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?

Pilgrim Parties: Reading through Dark Lord of Derkholm

After my summer reading list got slightly derailed earlier this month with the Hunger Games, I am finally finishing one of the books on my list.  I stayed up late last night finishing Dark Lord of Derkholm, a fantastic book by Diana Wynne Jones.

DarklordofderkholmcoverA couple of months back Melissa wrote a series of posts on The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, which is a companion book of sorts to Dark Lord of Derkholm. In Dark Lord of Derkholm, a business man has found a portal to the magical world, where Wizard Derk and his family live, and has been exploiting that world by making it an adventure theme park  for people who want to experience the quintessential fantasy adventure and defeat the Dark Lord and free the land. 

I don’t want to give too much of the plot away because Jones’ storytelling is fantastic and I don’t want to deprive you all of the joy of reading her story her way.

I first fell in love with Jones when I read Howl’s Moving Castle.  Her worlds are vivid and full of marvelous characters that are at once ordinary and extraordinary, Dark Lord of Derkholm, is no exception. Wizard Derk is a middle aged family man who struggles with doing right by his family, doing his duty to fulfill a contract, and expressing his own creativity, which seem to be in consist conflict with one another.  His children, two human and four griffins, learn the strengths of their abilities, the value of loyalty, and assist in an epic adventure that is full of mishaps and magic.

What I love about Jones’ storytelling is that it come easy (not that telling a story is ever particularly easy but that her stories flow and come out naturally).  She never gets caught up in useless dialogue or explanations.  She lets her characters exist in the world and she doesn’t force them to behave in a particular way. All of their reactions and interactions fit who they are and who they are becoming. Jones also flits from one character’s perspective to another’s with ease and grace providing a full scope of the events and depth to the world.  Though it is never mentioned explicitly, the reader is aware that all of the characters have lives beyond what is actually told.  They have motives and intentions, which complicate and compel the story.

This is a great book for young and old fantasy readers and I cannot wait to pick up with sequel!

Happy Reading!

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?

Tough Guide to Fantasy Clichés: Dark Lords and Evil

This month, I’m exploring some cliché fantasy concepts through the perspective of Diana Wynne Jones.  We’ve looked at fantasy names and fantasy colour-coding, and now it feels like the right time to bring up the most important issues that our characters might face in their epic fantasy quests, namely the ever present Dark Lord and the encroaching Evil upon our unfortunate heroes’ lands.

DSC_0332.JPGWhen we are pondering what horrors and difficulties we want our characters to face, we have to choose the overarching Problem of the story.  In a fantasy world, it is very tempting to have our heroes facing some sort of great Darkness, a single evil character who is running everything and must be defeated, or some other evil problem.  This is reminiscent, of course, of Tolkien’s Sauron, but other books have followed suit.  Let’s see what Jones has to say about Dark Lords.  Oh, and Dark Ladies.

Dark Lady.  There never is one of these – so see Dark Lord in stead.  The Management considers that male Dark Ones have more potential to be sinister, and seldom if ever employs a female in this role.  This is purely because the Management was born too late to meet my Great Aunt Clara.

Dark Lord.  There is always one of these in the background of every Tour, attempting to ruin everything and take over the world.  He will be so sinister that he will be seen by you only once or twice, probably near the end of the Tour.  Generally he will attack you through Minions, of which he will have large numbers.  When you do get to see him at last, you will not be surprised to find he is black (see Colour Coding) and shadowy and probably not wholly human.  He will make you feel very cold and small.  Actually, when it comes down to it, that is probably all he will do, having almost certainly exhausted his other resources earlier on.  You should be able to defeat him, with a little help from your Companions, without too much effort.  However, the Rules state that at this stage you will be exhausted yourself and possibly wounded by Magic.  So be careful.

I do think it is interesting to note that the leader of any given Dark Force tends to be male.  Not to suggest deliberate misogyny, but why is that?  I’m trying to think of a novel in which the arch-nemesis was a great and all powerful female.  Any thoughts?

Having a Dark Lord is extremely tricky.  What Tolkien accomplished is difficult to emulate without overdoing it.  Dark Lords have a dangerous tendency to be very cliché and often far too dramatic as villains.  I think that fantasy stories have also moved into a less polarizing portrayal of good and evil.  A lot more gray exists now, so having a Dark Lord who is evil for the sake of Evil makes a lot less sense to most readers.  We want a villain with depth and a purpose beyond simply Destroying All Good Things Because It Is Fun.

So what is this insubstantial element called Evil, according to Fantasyland’s Tough Guide?

Evil is generally around somewhere in Fantasyland and seems to cast quite a blight.  It has two states, active and passive.  In the active state, it is rampant, embodied in puppet Kings, Armies of Undead, Monsters, and creeping pollution of the countryside, and it is out to get all Tourists (who are by definition Good).  In its passive state it ponds in deserted spots, where it lies around waiting to be aroused by the unwary.  The active state is usually connected with the Dark Lord, and must be overcome in the course of the Tour.  The passive, when not connected with a predecessor or avatar of the Dark Lord, is either fallout from the Wizards’ War or the work of some God way back at the Beginning of things.  When it is in this form there is not much to be done about it but stay clear.

A soulless bunny would make an excellent villain.
A soulless bunny would make an excellent villain.

The problem of evil extends far beyond the pages of a fantasy novel, of course.  How do we portray something like Evil?  The portrayals of undead armies or monsters or other beings under the Dark Lord’s sway, along with the corruption of the actual landscape, are difficult to manage without being cliché.  The fact is, we want our characters to face and overcome something meaningful, and a fantasy novel is an excellent place to take incorporeal Evil and give it a form.  By representing Evil and sending our hapless heroes off to defeat it, we can represent the greater problem of Evil that we face in both spiritual and physical forms.

However, once again, the dichotomy of Good vs Evil can be too dramatic to allow for the necessary middle ground – the failures of “good” people and the empathy of “evil” ones.  Furthermore, the sheer exhaustion of reading (or writing!) a novel about the scrappy band of heroes facing the seemingly insurmountable problem of All That Is Evil can make that sort of book simply too much.  Living in a Fantasyland shouldn’t be a constant struggle between Good and Evil.  Political intrigues, character-driven stories, and much less drama-ridden adventures can be equally meaningful and enjoyable.

So, I guess the moral here is to choose your Evil with care.

What do you think of the epic Good vs Evil stories as opposed to smaller scale adventures?  And which kind do you prefer to write?