Last week I was going to write this column, but got distracted by a blogging landmark.
So here we go!
Now I’ve always wanted to write fantasy. I have a few memories of my life before I wanted to write tales of magic and wonder, but there aren’t that many of them. One is of my sister looking in at me through a circular window after I’d got myself stuck in a tumbler dryer. Good times. I really should thank her for not fiddling with the controls…
As I grew older, learned more about writing, and began writing my first few stories I was struck by a huge advantage I had inadvertently gained by wanting to write fantasy: I was freed from having to follow the rules of contemporary life. I didn’t have to worry about keeping up with technology, or company names, or laws and police procedures – all of that stuff was irrelevant to me, and what a relief!
Instead I figured I was home free: I could make up anything I wanted, and it was all good because I was creating the worlds and rules myself – I was truly the master of all I surveyed, and I could, to paraphrase Han Solo (I have not seen the new movie), survey quite a bit.
This is my megalomania emerging, the writer as god-emperor of the universe they create. Control of everything, what’s not to like? The ability to bend reality to my will, nothing to limit me but my imagination! Oh yes! Flying hippopotami reciting Swahili haiku that fall as rain upon the orchid people below – why not? It is a sweet drug, let me tell you, and an easy one to be seduced by and keep buying into, but like so many illicit highs, it’s a lie.
You can create anything you want, but as soon as the first words hit the page, a subtle web of rules is spun, by the words, and by the assumptions that readers will make based upon those words. In the opening of The Thief and The Demon I mention dung being thrown, a horse-drawn cart, and a rutted road. I mention prisoners and a dead prince. In the first paragraph of a book in which I have complete control over the universe being described, I am caught in the web of rules I myself created. The orchid people bend their petals to hide their tittering laughter at my earlier presumption.
What rules? Well, I’ve indicated a pre-industrial revolution level of civilization, a hierarchy based on nobility, a justice system of some sort, a sense of time and stability within that society. I’ve also placed my protagonist as below peasants, who are throwing the dung (so gravity works in a similar fashion on this world), yet apart from the other prisoners (he alone is chained in place on display).
That is paragraph one. And I haven’t really included all the assumptions a reader might make from it, consciously or not.
A writer of fantasy does not escape the need to follow rules. They might not have to adhere to contemporary realism but for god-emperors they sure do tie themselves down with the rules they create with every sentence they use to describe their wondrous worlds. This is good, this is exhilarating, this is a challenge and a delight when you are in rhythm and all the ideas are flowing, building one atop the other to create something dazzling in your mind. It is a disaster, a nightmare, a devilish series of conundrums when you are trapped by the precedents you set earlier and don’t want to break, a monstrous blockade that halts your ability to tell your story in the way you want to, because of the way you’ve told your story so far. Talk about hoisted by your own petard. The irony is delicious and entirely unappreciated when you are trying to work your way out of it. (Some precedents are created to be joyfully broken later, to surprise and enthrall your readers, if done right – and that is another challenge I didn’t anticipate as a smug teenager thinking I wasn’t tied down by any stupid rules!)
So the illusion of control is what fantasy offers: the idea that you will be in charge of everything, only to discover that anything you create comes with its own set of rules. I think that is a strength, and the best fantasy is one that sets out its conventions and then maintains its internal consistency in a way that manages to satisfy its readers while leaving the ability to pleasantly/shockingly/other word ending in ly confound their expectations without breaking the suspension of disbelief that the writer and reader together have worked to create. I have striven to do this, and given the size of the universe I intend to explore that was born with TTATD and will be expanded upon by The Killer and The Dead, I have a lot of rules to follow, but plenty of room to roam!
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