#Now with added… Fantasy (A Conversation)

Way back before Covid-19 started messing things up for everyone, I had a chat with Debs about where I saw the blog going and where we might want to make some changes.  One of the things that we agreed we wanted to do was to develop the brilliant post that James Pailly wrote for the blog’s third birthday and turn it into a series.  We’ve now had several installments of this, and I thought it might be interesting for you, the reader, and a good learning experience for me, to shake things up a little and do an interview style post for the #NowWithAdded series.  Last time around we had Keith Willis give us his take on Fantasy fiction, which tends to the lighthearted.  Now I know two other writers who brighten up Twitter and who share a similar taste in their writing despite having completely different settings for themselves. Emma Cox (@Sciyan) has shared some exciting and intriguing snippets from her trilogy, book one of which is tentatively entitled The Tempering.  Emma is an advocate of ‘show don’t tell’ and set up #FeelLines to encourage writers to show us how a character is feeling rather than just telling us.  (I freely confess that #FeelLines is one of those things that I feel I should do but have yet to actually engage with).  Emma is a true creative and expresses this through multiple mediums including photography and baking, in addition to writing fiction and poetry.  She can occasionally be found over at http://rainydaywriting.co.uk.  Chris Marshall (@C_DavidMarshall), is also a frequent contributor to Twitter, and his debut novel, From the flesh of the mighty, is moving towards the query stage.  Chris has recently set up his own writer’s website.


DJ: I guess the obvious place to start is how do you describe your work? What genre does it fit into? Or have you had to create your own description?

EC: I predominantly write fantasy. As I anchor many elements of world building for my fictional worlds from different historical aspects of our own, I guess you could say I write a type of historical fantasy.

CM: When I switched from historical fiction to fantasy, I wasn’t sure if there was a distinction between a genre (containing tropes readers expect) and say a character driven story that takes place in a made-up setting. The answer is annoyingly simple: where would it go in a bookstore? A made-up world automatically makes it fantasy, so that’s where I fit in too. I’ve described mine as historical fantasy too for the same reasons, because initially my world was based on elements from early medieval European culture, but I’ve since borrowed more from other cultures.  That being said, I’ve recently started writing some non-fantasy short stories and thinking more about the kinds of stories I like to write and noticing common threads between the characters as people on the fringe who believe in things strongly and act on those beliefs. The fantasy backdrop gives my characters the freedom to move around.

EC: That’s the draw for me to write fantasy. You have free rein to create whatever you want. There’s also an element of escapism. When everything is going against you in real life, it’s nice to have control in your fictional world. I like to put the effort into the world building to make something believable to the reader. I want to make a world you could believe exists/existed.

DJ: You’re both really into your worldbuilding, and I know you’re both working on maps, and other features including religions/mythology. Emma, I think you’ve even gone so far as to develop your own rune-stone based divination system! How important is the world-building to fantasy? Does it end up being a distraction to the writing? Does it end up being a distraction to the characters? (And do you have any other aspects of world building you can tell us about?).

CM: I put off the map for the longest time, then I just made one and it didn’t function the way I needed it to. So, for me, the story had to come first and then the map followed. Since I’m in the middle of re-plotting I’ve had to yet again, draw a new one.

EC: In my early drafts the foundation of my antagonists’ culture was initially based around the Norse. This has morphed into its own over time, but they still share certain elements. For example, they are raiders. However, one clan has managed to unite a large enough force to up from raiding to conquering. My protagonists land is one that has seen better days. In under 20 years it lost its line of royal kings, been through civil war and pestilence. What emerged is a much weaker and divided land, and easy pickings for the enemy across the sea. Weaved into all this is the Temper. It is not so much a magic but more of a supernatural mutation which effects a small number of the population. Different cultures explain its manifestation in different ways. In some, just being Tempered is enough reason to kill you. My two main protagonists are Tempered. One is a physician and a veteran from the civil war (another nameless thug in the shield wall – as his brother would probably put it) and the second is a runaway teenager who he takes under his wing. The story doesn’t follow an elite or chosen one. Just two people who value family and fellowship and are willing to fight for a better future. My reason for map making was originally to gauge distances between locations. When my two MCs split up, I needed to ensure they were both in the right location at the same time to meet again. In the first draft I realised one turned up a week too early!

Yes, an antagonist uses runes as a means of divination. I took a beach walk and ended up collecting a set of pebbles and scratched my own symbols into them and began to figure out how they would be read. Each stone represents one of the pantheon so exploring this aspect of world building really helped flesh out a character and why they trust the guidance of their gods rather than the people around them. I think world building is important because the reader is like a traveller in a foreign land. You have to explain the place and culture. Equally you have to give the reader an idea of what normal life is like in the world before the plot turns it all on its head. However, it is very easy to include too much world building within the story and end up with massive info dumps. So absolutely it can be a distraction. Getting the right balance is tricky. At the forefront are the characters and the plot, but the world around them enriches them both. Chris definitely gets the balance right better than I do. Like Chris, I’ve also given the world a backstory, including mythology as well as history. There’s a sort of magic in this world but each culture views it differently. I didn’t want a dark, grimy world. I take influences from history and it’s easy to forget the white marble from the Classical World was painted and the Christian churches before the reformation were richly decorated and the year filled with religious festivals. I wanted to bring that into the world building. Yes, there are grim periods of war, plague and famine, plus the elders will always bang on about how life was better in their youth, but when things are good, it’s a colourful and vibrant place to be in.

CM: Yours definitely had that feel, so you pulled it off. In many ways I think Hardy might have been an influence in your desire to capture the more rural aspects of life, village festivals, elders, mythology and superstition. Your world was rich and full of life, but more on the pastoral side rather than the aristocratic court side.

I remember being afraid I didn’t include enough of my world. I’m still not sure, but do try to limit the descriptions to what the POV character interacts with in the scene through the senses, and build it from there. A quick one sentence to orient the reader and go from there. I’ll also use the setting to trigger memory if it’s relevant to the story, and that’s a way of letting the reader see more without a paragraph of exposition. I can’t believe you created your own runes. That is hardcore and awesome. Just this last week (a year and a half after you read my story) I decided maybe I should come up with a simple doctrine for the Way of the Warrior King (the main religion guiding the MC and one of his cohorts) because I had never really thought about it. It never came up. But I thought even seven principles or pillars, something simple, could give the reader an idea of what it’s about. Even on the good vs evil level. These pillars may never even enter the story, but it really illustrates, in my mind anyway, how nebulous world-building guidelines, the dos and don’ts, can be for fantasy writers.

EM: I think you’re right. Equally I was drawn to Hardy because I’d recently switched from a corporate job to a rural/environmental one. Plus, as he’d lived in the same area, I could find similarities when he described the natural world. Now I’m living in a 200-year-old cottage with no central heating – I’m fully embracing the pastoral lifestyle! It’s very easy to get stuck into world building. As I go through my edits I have to keep asking, does the world building help the plot and/or characters? If it’s dragging the scene, I will cut it out.

I think adding a doctrine would help. Its principles will have been ingrained into the lives of two of your MCs so it will influence their choices during the story. Runes are a bit hardcore, but then I guess so is map making. Sometimes it’s easier to create it visually in order to understand it.

DJ: That’s a good point about the fact that a lot of fantasy is driven by what is happening at court – I’d not really thought of things in that way before…food for thought… One of my favourite fantasy novels, Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold (which I mention because she comes up with a great mythos overlaid on a sort of Espanolesque base), is certainly focused on the Royal Family and the people around them. But I guess sooner or later you need to have somebody powerful to get the troops moving. You’re both keen on the shield-wall, which suggests a lot of people getting mobilised, and some big battle scenes. As well as a certain Viking influence, is that another facet of a world made messy and disordered by events? Or is it more of a question of following characters who are part of a team? Or…?

CM: I’m not sure what you mean by the Viking influence in the world made messy or following the team. In my story the majority of the chaos (the dismantling of a kingdom) is caused by a resurrection of a druid death cult. They are using an invading army to further the chaos, hence the shield wall. But the story definitely follows the threads of a few characters and once they connect over differing goals about a third of the way in. We follow primarily one character, but all have differing personal stakes that drive them forward.

I think for me there are certain elements of those early Viking Dane cultures, melded in with 6th-8th century Anglo-Saxon culture in terms of fighting styles and weapons, but that is really only one kingdom. Yes, it’s the main one where everything goes to crap, but two of my main characters are counter to all that. They’re monks, but one uses a ranged bow and a blackthorn shillelagh walking stick, while the other comes from a northern kingdom based on various elements of Canadian and African native cultures. I don’t think anything is a mirror of any but an assemblage of borrowed bits to create something new. The nice thing about fantasy is the ability of the storyteller to create from existing real-world cultures. And my MC refuses to use any weapon, so he represents a rejection of all of them.

Emma’s use of the ‘Temper’ was an interesting idea for a sort of magic system that evolved from her world. I liked that some characters knew far more than others about it. We saw characters trying to figure this thing out, even though it has existed for a long time. My point is that it came out of world building and I think that’s key to making a magic system, whether it’s magic or not, hard or soft, whatever, feel like it belongs, like it’s a apart of the world. In my story the characters don’t believe in magic because it doesn’t exist. BUT, it kind of does, through the antagonist’s use of ritual and sacred rites. Even this is new though, born out of an incident that happened maybe 50 years prior to the story’s beginning. So, we have the beginning of a magic system born out of the world. Likewise, the main characters have also experienced supernatural intervention by their deity, but they have no idea how any of it works. They’re figuring it out as they go along, dragging the reader with them. So out of this “soft” world of the unseen a “soft” magic system is emerging in which the characters are learning what is possible along with the reader. But the story is only two weeks, so really it’s only the inception of these ideas and not their culmination.

EC: Exactly, we can pick-a-mix what we like, yet we have to ensure collectively it works. You wouldn’t put flying cars into a medieval style setting (if you did, you would need to fully explain why there is nothing odd about this). That’s what I like about your MC. Luke had his lightsaber, Arthur had Excalibur. Your MC doesn’t need a weapon.

Yes, the Temper has always been present. In my protagonists’ case the general population in their land distrusts them and 800 years of kings fuelling this has meant most Tempered keep to themselves and muddle along as best they can in secret. In your story, following the birth of magic is very interesting. Especially one born from catalyst. War and hardship, as terrible as they are, do drive people to innovate and discover. In world building there is a desire to explain everything, but in some cases keeping some things ambiguous makes it more interesting. A bit like the awe you feel watching a magic trick. Part of you wants to believe the magic is real. When the trick is revealed you tend to feel a bit deflated.

CM: I like that too. What I’m enjoying about mine is that I don’t need to explain because the characters are in as much shock and awe, maybe more so, than the reader. They have questions and try to come up with the best answers that make sense to them, and muddle through it all, learning like us. I struggled with the idea of a prologue that would explain the origins, in-scene, no exposition, but I decided it didn’t really matter to the story I was telling. It now takes place over two weeks, there are high personal stakes and a ticking clock pushing my MC forward. No one wants to do any of this for a greater cause. They all have personal reasons and huge personal losses if they fail, which doesn’t really give them time to relive the past or overly try to figure out the why of it all.

Here’s a question to you: how do you go about showing the antagonist’s MOTIVES without a dramatic monologue? I suppose just have the characters guess since they know no more than the reader.

EC: I show the antagonists motives through their actions. Having a character with a foot in both camps also helps to offload information. As my protag/antag don’t see one another as adversaries until much later, it’s difficult to get them together to even allow a monologue. Sometimes the protagonists can only make assumptions and muddle along, which is very much how I feel when it comes to real life in general! It’s also impossible to work out the motives of an antagonist who uses divination runes to make decisions.

Fantasy usually entails putting your characters into seemingly hopeless situations. Their arcs force them to endure and to change, and to never lose hope despite everything. You make them see what is important in their life. Now it’s rare for me to have to make decisions in a life or death situation, but I feel frustration, anxiety and hopelessness at times. My problems are a lot smaller than my characters. But, like them, I know the sun will rise tomorrow and another day brings another chance. I think that’s what fantasy gives me.

CM: Mine is sort of along that same vein, with respect to finding a way to endure. I like how you put that. My story begins with three utterly broken people who have never found a way to deal with their trauma and grief from being heroes. I’ve got a brief snapshot of what happens after the hero’s journey. It’s three years later and their experience has pushed them to the point where living after the return home has never been easy. I’ve enjoyed telling a story like this because the hero’s journey is so common and there’s nothing wrong with that as a framework, but we never get to see the emotional toll that journey takes on the heroes because the story ends. With my three guys it was not happily ever after, it was “I don’t know how to live each day and I don’t EVER want to do this again because it ruined me the first time”. But guess what? You’re going to do it again because that’s the only way either of you are going to come out the other side of this. Yay Fantasy!

But it’s real, and I think both of us have made it a point to create real people that go through what real people go through. For a lot of people this life is hard, but our heroes are heroes not because they slayed the beast and brought home the elixir but because they decided to keep living and found a way through.

They endured. I love it, Emma!

EC: Exactly! We see similar physical and mental tolls on the MCs in other fantasy novels like Frodo in the aftermath of Tolkien’s LOTR and Ged once his magic is spent in Le Guin’s Earthsea. Hobb tells Fitz’s journey over three trilogies and he is forced to endure but between the 6th and 7th book he gets a brief glimpse of happiness before being plunged into the thick of it one final time. My story will be told across a trilogy and a character says victory does not end like the bards put it. Victory means picking up the shattered remains of yourself and everything you held dear like a smashed vessel and putting it back together again. What comes after victory is the hardest part. Characters change. Like you, they seem real to me. It’s wonderful for an introvert like me to create people and I never base them on celebrities or people I know. Each significant character I introduce, I write down at least three aspirations for them. Some they have already fulfilled or will during the book and some they will never realise, but it acts as a drive. We all have regrets and think, ‘I wish I’d have done that,’ when we look back. I didn’t want to make characters who succeed in everything and ride off into the sunset because it doesn’t happen in reality. For example, my MC absolutely wants a wife and a large family. But circumstances mean he is alone, but in his ward he sees a warped reflection of what he yearns for. Equally I didn’t want to write a Chosen One storyline. Yes, my MCs have supernatural abilities but I like to think anyone with the endurance would equally prevail. Going back to the antagonists, I dislike the stark Good vs. Evil. I think it can be justified in something supernatural and primal, but not between people. I enjoy writing an antagonist who could be seen as a flawed protagonist if the story was written from their perspective. I really do enjoy the creativity fantasy offers. Creativity (and daydreaming) has always been a huge part of who I am.

CM: I think the big problem with the chosen one trope is that there is usually a prophecy and the character is fumbling though trying to discover their true power. Where it’s done well is when the MC has something they want that’s personal, or find themselves in a situation where they have to act, which leads to consequences that further the plot. In a way, all good fantasy protagonists could be chosen ones. I think I just blew my own mind.

Your mention of Ged got me thinking about that idea. He wants to defeat the Shadow or darkness (I’m too lazy to pull it off the bookshelf) but in the end, he’s kind of the chosen one, the only one who can do it. Frodo is kind of the same. No one says Frodo or nothing. He’s like “yeah, I’ll take the damn thing to Mordor, but one of YOU is going to have show me how to get there.” You could say the ring chose him, or Gandalf, but no one really does. He just has it because it was left to him 16 YEARS ago. That’s not a chosen one, yet he’s kind of the only one who can do it, so he’s a chosen one. Your Joy could kind of be like that. My Drostan. Kind of chosen, but never would have gotten there without a personal motivation and high personal stakes pushing them (not, I have to save the kingdom because I’m the only one up to the task).

Both our stories have plenty of people up to the task, but there is something distinct about our protagonists (I said Joy, but Artan as well) that makes them the only ones who can do it. It’s their story.

EC: Yes, you can have the ‘save the world’ need, but unless the character has a personal motive it’s hard for the reader to invest in them. I also find it unbelievable when a character goes from newbie to badass in too short a space of time. They need to develop and grow. Definitely Frodo stepped up to the task (although part of me wonders what would have happened if Tom Bombadil had taken it). You’re right there. Stepping into Artan’s backstory, during the war the man leading the body of troops he was in fled. Faced with death and the knowledge his woman faced a worst fate if they were defeated, he stepped from rank, gave a rousing speech and their group were the catalyst which helped win the battle. Anyone else could have done the same as him but he saw his future and the only way to get there was to face the fray and win. Others are indeed up to the task. Which makes it interesting if you put an antagonist in the goodies ranks with the same ‘save the world’ goal but with less pure personal motives than the MC. Our characters also have the help from others. Fyfa is the glue in yours. Our characters are fallible and at times they lose hope and confidence. But the people surrounding them can also help them find the will to continue.

CM: So true. And she is. She’s also a mirror for three broken men. Not in a ‘you have to get over this’ way, but more like ‘you have to still find a way to move through it even though it seems impossible’ kind of way. Tom B is an enigma. I have no idea. I suppose he would have lost it, and someone would have found it again. New heroes. Same story.

EC: I loved her character. Fantasy, especially historical fantasy, sometimes has a tendency to either make female characters a damsel who needs saving, or take away all their femininity save for a bit of revealing cleavage. Yes, women can be warriors and men can be healers, but too often I’ve read female leads preferring masculine traits and clothing who mock the women surrounding her who dress in skirts and prefer learning a musical instrument rather than how to kill people with swords.

CM: OR, kill the woman off early to spark the male lead to act, or give him a reason to be proactive or up the stakes. In Fyfa’s culture she is a warlord and since that is normal in that society she has no need to come across as someone who needs to prove themselves or be masculine because both sexes are warriors. I did struggle with how to present her.

EC: You present her well. Along with your world building the reader can get behind her character. You don’t have to follow reality’s structure in fantasy. However, writers like Pratchett wrote comedy and satire, but there were some ugly reflections of our reality in the stories too. Cheery, is a good example. A female dwarf (but all dwarfs despite their sex look the same). She starts wearing makeup, heels and earrings which outrages all the male dwarfs but begins a movement with the other female dwarfs. So fantasy can have that element of freedom and escapism, and it can also be a place to explore themes we deal with here and now, but in an alternative (possibly safe?) place.

DJ: But one final question: having invented your own worlds, do you ever find some aspect of them crossing back and affecting how you do things in real life?

EC:I’ll have a go at answering… (plus, I really need to update my neglected website). While I’m sourly disappointed my characters haven’t manifested into our world, I found the rural life I was writing about very appealing so I swapped a terrace in a tourist beach town for a 200 year old stone cottage in the woods, which is very similar to a location in my book. I’m not taking up archery (yet…) or sword fighting, but there are elements of my research which spark an interest or rekindle old ones, like plant medicine (my MC is a physician and into his herbs). In creating different cultures there are aspects which I find resonate with my own feelings of how we should live within our environment. I’m not preaching made up gods, but in a reality which drives consumerism and unsustainable growth, I find more and more the need to take a step back to create deeper connections with people and the world around me. The characters also peek through. I find myself quoting characters to myself or others in certain situations. In writing (and reading) I discover characters I can relate and aspire to. Sometimes I’ll emulate a trait I gave a character when I approach a situation because I want to change my own method of dealing with it. What I find wonderful is that despite existing in the head of the author, the characters we create may get someone through a tough time or help shape them. There’s a huge amount of magic within the pages of a book.

CM: All well-said, Emma. I think if anything for me, it’s that I try to live more intentionally. In the aftermath of heroism, the accompanying glory is fleeting and the trauma that came with it lingers. Each of my characters avoid dealing with that trauma in different ways according to their personalities and situation. As a monk in a large port city, Drostan pours all of himself into his work. By relentlessly devoting himself to caring for widows and orphans, the weak and the poor, he finds a purpose that he assumes will find favour with his god. He is never idle because there is always someone who needs help. We hear so often that you have to take care of yourself first. It sounds selfish, doesn’t it? But the point is that he never confronts the grief and trauma of what happened to him and others. Tam is also a monk, but he is so overwhelmed with the futility of his efforts that he turns his back on the world, isolates himself and devotes his time to the pursuit of spiritual disciplines. He avoids anything that leads to self-awareness, falling into what comes easy for him. Korvall has no escape. He returns from a brutal war only to still be chief of war and fight more. He is visible, and to admit to suffering from the trauma of war (his job) is weakness. So, he numbs and escapes in the only way available to him. He gives himself over to wholly to vices of drinking, women, gambling. he loses everything. Burns every bridge., eventually resorting to theft to feed himself. These three remind me that I need to live in a way that I am always pursuing what my purpose in life is, and living each day, each hour according to that purpose. It isn’t easy. I get into ruts like everyone else, but I’m always aware I’m in one, and that there are things I know that bring me closer to my purpose that I’ve neglected.

DJ: That’s a great note to end on.  Thanks both for your time and thoughts – it’s been great to see behind the scenes of your respective stories, both written and lived. 

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