I received much of my early education from Ballantine Books’ Adult Fantasy Series. These were readily available through Doubleday’s Science Fiction Book Club (books by mail) or at the drug store in the paperback section.
When I was in the fifth grade, I read The Hobbit for the first time. Bilbo was real to me, and when you ask others who are dedicated fans of Tolkien, they will tell you that it is his characters that make his stories so epic.
While I will read nearly anything you put in front of me, Tolkien got me hooked on high fantasy, and I went out of my way to find it after that.
So, what is high fantasy? Wikipedia says, “High fantasy or epic fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy, defined either by the epic nature of its setting or by the epic stature of its characters, themes, or plot. The term “high fantasy” was coined by Lloyd Alexander in a 1971 essay, “High Fantasy and Heroic Romance.”
Other than the works of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, high fantasy wasn’t easy to find back in the early days, and a lot of what was out there was difficult to read.
But lighter fantasy was beginning to emerge in speculative fiction,
What makes a reader purchase and re-read a book to the point that she would wear out several copies of it?
Sure, the dragons were great, and the setting was amazing, but the characters became my dearest friends as we moved through the events of their story.
McCaffrey’s characters were strong, brave, romantic—and the protagonists were most often competent women. They had a character arc that took them from a place of weakness to a place of strength.
Another series of books that influenced me as a young adult were Niel Hancock’s Atlanton Earth series. That series opens with “Greyfax Grimwald,” and is an exploration of the Buddhist interpretation of the cycle of life and death. War is the great evil, and the threat of war is a thread that runs throughout the series.
Some critics have trivialized Hancock’s books as “commodified fantasy.” Still, I enjoyed them for the often brilliant prose as much as for the deeper themes. Otter and Bear were endearing characters, people whose thoughts and emotions felt engrossing and real to me.
These were books where the storyline followed the hero’s journey. In each, the protagonists came to a point where they lost their faith or had a crisis of conscience.
In reading these stories, I absorbed one of the basic principles of storytelling: A flawed hero is far more relatable than a perfect hero.
In looking back at my favorite books, a sense of danger, an unavoidable threat, was evident from the opening pages. How the characters reacted to that event felt unpredictable because the authors gave them agency.
As I discussed in my previous post, agency is the ability your character has to surprise you when you are writing them and their reactions. They seem to drive the keyboard, making their own choices.
When our characters are faced with an unavoidable threat that removes the option of going about life as usual, we should give them agency. This leaves them with several consequential choices, many of which will be made in stressful situations.
I have used the word consequential before as relating to the choices your characters must make. I chose that word intentionally. When there are no consequences for bad decisions a character might make, what is the story about?
My roots aren’t only in high fantasy—I love a good cozy mystery as much as anyone. In a cozy mystery, getting to know the main character as a friend is central to the story. The events that ensue are a means to further explore the life of the protagonist.
Why would a random trip to a convenience store interest a reader if something out of the ordinary does not occur? After all—we go out for bread every day, and it’s not too exciting. Frankly, I’m not interested in reading about Amy buying a loaf of bread. But make her the witness to a robbery and things begin to get interesting. Better yet, give her options:
- She can hide and wait for the intruders to leave.
- She can decide to be a hero.
- What other options does Amy have? What does she see when she looks around the store?
Whatever Amy chooses to do, there will be consequences. If things go awry, she could become a hostage. If she goes unnoticed but tells the police what she knows, she and her family could be in danger.
Once she is in the middle of these consequences, Amy will have more crisis points to face, and a lack of bread will only be one of them. She will have many decisions to make, and each choice will drive the plot.
The results of her decisions will change her outlook on life and give her wisdom she wouldn’t have had without those experiences.
At the end of the story, Amy will be more outgoing, surer of herself, and willing to step outside of her usual, rather boring, bubble of security.
The obstacles your characters face and the choices they make in those situations are the story. Giving your characters an active role and allowing them agency is what makes them human.
I recommend that in the first draft, you use all the adverbs and modifiers you need because you must get the idea down before you forget it. The first draft is where we take an idea, a “what if” moment, and give it form on paper.
When it is finished, the first draft is basically made up of sections of brilliance interspersed with a catalog of events: who did what, where they did it, and why. These adverbs and modifiers are your guideposts, prose you will remove and make active later, but getting the raw concept on paper is the crucial thing at this stage.
At the outset, giving my characters agency is challenging. This is because, in the first draft, the protagonist and his motives are still somewhat unformed.
In one of my current works-in-progress, my main character has been put through a personal death of sorts. His world has been shaken to the foundations, and he no longer has faith in himself or the people he once looked up to.
This low point is a crucial part of the hero’s journey.
If you are stuck with a character you can’t figure out, ask yourself what personal revelations come out about the protagonist, or conversely, what does he discover about himself?
How was their own personal weakness responsible for this turn of events?
How does this cause them to question everything they ever believed in?
What makes them pull themselves together and just keep on going?
How are they different after this personal death and rebirth event?
This is where he is taken down to his component parts emotionally and rebuilds himself to be more than he ever believed he could be.
By the time you finish writing the lowest point of your protagonist’s life, you should have come to know them and how they will react in any given situation.
When your characters are real to you, that feeling will come across in your writing.
I have shown the covers of both halves of the final book in the high fantasy series by Tad Williams that shaped my early style of writing. Tad writes literate fantasy that is both epic and relatable. His characters are brilliantly portrayed–raw, human, and not perfect:
Credits and Attributions:
Wikipedia contributors, “High fantasy,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=High_fantasy&oldid=967547546 (accessed July 14, 2020).