In the crowded bookshelves of genre fantasy, originality sometimes feels utterly lost. Hordes of The Lord of the Rings clones march forward, orclike, overrunning bestseller lists with extruded fantasy series revolving around princes fleeing arranged marriages and farmgirls discovering that they are The Chosen One. Editors and readers invent drinking games (drink once if the farmboy turns out to be the lost son of a usurped king) and writers pen parodies (Diana Wynne Jones’s The Tough Guide To Fantasyland) relying on familiarity of shopworn phrases, characters, and situations. Editorial lists of ‘plots we see too often’ and mocking references to “generic European fantasy” and “interminable quest fantasy” are as common on the Internet as so-called “plot coupons” (a quest to accomplish, a magical artifact to retrieve, a princess to win, collect them all and solve the book) in mass-market paperbacks.
This article is not about those books.
This article is about ways to write those other books, the books that are – different – somehow.
There’s a trick to it. And the trick is surprisingly simple. (Which is not to say that it’s easy, alas.)
This is the trick: a writer who wants to chart new ground must become familiar with his genre – and then walk away from it and find some unexplored side trail. The map is not the territory, as the expression goes – and fantasy that’s grown in a mental ‘medium’ composed chiefly of other high fantasy will inevitably sound like everything else that has informed it – particularly to the well-educated, genre-focused reader.
The core audience for any book consists of readers who are already fans of that genre and that period. The drawback to this is that they are likely to be self-made experts on whatever you are writing about, because they are fans. If you base your worldbuilding on only a few popular sources, those experts are likely to be familiar with them and find your work flat.
There’s one successful mainstream crime novelist who I stopped reading because I could always tell which pop-forensics book he’d read as research for his current novel, because I had inevitably read the same book as well, and it undermined my faith in his work. Since our goal as writers is to keep the reader reading, it’s essential that we fool them into believing we know as much or more about the subject as they do.
I had occasion to hear the artist Brian Froud speak regarding the influence on fantasy writers of his book (written and illustrated with Alan Lee) Faeries. There was one particular bit of whimsy that Froud had introduced to an illustration – the idea of a ’stray sod’ being a pixyish creature, rather than a magical lump of dirt – which he said was, to the best of his knowledge, his own invention. However, he commented that he’d since seen it in several novels, written since Faeries became a standard of fantasy fans’ bookshelves. Completely by accident, in other words, he created a new fantasy trope: something with enough cool factor that other writers snatched it up to use in their own work, like magpies after a glittering coin.
This is an example of the strange ways stories grow and change. Fanfiction writers call it fanon, blues singers call it the folk process, and science fiction writers call it the genre conversation. The problem that a writer must contend with in these circumstances is that, to a reader steeped in genre fantasy, that particular fact is going to stand out as common to all those works, and may lend them a nagging similarity, even if they are in reality little alike.
A classic example of fictional evolution is the introduction of Lancelot to the Arthurian canon. He was not an original participant, but a later French addition, but it is now almost impossible for us to imagine Arthur without Lancelot because he’s become so integrated into the legendry.
The writer who is attempting to find a truly fresh angle, then, might be wise to retreat to the original sources – especially less-exploited sources – in addition to keeping abreast of modern trends in fantasy. For example, the writer who wishes to write Norse or Celtic fantasy and focuses his research on the historical record, on the Eddas and sagas and the antique poetry of the era in question is unlikely to produce something that bears more than a passing resemblance to The Lord of the Rings. The writer, however, who relies upon Tolkien’s research and invention is receiving his inspiration through a filter, and traces of the source of that inspiration will undoubtedly remain.
To delve into personal experience for a moment, for most of 2003 I was engaged in writing a sprawling Elizabethan fantasy, which required what we might call ’substantial’ amounts of research. As part of this research (in addition to burrowing into all the period resources and histories I could get my hands on), I read every single fantasy novel relating to the period that I could locate, to see if I was treading harrowed ground, so to speak.
And the oddest thing struck me.
Several of the Elizabethan fantasies that I read in 2003 dwelt upon the general ridiculousness of Elizabethan fashionable color names, and mentioned one particular shade – ‘Dead Spaniard.’ Now, I’m reasonably certain that I know which source this particular magpie-shiny tidbit came from, because I read it as well – and I also snickered over the name. On the other hand, its mention in several books tended to make other similarities in the texts stand out, lessening the impact on the reader. The reader’s brain is adapted to finding patterns; as writers, we use this as a tool for guiding the reader through the story. But it can also, if we’re not careful, turn around and bite.
For the novel I was researching, I relied heavily on nonfiction books on Shakespeare, Marlowe, Elizabeth, London, the Gunpowder Treason, the Tudor spy networks, and anything else even vaguely related. I spoke with Shakespearean scholars, signed up for a mailing list devoted to academic Shakespeareans, researched the various anti-Stratfordian theories about who wrote Shakespeare’s plays, read diaries, plays, poems, sermons, broadsides and histories written during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and recruited a handful of Shakespeare, Oxford and Marlowe scholars as well as Elizabethan recreationists as consultants.
I like to think I produced a vivid and well-rounded portrait of Elizabethan life, which hopefully will stand apart from other Elizabethan fantasies because of the research that went into it – as the authors of those other novels no doubt hope their work will stand out, and taste a little different. So there’s no Dead Spaniard in my book, although secretly I would have liked to see him there. Instead, I worked in some other little details of Elizabeth’s court – like her infamously unhousebroken pet monkey.
Multiple sources – especially multiple primary sources (sources written by the subject or written by direct observers of the era being researched) – encourage you to think in new and unexplored directions. Broadness and depth of experience and research will tend to make the work feel three-dimensional, and inspiration can come from strange sources. And the broader your experience, the broader your command of your subject matter.
Another benefit of deep research is that sometimes we find a tidbit of information that has dropped out of the commonplace version of events – and those strange tidbits are the things that stories can be hung on. To return to Arthur and his knights for a moment, there is the question of Arthur’s sister Anne, a character not commonly seen in popular culture for centuries. Dredging her up and exploring the influence of such a character on the well-worn dynamic of the more usual suspects could provide a fresh approach to an Arthurian story.
Thorough knowledge can suggest interesting angles on what may seem tired tropes – such as Arthuriana. It can also lead the writer to bang together seemingly incompatible ideas to see what happens when they interact: sometimes this results in silliness, but sometimes, instead, you get chemistry.
It’s an oft-quoted dictum that the writer should “write what he knows.” I find this unnecessarily limiting; I prefer the idea that we should know what we write, which is to say that we should educate ourselves widely and let the education suggest our topics. This means reading in genre, reading outside of genre, and also experiencing life. You’ll will write differently about handling a sword if you’ve done a little fencing than if you’ve never picked up a weapon, and that experience will translate itself into narrative confidence, which will result in the reader’s belief in what the writer tells him – the magic suspension of disbelief.
Which is not to say that we can permit ourselves to be owned by history, so to speak. The research remains a jumping-off point, not a prison. The self-educated writer is able to ferret out the tidbits and glittering trivia that will lead to little-used milieus and settings for fantasy and science fiction (such as cultures outside Northern Europe and Imperial China), protagonists who do not fit the standard stereotypes, and, of course, that goal of every speculative fiction writer – the really shiny idea.