Monday, May 21, 2012

Fantasy by Numbers

I had a hiatus from reading fantasy for a number of years—in fact a hiatus from reading for pleasure in general. A few books broke through, mainly presents from my wife picked up from the supermarket on basis of cover (and some very good ones at that). I returned to fantasy when I considered writing my own book and had a two pronged approach. Prong one was to read fantasy books that were more recent and had garnered respected status: in that category was Northern Lights, Game of Thrones, Gardens of the Moon & The Lies of Locke Lamora. Prong two was to revisit some fantasy classics: Dragonlance, Farseer trilogy and The Belgariad.

Now I chose Belgariad mainly because, along with Terry Brooks Shannara novels and Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant, they were books that occupied the fantasy section of the library when I was a kid. Their covers stuck in my mind and I’d never got around to reading them and felt a need to balance the modern styles of Martin and Erikson (by ‘modern’ read ‘dark’) with something a little more innocent and easy going.

The Belgariad’s five books were compulsive reading and I thoroughly enjoyed going through them. However, when I was getting towards the middle of book three it did occur to me that the plot was somewhat linear. It read like a tour guide for the fantasy world he was describing. The characters were fun and their dialogue witty, and if I took anything from those books it was the importance of having banter and believable dialogue between the characters.

Now I’m currently writing the fifth of six books in my Prism series (which would have been the first half of volume three had the publisher not chose to splice each volume in twain) and I was reflecting on how clichés sneak into what I write. I don’t have a huge issue with this, after all it’s what you do with the clichés that matter, and fantasy isn’t unique in that way. But when I was thinking my mind drifted back to the Belgeriad, which was hugely popular but seemed quite laden with fantasy stereotype.

David Eddings was a scholar and teacher of English Literature and he proposed that all fantasy novels had ten essential ingredients, which he followed in his various series from the Belgeriad onwards. I decided to run my fantasy novel, Darkness Rising through the Eddings rules to see how it fared. Eddings said that fantasy novels required...

1. A Theological arena
Well, yes, I do have one of those. I’ve two neighbouring nations with opposing views on the same deity, I’ve got old gods and young gods and a few demon dukes chucked in for good measure... score 1

2. A Quest
Yes, siree, I have a quest spanning the six books to regain an ancient artefact which is also coveted by a range of bad guys. Of course, the artefact is in bits that they have to gain as they go along. Maybe I should be writing computer games... score 1

3. A magical element
It’s sword and sorcery for a reason. I’ve got elemental magic focused through gems soldered onto the chests of the mages; wild-magic which develops randomly in people and utilises ‘mind powers’ and the paradox of druidic magic... score 1

4. A hero
Just the one? Au contrare, mon ami, I have two. Hunor and Jem. Given that one is a wild-mage he can count for criteria number 5, and I’ll keep the happy go lucky, wears his heart on his sleeve, Hunor for the hero. Of course, he has some secrets and an issue with his past that shapes his world-view. But that is balanced by a massive sword... score 1

5. A resident wizard

Aww, this is getting crazy now. Yes, I have one, although he’s not really a Gandalf / Belgarath/ Allanon type. Rather he’s a dapper obsessive-compulsive Wild-mage from a nation of witch-burners. His mentor is more akin to the wise-old wizard type, in a sort of Yoda way... score 1

6. A heroine
Indeed I do, and she is the main character for the book. We meet her first as a child, then a teenager and finally as a woman. It is Emelia’s search for identity that is the crux of the series... score 1

7. A villain
Well where would be the fun if I didn’t have a decent bad guy. There’s quite a few in the whole series, but there’s one that’s the big baddy. He’s not some almighty nebulous presence like Sauron or Lord Foul, rather he’s an undead sorcerer called Vildor who is Master of the Ghasts, themselves lords of the vampyrs. He’s exquisitely evil, with a good dose of charm and wit, and we really see his character develop by book three... score 1

8. A group of companions
Oh my God, I really have written a fantasy by numbers! Huzzah, I have companions, nay a veritable Fellowship. Roll call by book two (due out soon...) is thief, wild-mage, wild-mage, monk, druid, tracker, knight. For added fun the druid and the knight are woman, which creates wonderful frission as they journey across the aforementioned land of witch-burners... score 1

9. A group of ladies attached to the companions
No! No, no and thrice, no. Given that almost half the group are of the farer sex this one wouldn’t work for me. And we don’t have any spare characters, out for the ride because the man they love has chosen to seek a legendary blade and they’re bored hanging around the palace... score 0

10. Kings, Queens and Emperors to rule
And a return to form at the last hurdle... huzzah!! The setting of Prism is replete with nations, with a veritable hotch-potch of monarchies, theocracies, oligarchies, democracies and tribal societies. All post-Empire too! It’s like the History Channel dropped a litre of acid and cavorted like Bilbo’s love-child.... score 1

So I’ve made 9/10. On the Eddings scale I must be near perfect for my generic fantasy novel. Proud? Absolutely. I have no problem with fantasy clichés or stereotypes... it’s how we turn them on their head and screw with them that matters. George RR Martin’s gritty Game of Thrones scores 6, I reckon, and Erikson’s Garden of the Moon scores 6 also, although on different ones. So even the new wave tug the forelock to the master of linear fantasy, David Eddings.

Put your favourite fantasy through it and see how it fares. More on clichés and classic fantasy influences next time.


  1. Interesting exercise. I think I'll put my first fantasy novel through it. Not quite sure I'll make the 9/10 thought.

  2. Hi Ross!

    Good score! However, at a push you could get a 10 if you swap 'ladies' for 'lovers/partners' - I mean Jem (the mage) is the ex husband of Marthir (the druid) who has also been the lover of Kervin (the ranger) who, in his turn, is the object of desire of Emelia/Emebaka ... and all of this is going on in the middle of a swamp full of lizard men so ... you know ; - )

  3. One other thing (I'm on a roll it seems), I know you kind of meant it as a joke but I'm intrigued by the 10 rules - I mean, I like the idea of applying rules to something, but you know, you need to make sure the rules work first, right?

    So I wondered what other scores you might get for other kinds of novel. Here's a few I thought of:

    Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte) - I reckon this scores a respectable 6 out of 10 (covering points 1,2,3,4,6 and 7 but not 5,8,9 or 10)

    Solaris (Stanislaw Lem) - you may disagree, but I reckon this is a good 8 out of 10 (only points 7 and 10 are missing)

    Vernon God Little (DBC Pierre) -a measly 3 out of 10, definitely not a fantasy or Romance then!

    120 Days of Sodom (Marquis De Sade) - to my surprise, the frightful old perv comes away with a 6 out of 10 by my reckoning, and I thought this would be the wild card.

  4. Hehe, even Eddings himself only score 9/10 for The Belgariad. He doesn't have camp followers either if I remember correctly (forgive me if I'm wrong but it's been more than 20 years since I last read it.)