April 18, 2013

Augusta Li: Ice and Embers

Please help me welcome fellow DSP author Augusta Li on my blog. She's talking about the elements that define High Fantasy. A very interesting post, which I enjoyed very much. I hope you will enjoy it too!

In 1937, J.R.R. Tolkien irrevocably changed the High Fantasy genre with his publication of The Hobbit. I will argue (and I’m sure I could find someone to argue with) that every writer of fantasy to follow him has been influenced by his work. Tolkien himself was, of course, influenced by several sources, including Norse mythology and the Old English epic poem Beowulf. Taking elements from them, and to a lesser extent fairy tales and infusing them with his own experiences and creativity, he built the framework all modern fantasy is based upon, in one way or another. Today I’d like to take a look into the common threads running through western fantasy since the time of Tolkien’s work, and how the modern writer can use them without being derivative, how the modern writer can include the prerequisite elements while still making something new and unique.

Within every genre, there are certain elements that define it—necessary thematic elements or events that make a murder mystery a murder mystery or a romance novel a romance novel. Fantasy is no different. The core and most simplistic definition of fantasy, as I see it, is a fantastical element—something that can’t or doesn’t exist in the world we know. High Fantasy has come to mean such stories set in a world similar to medieval Europe, though it has recently extended to other parts of the world such as Asia and the Middle East. There are other features that seem to run through High Fantasy, and most of them can be traced back to Tolkien and the sagas he drew on to build the world of Middle Earth.

  1. The “Quest” plotline. This will be familiar to anyone who has ever read a fantasy novel, watched a fantasy movie, or even played a video game. It is as evident in The Hobbit as it is in Star Wars: the underdog heroes versus a corrupt and powerful enemy. The quest plotline is versatile, though, leaving lots of room for an author to bend it to his or her unique vision. The protagonists can be on a mission to rescue someone, find a potent artifact, restore a rightful ruler to power, or strike an important blow to their adversaries. Usually, there are numerous steps involved before the hero completes his or her quest, and often unexpected things crop up along the way. Heroes can undertake the mission willingly, or sort of be thrown into it, as Bilbo was. In my books, it’s a little of both. Duncan, my knight, accepts his duty, while Yarrow only grudgingly accompanies him.

  2. The “Party” dynamic. Goals in High Fantasy are often so astronomical as to be impossible for a single character to accomplish. Different characters with a range of different skills are often required, and the party is formed. Anyone who has ever played an RPG knows the configuration well: you’ve got your tank to draw enemy attention and soak up damage while your archer and maybe a mage attack from a distance. Meanwhile, your healer stays safely out of the battle to mend their wounds so they can keep fighting. You need a character with a less reputable past to pick locks and open any treasure chests you might find. But beyond the practical aspects, party dynamics can be great fun to write, as there are inevitable misunderstandings between people from vastly different situations. Characters can underestimate each other and write one another off, and watching them change their opinions and letting the relationships evolve can be a real joy for a writer. At least it was for me. When Duncan met Yarrow, my mage and a noble, he jumped to the conclusion that Yarrow would be weak, soft, and spoiled. He treated him like the sheltered child he thought Yarrow would be—until he saw Yarrow fight. Likewise, he thought very little of Sasha, the assassin, a man he assumed had no honor. I adored writing the banter between these characters as they went from insulting, to teasing, to respecting each other, and finally to valuing each other and more. It was hard-won, and every character had to prove himself to every other, but letting them interact provided wonderful insights into their personalities.

  3. Fantasy Races. Tolkien’s dwarves and elves, while drawing heavily from mythology and fairy tales, established guidelines modern fantasists still adhere to. Dwarves are still most often depicted stout-hearted warriors who enjoy food and drink, while elves are the wise, graceful, and beautiful protectors of nature. I believe these archetypes have endured because they represent different aspects of human nature, and even though these races don’t exist, people can relate to them. Dwarves are practical and hard-working, capturing the logical and concrete parts of the human psyche, while the aloof elves represent imagination and possibility. In this way, they’re disparate, and part of the fun of writing different races is in seeing how they relate to one another. Both Tolkien’s elves and dwarves are human enough that they usually find a common ground and friendships are forged. I veered a little from this model in my series; I didn’t want to write elves and dwarves, and neither appear in my stories. Instead, I created a new race: the Emiri. A race of seafarers with no homeland and living in diaspora on their ships, they are very misunderstood by the “humans”—or “dry-feet” as the Emiri call them. The Emiri value freedom over material possessions, and they like their leisure. The idea of doing the same work every day is incomprehensible to them. Still, they are human enough that even my stoic Duncan befriends some of them after travelling with them and getting to know them. To me, the Emiri represent the child in all of us, because they do as they like and aren’t weighed upon by responsibility. They’re the part of the human mind that calls off work to just lie on the beach all day as doesn’t feel guilty about it, the part that still finds treasure in everyday life.

  4. The Usual Suspects. Knight. Archer. Healer. Thief. These characters have persisted because they are useful together. Tolkien used them, and many fantasists have followed suit. Nothing wrong with that. The challenge to the author is to make each of them a well-rounded character: not just a thief but a complete person with unique motives and values, a backstory that influences his current actions, doubts, regrets, and hopes for the future. I like to make my characters have some unexpected, or atypical traits. One cliché I avoided was the physically weak mage in his fancy robes. Yarrow can take care of himself, and he dismisses anything frivolous or unnecessary. My stoic knight is also a romantic who says silly, sentimental things to his lovers. Sasha is the most embedded in his singular role as assassin, but watching him grow out of that role and discover the rest of his personality has been greatly enlightening to me.

  5. Magic. Magic is expected in fantasy, but it can be bittersweet for the writer. Magic can come in handy, but the writer must temper it with some limitations to avoid a Superman-like character who never encounters a challenge. Godlike mages are simply no fun, for the author or the reader, because their awesome power removes any conflict. My mage Yarrow pays a steep price anytime he uses his most powerful spells, and I crafted the universe to make sure some things were out of his reach. He’s powerful, but broken. Magic should never, in my opinion, be a means of filling plot holes or resolving impossible conflicts.

I have rambled longer than I’d intended. Now I leave it to you, the readers. What fantasy tropes do you enjoy? Which ones do you hate and would like to see disappear forever? Has High Fantasy been done to death?

My latest, Ice and Embers, the sequel to Ash and Echoes, is available at Dreamspinner Press:
Sequel to Ash and Echoes Blessed Epoch: Book Two

Despite their disparate natures, Yarrow, Duncan, and Sasha united against overwhelming odds to save Prince Garith’s life. Now Garith is king and the three friends may be facing their undoing.

Distraught over Yarrow’s departure to find the cure to his magical affliction, Duncan struggles with his new role as Bairn of Windwake, a realm left bankrupt by his predecessor. Many of Duncan’s vassals conspire against him, and Sasha’s unorthodox solutions to Duncan’s problem have earned them the contempt of Garith’s nobles.

When word reaches Duncan and Sasha that Yarrow is in danger, they want nothing more than to rush to his aid. But Duncan’s absence could tip Windwake into the hands of his enemies. In addition, a near-mythic order of assassins wants Sasha dead. Without Yarrow, Duncan and Sasha can’t take the fight to the assassins. They are stuck, entangled in a political world they don’t understand. But finding Yarrow may cause more problems, and with his court divided, King Garith must strike a balance between supporting his friends and assuaging the nobles who want Duncan punished—and Sasha executed.

My other books are available here:
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1 comment:

  1. I love high fantasy and really enjoyed this post. :) It's so true how these characters are drawn from archetypes familiar in all fiction, but have their own fantasy types to adhere to. That's half the fun, to be honest. I loved Ash and Echoes, so you know I'll be checking out Ice and Embers. Oh, and I love the gorgeous cover!