In the best fantasy tales, at the outset quests are undertaken to achieve a goal against terrible odds, and the basis of that goal could be an object with a mysterious history, or it could be to kill a despot with immense power, the source of which is–a mystery.
And then, once the heroes are made aware of the whereabouts of the object (or person) they seek, the mystery deepens. Obstructions appear in their path, things that both block and enlighten them as they overcome them. With each small victory they learn something new, some random thing that might ultimately be the final clue to removing the source of power from the evil dude’s grasp, thus ending his reign of terror.
During the process of this, the heroes grow as people. Where they were comfortable in their secure, middle-class existence, or naive but worldly street-urchins, the experience of solving the mystery and enduring the hardships to arrive at the final scene changes them, some for the better, and some–maybe not.
This also happens in a great murder mystery, or a gripping political thriller. In writing classes and groups this is called the story arc, but in my opinion, it’s just the basis of good story. For authors just starting out, StoryStarter.com has a great page.
Along the way, the questers may encounter things that don’t appear in the real world we currently live in, and for me that’s part of the fun.
I grew up in a very rural area, surrounded by deep woods. We left Seattle and moved there when I was nine. Beyond the perimeter of our property lay terrifying things–bears, wildcats–things a nine-year old city-girl has no idea of how to deal with.
Daily, my sister and I walked up a 1/4 mile long dirt driveway through the forest to the school bus. A large hill was in the center, and for the first year I lived there, I hated the place more than anything. I hated the school, I hated the bus, I hated my parents for destroying my life.
Sometimes our father would have to drive us to school, if bears were in the horse pasture that bordered our property. We would drive past, and he would point out the wonders and explain that with a mother bear and her cub in the horse pasture, we had to be very careful that morning. “They’re rare, and we’re fortunate to be able to see them once in a while. It’s just the mother will see you as a danger to her cub, so no bus for you today.”
All I knew was the woods were full of danger, and my parents apparently didn’t care, because they made me walk through them daily. I did walk through them and gradually, as summer vacation loomed, I began to see the possibilities of living in a lake-house, where there was no restriction on how many days you swam.
That first summer I discovered waterskiing, and my whole point of view about living all year round in a vacation-house was changed. Over the first few months I learned to love the deep woods around us, and to know and recognize the birds and animals who grudgingly endured our noisy, selfish presence.
This personal journey from ignorance to understanding the characters go through while solving the underlying mystery is one of the most important elements of a story. It is hard to know how a character will react to a given situation, and that is the best part of writing them.
Ross Kitson’s epic Darkness Rising series is one of my favorites, because the circumstances force the characters to evolve in unexpected ways. Jeffrey Getzin’s fabulous Prince of Bryonae and his novellas featuring D’Arbignal are also good examples of how circumstances shape characters.
I highly recommend both these indie authors, if you are looking for high quality indie fantasy.