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Writing: What Constitutes Fantasy

Discussion has recently come up on my writer’s list about fantasy stories. One of the members asked a range of questions, not because she needed advice but because I believe she’s had discussions with other writers on what constitutes fantasy. Most of the members had close to the same answers here so I’m listing her questions and how I view each of them.

1.     Should a writer write down to an audience, or just use their own conversational voice?

 I took this to mean, should a writer condescend to, take on an instructional tone in explaining to an audience that may not know as much. Or should the writer use the author’s voice. However, I believe she meant, use your regular writing voice, thought that wasn’t clear. I have elaborated on my original answers.

I’d think neither. You’re writing using characters so your characters should help reveal the world. A character has a personality and a unique voice and depending on the point of view, that will affect what voice is used. You could have a condescending narrator; in that case yes he/she would talk or write down to the audience.

To explain the particular setting/technology/society of a world requires deft revelation, some of which may be through a particular character. Albeit, some exposition is required in a novel, but it shouldn’t be talking/writing down so much as making sure your regular reader understands the functioning aspects of the world as needed to understand the story. Example: I recently edited a book for someone who had all sorts of words/slang about airforce planes but on a level most of us (unless we were pilots) wouldn’t understand. He needed a bit more info in context so that the reader could understand what was going on.

 Unless you (the author/narrator) are an integral part of your novel, the authorial voice should not be there. When author’s drop into their stories it’s disconcerting and pulls the reader out of the world. Terry Pratchett from time to time uses an authorial or omniscient narrator (as you suspected, dear reader). It takes skill to use it in a way that enhances a story as opposed to detracting from in and ruining the atmosphere.  

2.     Should a fantasy novel assume lack of science and technology?

No. Even a world of magic has some technology or science. Whether it interacts with the story is another matter. Cups, weapons, dyes, plows, walls, etc., are all a science when they’re discovered/invented. Pre-industrial societies had science and or technology. Stories that involve alchemists (as an example) often mix science with magical properties. Books have been written where magic and science blend equally.

If you mean the logic/science behind how magic works in a particular world, then yes it still has to make sense and work in the story. But science does not negate magic necessarily.

3.     Should a fantasy novel assume a pseudo-medieval milieu?

No. It can, as is evidenced by numerous novels, but some are of far earlier societies. Some are integrated in later worlds and some are just plain ole alien. I read Brandon Sanderson’s novel, Mistborn, which had a plantationesque era and established magic. There was science as well. I really liked it for being of a different milieu.

Often there is the accepted trope that in a world that is not industrialized, magics develop in different ways within people. But a world could have magical creatures, i.e., not found normally on planet Earth and still not be medieval. Many medieval fantasies fall into parallel world tropes, where it is the middle ages but some element of magic is real. Many take an Earth like world and values but create fictitious places. Everything from the myths of the ancients up to the modern urban fantasies, like Charles de Lint’s (his name came up often in this discussion) are fantasy but not medieval. And really, a fantasy story has a better chance of selling if it is different rather than the same as every other book on the shelf.

4.     Should a fantasy novel necessarily encompass magic?

Again, it doesn’t matter really. Yes or no, depending on your world. A world can just be “other” or different from the world and the past we know, yet have nothing magical about it. It will still fall into the fantasy category. The lines between science fiction and fantasy can be blurry. Anne McCaffrey’s famous dragonriders of Pernseries started out as a medieval fantasy where people in feudal style societies rode dragons that killed the invading threads. She argued that it was science fiction because it was a different world, where originally the humans came from someplace else.

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover books were similar in that they started out in a medieval style world, where some people had special powers. But as she wrote more and more books, there was interaction with people from other planets and spaceports. Fantasy or science fiction? Yes.

5.     Should magic in a fantasy novel be hard or just part of the norm like breathing?

Depends on if everyone does it, or if it’s a gifted few. Are they born with it or like us, do they go through a crawling stage before walking and then flying? Many books have magical talents begin with puberty. In others, the person must study and earn the talent. It could be a world that has an inherent magic in the way it works such as creatures that change shape. It all depends on what is integral to the plot and how that affects the outcomes and solutions the protagonist must find.

Overall, I’d say almost all of these are not hard and fast. It depends on how the world is set up, what tale you’re trying to tell and how integral magic is to that story line. But questions like these are always goods to ask because as writers, it keeps us thinking and examining what we do. And sometimes it pushes us outside our comfort zones and we move beyond the box.

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Book Review: The Very Bloody Marys

Very Bloody Marys

Very Bloody Marys

I’ve owed M. Christian this review for a very long time and since it’s not timely with the release (2007 by Haworth Positronic Press), then why not a review in time for that holiday shopping list? And a huge mea culpa–I didn’t realize it had been that long. I still owe you.

From the title you might think this is about drinking, or murderous monarchs. If you thought one of these, you’re close to the heart of the matter. But really it’s both, about bloodthirsty vampire queens. Some are not so much queen as just murderous gay vampires. If you’re familiar with M. Christian’s work, you know he’s a prolific writer, and his writing includes erotic tales straight, gay, lesbian, etc. He’s very versatile. So I confess to thinking this book would be about gay vampires with  a lot of erotica thrown in. Though it has sensuous details this is more the tale of a gay vampire trying to gain experience as a detective. It’s a murder mystery with the supernatural thrown in.

While vampire detectives are not necessarily new, a gay vampire detective is. Valentino is thrust into the crime scene on a personal level, since his mentor is missing. And the crime scene: Vespa scooting vampires are killing the folks of San Francisco and risking the outing of all vampires, who tend to live by a code so that they aren’t hunted down. Coupled with mentor Pogue’s disappearance, Valentino has two mysteries to figure out.

The book opens with three different beginnings as Valentino tries on his authorial voice. This sets the tone, and gives this character high twinkiness. Valentino is a flamer, vapid and vain. The character was so irritating and flittythat I nearly put the book down, but his way in the world was intriguing. I think M. Christian might have cut it down a bit but then I realized there is a good reason about a quarter of the way into the book on why Valentino is acting this way. He comes to discover what’s been done to him and his personality deepens as it’s unlayered.

Valentino relies on other supernatural help and Christian’s writing uses some very descriptive phrases. For being an undead guy, Valentino is vibrantly alive and given to over verbosity that doesn’t stop in describing his zombie driver: “One time–big shudder here–I had caught a look at his eyes, two puss-filled boiled-egg eyes staring, unblinking, straight ahead, and didn’t sleep well for a week.” Of course that should be pus-filled not eyes with cats in them, but I blame the publisher for not putting a proofreader on it or maybe they did and missed it. There are very few typos, which is a good thing.

You get a good sense of Valentino’s world as he sees it. “Finally, the Brass Ass of the Great Emancipator (Abraham Lincoln) led me through silverfish heaven to a narrow doorway between the piles…In it was Saul, tarnished silver hair, rainbow sweater unwinding in spots into primary colors, brittle bones showing where unwinding yarn couldn’t hide it, eyes like bleached robin’s eggs, Indian blanket in his lap hiding the bones I knew weren’t just brittle but also didn’t work, and, because of those legs, an ancient wheelchair.”It took me a moment to realize he meant realbones, not bony legs; the visual setting is very concrete.

Much of Valentino’s descriptions go into overdrive, with buckets of adjectives. They hit their height when he’s talking about his lover, Julian. “Oh oh oh Julian Julian Julian–beloved, adored, venerated companion, compadre, mate, playmate, partner, betrothed, idol, best friend, love, lover–oh oh oh Julian Julian Julian…” A bit much? Yes, but then this is the turning point for Valentino.

Events pick up with dire and catastrophic discoveries. I don’t want to give it away but let’s just say the Very Bloody Marys are brutal, relentless, sociopathic, fashion sensitive vampires. As the fog clears from Valentino’s eyes he finds his world isn’t as he suspected. Sure it still has a few supernatural beings but all is not what it seems. He still richly describes things but there is a darker vein now to the vampire detective’s perspective. “The inky blackness didn’t so much as run as steadily walk out of that doorway. A pooling, a billowing, a smoking, and then up and into arms and legs and a wide-brimmed hat pulled down over hooded eyes.”

When  Valentino runs into Ombre, even the supernatural shade notices something has changed though the gay vampire tries to hide it. “It’s just that you seem different somehow. The flippancy is still there, that much is clear, but it’s like something else is missing.”

And Valentino has changed on several levels. In the process of discovering what has happened to Pogue, being threatened with permanent annihilation and in stopping the brutal gang, he earns his wings. He solves the mysteries, stops the Marys and finally grows up a bit after 200 years. M. Christian wraps up the tale in a very satisfying and unpredictable way. It’s one of the many bright spots in the story; very little is predictable. You won’t see this as another tired take on the vampire trope. It’s refreshingly bright and if not a complete happy ending, one with suitable revenge.

If you’re looking for a good, fast paced read, or if you like mystery or fantasy or gay fiction. Or if you just want something different and new, this book will be as satisfying as a vampire’s first drink of blood.

The Very Bloody Marys, M. Christian, 2007 Haworth Press Inc. ISBN: 9781560235354

M. Christian’s site: http://zobop.blogspot.com/

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