Friday, October 10, 2014

What Is Fantasy?

Later, the winged tiger got hungry
One of the best things about authors is that they are a creative lot, coming up with fascinating things and ways to twist the familiar and known into a unique, clever story.  This creativity drives the fiction process, because even books set in or written around real events require creative thought to flesh out the events and characters beyond what is known historically.

This creativity means that people will come up with all manner of variants, twists, and changes in basic concepts, which is a good thing.  From its earliest roots in legends of gods and fairy tales to the writings of men like Dunsany and Tolkien, fantasy writing followed a pretty standard set of ideas.  You had lands of legend with heroes and fantastic creatures.  Magic was a part of the equation, whether the power of the squabbling gods or wizards.  

C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien created the first true fantasy stories out of myths and fairy tales, establishing standards in races and concepts that have endured ever since.

As time went on, fantasy expanded.  Michael Moorcock created brand new worlds and concepts, Roger Zelazny, Fritz Lieber, Robert Howard, and others shaped the idea of fantasy into a version called Swords and Sorcery.  Urban Fantasy, Science Fantasy (such as Star Wars), and other sorts began to develop.  Books began to be labeled as some sub-category of fantasy for having the slightest trimmings of the fantastic.  Is Interview with the Vampire fantasy?  A Song of Fire And IceTwilight?

And eventually the definition of fantasy kept being stretched and redefined and re-imagined until its lost almost all meaning as a category.  So what does fantasy even mean?  How is fantasy to be defined at all, after all these changes?  Or is there even a category of fantasy any more?

For me, fantasy has to be more than simply a setting with fantastic elements.  Peter Pan and Fern Gully are fantastical in setting, but are they fantasy?  The Dragonriders of Pern series has plenty of Dragons and medieval-feeling culture, but is it fantasy?  Certainly these works have fantastic things in them but fantasy has to be more than oddity and creativity.

Fantasy has to have magic in it.  That's the basic definition to me.  If there's no magic, then its just an interesting, possibly space opera or fairy tale setting.  But no magic, no fantasy. This magic doesn't have to take the form of wizards flinging lightning bolts, it can be more subtle, however.  It comes down to how things are explained and why they work.

The Dragonriders of Pern books are science fiction, even if its in the fantasy section of your bookstore or library.  The dragons are genetically engineered animals that were given their abilities by science.  Their abilities, their origin, and even their purpose is all science fiction.  The fact that they look like and are called dragons doesn't make them fantasy because there's nothing magical about these creatures.

But if these dragons were mystical creatures that flew and breathed fire naturally, were their own creatures instead of genetically manipulated lizards, and used magic to jump between locations, that would make it fantasy.

Because its the unknown, the magical, and the mystical that makes things fantasy.  If you explain everything through scientific terms and careful analysis, it stops being magical, and hence stops being fantasy.

Fantasy books don't have to have monsters - in fact, in my second fantasy novel, the monsters are all human.  But the magic has to be there.  There's no need for elves, heroic knights, forests and castles (although they all help).  But if you leave off the magic, its no longer fantasy and its just an alternate world history, such as most of the Game of Thrones storyline.

Your interpetation may vary, but for me: no magic, no fantasy.  And if you expand the definition so broadly that includes anything, fantasy means nothing.  Without that minimum, baseline, there's no real category at all of fantasy.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Putting Character In Your Dialog

"Real life is sometimes boring, often inconclusive, and boy does the dialog need work"
-Sarah Rees Brennan

Captain Editor got on everyone's nerves
Its more often these days that I get a look at people's writing, hoping for critique.  I try to be as kind and gentle, as supportive and positive as I can, even if the offering isn't great; we all had to start somewhere and who knows what that writer will develop into with time and study?

Something that comes up fairly often in these sections is a weakness in dialog.  Its not that they do a poor job writing the lines of dialog or that its boring to read.  Often the content is interesting enough, often funny, and sometimes witty.  The problem is that it lacks character.

Not characters, obviously there are characters discussing things in the dialog, but character.  The dialog comes across less dynamically than it could because everyone sounds like the same person, probably the author.  Some very successful writers do this; Robert  Parker for example had a template of dialog he wrote, and only about 4 different types of characters: the wise guy who jokes, the impatient authority, the snooty rich person, and the sad client.  

And there was Susan, the wise psychologist who analyzed everything every other chapter but wasn't so much a character as a sort of computer to spit out psychological profiles and a voice to say the stuff about himself that Spenser wouldn't.  I don't like the character of Susan.  Just had to get that off my chest.

The names and descriptions in Parker's books would change, the content of the (brilliantly written, often hilarious) dialog would change, but the voices wouldn't.

Other writers such as Joss Whedon, for all his talent and fun, can get into this rut with every single character offering the same sarcastic quips, interchangably.  In Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show, you could often randomly scramble the character names in the script and nobody would notice.  

Now, you notice that these are very successful writers, so if you have enough talent and creativity, you can get away with it, but imagine how much better it would be (and is, in Whedon's later work, such as Avengers) if the characters were more distinct in their dialog?

And if you can give your characters more distinct, unique voices then your dialog will soar even higher, too.  For example, consider this portion of dialog:

"Its been two weeks, Bob," said Allaine
"I know, and I promise the money will be there," Bob said.
"You promised me last week, where's the money?"
"I will get you the money, you know I will."
"I don't know you will."
"One more week, that is all I need!"
"This is difficult for me, I have obligations as well."
"Yes, I understand, just please be patient, I promise."

OK now, look that over: by the fourth or fifth line, who is saying what?  You can kind of tell from the context but for the most part, they sound like one guy talking to himself.  There's no distinctiveness, no character to the dialog.

The problem here is that even if each character has been meticulously detailed in background, personality, description, and behavior, they talk like everyone else.  Its a tough skill to learn, but its a critical one.  No matter how unique your three armed Venusian Plant-Man Bounty Hunter is, if he sounds like every other Jobu in the story, the dialog falls flat.

One way to help jazz up the dialog for a character, to make it more distinct, is to imagine how they talk in your head.  Give them a sort of patter, an accent, or a slang style that you've run into before.  Crafting their dialog around patterns and voices you've heard before can help.

Use more adverbs, I dare you!
You need to be careful not to be too much a copyist, or people will say 'that's just Yoda in an orc suit!' But it is very useful to listen to TV, movies, and plays; to read plays, good books, scripts, and other sources of good dialog.  They don't necessarily have to have an accent, you don't need to mimic Samuel L. Jackson from Pulp Fiction or James T Kirk to create a character's voice.  But you can learn from it.

The more exposure you have to the way people talk and study that, the better your dialog gets.  Listen to voices around you in the store, in the mall, at work, at the bus stop, wherever you happen to be.  What?  We're authors, we're poor!  As you travel, everywhere you go, listen to patterns of speech.  Don't listen so much to the content, don't eavesdrop because their conversation is none of your business.  Just listen to the cadence, the rhythm of their speech.  Catch fun and colorful phrases or ways of wording things, so you can remember and use them later.  If someone uses a terrific simile, remember it and use it again later.  That boy is sharp as a bowl of gummy worms... gotta write that down.

Armed with this, you can give your dialog more life, and make it more fun to read.  And further, you give it the advantage of making each character distinctive enough to tell them apart without dialog tags (he said, she said...).  So here's a try with the same conversation above, given some character:

"I've waited a fortnight, Bob," said Allaine
"Aw, lay off, I'll get it to you next week," Bob said.
"Why, this is familiar to me, a song you sang to me just seven days ago.  And yet here we are, and the money you owe is not on the table.  How disappointing."
"You know I'm good for it, lay off I said."
"I must demure, you do not seem 'good for it' at all.  The money.  Now."
"I got a big score comin' in, just one more week, I'll have it!"
"You understand, if you delay, then I must delay in paying my superiors.  They are even more impatient than I.  this puts me into an uncomfortable position, and you do not wish me to share my discomfort."
"Yeah yeah I got it.  Gimme just a week and I'll have the dough."

Now, while this is a bit stereotypical (the entire exchange is, on purpose - the voices are very distinct and opposite for effect), I hope you can see how giving each character a distinct voice makes the dialog suddenly come alive in a way it did not before.  Bob and Allaine are clearly different people, with a different way of speaking.  You can get a sense of who they are simply through their words and what they choose to say, how they say it.

And you see how without any dialog tags, you can tell who is who very quickly and easily, because of the differences in their wording.

Using this sort of tool can transform your dialog into something fresh and interesting, and even more it is a simple device to build your characters.  Reading what they say and how gives insight into their background, their personality, their education, even their social class.  That makes your characters grow and become more definite in the mind of your reader, and easier to identify later.

As I said, this isn't easy to do, and might require extensive note-taking, character definition and even a sheet explaining each character, but over time it becomes easier and more natural, so much so that when the character shows up again, you can comfortably slip into their clothes and out comes their sort of speaking.

And as a result, your book becomes livelier, more interesting, and the reader is pulled more fully and easily into your story. Its worth the extra effort!