Genre Focus: Fantasy
Thanks to bensound.com for our intro and outro music!
ASK THE AUTHOR: From Sophia Hansen via aarongansky.com: Hey guys, I’ve really enjoyed learning from you, and love having past casts as a resource. Here’s my question: If most of the story is being told through the protagonist’s POV, should I stay consistent? I struggle with figuring out how to get out info that the main character wouldn’t know, but don’t know if the second draft should be potentially doubling the story content with “meanwhile back at the ranch” or other POVs. I did introduce a different POV early on, but that only lasted for one chapter. Right now, I’m just trying to finish. I’m a bit of a stickler for consistency so I figure the reader should only know what the main character knows, no “God-perspective” or mind-reading. Who knows, maybe first draft will be done by your next podcast!
AARON: Yes. Pops? Okay, okay, seriously. Good question here. Love it. The short answer is yes: you MUST remain consistent. POV is established early on and it must remain consistent. Few things doom a book faster than inconsistent POV. That is not to say that you can’t have a variety of perspectives within your novel. Many novels now are written in 3rd person limited synoptic POV, that is–each chapter or scene is told from the perspective of a different character, but the chapter is limited to their POV. In doing this, you can have that “meanwhile, back at the ranch” feel to keep the reader in the loop. I’ve even done this in multiple first-person perspectives (so has Toni Morrison and many others). It’s not the most common or the most loved way to tell a story, but certain books can pull it off. We each had compelling reasons for writing our projects that way. If you only have ONE chapter or scene from the perspective of another character, I’d either cut it, or add more in so as to remain consistent. Of course, this will change the length of your novel, so you’ll have to make the call of what you feel is best for the project. I’d say follow your gut and stay consistent.
Al: One of the most difficult things for a novelist to learn (some never learn it) is how to stay in one point of view at a time. Some authors use a third person distant point of view but that gets dicey and often leads to head jumping. I’m a believer in a close pov in third person. Usually third person pov has several pov characters and sometimes reveal information through them. The best way to learn this is to study the writings of an experienced and skilled author, say Dean Kootz or someone else and make a study of their pov choices.
MOLLY: The problem with me always being the last to answer, is that the good answers are already taken. Definitely remain consistent. If you use multiple POV, it should be regularly, not one-and-done. If you only want the audience to know what the protagonist knows, then have us discover it on the journey with the protagonist. You can release the information through discovery and conversation. I think too it’s dependent upon which genre you’re writing in. If it’s mystery, then don’t reveal information unknown to the protagonist. Ultimately, use POV consistently, whether it’s one or more.
Firsts in Fiction
Genre Focus: Fantasy
Al: Over the course of the next few podcasts, we’re going to hone in on particular genres and look at what makes them tick. Why do fans love them? What do they expect to see in novels of this kind? What rules should you follow? Which should you break?
A quick disclaimer: “genre” is a fluid term, and most works cross genres (the good ones do, at least). It’s possible to write a fantasy romance, or a romantic sci-fi, or a YA mystery, or an alternate-historical suspense, or a supernatural Amish paranormal dystopian thriller. But there’s no way we can cover all combinations. Instead, we’re going to take a look at the big boys and let you figure out how to combine the ones that most interest you.
First, I want to make it clear that we are not necessarily the experts in this genre. Aaron wrote an award winning fantasy series, but it was his first stab at the genre. To prepare himself, he took a good hard look at several of the most influential fantasy novels and series. Much of what he knows comes from his research on these books/series/authors. Feel free to disagree with us, but this is what we’ve found to be true.
Al: How should we define “fantasy”?
AARON: By way of definition for our purposes, fantasy is a particular sub-genre of a larger genre called “speculative fiction,” which requires the author to “speculate” on certain things. Common genres in this category are fantasy, sci-fi, and supernatural/paranormal.
MOLLY: Would this include anything outside the realm of reality? That is, Stephen King writes horror fiction, would it also be considered fantasy? In essence, isn’t all fiction “speculative”? Would Aaron’s book, The Bargain, be considered fantasy?
AARON: The Bargain might be considered “speculative” by some, and that’s fine. But it sure wouldn’t be considered fantasy. Fantasy really deals with strange, other-worldly settings primarily (unless you’re writing urban fantasy, which is a whole other thing). Really, the quintessential fantasy takes place in a medieval type setting and has elements of magic. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rules.
Al: We know that readers of certain genres have expectations. What do those who read fantasy expect?
MJ: To dream the winning lottery ticket numbers?
What’s important to readers of this genre?
- Setting and detail–world building. [View our prior podcasts on world building here: http://aarongansky.com/?s=world+building ] You’re going to need to spend a lot of time developing the history of your world, the political influences, the flora and fauna, the various species that populate the world. Fantasy readers want to be transported to a different place.
- External places–landscapes, geography, etc.
- Internal places–buildings, architecture, etc.
- Use sensory rich descriptions
- Smell (if it makes sense).
- Taste (not just food: blood, dust in an old, abandoned building.
- Draw a map. It helps.
- Social–the people of the place (Elves? Dwarves? Star-bellied Sneeches?)
- Customs–every town is different. In fantasy, you get to make these up!
- Economics–what is used for money? Gold? Silver? Iron? Teeth?
- Politics–Who has the power? Are they feared or revered?
- Holidays–what and when does your town celebrate? How do they celebrate it? What customs?
Al: So Tolkien and C.S. Lewis might be good examples. Any contemporary examples.
AARON: Well, the Game of Thrones series by George R. R. Martin is about as popular and contemporary as you can get. The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan (later finished by Brandon Sanderson) is another contemporary example. Brandon Sanderson does a ton of fantasy outside Wheel of Time and has really pressed the boundaries of what can be considered fantasy. He’s really very imaginative.
Al: Any things we should be cautious about?
- Consistency is key: make sure you keep a story-bible. [View our prior podcasts on story bibles here: http://aarongansky.com/?s=story+bible ]
Al: Let’s remind everyone what a story bible is. A story-bible is a document designed to help the writer (in the case of TV series, writers) maintain continuity. Discontinuity can really knock a reader out of a story.
- It’s easy in a sprawling fantasy to mix up names (or to have names that are far too similar, or too hard to pronounce). It’s easy to forget what certain plants/spells/creatures do. You can either do this ahead of time, or keep track as you go (if you’re a discovery writer like me).
- MOLLY: Just a reminder: a story bible is an organized notebook, not just brainstorming. You’ll want to set it up coherently perhaps with sections and tabs for easy access to the information. Don’t just jumble all your notes together.
- Character is key: You’re going to have a lot of them, but you’ll likely have a strong lead (or two, or three). It’s not uncommon to have a group of protagonists rather than a single hero. While these characters often begin as an archetype (young hero from the provinces), they shouldn’t be stock. Find a way to make them unique.
- MOLLY: When you say, “You’re going to have a lot of them,” how many is too many? And is there a difference between protagonists and main characters? I have five “main” characters in NOLA but really it’s the story of three. Is that too complicated? And before you answer, remember I’m almost done with my first draft.
- Well, NOLA’s not a fantasy, so that doesn’t really match up with our focus for this week. However, I will say that fantasy readers are pretty patient, and they like large casts. Think of LOTR or GOT. There are more characters than you can shake a stick at. With my HOA series, I really tried to limit the number of characters, but with each successive novel, I added more. Large casts are not a “rule” per se, but they do seem to be the norm.
- Elves and dwarves and orcs, oh my!: Fantasy readers love traditional species, but they also like new species. Don’t be afraid to mix it up a bit.
Al: These “species” should be unique or somehow different from one another. True?
AARON: Absolutely. They should have their own characteristics, their own cultures (languages, even, in some cases), religions, etc. The more varied, the better, generally speaking.
- A Magical Balance: Whether or not you have a “magic system” or super-powers, or physically gifted races, there needs to be a balance. Sure, elves are great at archery, but they’re fragile and not great at hand-to-hand combat. Yes, your wizard can sling all sorts of light spells, but they are near useless when it comes to the dark powers of the warlocks. Think yin and yang. You want to avoid characters who are overpowered. You also want to make sure that your magic works–that it has “rules.” Otherwise, it creates problems in the plot (the Eagles in LOTR, let’s say). Magic can easily become a “Deus ex machina” if you’re not careful.
- Dialog as World Building: Your dialog should be fresh and surprising and reflect the world your characters are from. Think of regional dialects and metaphors that spring from the world (You’re all like bilge snipes!). This helps the dialog feel authentic and establishes the world your characters are from at the same time.
Al: this was often done during the Golden Age of Sci-Fi but it often worked against the reader. Are there things we should avoid?
AARON: Yes. Avoid cliches. As much as possible avoid writing the traditional Tolkien-esque fantasy. You’ve got to find a way to make your story stand out from the crowd. Create new tropes, if you must. It’s fine to be inspired, but do not simply imitate.
Al: That’s about all we have time for today. Fantasy is a very popular genre but it can be tricky to write. As with all genres, the writer needs to keep the reader in mind.