How realistic should a fantasy story be?

First, let’s distinguish between fantasy stories set in what is basically our own world, and those set in different worlds. A fantasy set in our world can leverage existing settings, cultures, languages, etc. This simplifies some aspects of the writing process, but can add complications, particularly if set in the modern era. But it’s the other type I want to discuss.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth is the iconic example of a fantasy set in a world that is distinctly different than ours, but still has many similarities. There are different races, different languages, strange monsters, and powerful magic, but the world itself looks much like our own in terms of the flora and fauna. The technology level is medieval, with castles and keeps and walled cities. It’s swords & sorcery, in modern terms. Many fantasy novels hew to this pattern, including my own.

It is certainly possible to write a fantasy set in a completely different world. The world can have a green sky, ten moons, and three suns. All of the animals and plants can be different. There can be unique races, each with differing language, titles, units of measure, religion, magic, culture, government, etc. But unless the author is incredibly talented, I can pretty much guarantee it will turn into a confusing mess for the reader. I know, because I’ve read both fantasy and science fiction novels that have taken things too far. The reader needs something to identify with, and they don’t want to be constantly having to look things up in appendices.

Dungeons & Dragons was heavily influenced by Tolkien, and my world was based off of my own D&D campaign. That provided the basis, and I made a deliberate decision to not make any drastic changes. Medieval fantasy worlds of that kind are traditional now. The familiar elements comfort the reader and make it easier for them to imagine what is being described. And the magic and fantastic creatures thrill them, or so the author hopes. It certainly seems to be working for George R.R. Martin.

In a future post, I may discuss the specific decisions I made, and some of the unintended consequences that resulted. Happy writing.

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Pronoun Trouble

rabbitduck3.jpg

(image from the classic Warner Bros. cartoon “Rabbit Seasoning”)

In the process of reviewing my first book and looking for issues, I noticed something that I could then not unsee: I underuse personal pronouns. What do I mean by this? I mean that I tend to repeat character names when I could just as well have used “he” or “she” or “they”, as examples. Fixing this issue is taking considerable time, and is complicated (as I will describe below). When I am finally finished, I will upload a revised version of the book and ask Amazon to push out the changes to anyone who has automatic updates turned on.

My primary concern is that I will go too far and end up erring in the other direction. If the reader can’t figure out who is speaking, or who is being referred to, then they’re probably not going to keep reading. A sentence like “She told her that she wasn’t interested.” can be a nightmare. Each of the three personal pronouns could potentially refer to a different person, e.g. “She told Jane that Sally wasn’t interested.” But even that version requires that the reader understand who “She” refers to.

The use of personal pronouns depends on both the number of characters involved and their genders. If there is only one male, then “he” and “his” are clear. Two of the same gender makes it much more difficult to use personal pronouns. Three or more speakers in a single conversation almost always requires the repeated use of the actual names.

This issue is something that I am still struggling with, and it’s probably only a matter of time before I discover yet another of my bad writing habits.

The Editing Never Stops

I am currently making another pass through my book, Audrey of Farmerton, preparatory to offering a paperback version. Despite the best efforts of both myself and my beta readers, I am still finding typos and minor mistakes. It appears that no amount of copyediting will ever find all of the mistakes. The good news is that when I am done, I can update the ebook version, and the new version will be automatically pushed out. You can’t do that with printed books.

It is my contention that there simply aren’t that many decent editors left out there. These days, even books by popular authors are published with obvious typos and grammar errors. Last year, I read a science fiction novel that had won major awards despite having significant plot holes and the author not really understanding how to use commas. The editor was either incompetent, or was too rushed to do a good job.

The advent of easy self-publishing is probably to blame for the current situation. The publishing industry in general has dealt poorly with  emerging technologies. That has led to cutbacks, including editorial staff. And when cutting staff, it is invariably the most experienced (and best paid) people that are let go.

What makes a good editor? They obviously need to have a good knowledge of the English language (or whatever language they are editing). This includes both spelling and grammar. But they also need to understand composition. They need to be able to judge if sentences are properly grouped into paragraphs, paragraphs into scenes, and scenes into chapters. They also need to understand what they are reading, otherwise they will be unable to spot larger issues such as plotting and pacing. To be perfectly honest, a good editor first needs to be a good writer. But a good writer isn’t likely to be interested in editing the works of someone else unless they’re a close friend or relative. A good writer would rather be writing.

I can’t offer any magical solution. For now, I’ll just rely on my own editing skills, resigned to the fact that the things I write will never be perfect.

Dialog and Dialect

People from different backgrounds, or different places, speak in different manners. This can take the form of a different accent, altered vocabulary, or variation in how a sentence is constructed. Accents are difficult to convey in writing, and when attempted are often annoying to the reader. For example, I have relatives that pronounce the word chair with two syllables (chay-are). I know of no way to put that in writing that isn’t both awkward and confusing. So it’s best to focus on the other two methods and simply mention when someone has an accent.

Consider the following sentences:

  1. Dontcha worry, Audrey.
  2. Don’t you worry, Audrey.
  3. Don’t worry, Audrey.
  4. Do not worry, Audrey.
  5. Be not concerned, Mistress Audrey.

The first example uses English slang, which is a way to make someone sound informal (and less educated). The second example sounds more folksy than the third because of the added (and unnecessary) you. The fourth differs from the third simply by dropping the contraction, and it is a simple way to make a character sound more formal. The final example is designed to sound extremely formal, pretentious even.

Simple word choice can help to differentiate characters. Where one person might say “okay”, another might say “all right”. Something might happen “a lot”, “often”, or “frequently”, depending on who is speaking about it.

Deciding on just how a character should speak is a challenge, and the way they speak might change over time or even depending on who they are speaking with. (Think about how most adults simplify their language when talking to small children.) But it is definitely something that a writer needs to keep in mind.

Third Person, Past Tense

I started writing my fantasy novel, Audrey of Farmerton, in the third person and the present tense. Because the story is told from a single viewpoint, I could have written it in the first person, but I decided against it. That was partly because the planned sequel would have multiple viewpoint characters, and partly because I wasn’t comfortable writing as though I were a teenage girl.

Why did I change from writing in the present tense to the past tense? That’s complicated. First let me give some examples.

Present tense: He is writing a blog post.

Past tense: He wrote a blog post.

Past perfect tense: He had written a blog post.

The present tense provides more of a sense of immediacy–“She opens the door and leaves in a huff.” as opposed to “She opened the door and left in a huff.” Present tense can work well, especially when there is a great deal of action. It also has the advantage that referring to earlier events can be accomplished by simply employing the past tense. On the other hand, the majority of fiction is written in the past tense. That is what is traditional, and that is what I decided I should employ.

The past tense is easy to write in, with one major exception. Referring to earlier events (outside of dialog) requires the use of the past perfect tense. This involves a great deal of “had” and “been”, and maybe even the dreaded “had had”. This is something that I am still coming to terms with. One way to reduce this nuisance is to use past perfect in the first sentence of a paragraph and then switch to past tense, possibly returning to the past perfect at the end of the paragraph to make things clear to the reader. Writing every single sentence in past perfect may be grammatically correct, but it can be tedious to read.

Thoughts on Thoughts

One advantage of the written word is the ability to reveal a character’s feelings and emotions, or even their actual thoughts. This helps make up for the fact that we can’t actually see the person, as we would in visual media. There, the viewer can see facial expressions, read body language, and hear the emotion in a voice.

There are different ways to reveal a character’s thoughts. Below are two examples. The first is indirect, and the second uses italics to indicate actual thoughts (a common practice).

  1. He told her that his train had run late. She wondered if that was really true.
  2. He told her that his train had run late. I wonder if that’s really true?

Which of these techniques to use is really a matter of preference in my opinion. The first form is almost universally used. Some authors make heavy use of the second form, while others use it sparingly. There are even some who adamantly claim that actual thoughts should never be shown, but I have found their attempts to prove that it is never necessary to be unconvincing. Sometimes the second form is the only really choice.

When writing, I use whichever form seems most appropriate. And it varies depending on whose viewpoint I am writing from. The second form is particularly useful for characters that are sarcastic, smart alecks, or simply lie frequently. For example:

He nodded, saying, “Yes, I’ll give your proposal serious consideration.” That is the dumbest idea I have ever heard! How stupid does he think I am?

For me, deciding how often to show actual thoughts is simply part of developing a character, and it’s something I’m still working to refine.

Viewpoint

When writing a fictional story the author needs to decide how the story is to be related to the reader. Will it be told from the viewpoint of a single character or multiple characters? It could even be told from no particular viewpoint, simply an impersonal relation of events. Most authors opt for at least one viewpoint character because that allows the feelings and thoughts of the character to be revealed to the reader. This one of the key advantages that writing has over visual media.

I chose a single viewpoint character for Audrey of Farmerton because I wanted to gradually unveil my fantasy world. That worked well, allowing the reader to learn more as Audrey did, and it also simplified a number of things. But for the sequel (tentatively titled The Witch’s City), I am switching to multiple viewpoints in order to better utilize the other characters that appeared in the first book. I am, however, only using a single viewpoint character in each scene. There is a style of writing known as third person omniscient in which the reader is privy to the thoughts of many characters at the same time, but I decided against trying to use it.

Writing from multiple viewpoints is proving to be a mixed blessing. It’s nice to be able to relate things that occur in locations apart from the main protagonist and which she may never learn about, but it also complicates matters and requires more planning. And when a scene contains multiple viewpoint characters, I now have to decide just whose viewpoint to use. I’m finding it challenging, but that’s just another part of trying to become a writer.

Another issue with multiple viewpoints is making them fit the character. Some characters basically say what they think, while others might frequently say one thing while thinking another. Personally, I find the later type to be the most fun to write. I like showing the actual thoughts, especially when they’re sarcastic or snarky. And how to properly show these thoughts will be a topic for a future blog post.