The author of fantasy has fewer limitations than the author of realism. Anything is fair, right? Armoured bears and tiny spies who ride dragonflies. Surgical enhancements that give a person Special superhuman powers for running, climbing, and flying.
A reality-show arena as big as a city, with genetically modified animal-monsters to prey on the contestants. Not to mention Munchkins and flying monkeys; cakes that say “EAT ME” and grow you as big as a house; witches and wizards and Quidditch tournaments; wrinkles in time; Lady Knights named Alanna who keep company with talking cats; and mysterious men who come out of the sea and look and act peculiarly like the characters a girl named Harry has invented for the novel she’s writing (as in Margaret Mahy’s The Tricksters, one of my all-time favorite books). And have you read the YA novel Eva, in which the main character, a girl, has been in an accident and is recovering in the hospital, all covered with bandages, and gets the feeling the doctors are keeping something from her… and it turns out that what they’re keeping from her is that her brain has been transplanted into the body of a chimpanzee? Eek!! It’s limitless, right, the freedom of the fantasy writer?
Except that it’s really not. Writing fantasy happens to be all about limitations. It’s about keeping to the rules; it’s about building a world that’s believable to the reader because it’s both comprehensive and consistent; it’s about assembling a body, a structure, that stands up on its own.
I want to talk about skeletons, muscles, and sinews — and about what it was like to write my first novel, Graceling. I had these incredibly exciting ideas. I had these characters who had particular magical abilities, and they were inside my head fighting with each other, and I was just bursting to tell their story. I sat down in front of a blank piece of paper and wrote the first scene — and there was a jail break and there was kung fu–type stuff and there was a sparkly boy — and I got to the end of the chapter and I said to myself, Woo-hoo!!
But the next thing I thought was, Oh, crap. Because what I saw in my head was a skeleton that was only partly formed. I had some of the bones. I knew the basics about my five or six main characters, I knew their arcs, I knew their relationships to one another. I knew the really big stuff — I knew my plot. But I didn’t have the sinews that held all the bones together. I didn’t know what the landscapes were like. I didn’t know the backstories of my secondary characters. I didn’t know the quirks of their personalities, or even the quirks of my main characters’ personalities — like how Katsa dressed, or how well Po could bear pain, or whether Bitterblue was chatty.
Those little things are essential to every action, every interaction, every line — and you can’t proceed without them. When you start a book, you’re trying to make something out of nothing, and you need it to grow fast. And so, at the beginning of a book, practically every word can cause the writer growing pains. It’s like those poor chickens in the factory farms that are pumped full of drugs so that they mature too soon and produce seventeen eggs a day. At times you feel like you’re forcing something into being that would rather not be, and you’re making too many choices; there’s too much power for you to misuse.
In my experience, starting a new book is hell (sometimes I picture the devil leaning over me, cackling), and you just have to push when it needs pushing, step back when it’s time to step back, and keep your faith. And then, one day, you get to a point where you’ve gotten to know your world, and you’re comfortable in it. You know what it looks like. You have your bones, and you have your sinews and muscles, and your skeleton stands up on its own. There are rules and laws that correspond with your skeleton, but they’re not harsh rules. They’re reasonable; they’re easy to follow. For instance, the characters must speak in language that is consistent with a made-up fantasy kingdom and a vaguely medievalish time. For example, if Katsa, while hunting, reaches up and grabs a low-flying bird out of the air with her bare hands (as my character Katsa is liable to do), Po can say, “Your approach to hunting continues to puzzle me,” or he can say, “How in Lienid do you do that?!” But he can’t say, “Hot dog, Katsa!” Similarly, if he’s tired at the end of the day, he can’t say, “I feel like I just ran a marathon.” First, it implies that units of measurement in my made-up world are the same as they are in the real world, which they aren’t (distance in my world isn’t measured in miles); second, it implies that a Greek dude a really long time ago ran from a town called Marathon to a town called Athens and then dropped dead, which he didn’t, not in my world, because the universe of my book is not our universe. There is no Greek history there, because there is no Greece.
I generally try to avoid words that invoke the political geography of our planet. My characters might have dogs, but they don’t have Labradors or Newfoundlands or German shepherds. My characters might dance, but not the Argentine tango. I’m not likely to name a character Brittany or Alaska. I won’t even describe the furnishings of a room as spartan because, once again — in my mind, at least — that word shouts out, “Greece!”
The truth is, it’s a ridiculous enterprise, since every word in the English language has a derivation that leads in one way or another to some particular place and time on our planet. A writer is trapped in the language she’s using: every single word in the book screams, “English!” after all, doesn’t it? Even though there’s no England in my universe. So why do I take this so far?
And how far should I take it? I won’t use the word spartan, but I’ll use the word mentor, even though the word mentor comes from the mentor of Odysseus’s son Telemachus, who was named Mentor. Anything relating to Odysseus evokes thoughts of Greece, right? But I guess the question is, How strongly does it evoke thoughts of Greece? I’ll use the word angst, but I won’t give anyone schnitzel to eat, or dress them in lederhosen, or give them a feeling of schadenfreude, because even though all those words scream “Germany!” those last three scream it a lot louder than angst does. It’s a judgment call — but I also wonder how many “forbidden” words I’ve gone ahead and used because, in my ignorance, I don’t realize they invoke our planet. Well, actually, I can answer that question, at least in part, as I have kind readers who inform me of things I didn’t know about my own books. I’ve been told that a katsa is a field operator in the Mossad, the national intelligence agency of Israel — so I’m not sure what we’ll be changing Katsa’s name to in the Israeli edition of my book, but I assume we’ll be changing it. I can tell you that we’ve changed it to Katje in Italy, since katsa is very close to an Italian euphemism for penis. (Also, po is the German word for butt.)
So, there are rules and laws when you’re writing a fantasy novel that takes place in a vaguely medievalish world that is not, in fact, our world. These are the enjoyable structural restrictions; the ones I enjoy thinking about and working around. It’s fun to putter over to the dictionary while you’re writing and find out which is the more appropriate word, couch or sofa, and whether your copyeditor is right to be bringing it up as a potential problem.
Couch is the older word, incidentally; it hails from the fourteenth century, while sofa didn’t enter the English language until 1717, well after the Middle Ages; but in this case, I decided that the derivations didn’t matter, because sofa sounded older to me and sounded like it fit better in my book — so my second book, Fire, contains a critical scene that takes place in a room with a sofa, even though the setting of Fire is vaguely medievalish and there were no sofas in the Middle Ages.
Which reminds me of another example of the rules and laws of your skeleton that can be fun: the whole anachronism question. True, the world of Graceling is vaguely medieval in feeling, in that there are kings and queens; and people are armed not with guns but with swords; and horses are the fastest land transportation; and big sailing ships are the fastest sea transportation — but the world of Graceling is not actually medieval Europe, and one huge difference is that there’s no overriding religion that structures this society. Imagine how different medieval Europe would have been without religion. I got comments from my copyeditor about the use of ice to reduce the swelling of Po’s wounds. I was asked, “Did they know in the Middle Ages that ice reduces swelling?” It was a good question. No, I don’t think they did. They knew things like disease is a punishment for sin and the best cure for St. Vitus’ dance is to pray to St. Vitus. Happily, this book doesn’t actually take place in the Middle Ages. It takes place in this other land and other time entirely; maybe it’s a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, for all we know. And mightn’t a society in a whole other land develop similarly to ours in some ways, but differently in others? For example, if their science isn’t bogged down by ideas about sin or evil spirits or demonic possession, mightn’t they have made some advances in medicine that medieval Europe didn’t make?
I kept the ice, but every single question along those lines (and there tend to be many) requires a thoughtful answer. Near the end of chapter one in Graceling there’s a two-word sentence about Katsa: “She ran.” The first time I wrote that sentence, it read, “She ran like hell.” And then I remembered. If there’s no religion, then there’s no concept of hell, so she can’t run like hell.
So, I’ve talked about the helpful rules and laws an author encounters once her structure is more or less established; I’ve been talking about the happy skeleton. Now I need to swing us to the other end of the spectrum and discuss what started to happen as I got further and further into writing Graceling.
At a certain point, it started to become very, very hard to hold it all together. There are secrets, revelations about various characters that I needed to hint at and gradually reveal, and as a new novelist the art of planting clues was very tricky for me. Where to plant them? How much to tell? How to avoid making things so blatant that the reader begins to resent the characters for not figuring it out for themselves — but blatant enough that the reader will find the truth believable once it’s revealed?
There was also a tight timeline that had to fit into the structure in a number of different ways. For example, I needed the travel that happens (and there’s a lot in this book) to take a realistic amount of time, considering that it was horse and boat travel. I needed it to be consistent with the map and with the actual speed of those modes of transportation, but I also needed it to match up with the tight timeline of a plot that depended on a lot of factors completely separate from travel. For example, when Katsa and Po are riding from the kingdom of Sunder to the kingdom of Monsea, for reasons of plot cohesion it must be mid-fall when they leave and late fall when they arrive. However, the distance from Sunder to Monsea simply isn’t great enough to justify the journey taking so much time. Well, what am I going to do? Hmmm. How about I put in their path an impenetrable forest and a mountain that can only be crossed by foot? All right, sure! So I add the forest and the mountain, and it slows my travelers down, and everything’s fine — until I get to the next thing that needs to happen at a particular time, but can’t, unless I change the landscape again, or rethink a plot that, the further it moves along, has less and less room for flexibility and becomes harder and harder to change.
Here’s one other thing that became tricky to manage: one of my characters — to whom I’ll refer here as X — has the Grace of mind reading. (A Grace in my book is a magical power that people now and then are randomly born with, and people with Graces are called Gracelings. It’s Katsa’s Grace that allows her to do kung fu–type stuff, or catch a bird in mid-flight with her bare hands.) Now, as you can imagine, in a book where part of the plot revolves around figuring out the hidden truths about people, it can be quite convenient to have a mind reader for one of your characters. A mind reader can figure secrets out magically. But the problem is that a mind reader is a mind reader all the time — not just when it’s convenient for your plot. If another character, Y, is sitting in front of X thinking something, you can’t have X not knowing it. So that means that you have to monitor X very closely, all the time, in every scene — where is X right now? As Y is having a dark moment of the soul and plotting to kill X, is X in the next room? Because if X is, then X knows, and I can’t have X knowing! I need Y’s attack on X to take X completely by surprise! So — does this mean I need to send X on an errand during Y’s dark moment of the soul? Or maybe X could be taking a nap?
Each of these tricky structural things, taken individually, might not seem too difficult to manage; but when you put them all together — a plot that needs to click into place in concordance with the weather and the landscape and the map and the characters, who are changing, and the revelations, which are trickling in — there’s an awful lot of pulling out your hair and feeling that this is not going to work. The skeleton is too constricting; the rules are too hard to follow. I want to break free. I want to start a revolution — but a revolution against what? Against myself? I created this world because I believed in it, even though I couldn’t really see it completely yet. And either I abandon it totally or I stay in there and make myself keep believing, even though I still can’t really see it whole. My characters can’t fix it; I’m the only one. They’re all depending on me.
I think one of the things I’ve come to accept and love about being a writer is that we live in a world that often makes me angry. I learned, very young, that things are not fair, and so I sit down to create a different world in which my protagonist will make things fair. But my book is a product of our world; it’s a product of me, and I’m flawed, I can’t make a perfect thing. So my book, my escape into a fantasy world, comes out just as flawed as the world I’m trying to escape.
There are parts of the skeleton of Graceling I was able to fix. There are other parts that I wish I could fix, but it’s too late; I’m stuck with them forever. And since I’m writing more books that take place in the same universe, I really am stuck with them forever. Some of them feel big to me, and feel like very personal failings, so I’m not going to get into them here, but I do plan to get into them in the writing itself and see if, in future books, I can right the wrongs.
Others I’ll happily tell you, because they’re small irritations that are driving me crazy as I write book three, Bitterblue. For instance, remember how distances in Graceling are not measured in miles? Well, what are they measured in? The answer is that they’re not measured in anything. I never made up a unit of measurement in Graceling (or a system of money, or a military infrastructure). When I was writing Graceling, I didn’t know that I’d want to write more books set in the same universe. And now I’m in a situation where it would be really convenient to be able to say, “Oh, yes, it’s 3000 killybongs from here to Estill,” but I can’t introduce some weird unit of measurement three books in. And speaking of distances, here’s one other hassle I’m dealing with. Bitterblue takes place in the kingdom of Monsea, and there’s a lot of travel of various people in and out of Monsea. The travel in and out of Monsea is really important to the book — in particular, speedy and easy travel in and out of Monsea is important. Unfortunately, you may or may not recall that there is, separating Monsea from the other kingdoms, one impenetrable forest, and one mountain that can only be crossed by foot.
And I’m just going to have to deal with it.
Kristin Cashore recommends…
The House at Pooh Corner (1928) by A. A. Milne
Charlotte’s Web (1952) by E. B. White
A Wrinkle in Time (1962) by Madeleine L’Engle
A Walk Out of the World (1969) by Ruth Nichols
Ender’s Game (1977) by Orson Scott Card
The Song of the Lioness Quartet (1983–1988) by Tamora Pierce
The Tricksters (1987) by Margaret Mahy
Deerskin (1993) by Robin McKinley
His Dark Materials Trilogy (1996–2000) by Philip Pullman
The Queen of Attolia (2000) by Megan Whalen Turner
From the January/February 2010 issue of The Horn Book Magazine