Tough Guide to Fantasy Clichés: The Fuzzies

Here is one of my posts from my Tough Guide to Clichés series!  Because we can never have enough fuzzies…

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I’ve really been enjoying my month in Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland and all of the marvelous clichés that she has brought to my attention.  What I think I have learned while writing these (and perhaps, you have, by reading them) is that while there are always cliché ways to present your world and characters, there also just as many ways to avoid or even to utilize those clichés to make our fantasylands better.  An awareness of the stereotypes gives us greater power over our worlds.

And what megalomaniacal, world-building author does not want greater power?

So we’ve covered names, colour-coding, and villains thus far.  I want to touch on something a little smaller, a detail that might not even come into consideration when we are writing.  But when you think about it, it is a little strange.

pangur ban cat rabbit friends
Pangur Ban is a magic cat and Bella is a soulless, power-hungry, would-be villain. I think they both merit a story or two.

The question that Jones presents in one of her entries is this: Where are all the fuzzies?

Specifically, how do animals figure into your storytelling?

First, let’s see what Diana Wynne Jones has to say:

Animals. See Enemy Spies, Food, and Transport.  Apart from creatures expressly designed for one of these three purpose, there appear to be almost no animals in Fantasyland.  Any other animals you meet will be the result either of Wizard’s Breeding Programme or of Shapeshifting.  You may on the other hand hear things, such as roaring, trampling, and frequently the hooting of owls, but these are strongly suspected to be sound effects only, laid on by the Management when it feels the need for a little local colour.

Domestic Animals are as rare as wild Animals.  In most cases their existence can be proved only by deduction.  Thus, sheep must exist, because people wear wool, and so must cattle, as there is usually cheese to eat.  Cats are seen in company with Witches and Crones, often in large numbers, but seldom elsewhere, and there have been sightings also of solitary pigs; possibly in Fantasyland cats are herd animals whereas pigs are not.  Goats are seen oftener (and may even provide the cheese) and dogs are frequent but often rather feral – the arrival of a Tour party at a Village is usually greeted by barking dogs.  Dogs are also kept in numbers by Kings and nobles, where their job is to be scavengers: you throw bones on the floor and the dogs fight for them.  These hounds cannot be kept for hunting (except perhaps for hunting men and Mutant Nasties), as there are no Animals to hunt.

The thoughtful Tourist might like to pause here and consider, since Animals are so rare, what exactly the meat is that the Management puts in its Stew.

Another use for animals: as desks.
My brother demonstrates another use for animals: as desks.

Now, then, let’s talk about the animals.  When I read this, I remember feeling a very twingy sense of concern because my fantasy serial The Holder Wars has fallen prey to exactly this description of animals.  There are horses for “Transportation” and then there are plenty of shapeshifters.  But my land has been peculiarly lacking in pretty much anything else.

Oops.

But here’s the conundrum: We want to create a world that is realistic and immersive and natural.  On the other hand, we want to tell a story and relate action and dialogue and characterization.  This means we do have to make some choices about what is important to describe and what isn’t.  If I were to write a chase scene through the woods, I wouldn’t stop the narrative for a moment to point out some bluebirds nesting in one of the trees my characters is frantically riding past.  I don’t need to tell the reader everything on Old MacDonald’s farm when my character passes by or stops in, do I?  We do need to have boundaries, and in many ways, it does make sense to only bring up things like animals when they are actually integral in some way to the plot.  Otherwise, the book becomes a ponderous tome of details.

chicken food
Dogs are desks… and chickens are cuddly snacks. This child lives in an interesting world.

And fuzzies just aren’t worth it.

So what do we do with animals?  Of course, we continue to use them in our stories in various ways, whether it is the usual horse transportation or as game to be shot or as magical changelings.  Otherwise, I think we would do well to be aware of any significant gap in our description, such as of a forest or farmland, and where we might add some animals.

It might do us some good to read what Jones has to say about horses as well:

Horses are a breed unique to Fantasyland.  They are capable of galloping full-tilt all day without a rest.  Sometimes they do not require food or water.  They never cast shoes, go lame, or put their hooves down holes, except when Management deems it necessary, as when the forces of the Dark Lord are only half an hour behind.  They never otherwise stumble … But for some reason you cannot hold a conversation while riding them.  If you want to say anything to another Tourist (or vice versa), both of you will have to rein to a stop and stand staring out over a Valley while you talk.  Apart from this inexplicable quirk, Horses can be used just like bicycles, and usually are.  Much research into how these exemplary animals come to exist has resulted in the following: no mare ever comes into season on the Tour and no Stallion ever shows an interest in a mare; and few Horses are described as geldings.  It therefore seems probably that they breed by pollination.  This theory seems to account for everything, since it is clear that the creatures do behave more like vegetables than mammals.

The same issues apply with horses,  I think, when it comes to description in stories.  If we were to be completely and utterly realistic, we would also be completely and utterly boring.  However, I do like Jones’ point about horses needing rest and the issue of stallions, mares, and geldings.  These are small practicalities that might be worth bringing into consideration.

Unless, of course, your horses do in fact breed by means of pollination, which is another matter entirely.  And I would like to read that story.

belted gallowy
Cow is sad because she is not in a story.

So, what are your thoughts on fuzzies in fantasyland?  Do you think that novels tend to dismiss them too easily or do you think that it is generally a matter of space and practicality?  Do fuzzies matter to you?

Coming Back To Our Favorites: Why Do You Reread a Book?

Greetings, LHP Readers! After the holiday season, we are continuing our reposts on the best blog entries of 2013. This post was published by Melissa one year ago, a reminder of the best books we have read and we should keep rereading. This post has particular relevance to writers, for as we contemplate why books are worth rereading, we will hopefully apply the same criteria in our own writing.

Happy New Year, everyone!  And because new things terrify me, I am going to be reflective instead.  Reflective is deep, right?

Right.

books bookshelfI was talking with some friends about the joy that we take in watching some movies over and over and over again.  Some movies just keep coming back out when people come over for a visit.  Sometimes only a certain film will do for our particular mood.  Sometimes, a movie simply provides a comforting, familiar background to whatever it is we are doing: writing, grading, cleaning, studying, etc.

For me and many others, rereading books can provide a similar solace, although books are much less a social thing and can certainly not be read at the same time as writing, grading, cleaning, or studying (unless you are especially talented, that is).  So why do we reread books?   Or rather, why do you reread a favorite book?  Do you?  I know some people will read a book, and then they are done with it.  Some books aren’t worth a second read, to be sure.

DSC02641

These are some of the things I want to explore a bit more.  In this post, I want to talk about familiarity.  I think that one reason for rereading a book for many people comes down to the fact that you know it.  A good book is a friend.  It tells you a wonderful story and it is a reliable source of excitement, joy, and interest.

Knowing the Ending

Some people don’t understand the appeal of rereading a good book, particularly if it’s a mystery or otherwise surprising toward the end.  Why read something when that initial surprise is gone?  What’s the point if you know the ending?

Honestly, knowing the ending never bothers me when I reread.  Perhaps it is because characters matter more to me than plot, but I don’t think that’s all of it.

Sometimes knowing the ending is a good thing.  It allows you to focus on enjoying the experience of reading, the pleasure found in a good turn of phrase, and the well conceived setting and characters in the book.  You don’t have to stress out about how it ends.  You might even take some pleasure (you cruel, cruel person) in knowing what your characters do not.  You know their fates.

Maybe that’s going a bit far.  I don’t know.  I find that knowing the ending when I start (so long as I discovered it for myself and it wasn’t ruined by someone before I got to it) doesn’t detract from a truly good story.  A good book is a good book and will be a good book every time you come back to it.

book reading in the park mabinogion
Perfect afternoon: book, tea, danish… and a megalomaniacal dragon named Napoleon.

Meeting Old Friends

The most comforting aspect of a good reread for me is that I feel like I am revisiting people that I have already gotten over the initial difficulties of meeting and getting to know.  I don’t know about you, but I find meeting new people very stressful: that awkward stage when you have already exchanged names and now wonder what you have to say… that moment when you find out something about the other person that shocks or annoys you… that moment when all you really want to do is to figure out a good way to part company… Okay, so I like people, but I don’t like the meeting bit.

But after the first read, the heroes and heroines become my friends.  I can enjoy the characters all the more because I know who they are.  And I can continue to develop that friendship with the character more the second (and third, and fourth, and fifth…) time around.

And don’t tell me they’re not real people.  They are.

book park readingI have one book that I read every year, usually in the summer.  The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett is historical fiction and my particular favorite.  Every time I read it, I am drawn into the story again.  I’ve read it over half a dozen times, but it doesn’t matter that I know every detail of the plot and I know what’s going to happen.  What I love is re-experiencing the main character’s adventure.  He’s an intimidatingly brilliant hero, but I feel like I know him pretty well by now, and I plan to keep renewing the acquaintance every year.

Next week, I think I’ll talk about what the experience of rereading can offer that is new, different, and ever-changing.  Because that’s important too, you know.

But in the meantime, what do you think about rereading books?  Do you enjoy it?  Does it lose some of its magic once you know the ending?  Do you feel connected to the characters or do they remain firmly affixed to the pages?  Or are there simply too many good books to spare time for a reread?

Tough Guide to Fantasy Clichés: Rain, Rain, Go Away!

I hope that we have all taken away valuable lessons from this month of tough, but true fantasy clichés.  I think the lesson to be learned here is not necessarily to avoid things that might be considered cliché, but rather to be aware of the possibilities and to wield them appropriately.  Consider how these aspects of world building – names, colours, villains, animals – could be used to create more realism or whatever it is you are trying to go for in your particular world.  Use a cliché to misdirect a reader or to be ironic, whatever you wish.  Just don’t disregard them!

The final issue that I want to observe, through Diana Wynne Jones’ eyes, is the issue of weather.  The weather in my part of the world these past few months has been, in a word, bizarre. And having just watched a wild thunderstorm rush through only to be replaced by sunshine in a matter of an hour, it seems appropriate to conclude with some thoughts about seasons and weather and what they can do in a story.

frost road mistyFirst, let’s start with Jones:

Seasons in Fantasyland appear to be the normal Spring, Summer, Autumn (sometimes called Fall by the Management), and Winter, but few Tours get to see them all.  The Management tends to start you out in late Autumn, by tradition, and you will then experience only Winter.  Your perceptions are messed up anyway, because you will be travelling into hot climates and cold, as well as traversing many magical microclimates.  You may as well give up wondering what the Season is and think of it all as Weather.

I sometimes wonder whether seasons have fallen into that same problematic category as wild animals in which we just don’t have the time to spare to describing them.  If the season is mentioned, it is normally referenced because it is part of the plot, and in that case, probably because of fierce wintery blizzards or perhaps endless summer droughts.  When I think about seasons in most fantasy novels (including my own!), I feel inclined to disagree with Jones.  There are not four seasons in Fantasyland, but only two: Winter and That Other One.  Winter is when it’s cold, and the rest of the time, it’s That Other One.  Otherwise, I can’t be bothered to go into details about what goes on to distinguish one season from another.

red forestJones’ solution for her Tourists is to consider Weather rather than Seasons, which seems remarkably sensible, when you think about it.  So what does she say about Weather?

Weather is always wrong for what you are doing at the time.  It varies from heat/drought if you must travel quickly, to heavy rain if you need just to travel.  If you need to sleep rough, there is always a frost; invariably, if you have to cross Mountains, there will be a thunderstorm or blizzard.  Some of the reason for this is that, despite obvious drawbacks, the Management nearly always arranges for Tours to set out in late autumn or early winter (see Seasons).  The rest is natural perversity.  Weather is, too, remarkably apt to reflect the emotions of the Tour party.  It is sullen and grey if the party is quarrelling among itself, bright and springlike if everyone is happy.  It is also very susceptible to Magic, particularly at sea, where Storms can be raised in instants (see Storm Control), and in Deserts, where dust storms can be created almost as quickly.  The general advice here is to keep smiling and avoid annoying Wizards.

I think the problem that we find ourselves facing with fantasy novels, particularly of the questing sort, is that our unfortunate travelers are on the road all the time.  If you have ever taken a road trip, you know that the travel between destinations can sometimes be extremely dull.  Take away air conditioning and music and the trip becomes unimaginably dull.  So what do we do with our questing heroes for days on end?  We can simply state “Three weeks passed before they reached the town of…” or we can try to fill the days with events, either attacks, internal struggle, or Weather.

flower tree forest gardenSo what do we do with weather if we don’t want it to become cliché?  I think Jones is right to warn us in her wonderful way that weather should not always reflect the emotional well being of the heroes.  If I see one more movie in which a death or funeral is set during a rainstorm, I will probably throw something.  However, using weather as part of the action of the story can be a helpful (if mean) way to fill in empty days of travel.  Using weather well will also help give your reader a sense of time and place and add to the general scenery.

And now, are there any final thoughts on these cliché traps?  Are we all better writers for them?  It’s been fun exploring Jones’ Tough Guide this month, and I will see you all in July!

Tough Guide to Fantasy Clichés: The Fuzzies

I’ve really been enjoying my month in Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland and all of the marvelous clichés that she has brought to my attention.  What I think I have learned while writing these (and perhaps, you have, by reading them) is that while there are always cliché ways to present your world and characters, there also just as many ways to avoid or even to utilize those clichés to make our fantasylands better.  An awareness of the stereotypes gives us greater power over our worlds.

And what megalomaniacal, world-building author does not want greater power?

So we’ve covered names, colour-coding, and villains thus far.  I want to touch on something a little smaller, a detail that might not even come into consideration when we are writing.  But when you think about it, it is a little strange.

pangur ban cat rabbit friends
Pangur Ban is a magic cat and Bella is a soulless, power-hungry, would-be villain. I think they both merit a story or two.

The question that Jones presents in one of her entries is this: Where are all the fuzzies?

Specifically, how do animals figure into your storytelling?

First, let’s see what Diana Wynne Jones has to say:

Animals. See Enemy Spies, Food, and Transport.  Apart from creatures expressly designed for one of these three purpose, there appear to be almost no animals in Fantasyland.  Any other animals you meet will be the result either of Wizard’s Breeding Programme or of Shapeshifting.  You may on the other hand hear things, such as roaring, trampling, and frequently the hooting of owls, but these are strongly suspected to be sound effects only, laid on by the Management when it feels the need for a little local colour.

Domestic Animals are as rare as wild Animals.  In most cases their existence can be proved only by deduction.  Thus, sheep must exist, because people wear wool, and so must cattle, as there is usually cheese to eat.  Cats are seen in company with Witches and Crones, often in large numbers, but seldom elsewhere, and there have been sightings also of solitary pigs; possibly in Fantasyland cats are herd animals whereas pigs are not.  Goats are seen oftener (and may even provide the cheese) and dogs are frequent but often rather feral – the arrival of a Tour party at a Village is usually greeted by barking dogs.  Dogs are also kept in numbers by Kings and nobles, where their job is to be scavengers: you throw bones on the floor and the dogs fight for them.  These hounds cannot be kept for hunting (except perhaps for hunting men and Mutant Nasties), as there are no Animals to hunt.

The thoughtful Tourist might like to pause here and consider, since Animals are so rare, what exactly the meat is that the Management puts in its Stew.

Another use for animals: as desks.
My brother demonstrates another use for animals: as desks.

Now, then, let’s talk about the animals.  When I read this, I remember feeling a very twingy sense of concern because my fantasy serial The Holder Wars has fallen prey to exactly this description of animals.  There are horses for “Transportation” and then there are plenty of shapeshifters.  But my land has been peculiarly lacking in pretty much anything else.

Oops.

But here’s the conundrum: We want to create a world that is realistic and immersive and natural.  On the other hand, we want to tell a story and relate action and dialogue and characterization.  This means we do have to make some choices about what is important to describe and what isn’t.  If I were to write a chase scene through the woods, I wouldn’t stop the narrative for a moment to point out some bluebirds nesting in one of the trees my characters is frantically riding past.  I don’t need to tell the reader everything on Old MacDonald’s farm when my character passes by or stops in, do I?  We do need to have boundaries, and in many ways, it does make sense to only bring up things like animals when they are actually integral in some way to the plot.  Otherwise, the book becomes a ponderous tome of details.

chicken food
Dogs are desks… and chickens are cuddly snacks. This child lives in an interesting world.

And fuzzies just aren’t worth it.

So what do we do with animals?  Of course, we continue to use them in our stories in various ways, whether it is the usual horse transportation or as game to be shot or as magical changelings.  Otherwise, I think we would do well to be aware of any significant gap in our description, such as of a forest or farmland, and where we might add some animals.

It might do us some good to read what Jones has to say about horses as well:

Horses are a breed unique to Fantasyland.  They are capable of galloping full-tilt all day without a rest.  Sometimes they do not require food or water.  They never cast shoes, go lame, or put their hooves down holes, except when Management deems it necessary, as when the forces of the Dark Lord are only half an hour behind.  They never otherwise stumble … But for some reason you cannot hold a conversation while riding them.  If you want to say anything to another Tourist (or vice versa), both of you will have to rein to a stop and stand staring out over a Valley while you talk.  Apart from this inexplicable quirk, Horses can be used just like bicycles, and usually are.  Much research into how these exemplary animals come to exist has resulted in the following: no mare ever comes into season on the Tour and no Stallion ever shows an interest in a mare; and few Horses are described as geldings.  It therefore seems probably that they breed by pollination.  This theory seems to account for everything, since it is clear that the creatures do behave more like vegetables than mammals.

The same issues apply with horses,  I think, when it comes to description in stories.  If we were to be completely and utterly realistic, we would also be completely and utterly boring.  However, I do like Jones’ point about horses needing rest and the issue of stallions, mares, and geldings.  These are small practicalities that might be worth bringing into consideration.

Unless, of course, your horses do in fact breed by means of pollination, which is another matter entirely.  And I would like to read that story.

belted gallowy
Cow is sad because she is not in a story.

So, what are your thoughts on fuzzies in fantasyland?  Do you think that novels tend to dismiss them too easily or do you think that it is generally a matter of space and practicality?  Do fuzzies matter to you?

Sprintummer: How Much We Rely on The Shake of His Mane

Springtime in Virginia!
Springtime in Virginia!

Virginia has endured some incredible, bizarre, and unpredictable weather over the last couple of months.  I have dubbed it The Year of the Sprintummer.  Just as the last of the cold, wet stuff had seeped into the cool earth and the trees had begun to unfurl the first timid buds, the clouds discovered that they had previously unnoticed reservoirs of ice and snow yet to dump on us; the winds, which were becoming almost zephyrous devolved once again into arctic blasts; and the wretched flora (as well as a few unfortunate Virginians like myself) became crystallized in the onslaught.

Long-suffering, we walk shivering in snow or sleet or freezing winds and think that we cannot even remember what this magical thing called warm feels like.  And then, somewhere between a chilly sunset and a gentle sunrise, the weather has changed.  Suddenly, it is warm.  No, it is hot and we are buying ice creams and frolicking in meadows wearing sandals and listening to birds singing and frogs chirring and flowers blossoming.  Yes, you can practically hear the flowers shaking off the cold and spreading their petals once more.

And then you hear them start to wilt as the blazing heat threatens to finish what last week’s chill began.  Flowers can never catch a break.

Sprintummer: when summer and winter engage in a war for supremacy in the middle of spring.

And all we wanted was to be able to go outside without mittens.

flowers in the woodsI think the most frustrating thing about this confusing season is that we are missing the magic of spring.  There is something supremely and subtly dramatic in the casting off of winter and the coming of the new season.  It isn’t supposed to happen all at once and skip straight to summer.  Winter is not supposed to regain its hold all of a sudden.  The perfect spring is a slow progression of cold to cool to mild to warm.  It is a beautiful shift from whites and grays to greens and violets and yellows and pinks.flowering tree old building

What we really want is to see the world resurrect in slow motion, a little bit more every time we wake up, until it has become truly alive again.  The profound change from death to life has been translated into many myths.  Unfortunate Persephone’s forced marriage with Hades sends her down into “death” and back into “life” in an eternal cycle that manifests in the changing of the seasons.

But the more appropriate story, of course, is the coming of Aslan:

Wrong will be right, when Aslan shows his might,

At the sounds of his roar, sorrows will be no more

When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death

And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again. (The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe)

springtime in paris
Springtime in Paris

I suppose in Narnia, after that hundred year winter, they deserved the speedily delivered spring.  But it was spring, not summer, not Sprintummer.  It was spring.  We look at the world being renewed and we see life after death: the bare bones of “dead” trees become verdant and green and the hard, brown earth erupts with colors.  If you live somewhere with four seasons, perhaps you share this sense that spring is special.  It promises relief, beauty, and pleasure.

It also represents the end of a very great and dreadful Winter two thousand years ago;  and it promises us a final, glorious spring when the Lion will move with infinite power and shake His mane once more on the winter of this world.

So, in conclusion, there is something seriously wrong with this whole Sprintummer thing.  Aslan would not approve.

Vienna in the spring
Vienna in the spring