Thursday, June 26, 2014

Discussion Panel on Magic Systems - VIDEO

Below is a video of a panel of fantasy authors at the Phoenix Comicon earlier this month discussing magic systems. The video quality is not that good, but the discussion is perfect. The authors are: Jaye Wells, Myke Cole, Jim Butcher, Sam Sykes, Stephen Blackmoore and Patrick Rothfuss.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Inspirations of Fantasy

We can say that all writers collect the seeds acquired from an assortment of influences and plant them in their gardens of literary creativity. Not only that, but there are the nuggets of life’s experiences and the flow of imagination that fuels the drive of the writer’s story. Fantasy fiction is that one facet of speculative fiction where not only the fantastic is given liberty to reign, but an author can interject a riot of influences in a pliable universe.

Religion and mythology inspired ancient epics like Gilgamesh, The Odyssey and Beowulf. Fairy tales sprouted from the folklore of legends and imaginative narratives of morals, humor and fears. Without these foundations, modern fantasy would not exist.

The titan of modern fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien, poured all of his inspirations, passions and experiences into his creation. The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and all other Middle-earth companion books, would not have existed if it weren’t for the intelligence, knowledge, faith and experiences of Tolkien bleeding into his work as he spent years building a world that would dominate the genre for decades. It wasn’t only mythology and early works of fantasy that inspired Tolkien’s epic, but it was his knowledge of history, language, culture, as well as his service in World War I. These motivations, joined with masterful storytelling, are what produced the saga adored by millions today.

I think what gives George R.R. Martin’s work of A Song of Ice and Fire such great intrigue and grandeur is Martin’s inspiration from historical events like the War of the Roses, and the historical fiction of French author Maurice Druon. Nothing is more fascinating than the accounts of history—true stories of real people and momentous events of the past. That’s what I’ve come to enjoy in fantasy—books that have some sort of inspiration from history and/or real life situations, making for a more believable fictional world.

Similar to the ancient epics, modern fantasy continues to be inspired by the faith and beliefs of authors. C.S. Lewis’ Christianity was a key influence on his Chronicles of Narnia; with the result of a messianic lion (Aslan). Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials produced a work of fiction that drew upon John Milton’s Paradise Lost to tell a story with Atheist overtones. Likewise, Brandon Sanderson’s many works of fantasy show reflections of Mormon ideas, such as mortals attaining divinity; and it continues in his largest epic yet—The Stormlight Archive.

Sometimes it’s simply just the activities and occupations of a writer’s life that sparks an imaginative epic. Though the love of fantasy fiction altogether can be the basis of inspiration for all fantasy authors, nothing forms the author’s story like that in which he/she is familiar with. Patrick Rothfuss’ life and experiences in college clearly comes through, masterfully, in his Kingkiller Chronicle, giving readers more than just a heroic adventure story. Before writing fulltime, the late Sara Douglass was a registered nurse, which gave her the ability to write some pretty graphic scenes of brutal childbirth and what happens to the human body in certain conditions. Playing role-playing games like AD&D (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons) set the creative wheels spinning for Steven Erikson. He and a friend simply wanted to build a better and stronger role-playing universe, and thus the Malazan Empire was created, along with a whole cast of characters and histories, which would evolve into the Malazan Book of the Fallen series.

Obviously, fantasy stories can come from a vast pool of inspirations; however, it seems too often that writers draw their inspirations from the same sources. It can be nice seeing different renderings of similar settings and ideas in the genre, but it can get stale after awhile. We are definitely in a new age where most readers are anticipating something “original” in fantasy. If writers are dipping into the same limited reservoir of ideas, then you tend to have a stagnant genre. Yet when writers venture out a little and wade in a pool of fresh concepts—marrying it with exceptional storytelling—then the fantasy genre, once again, can celebrate another landmark in its great frontier.


Friday, May 16, 2014

Brandon Sanderson & Brian McClellan on Google+ Hangouts - VIDEO

For those of you who might have missed it, below is a nice discussion about writing epic fantasy, between authors Brandon Sanderson & Brian McClellan, hosted by Orbit Books. Sanderson kind of takes over the discussion (which can be slightly annoying), but a lot of the things he has to say holds its worth. It’s neat hearing a seasoned author (Sanderson) and a budding fantasy writer (McClellan) discussing the genre and their writing. So if you have an hour to spare, sit back and enjoy.


Sunday, April 27, 2014

Hope in Fantasy

Author Katherine Addison (pseudonym for Sarah Monette) wrote an interesting article on the A Dribble of Ink blog about hope in fantasy. Click here to view it.

In the same context, posted a small list of book recommendations for folks who may be looking to take a break from grimdark. Click here to view it.

Good vs Evil 
A Follow Up to The Dark and Gritty

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Pick Up the Pace

Over the past year or so, I’ve really tackled some long books (some people call them door stoppers); and at the end of the day I would say that they were too long—even the ones that I’ve enjoyed. In my opinion, these types of stories get bogged down with too much world-building and/or character-building—which can be good, but they slow the story down. The problem with some of these books are that they are the first book in a series (by talented, acclaimed authors). Why are established fantasy writers wasting time building a world and characters without giving the readers a good, gripping story in the process? Is it that they think their new idea for a world and its magic system are worth hundreds of pages instead of an intriguing story?

I just finished a long book by one of these talented, acclaimed authors, and it’s like nothing really happened throughout the entire book. It seemed to be a regurgitation of the same thing over and over, which I guess was supposed to give the reader the sensation that we are really experiencing certain characters’ growth—but it did not work for me. And it seemed to just be chapter after chapter of world-building. Introductory books like this quench my desire to read on to the next big volume in the series.

I won’t name any of the books that I’ve thought lowly of, as I believe that everyone is entitled to their own opinion; and everyone has different tastes. Personally, my take is that an author should really work to put forth a story that lays out a pace that keeps the story moving. Of course, I’m not talking about the typical fast-paced book where the characters seem two-dimensional and the story is not worth remembering. I’m referring to books that are published to pull readers into a series of large volumes meant to be epic and engrossing, with epic world-building and strong characters. But if the characters—or what the characters are experiencing—in the story do nothing worth caring about, then it’s like watching a boat sitting in the middle of the water just going around in circles, and around in circles, and around in circles... That’s not good pacing. That’s boring. The reason that most of us read fantasy fiction is so that we can experience (through the life of the characters) a lifestyle that is more than monotonous—more extraordinary than our own.

When reading Stephen King’s It, I thought the book was too long, but I could not stop enjoying it. The characters were so interesting and their extreme experiences throughout the entire book kept you moving with the engrossing flood of happenings within the story. It was good characters with good pacing that got me through.

Though I enjoyed the first two books in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, the pacing in A Storm of Swords almost made the book feel shorter than the first two, but it was actually longer. Martin picked up the pace a little more in that book, and I found myself enjoying the (dark) journey.

Apart from the long books, I found the pacing in Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (Northern Lights), one of the best well-paced, intelligent pieces of fantasy fiction that I have ever read. However, I felt the latter books in the series lost such a pace. 

I’ve really enjoyed The Kingkiller Chronicle; however, I’m hoping author Patrick Rothfuss picks up the pace in the third and final book of the series—yet to be released.

My fear with a lot of long books is that good pacing would be lacking. It’s a lot of wasted time (for me) to invest in, if the story’s pacing is dowsed with other non-essentials. Again, I’m not expecting a Star Wars-like read, but just something that forces me to follow to the endlike E.T. picking up Reese’s Pieces along the trail to Elliot’s house (Oh, and what wonders he found in that house).    

Epic Characters

Monday, March 31, 2014

Epic Characters

Probably the most gratifying thing about being a reader of fiction is when the characters take you by the hand and bring you into their world—into their fears, their struggles, their happiness, and their conflict. Characters that are likeable can make for a pleasurable read. Characters that are dull or trite can make for a tedious read. But characters that are epic make a memorable read.

Epic characters are unforgettable. They’re those fictitious entities that force you to believe that they actually exist, and that the world they inhabit—in all its weirdness and impossibilities—is true in every sense.

Characters can generally appear epic in two different ways. The first is when a character (or a story of characters) is fresh and groundbreaking in its time. For example, Tarzan and Conan are not deep, rounded characters, but they were new and exciting creations in their period. They became beloved and favored throughout generations—to the point of being adapted multiple times; and we all know who they are today.

The second aspect of the epic character is a character that stands out within a grand tale/story. The characters from The Lord of the Rings, like Frodo Baggins, Gandalf and Gollum, are probably the most substantial characters in fantasy literature. In more modern fantasy, Tyrion Lannister from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga is one of many characters from the series that stands out as unforgettable. Kvothe from Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicle is memorable within a unique fantasy series.

Most of us would not hesitate to protect our best friend or loved one from harm. We rejoice when they succeed, and are heavy-hearted when they fail. People in general do not give much thought when they hear a disturbing story on the news about someone who has gone missing, or was wounded or killed in some terrible ordeal. Yes, our hearts may go out to them, but when those people are strangers to us, there is no great effect on our emotions, our minds or our lives. But when it’s someone that we know and love, then our whole world is shaken. Taking from that example—on a far, far lesser scale—we, as readers, respond to the characters that we encounter within the pages of an engrossing book in like manner. We may experience various emotions as we begin to love (or sometimes hate) those characters that set a story ablaze with their very presence.

Just think of the times when you read fantasy fiction and the characters stole your attention from the real world and pulled you into theirs; and, afterward, you are left thinking about them—even years later. It‘s those epic characters that draw you to want to read their story over and over. It’s those epic characters that brought life to a world that doesn’t even exist, except within your imagination (with the skill and aid of the author). It’s those epic characters that make you smile at the thought of them, knowing that they brought a moment of joy to your life.       

A reader can find delight in going on an adventure of mystery and magic with Harry Potter; or wandering the land of Narnia in hopes to encounter the wonderful presence of Aslan. And such characters will make you want to come back again—even as years have passed and you look to see the next generation cherishing the very tales that brought joy to you.

Possibly, every writer of fantasy creates a character that they feel is epic, but, in truth, a writer has no way of knowing how their creation will come to life within the imagination of the reader, for that’s where the process begins. No writer can dictate that their character is epic. It is the mass of readers, as a whole, that meets the character and says, “I will follow this character ‘til the end…and I will not forget them.”

Epic Worldbuilding

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Epic Worldbuilding

The best thing about Epic Fantasy is being able to journey into a new world. Through the eyes and minds of the characters, the reader is privileged to trek in a world of different beings and scenery; laws and principles; and be swept into a story of epic magnitude. However, this is not always as fun and exciting for the reader if the worldbuilding falls flat (along with weak characters). In many cases, it seems the author falls into the snare of being more in love with their worldbuilding than their characters, so as to have the volume of their world distracting the story.

With that said, there are many times where the world is pretty good, but the volume of the worldbuilding still seems to be louder than the story—or at least equal with the characters. I kind of equate this with music production. I listen to a lot of indie music, and there are cases where the music production is good, but not great. The band sounds really good, but the keyboard may be too loud, where the drums are not quite loud enough; or the guitar almost drowns out the vocals, or vice versa. It can be the same way in writing a story—where the worldbuilding seems to compete with character/story. In quality music production all the tracks are mixed perfectly together so that all the instruments and vocals come together as one masterful piece. It should be likewise in fantasy fiction.

Authors of Epic Fantasy spend a lot of time building their worlds, making every effort to convey what their imagination is producing. There are instances where an author’s world has many parts, aspects and creatures, yet they all don’t seem to tie together. It’s like a world where there is no gravity, and the author kind of grabs an idea that just floats by and throws it in the story for tension or because it sounds cool. It often bothers me when I’m reading a story and a monster just appears and attacks the characters. Such a monster was never mentioned before, yet we see that the characters know about it, because we’re in their head, and they’re disclosing the name of such a creature, but they’re not even equipped to fight it. But when the said character was strolling about, there was no hint of caution to be on the look out for such a creature—yet it’s supposed to be a known threat in their area. When the people in the bush of Africa go about, they are cautious of the wildlife around them, they know the potential of encountering a lion or some other wild beast. They don’t just walk about unprepared.

So an author has to set the gravity in their world, pulling everything (laws, magic, economics, creatures, lifestyle, etc.) into order, so that it works and makes sense within the realm. Everything has to be grounded and believable within that world. Most readers fear the info dump, where the author inundates the reader with facts about their created realm, instead of just letting the characters reveal the world as we follow them through it.

The master of epic fantasy worldbuilding would have to be J.R.R. Tolkien. The man spent years creating a myth and the world (Middle-earth) to contain that myth. With all the races and elements he created to inhabit Middle-earth, Tolkien doesn’t hit the reader with explanations of the otherworldly things of his world, but starts with something familiar—like unexpected guests for dinner in The Hobbit. As the story unfolds, we go deeper and deeper into a world rich with ancient histories and workings beyond our own world. Tolkien does the same with The Fellowship of the Ring, starting the story off with a birthday party. It’s good to start the reader with something familiar before slamming them with the otherworldly—almost like warming them up to the new world before turning up the fire (yet without slowing the pace).

Without worldbuilding there is no background and setting for the characters. The characters know the world they're in, and it is through them that the reader experiences that world. The use of multiple viewpoint characters is essential in epic works like the Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire. The worlds in these two series are massive in scale (more so with the Wheel of Time). Robert Jordan’s work of histories, magic systems, order of societies and mix of races drives the reader deep into a world perfectly illustrated and realized through his characters. George R.R. Martin’s use of multiple character point of views fleshes out just about every aspect of his world—with more to come. As the reader persists into the worlds of Jordan and Martin, they enter farther into a world that they’ve grown to love, continuing to discover things they never knew or realized. And the greatest aspect of this is when one re-reads the work and discovers something within the world that they failed to notice before.     
In The Kingkiller Chronicle, Patrick Rothfuss’ masterful ability to use the first-person point of view and bring the reader into a world concept not usually seen in the fantasy genre is a refreshing experience. Rothfuss’ use of an interesting character like Kvothe sheds light into a world where people seem to really exist—buying and selling; marrying; working; going to school; hanging out—and the reader is privileged to experience everyday life, as well as the extraordinary life, in the story.

The power to immerse readers into an epic story is through the vehicle of strong worldbuilding. The tracks of plot are laid down for the vehicle to move on, and the characters drive that vehicle—with the reader in the back seat—experiencing a journey that will be endured and perceived differently by each person who rides along. The skilled restraint of the author not to reveal his world all at once, with forced, gradual detail, is tough to harness. When the author allows the reader to experience his/her world by freeing the reader to use their own imagination, yet grounding the world to plausibility in all aspects, the event of reading such a story is unforgettable.