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Why Writing Fantasy Is A Pain In The Ass
Michael Mock
November, 2007

I recently finished a class on "Pacing" by the incomparable Mary Buckham. Pacing is, basically, the rate at which you present things to your reader. The plot is the overall shape of your story, and pacing is the way you move through the events of the plot. Assuming your plot is solid -- which is a skill in its own right -- then your skill at pacing is probably what will determine whether your reader finishes your story or not. If the pace is too slow, the reader gets bored and puts the book down. If the pace is too fast, the reader feels that he or she is missing things -- and gets annoyed, and puts the book down.

Mary Buckham details a number of things which can help with your pacing: opening lines, placement of hooks, character introductions, transitions, etc. I won't repeat them here; go sign up for one of her classes, or at least download the curriculum. (It'll be money well spent, I promise.) The element that caught my attention (and sparked this essay) was the matter of introducing characters.

Essentially, you want to introduce your characters in ways that make them immediately interesting. You also want to make them distinctive. You do not want to bore your readers with huge blocks of history, back-story, or other unnecessary detail. As the author, you should know those things... but you don't need to work them in until (and unless) they become important to the story.

This requires some serious strategic thinking. How much do your readers need to know about your main character's background? How soon do they need to know it? Are you repeating yourself -- have you already introduced element X? If you have two main characters -- or a main character and an important secondary character -- which one do you introduce first? Do you introduce the second as he or she meets the first, or do you introduce them separately and then bring them together? ...And all of those are just sample questions. Any given project will produce more specific problems, depending on what you're trying to do and how you want to get there.

Writing fantasy presents an additional strategic demand: you have to introduce your world as well. After some consideration, I'm forced to conclude that this is a pain in the ass. Of course, a good many fantasy stories -- or fantasy series -- are built around an intriguing idea for a world, so if you're going to work in the genre, you'll probably have to deal with it.

Take a simple situation: the hero wishes to contact his friend, who lives across town. In a "real world" story, I can simply say: "Jake called Phil, who said he was free after work on Wednesday." It's no big deal, because everyone already knows how it works. Now put that in a historical story: "Jake penned a letter to Phil, sprinkled sand on it to dry the ink, then folded and sealed it. Timothy, his dogsbody, could deliver it in the morning." A little more complicated, but still comprehensible, right?

Now move it into a fantasy world: "Jake seated himself in the circle, gathering power as he chanted the ancient words. Eldritch forces stirred around him, reaching outwards, and after a moment he had a sense of Phil's presence: Yes? Who is it?" Quite a ways from just picking up a phone, isn't it?

Now add a little complication: Phil, as it happens, hates Jake and wants to kill him. Jake knows this, but needs to talk to him anyway. In the real world, Jake can safely pick up the phone -- or use a pay phone -- and call Phil. In our historical setting, sending a servant calls for a bit more consideration -- does it endanger the dogsbody? If so, does Jake care? -- but the actions and the risks are still easy to understand.

In our fantasy world, though, all bets are off. There's too much the reader simply doesn't know, and can't take for granted. Can Phil use Jake's sorcerous link to attack him? Or locate him? Is it possible for a third party to listen in on Jake's spell? How does this connection work? Can Jake use it to read Phil's mind? All these rules need to be established, and they need to be introduced to the readers... and that has to be done in such a way that you don't bore the reader to death with pages of raw exposition.

Science fiction and horror have the same problem, though in varying degrees. Advanced technologies tend to resemble existing technologies (only better), so while they require introduction the explanations are usually fairly simple. On the other hand, if your far-future setting includes psionics (psychic powers)... well, we're back to explaining the whole world again. In most horror stories, everything works the same way it does in the real world... until, of course, it doesn't. I'm generalizing, of course, as there are a lot of sub-genres and cross-genre stories; science fiction, fantasy, and horror all tend to bleed over into each other.

Anyway, back to introducing your world. There are tricks for this. Pick up your favorite fantasy books and see how those authors handled it. I think you'll find some interesting possibilities... and some interesting similarities as well.

The old-fashioned way (as used by Tolkien, for example) is simply to digress for as long as you need, and then return to the story. Unfortunately, today's readers tend to have less free time, and (more importantly) less uninterrupted free time, and modern authors generally don't get away with that trick so easily. It can be done, I think, but it had darn well better be an interesting digression.

Having your characters do the exposition for you is fairly common, but it can also be somewhat clumsy. "I'll invest a circle and contact Phil, Jake thought. Without a circle of his own, Phil wouldn't be able to strike at him. Of course, he'd have to talk fast - Phil would break contact as soon as he knew it was Jake... and that was assuming he didn't ward against the attempted contact."

You can do something similar with dialogue:
"How do you plan to contact him?" asked Timothy.
"A circle, I think." Phil looked thoughtful. "Mind to mind."
Timothy looked dubious. "He'll fry your brain for breakfast."
"Can't." Jake said firmly. "He won't have a circle of his own ready."
"Then he'll cut contact as soon as he realizes it's you... if he opens himself at all."

...But, again, this is tricky. The danger is that you'll have your characters discussing, in detail, things that they should already know perfectly well. That sort of thing tends to strain the reader's ability to suspend disbelief, which interrupts the story and makes it more likely that they'll put your story down.

The obvious solution is to have your characters learn the system, which allows your readers to follow along with them. The Harry Potter books start in the real world, and then add magic; the Wheel of Time series starts with a relatively ordinary village (the Two Rivers) and adds the more fantastic elements as it progresses. Roger Zelazny's Amber series has the main character wake up with amnesia, so -- despite the fact that he has a long history with everyone else -- the reader gets to learn about the world while Corwin (re-)learns about it. Series set in established fantasy worlds -- Forgotten Realms and the like -- largely avoid this problem, since they can assume that their readers already know how the system works.

Another trick to remember is that your readers are probably smart enough to figure things out. If you have one scene where Jake invests a circle to contact Phil, and Phil breaks the contact immediately, followed by another scene where someone tries to contact Jake and Jake wards against the contact, then your readers are going to assume that accepting a sorcerous mind-to-mind contact is dangerous.

There's probably more to say on this subject -- and there are certainly other ways to avoid this problem -- but this should be enough to get you started. Get out there and write!