibility they didn't ask for. Yet at the same time, that's just it. They didn't choose it. As soon as words like fate enter the picture, an element of free will leaves. And maybe even more interesting than the man who is forced to accept his foretold role as the saviour of the world is the man who has no such guarantee that he will prevail, but sets himself against what he perceives to be evil anyway – not because a prophecy said so, but because he believes it's the right thing to do.
* Except, presumably, the forces of evil.
I’m a rational sort of person, on the whole. I don’t believe in luck – or certainly not the idea that a spoken phrase or a particular gesture can somehow affect what’s going to happen to me. Yet I find myself referring casually to it all the time. ‘With any luck we’ll get there before dark.’ ‘Fingers crossed it won’t rain.’ ‘Touch wood it will all be OK.’ And it’s not just me. I’m surrounded by a nation of people who swear by their lucky pants and their four-leaf clovers. We pick up pennies, salute lone magpies, and follow our own little rituals before an important match or a public appearance. Most of us probably don’t believe in what we’re doing, not really. But we do it anyway, partly out of habit and partly because, well, you never know.
Superstition in one form or another is common to every culture and belief system. It’s part of human nature to look for associations between things; the ability to make a connection between cause and effect is vital in the fight for survival. And the flip side of that is a tendency to see cause and effect where there is none. We ignore those events that don’t fit our model of the world, and remember those that reinforce it. Of course making wishes on birthday candles works. When I was ten I wished for a puppy and I got one. And if I hadn’t had my lucky mascot in my pocket I never would have passed my exams. The one time I forgot to bring it, the question paper was really hard. It’s the same mental structure that turns coincidence into fate and randomness into ‘everything happens for a reason’. Making sense of the world, even where there’s no sense to be made, is hard-wired into our brains.
So what’s this got to do with writing? Well, two things. One, folklore and superstition are a wonderfully rich source of inspiration for fantasy books set fully or partly in the real world. What if this particular belief was true? What if this children’s rhyme had meaning? What if this old tradition had a hidden purpose? Lots of enjoyable novels have drawn on our folk heritage in this way, from Mike Shevdon’s Sixty-One Nails to Diana Wynne Jones’s Deep Secret, and I’m sure there are more out there waiting to be written.
Two, if you’re building your own fantasy world then a rich system of belief, lore and superstition can really help to bring it alive. And it’s important to remember that all superstitions have a logical reason behind them, even if it’s so lost in time that the people themselves don’t remember what it is. For instance, the phrase ‘touch wood’ probably comes from the pagan belief that spirits inhabited every tree and could be summoned or deterred by knocking on the trunk. But it may relate to the Christian cross, or to a ship’s mast, or simply to a children’s game*. ‘Fingers crossed’ again may be Christian or pre-Christian in origin (or both – it seems likely that as with so many things, the older belief systems were subsumed by and incorporated into the new). Black cats derive their negative associations from the Middle Ages belief in witchcraft. And so on. Fantasy superstitions with this kind of historical background can tell your reader a lot about your world.
Bear in mind, too, that in a world where some form of magic exists, certain superstitions may not be superstitions at all. Maybe a particular gesture or set of words really does keep you safe in battle. Or maybe it used to work, but has become so corrupted over time that it no longer does what it’s meant to – or does something completely different. It’s often the case that snippets of knowledge trickle from those who have access to them to those who don’t, frequently in a distorted or misleading form. Thus it’s probable that ‘lucky’ gestures or phrases used by people with no magical ability at all will have their origins in genuinely effective magic. Now that’s a plot point waiting to happen.
So there you have it. Get working on your superstitions, and I’ll see you next week. In the meantime, don’t walk under any ladders …
* The word ‘simply’ is misleading here. Children’s games are often steeped in folklore. But that’s another story.