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?

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: Colour-Coding Characters

fairytale castle spain segoviaLast week, I referenced the wonderful Diana Wynne Jones’s guide to naming characters and we learned the mystery of apostrophes.  It was exciting.  Today, I would like to examine her guide to colour-coding characters (I’m spelling it the Brit way because otherwise I will go crazy).

When we create a character, we have to choose not just a name, but an appearance.  Hair and eyes… that first outfit and the inevitable impression it will make… So what’s the secret?  Here’s what Jones has to say:

Colour Coding is very important in Fantasyland.  Always pay close attention to the colour of the clothing, hair, and eyes of anyone you meet.  It will tell you a great deal.  Complexion is also important: in many cases it is coded too.

1. Clothing. Black garments normally mean Evil, but in rare cases can mean sobriety, in which case a white ruffled collar will be added to the ensemble.  Grey or red clothing means that the person is neutral but tending to Evil in most cases.  Any other colour is Good, unless too many bright colours are worn at once, in which instance the person will be unreliable. Drab colour means the person will take little part in the action, unless the drab is also torn or disreputable, when the person will be a loveable rogue.

2. Hair.  Black hair is Evil, particularly if combined with a corpse-white complexion.  Red hair always entails magical Powers, even if these are only latent.  Brown hair has to be viewed in combination with eyes, whose colours are the real giveaway (see below), but generally implies niceness.  Fair hair, especially if it is silver-blond, always means goodness.

3. Eyes.Black eyes are invariably Evil; brown eyes mean boldness and humour, but not necessarily goodness; green eyes always entail Talent, usually for Magic but sometimes for Music; hazel eyes are rare and seem generally to imply niceness; grey eyes mean Power or healing abilities and will be reassuring unless they look silver (silver-eyed people are likely to enchant or hypnotize you for their own ends, although they are not always Evil); white eyes, usually blind ones, are for wisdom (never ignore anything a white-eyed person says); blue eyes are always Good, the bluer the more Good present; and then there are violet eyes and golden eyes.  People with violet eyes are often of Royal birth and, if not, always live uncomfortably interesting lives.  People with golden eyes just live uncomfortably interesting lives, and most of them are rather fey in the bargain.  Both these types should be avoided by anyone who only wants a quiet life.  Luckily it seldom occurs to those with undesirable eye colours to disguise them by Illusion, and they can generally be detected very readily.  Red eyes can never be disguised.  They are Evil and surprisingly common.

4. Complexion. Corpse-white is Evil, and it grades from there.  Pink-faced folk are usually midway and pathetic.  The best face-colour is brown, preferably tanned, but it can be inborn.  Other colours such as black, blue, mauve, and yellow barely exist.

So, if your acquaintance is wearing green and is blue eyed and brown faced, she/he will be OK. Caution: Do not apply these standards to our own world.  You are very likely to be disappointed.

In my opinion, most authors have managed to avoid conforming too readily to the colouring stereotypes for characters, but some of these are painfully familiar.  Black and red eyes for the most evil of evil villains?  Blond and blue eyed heroes?  We have definitely seen them. No one thinks of using red eyes for a hero (I dare you to try it!). I read a series of books with a red haired, purple eyed heroine (anyone care to guess what I’m talking about?) and she had magical abilities and lived an uncomfortably interesting life.  Coincidence?

The problem, I think, is largely temptation.  We are Authors, the creators of our worlds, and we have a chance to create characters of whom we will grow ever so fond and we want to be able to picture them in our minds.  We want them to look like who they are to us.  We want them to be extraordinary and memorable in some way, too, so our readers can see them and remember them and love them as well.  Which is why we might see a disturbing number of silver-haired, violet eyed heroines wafting about in stories.  Because why not?  We can!

Wore a red coat that day.  Must have been feeling neutral-evil-ish.
Wore a red coat that day. Must have been feeling neutral-evil-ish.

I think there are inborn stereotypes here, but that can often work to a writer’s advantage.  For instance, the blond haired, blue eyed villain can be very unnerving because our inborn expectations for that colour combination is Goodness, but we are getting Evil.    Using stereotypes to play with expectations is a useful tool, but can still stumble into a sense of overdoneness and cliché characters simply because there is very rarely a good reason for a character’s appearance to reveal his/her affiliations.  Why should hair colour or eye colour mean anything?  Clothing is revealing in some respects, but again, we must be careful not to cookie cut our characters.

So what do you think?  Is there any virtue to colour coding?  Does it work?  Do we instinctively identify fantasy characters by their colours?

And while Jones’s guide specifically warns against trying it in the real world, it is kind of a fun personality test to take or give.  According to her, I am nice and primarily Good (blue eyes for the win!).  What about you?

Tough Guide to Fantasy Clichés: Naming Characters

This month, I am going to pay homage to Diana Wynne Jones, the author of such fabulous works as Howl’s Moving Castle and The Dark Lord of Derkholm, two excellent fantasy novels that are humorous, clever, and endearing.

As a sort of companion (but not reallyto The Dark Lord of Derkholm, Jones also put together a Tough Guide to Fantasyland, which is supposedly meant for tourists visiting the stereotypical Fantasyland and going on a prearranged adventure.  It painfully and revealingly (and alphabetically) defines any and every term you could possibly wish to know about in your average fantasy kingdom.  irish castle dun luce

While not every fantasy novel uses these clichés, it is very fun to think back on your readings and note those stories and books that do ascribe to the occasional somewhat overdone story element.  And, of course, there are lessons here to be learned for any future fantasy writing that you might do.

The cliché that I want to look at today is naming characters, something that I’ve thought about and written about before. Jones’s description is terrifyingly apt when it comes to many fantasy novels:

Names are very potent in Fantasyland.  People with no Names always get killed (unless they are powerfully EVIL and have a Name That Must Not Be Spoken, in which case they get killed anyway, but a lot later).  Of those who have Names, almost nobody tells anyone else what their Name really is, for fear of its being used in a spell to enslave them.  Magic Users have to be particularly careful of this.  But Mercenaries also tend to call themselves things like Bald Eagle and Silversword, presumably for the same reason (or maybe because their true Names are Joe Coward and Jill Doe). Missing Heirs are always called Names like Triggs and Dumpling: when they find their Names are really Prince Tornalorn or Princess Diore, they stop being Missing. This shows how important Names can be. Average Folk, Sages, and some Tourists, however, adopt the expedient of cutting out half their Names and filling the gaps with apostrophes, as in Ka’a Orto’o.  Then, unless you know what was in the gap, you can’t enslave them.  This is the true reason why so many Names in Fantasyland contain apostrophes.

Many folk – Elves and Demons particularly – are given hugely long Names so that they can be conveniently shortened in this way.  Demons, indeed, would have a bad time otherwise.  As soon as a Magic User learns a Demon’s Name, that Demon has to do anything the Magic User wants.

On some Tours the same prudent coyness applies to Magic Objects.  The exceptions are Swords, who seem very proud of being known to be really Excalibur or Widowmaker.

There are a few key points that Jones lays out here for our guidance.  First of all, the no-name characters.  Is she right about this?  Isn’t it a bit of a death warrant to be nameless in a battle or on any sort of expedition?  Many an author has realized that killing off a few nameless villagers or soldiers can add a pretty useful bit of angst to a scene.  Of course, this cliché can be wielded with great cunningosity simply by giving a character a name in order to lull the reader into a false sense of security and then immediately killing him/her (the character, that is, not the reader as this would be rather difficult and very frightening).

The nameless villain also probably sounded strangely familiar.  In case you were wondering, the Tough Guide was published before the first Harry Potter book was released.  Make what you will of that.  Authors like Rowling have proved their willingness and ableness to take clichés like this and make them overdone to the point of being funny.  However, there is always that novel where the author means Every. Single. Word.welsh sign

The idea of secret names is very familiar.  To have a name be something powerful and mysterious and to distinguish something’s True Name from its mere “name” in any given language has been used and reused.  It’s not necessarily a bad idea.  We have to admit, it sounds very cool.  But again, overdone can feel a tad melodramatic.  One book I know of that embraces this name-magic fully is Eragon and it is no joke, that’s for sure.

castel coch red castleMy particular favorite in Jones’s treatise on Names is her bit about the apostrophes.  Oh, apostrophes, why?  It is so tempting to throw in a few apostrophes to make a name look exotic, foreign, perhaps mimicking something Middle Eastern.  It’s a very cool idea, but I find myself mentally stuttering when they are used too often.  Every apostrophe becomes a full stop in the word and the flow is horribly interrupted.  Jones’s explanation for this (that these are just shortened full names being masked or conveniently abbreviated) is  brilliant, in my opinion, but not an excuse to indulge in this too freely.

So what do you think about naming characters.  Have you seen any of these used in a novel?  Did they work or did they feel cliché?  Have you used any of them?  Do you REPENT?

Fantasyland is tough, but at least it comes with a guidebook.