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.
First, 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.
Jones’ 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.
So 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!