Showing posts with label fantasy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fantasy. Show all posts

Monday, March 31, 2014

Naming Fantastic Characters

Writers search for the ‘right’ names for the people who populate their books (or, they should!). There are many resources available for finding everyday names, of course. At the foot of this post you’ll find a suggested list; but wait a moment before you drop down there.


Because here I want to invite you to consider the naming of characters living in invented worlds. Fantasy, of whatever sub-genre, generally requires names that aren’t in common use. Read any epic fantasy and you’ll find it brimming with constructed names, some memorable and others that ought never to have been forced onto the reading public. In fantasy, perhaps more than any other genre, it’s essential to invent names that don’t appear in other books, otherwise readers may associate your masterpiece with the work of another author.

But, how to do it? How do you ‘invent’ names?

For me, the most important aspect is the ‘mood’ or ‘feel’ of the work. When preparing the background for my fantasy A Seared Sky I started with a map: maps in fantasy are almost essential if your reader is to gain a proper understanding of where the action takes place. I named the places on my map by employing less commonly used alphabet letters, or, where those letters were common, by using them in unusual combinations or by doubling them. I applied the same rules to my characters, to give a sense of unity amongst place and character names.

I started with simple names, as I wanted them to be easy to read and to stick in the minds of readers. But, because of the need for exclusivity, I ran each invention through a Google search to make sure it wasn’t already out there. In many cases, my simple names were already in evidence, either as fantasy characters, or as names or words used in foreign languages, sometimes as the names of real people. A point here: beware of accepting your made-up names without checking. There’s always the possibility that you’ve named your treasured heroine with a word that actually means ‘ugly moron’, or something worse, in another language!

I had to modify my original choices in many cases. An original male character, ‘Gladron’, became ‘Aglydron’.  I transposed letters, changed initial letters, added an odd ‘h’ or doubled the vowels, even inserted a hyphen or an apostrophe. A lot of effort? Perhaps. Especially since I’ve 93 named characters in the trilogy. But, I hope the names are memorable, easy to pronounce and sufficiently different to be distinguishable from other works of fiction.

Pronunciation is another consideration: as the writer, you have a sound for each name in your head, which you try to translate into letters. But readers may well read these in different ways. I named one of my heroines ‘Tumalind’, which I pronounce as ‘Tewmallind’, but my wife, who does my beta reading, and my publisher, both pronounce the name as ‘Tummalind’. Does it matter? Do I mind? No. As long as readers are happy with the sound made by the letters, I’m happy for it to be read that way. English is a notoriously flexible language and it would be amazing if we were all to pronounce every word in the same way. I’d considered supplying a pronunciation guide but decided against, simply because that gives the reader choice, and reading is an active, not a passive, pursuit.

Finally, as an author, you’ll want your names to reflect, as far as possible, the gender of the character. This is, to some extent, a matter of individual taste. But I tried to make my female names a little softer and my male names a little more brittle. I know some will see this as an unwelcome capitulation to perceived stereotypes, but I’m writing fantasy here, not making a political argument (although there are plenty of political analogies in the text for those who care to dig for them). My point is that I want to make the work as comfortable in terms of actual reading as possible. I don’t want to place barriers in the way of understanding by naming a male character, say, ‘Chellyth’, one of the lesser female names, or a female character, ‘Feldrark’, one of the more important male names. I believe names have a ‘sound’ that indicates gender and, whilst I accept that there’ll be differences in opinion about the particulars, I hope that the general rules have worked to support my choices.

To sum up: check your choices against Google, or some other large search engine, to avoid embarrassing coincidences, try to maintain some consistency within the naming scheme, and attempt to match name to gender, if possible.

Writing fantasy is great fun. It allows enormous freedom for the imagination. But it also requires a degree of discipline, if it isn’t to descend into the farcical. I enjoy the whole process of writing. I hope my readers enjoy the results and that writers have gained something useful from this post.

List of Random Names          
Name Berry : Lists

To buy a copy of Joinings in the UK click here. In the US, click here.

Stuart Aken has been writing since before the flood and says ‘antediluvian’ was a cliché even when he was young. He has seven books out and his most recent, the first volume of an epic fantasy trilogy launched on 30th March. You can discover more about A Seared Sky: Joinings on his blog, and be sure to connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Strange Love

Love is Strange: Outdoor park sculpture in concrete and rebar by artist Seth Goddard (2005), Willow Park, Iowa City, IA.
Photo by Heather Paul via Flickr
 Last Friday was Valentine’s Day.  The occasion set me mulling on the subject of “romance” from a slightly unorthodox, but hopefully interesting perspective.

Fairy tales like Cinderella and Snow White exemplify the “traditional” narrative pattern of a romance.  We all know how it goes: hero and heroine meet and fall in love, only to have their love frustrated by some hostile external agency (an unscrupulous guardian, a jealous rival; a stroke of ill fortune, etc.).  There follows a period of adversity during which both lovers are put to the test. Eventually, however, they are reunited and live “happily ever after.”

This pattern has been the norm in romantic fiction for a very long time, (Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre utilizes the pattern to perfection.)  But with the emergence of Science Fiction and Fantasy as popular literary genres, writers began to challenge convention and explore the concept of romance from new perspectives under the heading of bonding with the other.

One significant development in SF/F literature has been to expand the parameters of romance by exploring forms of sexual and emotional attraction at variance with the conventional male/female paradigm.  For instance, Ursula LeGuin’s celebrated novel The Left Hand of Darkness features a race of humanoids whose gender identity is not fixed.  LeGuin’s first person narrator, a heterosexual male, provides a vehicle for examining the ethics of love detached from traditional gender roles.

Fantasy literature, by contrast, takes up the theme of bonding with the other in the form of interspecies romance.  Romances between men and elves, as envisioned by Tolkien, are only one possibility amongst many.  Another bold example of interspecies romance lies at the heart of in Elizabeth Kerner’s first novel, Song in the Silence, in which the love partners are a human woman and a male dragon.

One of the most extreme – and, surprisingly, most moving – alternative love stories is Blood Child by SF writer Octavia Butler.  In the space of 30 pages, Butler presents us with a futuristic romance that subverts all traditional romantic conventions.  In the first instance, the love partners belong to radically different species:  one is a human being, the other an insectoid alien.  In the second instance, there is a radical age disparity between the two:  the human partner is an adolescent male, his alien lover an adult female.  In the third instance, their love bonding will result in a radical role-reversal:  it is the boy, and not the female, who will bear the children conceived as a result of their sexual union.  Although this story violates all traditional romantic conventions, the emotional resonance of romance remains intact – a fact which represents a triumph of the imagination on behalf of the author.

If you’re interested in new “takes” on romance, SF and F is a good place to look.

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Let’s Write About Sex

Or not.

Where do you stand on the topic of literary sex scenes? Some readers avoid it like a dread disease while others run towards it with wild abandon. Most readers are somewhere in the great in-between, a pinch of spice at the appropriate time makes for a well-rounded story, but it’s not the whole story.

I engaged in a very long internal debate about adding sex scenes to my novel, The Last Prospector. There were some strict mandates I needed to follow, self-imposed mandates all. But I set out to write a story that would satisfy me as a reader, so one of those mandates was every word, every scene had to propel the story. For the most part, sex in books is just scenery, it rarely moves the story forward and this was a problem.

Erotic fiction is everywhere lately, courtesy of Fifty Shades of Grey.  (I haven’t read 50SOG and don’t intend to. It’s not a judgment of sex or kinky sex, I’m just plain old not interested). Since publishing isn’t afraid to ride a trend to the bitter end, now there are a plethora of sexually themed stories out there. However, what about novels that aren’t technically about sex?

Whether or not to include sex scenes in a novel is a personal choice. This is the story of why I chose to do so. Being born in the early ‘60s put me in a position to watch the birth of the sexual revolution. Over the decades, it seems we keep coming back to square one. It’s an ongoing struggle and all so unnecessary. If we could all just get over ourselves and realize there is no “stronger” sex, no “superior” gender, we could stop expending vital energy on futility.

So when I set out to create my own world, I eliminated the futility. Women and men of Solstice have equal rights to everything, from owning property to soldiering, gender is rarely considered a factor in worthiness.  Being a hard core pragmatist, I understand the financial value of sex. To that end, the Daggered Rose, the whore’s guild, was conceived and became a major player in the Song of Solstice. Not only is it the most powerful guild in the land of Solstice, it’s run entirely by women. Men are not allowed to profit from the sexual acts of professional whores.

Since some of the main characters in the series belong to the Daggered Rose, I started wondering if there should be sex scenes in the novel. At first, sex was just alluded to in the story primarily because of the above mentioned mandate. But it was one of those lingering, nagging questions. Was it hypocritical to have an abundance of prostitutes but no sex?

In the end, the decision was yes. If my characters were to come alive as fully realized people, every once in a while there should be a little nooky. Writing sex scenes wasn’t titillating or exciting for me, it was actually kind of stressful. Finding the balance between too little and too much combined with the need to make those scenes propel the story took all the romance out of the endeavor.
It took me some time to realize that I shouldn’t approach the sex scenes as being about sex, but rather relationships. Not necessarily long term, committed relationships, but the relationship between two people in that moment. Those small, intimate moments do propel the story because they inform the characters, give them context and provide more storytelling possibilities down the road.

Having said all that, I still don’t think every adult story needs to include sex for sex’s sake. One of my favorite authors ever was James Michener and his works rarely referenced physical passion. What matters is context–does sex belong in the story?  

I’d like to know what you think, both the readers and writers. When does a story call for sex and when does sex in a story turn you off?

Cairn Rodrigues is a former professional chef who found that keyboards offer fewer cuts and burns, so she turned to writing. You can connect with her on Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, GoodReads, and at her blog.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Chameleon Characters

Photo by William Warby, via Flickr
In the animal kingdom, chameleons are noteworthy for being able to change color in response to their environment. This makes the word chameleon an apt metaphor to denote that specialized class of Fantasy characters whose moral priorities and personal loyalties are (or appear to be) in a state of flux throughout the story.

If you’re a Fantasy writer, having a chameleon in your cast list is like having a wild card up your sleeve in a poker game. I.e., it can really liven things up when the chips are down.

To begin with, the chameleon often has a touch of “the alien” about him.1 He may be racially distinctive (one lone dwarf in a company of elves); he may come from a suspect place on the map (a Southron merchant visiting Minas Tirith), or he might belong (or might once have belonged) to a socially dubious caste or profession (a former imperial inquisitor who claims to have renounced his past). Whatever the nature of his “difference”, he’s no more at home amongst a group of Sidekicks than he is among a group of Henchmen. Other members of the group mistrust him (rightly or wrongly) for being “not one of us”.2 That means anything can happen.

Where Sidekicks and Henchmen tend to keep to their own respective sides of the moral plot divide, a chameleon contrives to shuttle between opposing camps. It’s not uncommon to find a chameleon fraternizing with the Other Side, and if challenged, he will always have a plausible excuse for doing so. A chameleon is a capable role-player, and his true allegiance often remains a mystery till the book’s finale. His performances keep us guessing.

Another cause for speculation is the fact that a chameleon’s motives and objectives don’t necessarily match up with those of the company he keeps. A lot of scope for narrative tension arises when the chameleon’s personal agenda comes into conflict with his relationships with other characters. If (for example) his companions are out to rescue a captive wizard from a necromancer’s tower, the chameleon will stick with the party till they’re inside. Thereafter, however, he’ll seize the first available opportunity to peel off and steal a book of spells (the object of his own personal quest) from the necromancer’s library. If the main party comes to grief in his absence, he may turn back to rescue them. On the other hand, he might leave them in the lurch and make off with his loot.

Like Schrödinger’s cat, a chameleon exists in a state of uncertainty. We don’t know whether he’s friend or foe till the author takes the lid off the box. Either way, readers relish well-designed shocks and surprises, and employing the services of a chameleon is one way to generate a world of suspense. That suspense will keep us turning pages till the final curtain.


1 Once again I’m obliged by default to use the masculine forms as generic.

2 From the writer’s perspective, you can have a lot of fun out-foxing the reader by endowing a villainously disposed chameleon with charm and charisma, or (conversely) by depicting an angel-in-disguise on the surface as a capricious bad-tempered bitch.

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Calling for Back-Up: Sidekicks and Henchmen - Part 2

The previous posting on the subject of Sidekicks vs. Henchmen was devoted to exploring what these secondary characters have in common.  In this installment, we’ll be examining the significant ways in which they differ.

Broadly speaking, there are two issues to be considered.  On the one hand, there is the personal relationship which exists between the group leader and his/her second-in-command.  On the other, there is the question of how henchmen relate to one another as members of a group.

One key difference between Sidekicks and Henchmen is predicated on altruism.

A Sidekick, consciously or unconsciously, is dedicated to serving some Greater Good as embodied by the Hero.  A Sidekick has the best interests of the Hero at heart.  His operant faculty is intuition:  in extreme instances, a good Sidekick will “go with his gut” even if that means disobeying a direct order given by the Hero.  If, in spite of all good intentions, a Sidekick screws up, he can count on the Hero to forgive the miscalculation and give him a second chance.  

A Henchman, by contrast, serves the Villain either (a) as long as the pay-off makes it worth his while, or (b) until he can wriggle out from under whatever form of duress the Villain has been using to keep him in line.  A high-grade Henchman (i.e., someone with brains and talent) is always on the lookout for an opportunity to become a Villain in his own right.  The Villain is aware of this possibility.  If a Henchman screws up, the Villain will take decisive measures to ensure he never repeats the mistake.

Next, there’s the issue of group dynamics.

Any group of Sidekicks will be a motley crew. (Diversity is much more interesting than similarity!)  What keeps them together is loyalty to the Hero in pursuit of a Common Cause.  Members of a band of Sidekicks can – and do - squabble amongst themselves (especially when mixed genders are involved).  However, when the chips are down, Sidekicks will set all their differences aside and rally around their Hero, even in the face of death.

Members of a group of Henchmen, by contrast, nurse their rivalries and look for opportunities to assert themselves at the expense of their associates.  The more intelligent and ambitious members of the group are constantly seeking opportunities to advance themselves.  In the event of a crisis, Henchmen will retain their group identity only as long as the authority of their leader remains in force.  If and when that authority breaks down, there will be a power struggle.  Whoever emerges on top will eliminate any surviving members of the Group who aren’t prepared to accept his ascendancy.  After that, it becomes a question of survival. 

In the final analysis, however, the most interesting Sidekick or Henchman is one with the potential to change sides.  My next posting will be devoted to characters like these under the heading of Chameleons. 


1   In the real world, altruism is one of the most perplexing puzzles confronting students of human behavior. From a purely rational-materialist standpoint, there is no logical reason why anybody in his/her right mind should promote another person’s well-being at the expense of his/her own.  Nevertheless, against all reason, the daily news resonates with stories of individuals who make extraordinary sacrifices on behalf of strangers.

2 Though Fantasy literature abounds in female Sidekicks, once again in the interests of economy, I’m going to treat masculine pronouns as generic.

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Calling For Back-Up: Sidekicks and Henchmen

Batman and Robin
Photo by Dave Keeshan, via Flickr
In an earlier posting, I noted the fact that Heroes and Villains alike are intelligent, resourceful, and charismatic. It naturally follows that individual members of both parties should attract followers. Those attached to a Hero are popularly referred to as Sidekicks; those attached to a Villain are commonly known as Henchmen (or alternatively “minions”1).

Insofar as these subordinate characters perform similar narrative functions, they belong to the same species. When it comes to personal affinities, however, they belong to rival clans. This installment will be devoted to examining the points of comparison. I will be exploring their distinctive differences in Part 2.

No man is an island. This saying holds true for the Heroes and Villains that occupy the pages of modern Fantasy. These individuals can exist as one or the other only in a populated environment – which is where this discussion begins.

Sidekicks and Henchmen bring their respective principles to life, first of all, by giving them someone to talk to. These exchanges can serve as vehicles for exposition. From a writer’s perspective, one sure-fire way of cranking up the narrative tension is to let us listen in on a private conversation between the Villain and his chief Henchman. If we know something that the Hero and his Sidekicks don’t know, the suspense will keep us turning pages to see how the situation plays out.

“Stage business” is a vital aspect of all good writing. Sidekicks and Henchmen enliven the narrative by giving their principles someone to interact with. Setting up an interactive scenario between your Hero and his/her Sidekick (even something as simple as building a fire) is a dynamic way to establish character and/or foster character development. It fulfils the all-important precept: show, don’t tell!

The third vital function performed by Sidekicks and Henchmen alike is to carry out tasks delegated by their superiors. These auxiliary activities expand the narrative framework, enrich the story texture, and promote plot development. This is true, even when plans miscarry through the meddlesome agency of the opposition.

Sidekicks and Henchmen, on the surface of things, share a number of the same attributes. Those attributes include loyalty, fortitude, obedience, and a capacity to carry out orders efficiently. Here, however, we come to a fork in the road: on closer inspection, the qualities which define a good Sidekick are largely conditional in a Henchman.

Stay tuned for the next installment on Monday.


1 The Despicable Me films may have redefined the word minion in perpetuity. (I mean, who wouldn’t want a Minion - or better yet, several?)

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Where in the World?

Setting is a character. It can be a friend, foe, or antagonist. It lives and breathes. It can set the tone and atmosphere. It can create obstacles or remove them.

The last series I wrote took a year to research (pre-written-history Greece). I took some liberties with it, given there is no documentation. My current novel is set in Victorian England and will involve a vast amount of research. Yes, I am a glutton for punishment.

There are a number of ways to approach the setting for your book. Contemporary settings and real locations are probably the easiest, but that does not let you off the hook when it comes to research.

1) You can use a real place.

This requires that you research the place in question. You can use Google maps as a start or visit the town if you want to be precise. It gets trickier the further from home you go. If you choose a foreign country, you need to thoroughly research it to get the feel for how the people think, operate, dress, speak, and move about. The pitfall is using what I call "cultural shorthand" to describe it. People who don't live there won't know what Bob's diner looks like or where the Louvre is. So it's important to describe the place well. Even if you pick a well-known locale, describe it as if you are seeing the streets for the first time. If you have never been there, you will have to use your imagination to fill in the details of how it feels, smells, tastes, and sounds. You can research books, blogs, etc. written by residents of the  place in question.

2) You can use a real place and change the name.

The fun here is you get to name it Madeuptown and plop it in the Midwest. The pitfall of this is that not all Midwestern towns are the same. You still need to invent the details. You can pick an existing town and rename all the businesses and redecorate the town to your taste. The buildings can be clapboard or brick. The streets can be poorly paved or cobblestones. The streets can have gaslights. The countryside can have quaint cottages. If you are thinly disguising the town where you live, others might recognize it. They will feel very clever.

3) You can create a new town, state, or country.

Create a city in a state or country that doesn't exist (many British cozy series invent areas of England unless they are set in London). You should do some research into the state and the nearest biggest city to get a feel for it, but you can make it look and operate any way you like.

4) You can write about an entirely different world.

Placing it in the fantasy or sci-fi realm is a ton of work. For every nugget you include in your story, you have hundreds of details. World-building is tedious hard work. You have to invent who they are, how their world looks, feels, smells, and tastes like. You have to invent the government, commerce, travel, dress, morals, religions, languages, history, manners, etc.

5) You can keep it vague.

Some writers like to keep all descriptions vague so the reader can insert their own ideas. I personally hate that method. I like rich detail. When writers don't describe their main characters or the setting, which I consider an important character, it feels empty and unsatisfying. Some readers don't mind. Some readers prefer it.

The type of setting you choose affects the genre and sub-genre of your book. It is the difference between contemporary romance and historical romance.

Setting can attract or repel readers. If a reader dislikes stories set in World War II or Ancient Egypt, they might pass on it, no matter how well written your book is. Other readers will scoop up anything set in a quaint English village.

Setting can also provide promotion and marketing tie-ins. If your tale is set during the Civil War and features the Underground Railroad, you could approach the Underground Railroad tourist venues to ask if they would like to host a book signing, perhaps sell the book in their bookstore. If your beach read features a specific tropical hot spot, you could set up book signings there and write the vacation off as a business expense.

Choose the setting that works best for your story, preferably one that you would enjoy writing. If you love it, someone else out of the seven billion people worldwide will love it too.

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Profiling Your Villain

When you’re writing the first draft of your Fantasy novel, it’s perfectly acceptable to characterize your primary villain simply as a Nasty Piece of Work. In the next draft, however, when you’re trying to iron out all the wrinkles in the story, you may find it useful to delve into your villain’s personal background. If (as is often the case) the villain is the primum mobile of the plot, you owe it to yourself to explore what makes him1 tick.

He Has Arrived by DoodleDeMoon, Flickr

It may be helpful to bear in mind there was a time when your villain was potentially an Everyman. To discover what he was like at this stage of his existence, start with what your villain is like NOW and work backward until you arrive at the moment where, confronted by a crucial moral choice, this otherwise “ordinary” individual crossed a line and embarked on a path of no return. This reconstruction impels you to look your villain as a fully rounded character, and this knowledge can help you fortify the causal underpinnings of the plot.

Here I’d like to pick up on a comment Linda Lane made in response to my earlier article on Monsters. She offered the valuable insight that a memorable villain needs some trace element of vulnerability to humanize him. For instance, he might be haunted by the memory of some personal catastrophe which has poisoned his existence. Alternatively, he might still harbor somewhere in his benighted soul a single redeeming flicker of integrity which restrains him from committing certain acts of atrocity.

This premise works well in Fantasy fiction, not only because it renders the villain more believable, because also injects an element of mystery into the story: when Villain X has personally slaughtered everybody in a peasant village, why does he spare one infant girl? Learning the secret behind the anomaly may give the hero a weapon he can use to bring the villain to his knees in their next encounter.

My own favorite kind of Fantasy villain, however, is the one who (to quote a comment by Terry Odell) believes he’s the hero of his own story. This warped hero’s sense of purpose is often shaped by his vocation. For instance, maybe he’s a court genealogist who’s uncovered evidence suggesting that the current Empress was fathered by a non-human. Or maybe (as in the case of one my own Fantasy villains) he’s a clerical exorcist who yields to the temptation to use the demons he’s mastered to promote a political agenda.2

This kind of villain starts out with high ideals, but the goal he is seeking to achieve is undermined by the means he adopts to attain it. We see a tragic and terrible irony at work, as we watch him succumb by degrees to the insidious forces of compromise until he becomes the thing he hates.

At the end of the day, all Fantasy fiction is rooted in history. Be conscious of the fact and make it work for you.


1 Once again, to avoid padding out this article by doubling up on the pronouns, I’m going to treat the masculine forms as generic.

2 The book is Caledon of the Mists (Ace Warner, 1994). The character alluded to here is named Jedrith.

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.

Friday, August 23, 2013

A Question of Villainy

Photo by David Bleasdale, Flickr
The Screwtape Letters, by C. S. Lewis, purports to be a collection of letters written by a senior devil (Screwtape) to his nephew Wormwood, a junior tempter. In one of these missives, Screwtape notes, the great (and toothsome) sinners are made out of the very same material as those horrible phenomena, the Saints.

Screwtape is here alluding to the fact that certain people are born with a potential for greatness, endowed with exceptional gifts and talents which set them apart from the general population, and enable them to shape their own destinies. The same principle holds true when it comes to characters in literature. To restate Screwtape’s observation from a Fantasy-writer’s perspective: a first-class villain is a hero gone bad.1

Quentin Crisp once defined charisma as the ability to influence others without the use of reason. This is a prime attribute of heroes and villains alike: wherever they go, they stand out in a crowd. Heroes tend to downplay their charisma in the company of lesser mortals. (Superman, for instance, takes on the nerdy persona of Clark Kent to suppress his identity.) A villain, by contrast, consciously asserts his presence for purposes of intimidation. (When Darth Vader enters a room, everybody else registers a shiver of uneasiness.)

Heroes and villains alike are often gifted with superior intelligence. Intelligence renders a hero quick-thinking in the face of a crisis. If he has to jump to a conclusion, it will be the right one. If lives are at stake, he’ll improvise brilliantly to effect a rescue.

By contrast, intelligence in a villain is the key to power. A first-rate villain always has one or more long-range schemes under way. This gives him a starting advantage over the hero who has to play catch-up. A villain’s agenda is self-serving and his methods are ruthless. If at any point, a villain is forced by necessity to make a temporary alliance with his heroic counterpart, he will always be on the lookout for an opportunity to regain the initiative.

Photo via DoodleDeMoon on Flickr
 A first-class villain knows that sooner or later, he’s going to run into opposition, and never succumbs to the temptation to let his guard down.2 Instead, he looks for opportunities to stretch his lead. When – eventually - by dint of bravery, bloody-minded persistence and luck, the hero finally catches up with him, a first-rate villain never whines. On the contrary, he has his pride: he can be defeated, but never cowed. A first-rate villain is a class act3 – someone we’re forced to admire, even after all he has done, as he stands before us in chains.

Which brings us to the final point in this month’s installment. This discussion will continue next month. In the meantime, suffice it to reiterate that a villain, like his heroic counterpart, needs greatness to make him memorable.


1There are, sad to say, more noteworthy villains than villainesses in Fantasy. (The best specimens I know of come from the media, including the evil Amazon princess Callisto from the Xena Warrior Princess TV series, Mystique from the X-Men movies, and of course, Catwoman.) In view of this relative scarcity, and to avoid padding out this article by doubling up on the pronouns, I’m going to treat the masculine forms as generic.

2 For an entertaining perspective on the challenges of being an arch-villain, check out Peter's Evil Overlord.

3John Shea, who played Lex Luthor in the TV series Lois and Clark, succinctly summed up the class advantages of villainy in terms of “best clothes, best lines”.

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Ghosties and Ghoulies and Lang-Leggit Beasties

It can be argued that a good Fantasy novel is defined as such according to the stature of the hero or heroine’s principle Adversary. To put it another way, every good story needs either a worthy monster (like Moby Dick) or a worthy villain (like Darth Vader), or some combination of the two. Leaving aside the issue of Fantasy Villains, I thought it would be fun to devote this month’s entry to Fantasy Monsters.

Hydra by John Roberts of, via Flickr

People love stories about monsters. All of us vividly remember the shivery thrill of telling ghost stories in the dark; or the squirmy suspense of watching an old Hammer Horror film on late-night TV ; or the nerve-shredding tension of looking on while Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss investigate the floating wreckage of a small boat.

All over the world, time out of mind, myths, legends, and fairytales abound with monsters of all kinds. In Western Civilization, this material has been accessed by writers, century after century, to produce epics (Virgil’s Aeneid, the anonymous Beowulf), romances (the Arthurian cycles, Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso), Renaissance dramas (Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest) and Gothic novels (Shelley’s Frankenstein and Stoker’s Dracula). Writers of modern Fantasy are inheriting – and perpetuating - a rich tradition. But at a price.

For a time, following the publication of The Lord of the Rings, Fantasy writers could – and did – apply to earlier source material for inspiration, especially with reference to magical creatures and non-human races, both good and evil. Since then, however, the elements of Fantasy literature (including monsters) have been widely popularized through films and games, with the result that Fantasy readers are now familiar to the point of ennui with Dark Lords, Witch-Queens, Demon-Masters, etc., along with their monster-minions. This means that currently-active Fantasy writers have to work harder than their literary forebears in order to impress.

Where monsters are concerned, this often involves starting with the basic generic material, then introducing some creative variations that nobody else has thought about yet. Here are some questions to ask you in preparation for thinking outside the traditional box.

1. Is my monster corporeal or incorporeal? (Shelob vs. the barrow-wites)

If your monster is a beast shape-shifter, instead of turning him/her into a wolf, have him/her turn into something less conventional, like a coyote.

2. Is my monster a unique individual, or is it a member of a species? (Sauron the Dark Lord vs. orcs)

If the monster is a unique individual, jettison the Dark Lord persona in favor of something opposite: an Angel of Light, the sole survivor of the destruction of the previous Creation.

3. Is my monster (a) merely bestial, (b) semi-sentient, (c) sentient within human parameters, or (d) superhuman? (Smaug the dragon, vs. the trees of Fangorn, vs. Gollum, vs. the Lord of the Nazgul)

Here you’re on your own, but you get the idea.

And finally: is your monster also your villain? Tune in next month.

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Magical Mechanics in Fantasy Fiction

Years ago, while playing Dungeons and Dragons, my character acquired a Magic Ring – without the user manual. The results of using it were randomly generated by the Games Master using percentile dice. One time, I unleashed a stream of butterflies into the face of an attacking ogre. Another time, my character metamorphed into a griffon and clawed a party of orcs to ribbons.

Within the game, the random magic was Great Fun. But does the same “anything goes” principle apply to magic in Fantasy fiction?

If only!

Unfortunately, one of the distinctions between a good Fantasy novel and a not-so-good one has a lot to do with the mechanics of magic. This phrase may seem like a contradiction in terms; but in fact, magic in Fantasy works best when the writer takes time to figure out How the Magic Works.

Here are some considerations:

What’s the source of the magic in your world? (I.e., are your magic-users dealing with forces or entities?)

Is the magic natural (involving impersonal forces like weather and tidal flux); alien (involving non-human agencies from elsewhere in our cosmos); or metaphysical (involving meta-human agencies from higher/lower/other planes of existence)?

For instance, in her seven-volume Hero series, Moira Moore’s central characters use their biophysical psionic abilities (ESP and personal empathy) to control the forces of nature on a planet where these forces are always in a state of upheaval.

By contrast, the Before They Were Heroes quartet, by Jane Yolen and Robert Harris, features in sequence four Greek heroes (Odysseus, Hippolyta, Atalanta, and Jason) as teenagers, in a series of adventures involving gods, demi-gods and mythical beasts from the annals of Greek mythology.1

Yet again by contrast, in her classic High Fantasy Deryni series, Katherine Kurtz’s noble Deryni characters work magic by soliciting the aid of angelic powers within a framework of mystical theology.2

Which brings us to another question: by what means do your magic-using characters tap into this power source? There are many interesting crosscurrent possibilities. In the later volumes of the series, Moira’s Heroes discover a form of ritual magic which operates differently from their inborn psionic capabilities. Similarly, Katherine’s Deryni often use magically-charged artifacts in ritual contexts.

And now an important final point: as a writer, you owe it to yourself to establish – and abide by! – a basic set of rules concerning when, where, how often, by whom, and to what effect the magic in your world operates. By the same token you need to impose some restrictions on what your magic-using characters can and can’t use their magic for.

Setting these parameters will help you overcome the temptation (which we’ve all felt!) to invent a bit of magic on the spot to bridge a sudden gaping plot hole or explain away a continuity breach.3 Readers will notice if, every time the going gets rough, you invoke magic to frog-march the action along an illogical plot line.


1 Available now on Amazon Kindle. (And yes, Robert Harris is my husband.)

2Anyone interested in writing High Fantasy should make a point of reading some of Katherine’s books. They are exemplary!)

3 If eventually a twist in the plot demands that you extend the parameters in a given direction, the plot twist had better be a good one! Otherwise, you will be awarded a wooden spoon along with the title deus ex machina!

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

World-Building 102: The Word-Smith's Craft

When I began writing fantasy, one of my goals was to present an imaginary world with depth enough to satisfy my own standards as a reader.  When my first novel The Burning Stone1 was released in 1987, a  reviewer for Locus Magazine complimented me on creating "a lived-in world, and lively one".

So what (besides geography and history) makes for a "lived-in, lively" fantasy world?

The definitive factor is what I like to call "deep structure".  Deep structure encompasses a range of background details which have created the situation your characters find themselves at the start of your story.  Contributing factors include customs, traditions, codes of behavior, technology, art, philosophy, and metaphysics (especially important with regard to how magic works in your world) Deep structure isn't meant to present itself as full-on exposition (the infamous info-dump).  Ideally, it should surface in the form of casual referencing. The technique of selective referencing is particularly well demonstrated in Philip Pullman's best selling novel Northern Lights.2 

Part One is set in "Oxford".  That this is not the Oxford we know is clear from the novel's opening sentence:

Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall.

By the end of the page we know that in this world, all human beings are accompanied by daemons - external projections of their inner natures manifested in animal form.

Pullman uses invented terminology to establish a Victorian/Edwardian level of culture. Air transport is by means of dirigibles operating from aerodocks.  Lighting is supplied either by anbaric energy (a fantasy analogue to electricity) or by naptha (gaslight).  Pullman also lends substance to Lyra's world with references to landmarks (the Shot Tower), institutions (the Magisterium), and distinctive sub-cultures (most strikingly the panserbjorne, a race of sentient polar bears with a kingdom in the far North).

From a fantasy-writer's perspective, when you're "word-smithing", you're fishing for a word that conveys certain specialized shades of meaning.  Some methods of word-smithing are easier than others.  Here are three optional approaches.

1.  Go for an evocative combination of sounds: a beriaster sounds like it ought to be some kind of jewel (beri faintly suggests berry or beryl; aster is a flower).

2.  Play around in the OED with the aid of thesaurus until you find a rare or archaic synonym for the idea you're trying to convey.  (In The Burning Stone, I borrowed the term orison from the annals of medieval mysticism to denote a mage's working trance state.) Alternatively, survey a cluster of words related by concept, and see if you can replace a commonplace word with an unfamiliar close cousin.  (I ended up using the word prelate as a substitute for priest.)

3.  If your linguistic skills are up to the challenge, you can wire together a linguistically viable neologism.  (My husband can juggle Greek and Latin roots like beanbags.)

This business of word-smithing probably sounds appallingly pedantic to some of you out there. However, if you can invest the creative energy, the results are often spectacular. 


1 Just recently I learned, somewhat to my surprise, that another book entitled The Burning Stone appeared in print back in 1999, written by Kate Elliott.  If anybody out there is interested in trying to pick up a copy of my Burning Stone, make sure you check the author's name.  Hers in Volume III in a series called The Crown of Stars. 

2 Published in the States under the title The Golden Compass.

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.

Friday, April 19, 2013

World-Building 101: Geography and History

Because Modern Fantasy fiction comes in so many flavors, it’s virtually impossible to come up with a definitive recipe for writing The Perfect Fantasy Novel. What I propose to do, in this and subsequent posts, is to examine technical strategies for producing a good fantasy novel regardless of sub-genre.

One of the first distinguishing features of a fantasy novel is that it takes place in a setting defined by the imagination of the author. Where (as in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings) the setting is completely detached from the mundane world as we know it, the author must reckon with the sub-creative process known in the trade as world-building.

World-building entails “realizing” your fantasy world by endowing it with features analogous to the world we know. These features include geography, history, languages, culture, and technology. As a general rule, the more “concrete” your fantasy world in terms of these attributes, the more convincing the setting becomes to your readers.

As demonstrated by Tolkien, one way to “realize” the geography of your fantasy world is by mapping it out. (I fondly remember poring over the fold-out maps of Middle Earth in the hardback editions.) Map-making has always been a feature of my own creative process – partly just because I enjoy it, but also because it lends solidarity to the fantasy world I’m trying to create. While I wouldn’t necessarily insist that every fantasy writer should map his/her world, I would certainly recommend it – especially if the plot calls for large scale action, like a war between rival powers.

Map scanned from print edition of Caledon of the Mists by Deborah Turner Harris (click to enlarge)

Even if your plot doesn’t involve armies on the march, a map is a handy device because it enables both you and your readers to keep track of the action. You don’t have to be an artist: even a rough sketch showing compass orientation and relative distance in travel time between various locations can make a world of difference when it comes to plotting out character movements.
Hand-drawn maps for Caledon of the Mists by Deborah Turner Harris (click to enlarge)
Another way to render your fantasy world more realistic and concrete is to work out those aspects of its history which have shaped the political environment your characters live in. This is often best accomplished by starting with the immediate situation and working backwards. For example, suppose the setting for your story is an island. Suppose your main character is a conscript pressed into service by the local aristocrat who’s planning to make war on a rival aristocrat on the other side of the island. To account for this situation historically, set up a chain of imaginary questions and answers:
Q: What’s the source of this rivalry?
A: Aristocrat A’s wife ran off with Aristocrat B's.

Q: Why did she run off?
A: Because she’d been married against her will in the first place to cement an alliance between Aristocrat B and her family who come from the neighboring mainland.

Q. Why did the family want this alliance?
A: Because Aristocrats A and B are both corsairs, and her family was sick of getting plundered. Etc., etc.
This kind of thinking sharpens your sense of how your world works and how your characters think. Working out these mechanics can help eliminate continuity problems at the source.

But of course, geography and history aren’t everything. In our next installment, we’ll be considering culture, technology, and nomenclature.

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.

Friday, March 29, 2013

What's Your Favorite Fantasy Flavor?

Last month’s posting, I speculated that the appeal of Fantasy literature resides in its orientation toward hope.  The nature of this hope is possibly vested in the fact that fantasy fiction externalizes the trials of the human spirit, and affirms the value of the individual.  Over the decades, various sub-genres have emerged.  Like ice-cream, there’s a flavor to suit every taste.  Below are some of the favorites.

Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings established the template for Epic Fantasy. Heroic in scope and simple in its conventions, Epic Fantasy takes place in a fully realized imaginary setting, complete with its own geography, history, languages, races, and powers.  The plot is linear, often involving a long and dangerous journey over great distances.  Action is either episodic (featuring a series of mini-adventures) or heroic (featuring large-scale battles between rival armies).  The cast often includes non-human characters (elves, dwarves, etc.), and the principle characters conform to archetypes (Prophetess, Hero, Trickster, Innocent Fool, etc.). 

Like epic fantasy, High Fantasy takes place in an entirely imaginary secondary world.  The features of this world, however, are conceived with close reference to a historical model.    (Katherine Kurtz’s Gwynnedd, for instance, is a fantasy analogue of 12th century Wales.)  This historical modeling lends substance and sophistication to the fantasy realm, affording scope for more complex action and character development.  At the same time, the presence of magic enables the writer to explore an attractive range of imaginative plot possibilities.

Historical Fantasy, by contrast, is rooted in the real world. The story is born at when somebody stumbles across a point in history and pauses to wonder, “What if… ?”  Adopting the period setting as his/her starting point, the writer then begins importing those fantasy elements (magic, inhuman creatures, shifts in perception, perspective, or state of being, etc.) which service the plot.  It’s more challenging to write than high fantasy insofar as you have to be ready to do your homework, but it’s a great way to go hunting for story ideas and I highly recommend the thrill of the chase.

A closely related sub-genre is Contemporary Urban Fantasy.  In works of this kind, the time is the present, and the place is a modern city.  Truly wonderful things can happen under when traditional elements of fantasy – monsters and magic – collide with the mundane world of department stores, bag ladies, and mid-town traffic…. Cityscapes also provide setting for Dark Fantasy:  that branch of fantasy that incorporates neo-gothic elements of horror. 

There are, of course, other sub-genres (for instance, Comic Fantasy as epitomised by Terry Pratchett), but this list will serve to conclude my review of the origin and development of the fantasy genre.  
Next month, we start delving into the art of writing fantasy.

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.

Monday, February 18, 2013

What’s In a Name?

In my previous installment, I posed two questions: (A) What is there about fantasy literature that elicits such enthusiasm among so many readers? and (B) What are the reasons underlying the corresponding critical contempt? I’ll be dealing at length with Question A in up-coming posts by way of exploring the challenges of writing fantasy from a practical perspective. For the moment, I’m going to focus on Question B: Why are so many mainstream writers, critics, and academics so hostile to the genre?

Two key factors are involved in the answer: on the one hand, semantics; on the other, marketing pressures within the publishing industry during the genre’s infancy. In this month’s article, I propose to address the former factor, taking as my chapter and verse a quote from Shakespeare’s Juliet who asks plaintively, “What’s in a name?” (Romeo and Juliet, II.ii.1-2)

At the University of St. Andrews in 1938, J.R.R. Tolkien delivered a now-famous essay titled On Fairy Stories. In this essay (later published in Tree and Leaf), he invoked the term fantasy to describe The Lord of the Rings and all other works of a similar nature. Tolkien equates fantasy with what he calls Sub-creation: the process whereby the writer creates a fully-realised secondary world within the cosmos of his own imagination. By identifying his work as fantasy, this reticent scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature gave name to the genre a quarter of a century before it was born.

And therein lies the rub. From an etymological perspective, Tolkien wasn’t speaking the same language as his 20th century colleagues in the fields of mainstream writing, scholarship, and publishing.

If you consult the OED, you discover that fantasy derives from the Latin word fantasia (appearance, image, perception). This word in turn harks back to the Greek verb stem phainein which translates roughly as “to bring to light” or “to effect an appearance”. Over time, these antique root words beget modern progeny: epiphany (revelation or insight), phantom (ghost, apparition), fantastic (incredible, amazing), fanciful (whimsical, vainly wishful), fantasize (to indulge in vain or idle daydreams), and fancy (to have an intense desire for something trifling, as in “I could really fancy a beer right now!”).

The above list of modern derivations demonstrates the process whereby the word fantasy gradually lost its original metaphysical significance and accumulated a range of slighter connotations until eventually it comes to represent the antithesis of rationalism. It’s therefore not surprising that in our present-day empirical materialist epoch, any work billed as “fantasy” is often dismissed out of hand by the Establishment as a piece of foolish nonsense, fit only for children - and adults too weak-minded to face up to the realities of the modern world in which personal worth is measured exclusively in terms of money and power.

This concluding observation anticipates speculation concerning the appeal of fantasy literature. The gift that Tolkien and his successors bring to the modern world is a kind of vision: the stubborn conviction that despite all appearances, there is always – however improbably – room for hope.

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Central Question

Every plot hinges on a central question. Posing the question at the beginning of the tale and answering it at the end is sound story architecture. Does that task make your head spin? It shouldn’t. It’s as easy as choosing a story skeleton. Let’s explore a few examples.

1) The Romance skeleton poses the central question: Will they or won’t they end up together?

The answer had better be yes or a satisfying equivalent. The girl can find out guy A isn’t what she wanted after all because she found guy B, but this is not the genre for an I’m okay on my own ending. That story uses the Literary (or Women's Fiction) skeleton. Romance readers want passion and fulfillment and are very disappointed if they don’t get it.

2) The Mystery skeleton poses the central question: Who did it and will they catch him?

The answer is yes. The criminal may escape at the last moment to torment the detective another day, but the case that is the focus of the story is considered solved. Twists where someone other than the detective solves the crime or there wasn’t a crime after all should be rerouted to the Thriller section.

3) The Thriller skeleton poses the central question: How will they, and by proxy we, survive the threat to an individual or society? 

For an up ending, the hero succeeds. If you want a down ending, the hero can fail and learn an ugly truth. Twists often provide an unexpected answer in this genre.

4) The Horror skeleton poses the central question: What brought the danger near and how will they escape it?

The answer can go either way as long as you reveal the reason why. Some horror stories ignore the why, but fans consider that a weak story. Fans want the main character to live to be frightened another day, even if every other character is knocked off by the tale's end.

5) The Science Fiction skeleton poses the central question: Will the hero find, change, or stop something in time?

Most fans prefer an up ending. They want to believe that we can overcome the challenges to our existence, especially if you plan a sequel.

6) The Fantasy skeleton poses the central question: Will the hero obtain or learn to use the power to defeat the evil that has disrupted his world in time?

The force is usually with the hero. The wicked witch gets her just due. Lord Voldemort is defeated. If you plan a sequel, the villain can live to fight the hero another day, but the story must show a resolution to a skirmish in the battle.

Once you've chosen a skeleton, the challenge is providing riveting obstacles between question and answer to keep the reader glued to the page. The reader knows from the outset that the hero will likely survive. Your mission is to make her question the outcome anyway. You do that by choosing believable obstacles.

Diana Hurwitz
 is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Birth of Fantasy (Tolkien, Before and After)

The birth of Modern Fantasy as a distinct literary genre can be arguably dated to 1965, the year in which Ballantine Books brought out the first authorised paperback edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.  This singular work, rooted in an erudite philologist’s musings on the origin and transmission of languages, captured the imagination of the American reading public.  Sales figures soared, Tolkien’s name became a household word, and American publishers embarked on an urgent quest to find more works of fantasy to satisfy public demand.

But where to look?

In theory (at least) they didn’t have to look very far. The hallmark elements of Tolkien’s fantasy  – non-human races, inhuman monsters, imaginary landscapes, epic battles, heroic legends – have been around since the dawn of Western Literature.  Classical examples include Homer’s two Greek epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, Virgil’s Latin epic, The Aeneid, and Ovid’s Metamorphosis, all of which are infused with narrative elements imaginatively adapted from myth and legend. Out of the meeting between Classical and Germanic culture comes the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, whose eponymous hero battles monsters on sea and land before finally succumbing to the dragon in mortal combat. 

In a subsequent fusion of cultures, Old English epic gave way to Norman French chansons de geste, which in turn gave rise to what can be loosely termed “chivalric romance”:  fanciful tales of knight errantry. In the wake of the Crusades, these romances become interestingly infused with new fantasy elements derived from Islamic folklore:  evil sorcerers, books of magic, secret gardens, enchanted palaces.  These works, especially those belonging to the Arthurian cycle (notably the works of late twelfth century poet Chretien de Troyes) were extremely popular.1

However, the poetic masterpiece of the Middle Ages is a fantasy trilogy:  Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Composed in the early 14th century, this extended narrative poem in three volumes chronicles the speaker Dante’s visionary journey from Hell, through Purgatory, to the heights of Heaven.  His spirit guide for the lower realms is the poet Virgil; for his heavenly journey, he is accompanied by Beatrice, simultaneously his idealised Beloved and angelic wisdom personified.  A numinous anima figure, Beatrice prefigures Tolkien’s Galadriel.

The romance tradition continues to develop throughout the Tudor/Jacobean period.  Many of Shakespeare’s most popular plays - As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Tempest – are fantasies, as witnessed by the presence of non-human characters (gods, fairies, spirits) and lashings of magic.  Beyond Shakespeare, we have Milton’s “dark materials” epic fantasy Paradise Lost and Alexander Pope’s comic fantasy The Rape of the Lock.  But the most significant development of all in the history of fantasy was the transition from poetry to prose with the advent of the Gothic Novel.

The movement kicks off with the publication of Horace Walpole’s The  Castle of Otranto in 1764.  It’s a phantasmagoric tale that begins with a giant helmet falling out to the sky.  The ensuing story is a chivalric romance gone mad.  It was, however, a success, prompting other experiments in prose fantasy.  Possibly the most disturbing of these was Matthew Gregory Lewis proto-horror novel The Monk (1796) in which Lewis with ghoulish gusto gives free rein to his personal fantasy notions of what goes on behind closed doors in a Catholic monastery.  By savage contrast, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1831) is a true literary classic, arguably the first science fiction novel in English.  Another iconic example of the Gothic novel is Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897.

Which brings us into touch with another writer of the period:  William Morris.  More widely recognised for his role in the Arts and Crafts Movement, Morris experimented with writing fantasy in the pre-Shakespearean mode.  In 1896, he published The Well at the World’s End in two volumes.  The following year saw the publication of The Water of the Wondrous Isles. Both novels have a fanciful charm that survives the ponderous quaintness of Morris’s prose style.  They are unquestionably fantasy novels – which is why, in the post-Tolkien demand for more fantasy fiction, Betty and Ian Ballantine relaunched them in the now-famous Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series, published between 1971-1974.

This series included a number of other proto fantasy novels.  The earliest author on the agenda is the Scottish writer George MacDonald, represented by two adult fantasy works:  Phantastes (subtitled “A Faerie Romance for Men and Women”) which appeared in 1858, and the vastly darker and more challenging Lilith (1895) whose central character Vane finds himself shuttling between overlapping realms of existence. Another personal favorite of mine in the series is Lord Dunsany’s The Charwoman’s Shadow, first published in the 1920s, which brings a Spanish flavor to the fantasy tale.  I’m also very fond of The Kai Lung anthologies of Ernest Bramah, which are full of oriental colour and mischief.

But the Ballantines were also looking for new talent.  And they made discriminating choices.  Their first wave of acquisitions included Joy Chant (Red Moon and Black Mountain, 1973) and Katherine Kurtz, whose first Deryni trilogy, published in 1974, introduced historical fantasy as a new sub-genre.  Since then, fantasy has boomed.  The runaway success of the Harry Potter series in recent years attests to the genre’s commercial appeal. Though the popular demand has never been greater, it’s curious to note that the fantasy genre as a whole is generally disparaged by literary critics.

In my next installment, I will be addressing two related questions:  (a) what is there about fantasy literature that elicits such enthusiasm among so many readers? and (b) what are the reasons underlying the corresponding critical contempt?

Watch this space.


1The dominant story strands of the Arthurian romances were eventually woven together into narrative prose by Sir Thomas Malory in his Morte d’Arthur, published by William Caxton in 1495.

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A Game of Anagrams

Please welcome fantasy author S.K. Randolph to the Blood-Red Pencil today.

While in college, I was introduced to fantasy fiction for the first time. I read and reread Tolkien’s Trilogy and The Hobbit, immersed myself in Narnia, and devoured everything I could find by Ray Bradbury, Ursula Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey, Patricia McKillip, Sharon Shinn, and the list goes on. This resulted in an ever-deepening desire to create my own world, to write fantasy.

In 2003, while on a sabbatical from Interlochen Center for the Arts, I began my first novel. Immediately, I encountered a stumbling block—naming my world/worlds and the characters that inhabited them. Always a lover of word games, I started playing with anagrams as means of achieving this. The puzzles, the acts of discovery, and the outcomes fascinated me.

First, I selected the word of origin based upon a characteristic of the place, object, or character to be named. For example, I needed to name a tower at the center of a forest filled with secrets—the Terces (Secret) Wood. Since the tower was mysterious and magical, I choose the word Enchantment as my springboard. Next, I reversed the letters . . . tnemtnahcne. This removed me from any preconceived notions about the word. Then I began to juggle the letters around. The end result had to look and sound right. In this case, I found Nemttachenn . . . Nemttachenn Tower.

Naming characters followed a similar process. In Book 1 of The Unfolding Trilogy, I needed a name for my antagonist. By clearly describing him and listing the characteristics of his personality, I came up with Demon’s Eyes . . . snomed seye. I preferred the words reversed (eyes demons), but the name still needed a little tweak to flow right. So I shifted the “s” from “demons” to “eyes” and christened him Seyes Nomed. The name fitted perfectly.

Although not every name is an anagram, the majority are. I always listen when a word pops into my head from that intangible, creative place from which ideas flow; but when I am stumped, I find my anagram game always provides an answer.

How do you create names for your fantasy stories or other novels?


S. K. Randolph wrote The DiMensioner's Revenge, Book 1 of the The Unfolding Trilogy that was published in July 2011. Book 2, The ConDra's Fire, is scheduled to be released this fall. She lives on a boat in Alaska.

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