Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Fantasy Sage Speaks: In The End

We've talked about plot, and about the promises we make our readers when we publish a story. We've talked about magic and power balance, and how they contribute to the tension that keeps a story going. So now it's time for the end of the story.

Once again, for the sake of simplicity, I'm going to call the major teams of a fantasy novel Team Good, lead by the Hero and Team Evil, lead by the Villain. I recognize that fantasy protagonists and antagonists come in a lot of different shades (Next Post: The Cast) but these terms will do the job for the sake of today's discussion.

Here's the claim that might get a lot of comments: in a straight fantasy, Team Good always wins. The readers do not want to spend however many hundreds, if not thousands, of pages watching Team Good get to the point where it can defeat Team Evil and then lose. Not in the final battle. If Return of the Jedi had ended with the Rebel Alliance being annihilated, and Darth tossing Luke off the bridge while the Emperor cackled in the background, fans would have rioted and Lucas would have never made another movie.

Now for the huge mess of caveats:

Team Good must win is not the same thing as the Hero has to come out alive, or that there is any guarantee of a happy ending for any individual member of Team Good. As long as Team Good wins, or the actions of Team Good assures a future win, you can kill every single member of Team Good and it's still a satisfying end. If you re-wrote the movie Glory and set it with a troop of Dwarves looking to be taken seriously as real members of Elven society, the ending where almost everyone dies, but the first spark of Dwarven equality bursts to light, then the ending works. Likewise, if your Hero comes out of the final battle wounded, disillusioned, broken, having lost everything but his ability to breathe, as long as whatever he was trying to accomplish gets done, all is good.

Team Good must win only applies for the final conflict. You can write a fifteen book series and have Team Evil happily torturing the Hero at the end of the first fourteen of them as long as the Hero triumphs at the end of the last book. Romances demand a Happily Ever After for each book in the series. Fantasy demands that Team Good has to win in the end.

Winning is entirely dependent on how you defined the problem. If the issue is Dark Lordenstein is big, bad, and EVIL, any end where Dark is no longer those things flies. Team Good can kill, convert, imprison, or do any other thing you can imagine to Dark, as long as Dark is out of the picture as the Villain in the end.

You'll probably notice that I'm dealing mostly with the man v. man version of fantasy. Now, while it is true that man v. nature and man v. society do happen in fantasy, they are almost always secondary plot lines or some level of meta problem that's being explored in a micro man v. man setting. But, if you've got it set where your protagonist is fighting all of society, or magic, or whatever external, non-person (using person loosely here, by this I mean a thinking creature, not necessarily human) problem he or his team still has to triumph in the end.

If the problem is societal, like racism, winning can be defined as any step that causes the society at large to seriously consider change, but does not require immediate change. If the fight is the main character versus his nature (he's a werewolf or vampire or whatever) whichever side you've set as the protagonist needs to take the day.

If you've written the sort of epic where there are seventeen main characters, no clear protagonist, and all of them are dingy shades of gray without a Team Good or Team Evil, more power to you, 'cause that's a bugger to write a satisfying ending to. No matter how you end that, someone is going to be pissed because his or her pet character didn't get the ending they were looking for.

Basically, the more clearly defined the problem is, the easier it is to write a good (once again, good is defined as the ability to satisfy the majority of readers) ending.

Okay, so here's the one big exception to this rule: tragedy is an acceptable version of fantasy. There are a few main variations on this where Team Good doesn't win and the readers don't mind.

Tragic Fall: call this Macbeth style fantasy. You're writing about the fall of someone who did something stupid. Usually in this case the Hero is very dark gray if not outright black, but he's still a compelling POV character. These are often morality tales about the love of power and how it destroys people. You can do any horrible thing you want to Hero, and the readers will appreciate it.

The Sacrifice: This is the story where the chance of Team Good winning was one in a million at the beginning of the tale, and it's still one in a million at the end. Call this Les Miserable style fantasy. Everyone knows from page one that this is not going to end well for Team Good, but that they're doing something that will get them all killed because it's important. The story here is about the struggle, character development, and then breaking the reader's hearts by crushing those characters. Usually this ends with the goals of Team Good getting more attention and the possibility of a future win for Team Good, but the immediate Team Good has failed and is dead.

The Anti-Happily Ever After: Romeo and Juliet style star-crossed lovers flies in fantasy as well. But this is usually a microplot. Team Good usually wins whatever it is that's going on in the metaplot, but doing so requires the star-crossed lovers to put each other aside/die. This is tragedy for whichever characters, but the greater Team Good still wins the day. If Romeo and Juliet both die, followed by the Montagues and Capulets immediately going to war and annihilating each other, your readers will feel cheated. The micro tragedy has to have a bigger meaning and value than the immediate characters.

Having read all that, you know what to do, right?  Exactly, do not write the story where everything is going swimmingly, the odds are evening up, the final conflict is looming, and then slaughter all your characters, crushing their goals. If you are writing a tragedy, you need to let your readers know it's coming. By the midpoint of the story you should have several clues and a good bit of foreshadowing in place to let them know things are not going to end well for Team Good. In fact, though I'm not generally a huge fan of the preface/first chapter that shows how the story ended, if you've ever been tempted to use it, when you're writing a tragedy is the time.

Otherwise, set up the plot, even up the power balance, and to quote a wise man, "Have fun stormin' the castle!"

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Fantasy Sage Speaks: Power Balance

In the last Fantasy Sage post, I wrote about the rules of magic in fantasy writing, and in that I mentioned that there was one very specific time when the To Thine Own Magic Be True rule could be broken, as the object of a High Quest, for the purpose of providing a decent power balance in the last conflict.

What is power balance? This is the odds of Team Good or Team Evil winning. This is one of the most important aspects of your novel, because a well done power balance provides the thing that keeps your readers turning pages: tension. Basically, if you stack the deck too far on one side or the other, the tension in your story is shot to pieces, and you end up with bored readers.

So, let's talk about our next rule for good fantasy writing: Thou Shall Balance Power Between Team Good and Team Evil.  Though I'm playing fast and lose with Good and Evil here, Protagonist and Antagonist is probably more accurate, because lots of fantasy readers like a great Anti-Hero, gray Heroes, and darker gray Villains. But let's call them Team Good lead by the Hero and Team Evil lead by the Villain for the sake of amusement.

Now, at the beginning of the story Team Good can have a one-in-a-million shot of winning this thing, but it's got to have that shot. And by the end of the story, you've got to get things close to one to one. If it's still one in a million when you hit the final conflict, you're A: writing a tragedy (Which plays by it's own set of rules, but is an acceptable subset of fantasy. More on this in the In The End post.) or B: your readers will not believe it when Team Good wins.

Once again this is where plot wrangling comes in. Many fantasy novels, when broken down to the most basic plot level work something like this: Team Evil has the power. This is intolerable. Team Good decides to do something about it. Adventure allowing Team Good to make up most of the difference occurs here. Final conflict. Team Good fights hard, looks like all is lost, but triumphs in the end. (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, DragonLance, and on and on and on: they all follow this basic plan.)

The problem is that many writers forget how tension works in a fantasy story. A really bad Team Evil is a lot of fun to write. And many writers are a little too attached to Team Good and make them too strong. But, if the odds are too firmly stacked on either side, the story is boring. If Dark Lordenstein is not only a murderous-paranoid-psychopath, but psychic, with a doomsday weapon, no limits on his magic, and an army of loyal-unto-death Super Ninjas, and the Hero is played by the gangly thirteen-year-old Farm Boy, that's just not good reading. None of us are going to suspend our disbelief far enough to make that work. Likewise if Skippy Von Goodandstrong is playing the role of Hero, and he's well nigh invincible, in addition to handsome, kind to puppies, and just so perfectly perfect, he'll be labeled a Gary Stu before the third chapter is done, and the readers will depart shortly thereafter. In fact, the only way Dark or Skippy is even remotely interesting is if they're facing off against each other in a satire.

There are a lot of lessons we can all learn from Star Wars, here's the first one: Luke Skywalker V. Darth Vader isn't much fun to watch until Luke has his powers and Darth is weakened by doubt about his vocation. Luke V. Darth in Empire is fascinating as a character study, but it was terrifying as a fight. Anyone who was paying attention watched Luke go into that fight and felt their stomach drop. If Luke won the fight it was going to feel like a cheap shot, and if Darth won... Well, before seeing it for the first time, none of us wanted to think about what would happen if Darth won.  Compare that to the time they face off in Jedi: the odds are still on Darth's side, but not so far on Darth's side that we cannot believe Luke can win. Which is why we sat on the edge of the chair, trying to see Luke in the gloom, wondering how he was going to best Vader.

So, by the time you get to writing that final conflict, I'd say you want no more than a ten to one shot against your Hero winning.  That still allows for the underdog takes the game sort of sense, but isn't so far out in the realm of impossibility that your readers don't bother to finish the book.

Getting the ratio close(r) to one to one is usually where a lot of the story part of the story takes place. It's the entire point of the Hero's Journey. It's the reason why the farm boy comes into his powers, and the old mentor has to die/vanish before the final conflict can occur. If the mentor is still around, the power is too strongly stacked on Team Good's side.

In the High Quest variation of fantasy, some level of evening things up happens during the quest, and then the Object of the Quest finishes up the deal. If Dark Lordenstein is cackling away, rubbing his hands with glee, and summoning the Minions to destroy Farm Boy, then Farm Boy needs a real weapon to take to that fight. So this is the time where whipping out the +5 Holy Avenger of Villain Smiting is perfectly okay. If it comes out earlier in the plot, where Farm Boy is still fighting rats and ruffians, there's no tension in those fights. If Farm Boy never finds his super weapon, and Dark trips on his Minions, causing the doomsday weapon to fire upon himself, thus killing him, the reader is let down because there's no triumph for Farm Boy. (This is part of why Harry Potter, with the rebounding curse of doom, was less than perfectly satisfying. Voldie kills himself in the end is just sort of flat. It's not terrible, but it's not very rich, either.) But if Farm Boy finds that +5 Holy Avenger of Villain Smiting a chapter or two before going into the final conflict, then he's got just enough time to get a feel for it, but not enough time to become the absolute master of it, and we get to enjoy seeing him and Dark battle it out, with both sides powerful but not invincible.

In the tragic folly sort of fantasy plot, (this is where Dark Lordenstein is a major POV character, being set up to fall as a tragic figure) this is where his Minions are betraying him, getting killed off, etc... In this case it's not necessarily so much that Team Good is gaining power as that Team Evil is losing it.

And in many fantasy stories, there's a bit of all three going on, and probably a half dozen or so other templates, but they all work out to the same thing, when Team Good and Team Evil clash for the last time, it's a toss up as to who will win.

Who wins in the end? Team Good. This isn't as hard and fast as the Happily Ever After is for romance readers, and I'll go into the variations on it in the next post, but in the end, Team Good has to take the day.
Other Fantasy Sage Posts: Magic, Contract, Plot

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


So, I usually try to keep this a politics free place, but this one hits home.

I am a copyright holder. I've got one book out, and hopefully two more out in the next year, all in electronic format. And trust me, I want to get paid for those books. But here's the thing, there are better, easier, and more importantly, effective ways to battle copyright infringement.

SOPA is using a tank to battle a mosquito infestation. You blow the shit out of everything nearby and don't do a damn thing to the mosquitoes.

We are a representational democracy. Let your representatives know this isn't the way.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Indie Book Review: The Wars of Gods and Man

I'd like you to imagine for a moment Macbeth blended with an Old Testament, henotheistic, my God-is-better-than-yours battle. Cool, yes? I thought so.  And that's precisely what The Wars of Gods and Men delivers.

The Wars of Gods and Men follows three main characters, Eboric, Ayren, and Kolrig, through the creation of, destruction of, and re-creation of an empire, that mirrors a meta battle between warring Gods. If micro-scale political fantasy is your idea of "Oh yes! Give me more!" this is the book for you. If humans flailing about, unsure of their place in the winds of destiny makes you happy, pick this book up.

If you're familiar with Macbeth, you'll recognize one of the major plot threads, betrayal, destruction, and tragic endings for the traitors. But that's not all that's going on in here. The War of Men is but a micro version of the War of Gods, which we get hints and glimpses of, but never see in full. The tantalizing glimpses of what is going on beyond the human characters are well-rounded enough to keep the readers happy, but mysterious enough to maintain a nice tension to the tale.

Now, many of us are familiar with Christian fantasy, where the writer draws a made-up world with a Messianic figure and a message that looks awfully familiar to just about everyone raised in the West. The Wars of Gods and Men is a sort of twist on this. I'd call it Jewish fantasy, because the war of the Gods aspect looks a whole lot like the Old Testament. A Prophet foresees destruction of those who do not follow his God. He and those who believe with him are persecuted for their faith. Miracles abound as the Prophet puts those other godlings and their worshipers in their places. There's even a mist that kills everyone who happens to be outside of their tent when it creeps into camp. Cenred, the Prophet, might not be an exact match to any specific OT Prophet, but the parallels (down to his bald head) are certainly there.

I'll admit I was very pleased to see that. Pretty much, if there are five great influences on Western literature, the Bible and Shakespeare are, if not the top two, then definitely on the list. So, put them together, execute it with grace and dignity, and wrap it up with a spin on nation building, and well, I was a happy reader.

Speaking of grace and dignity, this was a tidy little book. Characters are rounded and three dimensional, their motivations clear, voices distinct, and actions true to their personalities. (I might have wanted just a tad more depth on Kolrig, but the somewhat brief moments of his inner life fit the character's lack of introspection nicely.) Though this is the first book in a series, it stands alone without any problems. The story arc is complete in and of itself, while still leaving room for continuing adventures. Description might be a little minimalist for some readers, but I'm not much of a visual processor, so the lack of intricately wrought description didn't bother me at all. I had a pretty good idea of what everything looked like, and I didn't need page upon page of description.

And, though it should go without saying, any book on the market should be competently proofread and formatted, but after reviewing so many in a row that weren't, I'd like to specifically mention that The Wars of Gods and Men is cleanly formatted, easy to read, and I didn't notice any major foul ups in the grammar or punctuation department. In a nutshell, it looks professional. And that was a very, very welcome change from some of my most recent reading experiences.

So, all in all, I was quite pleased with The Wars of Gods and Men. I'll happily recommend it to anyone who is looking for a twist on a familiar tale.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Fantasy Sage Speaks: Magic

A bit ago I wrote about the responsibilities of the fantasy writer to his readers: the unwritten contract between us and them. On one of the places I posted that article, I got a comment along the lines of the contract I had talked about was pretty generic and could stand in for almost any type of fiction.

So I'm back, with a series of issues specific to the fantasy writer. Now, none of this is written in stone. A great writer, or even a really good with the right attitude can get away with violating these "rules." But please, bear in mind, if you're going to break them, A: You will annoy a fairly large segment of your reading audience. B: Don't just stumble into it. Do it on purpose, knowing you're going to do it, and do it with style. Readers will be much more likely to forgive a breach of any of these if it doesn't look like sloppy writing.

That said, let's talk magic. 

Think about this for a minute: why is there magic in your story? Put succinctly: the point of magic in your story is not to cover up sloppy writing. It is not your get-out-of-plot-holes-free ticket. It's there to add mystery, wow factor, to push your characters out of their comfort zones, add to the tension of the tale, and even up the power balance (more on power balance in a later post) between your protagonist and antagonist. It is there to color your world, and provide bounds to your reality.

And this is why it annoys people when you muck with that system. It's like reading a historical romance where the main character is constantly texting. You cheapen and violate the strength of the reality you've created when you mess with your magic. So, for the most part, don't do it.

This leads us to the number one, hard and fast, do-not-screw-with-this-if-you-want-happy-fantasy-readers rule: To Thine Own Magic Be True. Seriously. Tattoo this on the backs of both of your hands so that it's staring up at you while you write. Want to annoy your readers? Set up a multi-book series where you suddenly decide that the magical laws you spent so long creating no longer hold true.

Now, of course, there are exceptions to all rules, so there are ways you can muck with your magical system and have it work: Take your characters to a new world. All the rules can go out the window then. If the point of your story is to find some sort of universe altering magic, then the readers are unlikely to be annoyed if, when your characters find it, the magic changes.  Or, any variation on the theme of your main character is Super-Duper Special, The One Whose Coming is Foretold, and part of what makes him super-duper special is that upon fully coming into his power, all the rules get tossed out, works as well. (Though there does seem to be Super-Duper Special Character Fatigue among certain segments of the fantasy reading world.)

Finally, there's Balogium. This is a special sort of magic, and though allowable, it's generally frowned upon. But, for the most part, you can get away with one a book, though readers would prefer closer to one a series. Balogium is a symptom of insufficient plot wrangling. It's a piece of magic that, if used logically, and to it's full extent, would blow your plot and magical system to hell and gone. It's the Time Turner in Harry Potter. Because of insufficient plot wrangling, your plot won't work without the Balogium, so you've got this magical thing in there to save your plot. There's a sort of unspoken agreement concerning Balgonium: you, the author will use it sparingly, and destroy it as soon as possible after it's use, so that it doesn't mess with the rest of your plot, and the reader will pretend not to notice your plot got away from you.

Those exceptions aside, if you can't summon food out of the ether in chapter five and suddenly you can in chapter forty-five, you will have annoyed readers. And, if you keep your plot in line, you won't find yourself in a situation where you have to use your magic as a rescue.

Rule number two: Be very, very careful with powerful magic. Very powerful magic is a really easy way to wreck a perfectly functional magical system and or plot. (And it almost always sets off the Baloginum sensors on high alert.) The most famous example of a bit of fantasy magic that the creators didn't properly think through, and that blew the power balance out of the water was the Teleporter in Star Trek. (I come down on the Star Trek is fantasy, not science fiction side of the debate.)  The Teleporter is a nifty idea, and it looks really cool, and it does solve a real problem for the Trek verse, but it's so powerful that the Star Trek writers ended up having to make it malfunction or make whatever away mission the crew was on Teleporter-proof in just about every third episode, otherwise the solution to the problem is: Beam Me Up.

If your magic is so powerful that it's potentially the answer to any problem your characters run into, tone it down. Your story needs tension, and if you let the characters get too powerful, or create an easy answer to whatever problems they have, you'll have bored readers.

If you are happily writing away and are thinking of adding in a really cool +5 Holy Avenger of Evil Smiting and Bad Guy Destroying, think about it long and hard. You're probably better off without it. Because if you leave it in there, the likelihood is you're going to have to muck with your magical system or plot to compensate. In fact, there's only one reason a +5 Holy Avenger of Evil Smiting and Bad Guy Destroying (or any other ridiculously powerful magical artifact) should ever show up in a book, and that's as the object of a High Quest.

Now, the object of a High Quest can break any magical rule you've got and solve any problems your characters might have because it's there for an entirely different reason than the rest of your magical system. The Quest Object is about evening up the power balance for the final confrontation. Which I'll write about in more detail in the next installment: The Power Balance.

Other Fantasy Sage Posts: Contract, Plot, Power Balance