Friday, 21 December 2012

The trouble with trying to be clever...

A recent blog by fantasy author Nyki Blatchley on the prevalence of medieval, or at least pseudo-medieval settings for fantasy stories brought back the thought processes that lead to my major fantasy project of the moment.

I was on holiday at the time in Italy, near Lake Como. Wondering through the cobbled streets and winding alleys, ancient through-ways that no longer led anywhere, I was struck by the inherent sense of adventure in the place. I felt an irresistible urge to write something in this sort of setting.

A few days later I started a new book, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. It was a good read, I had ordered the sequel from amazon before the holiday was over, but it set me thinking. Why were nearly all fantasy books in a medieval setting? Why couldn’t they be in any setting? Futaristic? Victorian? A 30esque Italian setting? Now there was an idea! And so began ‘The Walls of Tamorria’.

However a year and a half and three versions of the story later I began to understand some of the reasons why medieval has become the de-facto setting for fantasy. Whilst twists and turns are essential to a good plot (at least in my opinion) they have to follow some rules. The thing about unexpected events is, in a book they can’t really be unexpected. Of course this doesn’t mean the reader should be able to predict what is coming, but once it has happened they should be able to see that the story had been leading up to that point.

If for example James Bond were to have boarded the Orient Express in the climax of From Russia with Love, only to find it infested by KGB goblins, the reader would be left thinking, what the #%$*? Likewise if Dracula were unexpectedly defeated at the last moment due to a nut allergy, the reader would be left feeling somewhat cheated.

In creating a fantasy world it is essential that the presence of magic and fantastic creatures feels ‘right’. Our sense of the medieval world is so infused with legend and myth from that time, unicorns and giants, evil mages and mysterious damsels, that we are automatically open to the inclusion of such elements in this setting. By setting a story in a later age, one of diesel power and industrialisation, such associations need to be built up from scratch.

My first intended incarnation of the story was called ‘The Book Bound in Blue’ and was a novel  planned to be the first in a trilogy. However when I started writing it something was wrong. I got maybe a third of the way through before I realised that it was the setting. I hadn’t taken the time to develop the world as a coherent and logical backdrop to my stories. It was merely ‘you know fantasy, yeah? Imagine that, but in the thirties.’ The fantasy elements seemed bolted on to the world, not a part of it.

My next step then was to do some world building. I expanded the plot, reworked characters and tried to tie the whole thing together. In the process the story changed from a trilogy to a series of novellas. I wrote the first of these ‘The Winds Awaken’ and it was definitely better. But it still wasn’t right. I realised now that my story, despite all its trappings, was High Fantasy. And as such, it really wasn’t suited to novella form. I had given the main character, Lorenzo, a lot of background which ties in with the meta-plot, but none of this really came out in the first novella. I knew he was a troubled individual, eventually ripe for redemption, but to the reader he was just a cliché. I needed time and space to show the deeper aspects of him, and the other characters around him.

And so I changed again. Now we are back to a series of novels, I’m not sure how long a series yet. By changing form, not only does the reader leave Lorenzo at a later point in the plot, allowing them to see him develop, I can also slow the pace in the earlier scenes, allowing me time to insert some subtlety to his character that was missing from the novella.

So, in conclusion I think I can say that fantasy doesn’t have to be placed in a mediaeval setting. But doing so certainly makes life easier.



  1. Hey, glad to have got you thinking. I think you're right that high fantasy in a modern-type setting can be difficult to do convincingly. In the stories I've written in that kind of setting, I've tended to use the "discovering ancient evil" trope that's associated with contemporary fantasy.

    Still, there was a lot of world before the mediaeval period started in one small corner of it, and there are fantasy-friendly models for worlds ranging from mythical Greece to pre-Columbian America, and lots more.

    Vampire versus nut allergy *makes note*

  2. Yes, there are a lot of earlier settings could work. They are probably not as well developed in the average reader's mind as medieval settings though and so will still take a bit of setting up I should think.

  3. I wouldn't really call Name of the Wind a medieval setting, actually. It's pre-industrial, but its level of social organization seems more sophisticated, less feudal, than the middle ages, and for all that it's a class-conscious society and pretty sexist, "commoners," and even women, seem to have a lot more freedom than peasants and women did in the middle ages.

    Mine's set in a similar sort of world, I suppose. It has winding, cobbled streets and underground closes, taverns, horses and swords. It also has universities, alchemy labs, indoor plumbing (at least for the wealthy), astronomy and healers who actually do more than lance boils, bleed and purge their patients. It's really more of a Renaissance era world in some ways, though with some significant differences due to the religions that are present and the presence of a materials based magic system.

    It's actually a pretty standard approach to fantasy, but since I show the processes of the magic in a few places, I get a bit more of those "Well if they have this, then why don't they have that" kinds of questions.

    I do agree with you, though, that more modern settings, especially time periods that have been underused as fantasy settings before, have special challenges. You have to figure out how to integrate the mythology and magic into a world where people are less willing to suspend disbelief (because of their familiarity with it). Until you start a fad and enough people have done it that it's no longer unexpected ;)