So two weeks ago I talked about the infinite possibilities in fantasy, then last week I discussed why it can sometimes seem repetitive, at least in terms of setting. These things would appear to be contradictory, but I think can resolve quite easily, even as I believe we will see new authors pushing or shattering the boundaries of the traditional medieval quasi-European fantasy setting.
I think this is the case because there are still so many stories to tell, even within settings that may seem at first glance to be stolidly traditional. I believe any writer with a strong vision will be almost by definition original in their presentation of that vision. And where a totally new creation is not present, I think that playing off and against earlier stories can yield interesting landscapes of character, motivation and theme to explore. The well in fantasy is far from dry.
There is a long way to go before we reach a situation like that in the middle ages, where the audience had heard every bible story before, and knew all the common folk tales, and were interested more in the style of the telling than the substance of the story, until such artists as Chaucer and the Pearl Poet came along to either break old rules, or use existing conventions to brilliantly remind their audience of the power of the original story. There are simply too many possible tales, and tale tellers out there for the genre to get stuck in one rut.
Not that it hasn’t tried. Chosen ones, Dark Lords, hidden heirs to various thrones, terrible invaders from over there (often up North, the bad guys were often at the top of the map in the books I read in the 80s and 90s), retellings of the Arthurian legend, re-retellings of the Arthurian legend, but with various role reversals and switches. (This is still going on, and I think shall never end, which shows how enduring and magical the original tales are.) Updates on fairytales from the world over are also ever popular, and for very good reason. We all loved the originals, and sometimes just want to keep those stories going past bedtime, and a good retelling does just that.
Despite all that familiar ground exposed, the urge to visit magical worlds continues to exist. Every new generation wants its Narnia, or Hogwarts to grow up with, its Middle-earth or Osten Ard to explore as adults. And each generation of writers absorbs part what came before, and seeks to tell their own distinct stories. Some fail, and feel more like echos than something new, others are unapologetically generic, written precisely to please crowds who want more of the same things they have always loved, but in slightly different clothes.
And here come I, with my urge to write fantasy, my own heroes from childhood and youth, my own desire to write something new and interesting. You have to have faith as a writer that your ideas, and your execution of those ideas will be strong enough to pull readers in, and then keep them reading. When I set out to write my first books there was only instinct, and some (lots of!) imitation. The imitation I hope to have left behind, what remains are ideas for stories I haven’t seen anywhere else, set on worlds I have not encountered in my own reading. I write from that instinct. It’s where I’m most comfortable. Not originality for its own sake, or a contrived effort to subvert expectation for no reason other than to surprise without much purpose, but a set of stories based on “What if?” questions that arose in the course of my life, sometimes as a result of reading other books, other times entirely at random. As I’ve said before, for me there has to be an underlying structure or theme for my writing to work, and I have to have yet more faith that the theme that strikes me and the story it inspires will be of remote interest to anyone else. These are the chances you take as an artist.
The world of The Thief and The Demon opens in a very old school European setting. It was my intention to start off with the familiar, and slowly unravel the new before my readers’ eyes. This process I have rather optimistically designed to continue over a number of books, until the world of Fistmar and his friends is laid bare, and the “What ifs?” that led to its creation become more obvious. Why do it that way? Because it pleases me, and because I think it adds to and deepens every drama that will unfold in that world. I have to have blind faith in my creation, that it will capture others in the same way it first captured me.
Writing fantasy, once a niche genre, now a torrent of glorious creators, has become an exercise in faith, faith that your stories and characters will somehow make it through the wall of noise and find people to speak to. I don’t know if mine will, but the urge to create remains, and will be followed. I am going to give the world of The Thief and The Demon, and my work in progress The Killer and The Dead, every chance to come alive for readers before moving on to other places and stories, each of which will require their own leaps of faith. I hope you can join me on that journey, but if not, I trust that you all believe in your own visions, and do your best to make them as real as possible.
My thanks to kat at The Lily Cafe for inspiring this column with her comment last week!