Why I Write Fantasy: Morality, Culture, and Character Creation

So folks, while it is fresh in my mind I thought I’d reiterate what I thought was one of the central points discussed during our panel at Denver Comic Con. (Thank you once again to my fab panelists!)

And that is this: I feel that paying attention to the culture a character grows up in, and the moral values that culture may have instilled in the character, or that he or she may have chosen to rebel against, helps to integrate the character into the world the writer has created, and makes their actions and motivations more concrete, more real. I think that this lessens the occasional sense you get when reading fantasy that the protagonists, while living in a world of magical mcguffins very unlike our own, seem to be more like us in their values and beliefs than you would think they should be, given the world they have supposedly grown up in. (Of course this does not apply to a portal fantasy where characters from our world go into a fantastical one – but the challenge then is to make sure that the people that the lead characters meet are suitably alien in their viewpoints and not also thinly disguised early 21st century fellow travelers.)

This isn’t reinventing the wheel. I think many writers do this without consciously addressing it as they write the story, it is just part of building their characters, but I think that if you do think about it consciously, you have a chance to add real depth to your characters, and make them and the world they live in all the more real for the reader. It is an extra addition of awesome, not a whole new revelation that will change writing forever. I’m not so deluded as to think this is a hugely original idea, but it is one that I think is worth sharing.

And, to be honest, I came up with this idea after writing The Thief and The Demon, but found upon reflection and looking at the book I wrote, that I had done a lot of the work I had advised anyway – linking characters to the world through their upbringing, and the values they had adopted as most important to them. Could I have done it better? I think so, and had I been consciously doing it as I wrote I think I would have rounded out everyone that little bit better. It is all in the details.

But I did use songs, stories, sayings, attitudes of other characters to show what influenced the protagonists, and I think I also showed the characters’ moral positions crucially through their own attitudes and decision making. Some of these, particularly Fistmar’s, our hero, shifted through the book as he re-evaluated what he thought he knew about life and rejected some of the things he had always believed in as he discovered more and more about the ‘true’ nature of his world, and the society he grew up in. So I think I did pretty well, but would strive to do better next time.

In my current project, The Killer and The Dead, the issue of showing the protagonist’s moral center or viewpoint is made somewhat easier by the fact that the book is written in the first person. He is telling you what he thinks and why. But of course he may not be entirely honest with you, or himself, so there are gaps there that can be exploited to show that what he thinks, and how he actually acts, can be at odds, allowing the reader to see through his lies or self-deceptions and see another truth that is hidden from our narrator. That is an interesting new challenge that I am enjoying taking on.

So there you have it folks – when thinking about morality and culture in fantasy fiction, what I’d recommend is that you think about the morality and culture your characters were exposed to early, and how it would effect them throughout their lives. This, I believe, will add a extra layer of verisimilitude (I just wanted to use that word) to your characterization, and who doesn’t want that?

(Writers who are pursing novels of ideas, that’s who, but that’s a whole other discussion for next time!)

Thank you to Kat at the Lily Café for nominating me for a Liebster award! I now have two awards to do the blogs on! Some of those questions are tricky, and need time and consideration to answer, but I will get on it soon! (It may have to wait until after my July 2nd deadline though – I have a lot of writing to get done, and not a lot of time to do it in!)

2 thoughts on “Why I Write Fantasy: Morality, Culture, and Character Creation

  1. I like this! It’s actually where I’m getting hung up with my longest lasting work in progress. I’ve been trying to create multiple whole cultures, but it’s been taking a massive amount of time. I often wondered if I was crazy for doing this, but perhaps I’m crazy for trying to detail everything. Though, after reading this, clearly culture can add a layer of interesting complexity, but perhaps not everything needs to be painstakingly detailed before writing!

    1. Enough detail to be real for the reader is what I keep telling myself. We’re writing novels, not encyclopaedias. (Or gazetteers, to give away my D&D playing years!) Knowing more than you put on the page is great though, as I think that helps to inform your writing. I think focusing on one key difference in a culture and then building from there can keep it from geting overwhelming. Good luck!

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