Someone on the Paizo boards recently asked Pathfinder Tales authors our favorite question. My answer:
This December, my merry colleagues tackle questions on Heroic fantasy. Comment here on the blog before the end of December, and one of you will receive a free copy of Prince of Wolves, Master of Devils, Queen of Thorns, King of Chaos, or Winter Witch from audible.com.
If you missed last week’s responses, catch up here.
What was the first heroic fantasy novel you remember reading? Has your own writing emulated it or responded with an alternative take on the genre?
Jeff Grubb: Forgive me for kicking at your applecart, but I don’t know if I agree with the definitions of genre and subgenre.
But let me answer your question first: I started out reading mythology in grade school—no, wait—I started out reading about astronomy and wanting to know about the stories of the constellations and planets and from that got into mythology. From there I would say that my first Fantasy novel was Lord of the Rings, which for me came first, then backing up and reading The Hobbit (and then C.S. Lewis’ Silent Planet trilogy, but never Narnia).
But from looking at your second question, I think you’re using the broad definition of Traditional Fantasy as Heroic Fantasy, and then subgrouping it as Epic and S&S. I would divide Epic and Heroic as two separate parts of Trad Fantasy, and tuck Swords & Sorcery under Heroic. Under that definition the first Heroic Fantasy of the modern era that I encountered was Fritz Leiber’s Fafrhd and Grey Mouser stories.
Here’s my difference between the epic and heroic varieties: Epic is aimed at the outside world, Heroic and the internal and personal world. Epic is big stuff happening—The Illiad, the first Dragonlance Books, the Game of Thrones, Narnia, Lord of the Rings. You switch viewpoints often and individual characters may drop out or die entirely along the way.
Heroic Fantasy is dialed much further down, to the actions of individuals—Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, The Odyssey, Cugel the Clever, and the vast bulk of Forgotten Realms books. (Yes, we have epics in the Realms, but even they tend to be strained through the Heroic lens.)
In any event, one has to run long and hard to escape the shadow of Grandfather Tolkien. So much of what is written in fantasy, particularly in the shared worlds we have occupied, are descendants from LotR, sometimes by several generations, but his influence is hardwired into us. Multiple races, strong moral or ethical concerns, mixtures of tech levels under myriad nationalities, changing the world through your actions—yeah, all of that comes JRRT.
I have written both—The Brother’s War for Magic: The Gathering is definitely in the epic category, and the Alias books are very heroic in nature. I have also played around with additions of other strains and varieties—The Wyvern’s Spur looks to another British Author—P.G. Wodehouse, for inspiration and characterization. Giogi and Bertie Wooster could get together at some pub and compare their awful aunts. Cormyr: A Novel was initially pitched as the fantasy version of a James Mitchner novel, where you get the history of Nebraska or some other land-locked state through the actions its people. I would go with epic for Cormyr, but its pieces are heroic.
Chris A. Jackson: I was much more into science fiction than fantasy as a kid, so the first novels that I read that could be called a heroic fantasy was the John Carter series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. That was a very long time ago, and a very long time before I started writing.
I think I’ve taken the heroic fantasy a different direction than Burroughs. I like my heroes to come from nothing, to struggle to attain their heroism, and to sometimes be on the wrong side of the “good vs bad” equation (at least as far as the law is concerned) at the beginning of the story. I also very much believe that heroes need to be flawed, fragile, imperfect, and fallible. I have difficulty with stories where the hero is always right, has the best solution to every problem, and always comes out on top.
Stephen D. Sullivan: I’m not entirely sure what my first heroic fantasy novel was. It may have been a fantasy book I read in 4th grade. I don’t remember the name of it, but I do remember that it had at least one knight and a friendly dragon named “Poof” that no one thought really existed until the hero found it. That year, I also read Secret Under the Sea (Gordon R. Dickson), which was about a boy a his dolphin trying to protect their sea lab—kind of a science-fiction fantasy novel.
If you discount books about monsters and SF, probably my earliest fantasy reading was about Greek and Roman myths, and then the Norse as well. Those formed the backstory to everything that came after. It was Lord of the Rings, though, that really changed my reading habits and put fantasy on my reading list equal to (or maybe ahead of) science fiction, monster books, and detective stories. Perhaps ironically, it was love of LoTR that kept me from playing that “knock-off” game D&D for at least a couple of years. I eventually started playing D&D to date the DM’s sister, who was also a player, in January 1977—and that was an even bigger life-changing event, as anyone who knows me (or checks Wikipedia) will attest.
Howard Andrew Jones: My first was Fritz Leiber’s Swords Against Death, which wasn’t exactly a novel, but it was a book, and I’m going to count it because it had a huge impact upon me. I still hold that it’s the finest of the Fafrhd and Gray Mouser collections, and it opened a whole genre of adventure for me. But if we must get technical, the first novel I read in a sword-and-sorcery vein was Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber, which also blew my doors off. The two of those novels had such an immense impact upon my preferences in writing. I love the witty banter and camaraderie to be found in Leiber, and the astonishing world building and hidden secrets in Zelazny. In a lot of ways Zelazny remains the alternative take on fantasy; few have really followed in his wake. His influence isn’t as apparent in my tie-in fiction, but I think it will be immediately obvious to anyone reading my upcoming series. As for Leiber, at his best, say in “Bazaar of the Bizarre” he’s so damned good he’s nigh untouchable, and you can only stand back and marvel about how everything works on a sentence level and a paragraph level and plot and character level… We’re still trying to catch up.
I’ve tried to bring a little bit of that Leiberish focus on characters into everything I write, although I’m always more interested in heroes than rogues, which means, I suppose, that I’m stepping out of his mold a little. It’s hardly alternative, it’s just the application of some of the things I liked in his writing and twisting them a little to fit in with my own preferences.
Heroic fantasy is a blanket term that includes popular genres like epic fantasy and sword & sorcery. Do you feel epic and S&S are mutually exclusive? Or can (and should) we mix them like peanut butter and chocolate? Are there some other, overlooked subgenres of heroic fantasy? And does grimdark fit under this blanket or lie outside?
Jeff Grubb: I think Epic Fantasy and S&S are both parts of Traditional fantasy, and that it is more of spectrum than a binary switch. We can say that a story is more heroic or low fantasy or one tends toward the high fantasy/epic end of the scale. It is more of a measurement than a classification of type.
Does your definition of Heroic Fantasy (which I’m going to call traditional) include such Urban fantasies as the Harrys—Dresden and Potter. Harry Potter also heads up a horde of YA Fantasy. Grimdark has a booth at the Tradfantasy fair, and even New Weird Fantasy, like China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station or Jay Lake’s Trial of Flowers have something to say to greater discussion. Magical Realism like Umberto Eco also has its say.
What would I keep out of Traditional/Heroic Fantasy? I would probably put Horror in its own pavilion, though even that has fantastic elements—The American Fantasy/Dark Fantasy tradition with Poe and Lovecraft and King, all uses fantastic parts but finds its way to different part of the bookstore. Its attempt to evoke something different that traditional fantasy. The sense of horror as opposed to wonder—the awful as opposed to the awesome, the sense of dread as opposed to triumph, all set these stories into another category that ignores whether they have orcs and/or dragons in them.
Chris A. Jackson: I’m a big fan of both peanut butter and chocolate, and the analogy. The edges of genres are breaking down so much now that splitting hairs between subgenres like “heroic fantasy” versus “swords and sorcery” seems to me rather like picking apart the ingredients in a dish like chili and trying to decide if it should be characterized as “Southwest cuisine,” “Tex-Mex,” or something else entirely. As with the food analogy, from a culinary standpoint, I understand the distinction, but I’d much rather simply make my chili and enjoy it.
Subgenres, from my point of view as a writer, can be traps. When I draft a story, I don’t sit down and decide if this story is going to be swords and sorcery or epic fantasy. I think of the premise, the characters, and the plot that needs to drive the story forward in a logical direction that real people would take. If the story goes epic, the novel or series could fall into the epic fantasy category. If the story stays small and not world-changing, we’re talking more swords and sorcery. Having my work characterized into these subgenres, or labeled with marketing categories like YA (And don’t get me started by trying to tell me that YA is a genre.) is always entertaining. Arguing whether it fits into one genre or another is rather like arguing with a reviewer; it’s an exercise in futility. Without any effort on my part, my work has fallen into many subgenres. I don’t argue about this issue at all, and never will. If a reader prefers to call my work “romantic fantasy” because there are always human (and sometimes not so human) love interests in the story, that’s fine with me. As long as they have fun reading it, my job is done.
Howard Andrew Jones: I don’t think that they’re mutually exclusive at all, although I’d much rather see S&S elements in Epic than Epic elements in S&S. To my mind at least, Epic often means bloat, and I am so very tired of vast sections of books that don’t really do anything but add page count. I tend to be impatient with my reading, though. Now if you could grant sword-and-sorcery pacing and put that in an Epic length novel—stripped of sword-and-sorcery’s worst characteristics like frying pan to fire plotting and sexism—that would be something to read. I’ve been hammering away at something that I suppose is an approach on that, but even at 120k it’s not really Epic size.
If sword-and-sorcery is old school metal edged out by Epic’s glam rock, then Grimdark is sort of like the punk assault on Epic’s glam rock, with roots in sword-and-sorcery. I’m all for it, but I tire a little of too much grit on my heroes so that they’re not actually heroic. Also, I get enough nihilism and brutality when I read the news. I want to read about heroes who dare to rise above all that.
Dave Gross is the erstwhile editor of such magazines as Dragon, Star Wars Insider, and Amazing Stories. He has written novels set in the Forgotten Realms, Iron Kingdoms, and the world of Pathfinder Tales. His latest novel is Lord of Runes, and his most recent story “The Wendigo” in Gods, Memes, and Monsters.
Jeff Grubb is a best-selling author and award-winning game designer. He is one of the founders of both the Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms settings, and has written for Magic: the Gathering, Warcraft, and Star Wars. He currently keeps and maintains the world for the Guild Wars 2 game from ArenaNet. He lives in Seattle with his wife Kate and two horribly spoiled cats.
Chris A Jackson’s genres of choice are nautical fantasy, magical assassin stories, and now contemporary horror/fantasy. His novel “Dragon Dreams” was just released by The Ed Greenwood Group, his next Pathfinder Tales novel, Pirate’s Prophecy, will release in February, and his award-winning Weapon of Flesh series will continue next summer with Weapon of Pain.
Howard Andrew Jones is the author of three Pathfinder novels, the most recent of which is Beyond the Pool of Stars, and a critically acclaimed Arabian Fantasy series. He can be found lurking at www.howardandrewjones.com, where he blogs about writing craft, gaming, fantasy and adventure fiction, and assorted nerdery.
When asked where to start reading the Radovan & the Count saga, I no longer go through the whole routine of figuring out whether the person asking prefers gothic horror, wuxia, high fantasy, demon wars, and so on just to direct them to a particular novel or story. Instead, I say, “Start with Queen of Thorns.”
Better yet, give it a listen. Paul Boehmer’s narration is outstanding. I may never again read these books aloud but simply point people to the download link.
After some sage tutelage from my pal Brad, I’ve been streamlining and redesigning the site. Today I think I’ve finished restoring the missing content (although there’s some, like the “press” page, that I’ve purposefully left out).
If you’ve run out of cat videos today, would you mind looking around, pressing some links, and letting me know if you find a dead page or any XXX or TBA markers I might have left in my wake?
At the same time, if there’s anything you’d like to see me add, please say the word. I’m happy to entertain requests.
Please pardon another digressive preamble.
Fantasy was not my first fandom. The earliest nerdy genre I remember loving was ghost stories. Whenever the Weekly Reader came around class, I loaded up, as much as my allowance allowed, on “50 Great Ghost Stories” or “100 Tales of Haunted Houses” and stuff like that.
A few years later, I got hooked on classic horror movies via our local Creature Feature, hosted by the wonderful Count Gore De Vol (Dick Dyszel). At more or less the same time, I began reading science fiction, starting with A and working my way toward Z at the local library. My first favorite author arrived when I reached B for Bradbury, who incidentally also gave me my first taste of fantasy, although I didn’t yet differentiate it from SF.
The big hook came during a visit to my grandmother. I was her least favorite grandchild for reasons best illustrated when I refused to eat an egg for breakfast. I detested eggs. Grandma ordered me to sit at the table until I ate the nasty thing. I proved equally stubborn and sat there until my mother gathered enough courage to defy her mom and break me out of breakfast jail.
After that, I was bored and sulky. To my rescue came my cousin Frances, who produced a copy of The Hobbit and suggested I give it a try, even though it wasn’t science-fiction. I devoured the book in an afternoon and persuaded my father to take me to a bookstore to buy The Fellowship of the Ring. Two days later, I finished The Return of the King.
As with so many other readers, Tolkien’s epic launched my love of fantasy literature, although I soon gravitated more toward sword & sorcery than to epic fantasy. Still, I dug the Big Fat Fantasies so popular in the 80s, including the blockbuster Dragonlance novels, which also turned me on to tie-in fiction. By the time I started writing tie-ins myself, I drew more from Howard than from Tolkien, but I still felt that love of sweeping conflicts and high magic.
Hold that thought as we delve into mild-to-moderate spoilers.
Before Master of Devils, I’d pitched ideas for a story set in Kyonin. Certain elements of the proposal didn’t fly with the Pathfinder developers. Yet after a year had passed, their concerns had relaxed enough that they approved a revised pitch. The biggest differences were that Radovan and Varian stuck together for almost the entire novel, and I came up with a different way to reveal some of the secret of Radovan’s accursed ancestry.
After the gothic horror mystery of Prince of Wolves and the wuxia adventure in Master of Devils, I felt I’d established the boys as sword & sorcery heroes in atypical settings. Perhaps it was time to pay homage to epic fantasies.
In most of my previous tie-in fantasy fiction I’d avoided non-human characters—one of the reasons I decided both Varian and Radovan would be half-humans—and I’d never done much with elves. (TSR editor Kim Mohan reinforced my inclination toward human characters by describing our tie-in novels as “elfy-welfy stuff.”) Thus, I was ready to embrace epic elf fantasy.
Of the supporting cast, only Varian’s then-nameless father existed in the earlier pitch. Fimbulthicket, Kemeili, Oparal, and Caladrel were all born during the outline process. While I typically choose real-world names for human characters, for elves and gnomes I depended on the examples in the Pathfinder Campaign setting. In fact, I lifted the names Amarandlon, Caladrel, Oparal, and Variel (the coincidence was too good to pass up) directly from the Pathfinder Chronicles Campaign Setting, revised as the Inner Sea World Guide.
Fun Fact: The family name “Morgethai” is an Easter Egg for fans of the iconic characters.
My earliest idea of the plot was much more violent, much of a running battle between our heroes and wave after wave of demons; I was thinking of James Cameron’s Aliens as the template for the action. Yet as the outline progressed I found more and more ways to turn the story into one of exploration and discovery—not only of Varian’s personal history but also that of the elves of Kyonin. The lands of Kyonin also gave me lots of opportunities to reflect the relationship between Varian and Radovan.
When creating the supporting cast, two bits of setting lore got me excited about them as characters. Fimbulthicket as a bleachling gnome, one whose lack of new and exciting experiences has begun to drain the life out of him, suddenly made a much more compelling connection to Variel Morgethai. And Oparal as a Forlorn elf had a connection to Varian, both outsiders among humans and elves alike.
In Oparal, I wanted to show a negative stereotype of paladins on the surface with something with more dimensions just beneath the surface. I was much more interested in Fimbulthicket and Kemeili as I began writing the novel, but by the end I realized I wasn’t done with Oparal. There was much more I wanted to reveal from her own point of view rather than the boys’. Fortunately, this revelation came after James Sutter and I began discussing a follow-up book, so I revised the conclusion to point her toward the events of King of Chaos.
Fun Fact: I cut the original first chapter, which was set in the coastal city of Greengold and gave some foreshadowing of the Walking Man, intending to expand it into a story called “Killing Time.” It bears no resemblance to the web story of the same title, however, and remains unfinished in my Queen of Thorns folder.
One of the things I loved about researching Queen of Thorns is that, while there was more setting material for Kyonin than there had been for Ustalav or Tian Xia, it was still limited to one big article in the Second Darkness Adventure Path and the Elves of Golarion sourcebook. Plus, James Sutter is the author of the Kyonin article, and more than any other Pathfinder developer, he’s happy to let me loose on his creations. It doesn’t hurt that our creative sensibilities are simpatico. I often find that the locations that interest me most are those that he’s written.
Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.
Since the mid-90s, Angel Leigh McCoy and I have had a sort of virtual nodding acquaintance. While we’ve worked and played with many of the same people, we’ve actually met only a few times, usually just long enough for a round of handshakes and collegial nods. The last was in the lobby at the World Fantasy Convention in Toronto, where we paused long enough to agree that it really was strange that we hadn’t run into each other more often, considering our past jobs and our many mutual friends.
Thus, I wasn’t terribly surprised to learn that Angel was launching a fiction magazine inspired by my favorite television show of all time. Her Another Dimension Kickstarter takes its cues from the great Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.
That’s all I need to say, isn’t it? Hie thee to the Kickstarter campaign!
1. What is it about The Twilight Zone stories that makes you hold them up as an example for the fiction you’re looking to publish?
Over the past six years, I’ve read hundreds of short horror stories submitted to a couple different slush piles, and I’ve noticed a trend. So many of the stories I see have no teeth. They rely on gore, sex, or shock value to produce a sense of horror. They have no twist at the end that makes you cringe just that little bit more. They don’t take you anywhere you didn’t already expect to be going. So many of them are left open-ended, with the onus placed on the reader to “decide what happened.”
I don’t know what causes this. Perhaps the craft of writing the short story has gotten swallowed by the large number of writers who don’t understand that it is a craft. There’s the feeling today that anyone can write, and it’s just not true. The stories on The Twilight Zone were well-crafted tales of horror that began and, more importantly, ended. They didn’t rely on gore or shocking sexual/violent situations to be scary. They made you think and wonder if maybe this could happen to you one day. They were character-driven, not disgusting-new-way-to-torture-driven.
I know there are skilled writers out there who take their craft seriously and who don’t write in stream-of-conscious mode. They work and rework their stories, bring them to a horrifying conclusion that makes your belly drop. I’m looking for those writers.
I can be very specific about the things I look for in a story:
- That it has a fleshed-out main character.
- That it creates a sense of dread.
- That it makes you examine your own choices and your society.
- That it doesn’t leave the reader wondering what the hell just happened.
- That it actually has an ending that ties the story off, usually a twist of some sort that makes it all the more horrific.
Rod Serling was a master craftsman. His stories had all these elements. Richard Matheson, as well, understood what makes a good short story. In more recent days, the TV show Black Mirror has hit the note I’m seeking. If I could impart their knowledge and their craftsmanship to all the writers striving to make it in this crazy publishing world, I’d be ecstatic.
2. How important is the twist to stories in general? Have audiences become too clever for the average twist to work? Or does “literary” fiction simply not value plot as highly as genre fiction does?
Those stories that manage to surprise me (and I will admit, they’re few and far between) make me instantly love and respect them. But, the surprise isn’t enough. It has to be a twist on what’s already been coming with the story, and it has to follow the logic of the story. You can’t just toss in a random scary clown at the end and say, “Boo!” You have to lead up to it.
The twist is as much about taking it one step farther as it is about throwing in a curve ball. An example in the horror genre would be in the Black Mirror television show. If you haven’t seen this, I strongly recommend it. It is on Netflix. In several of its episodes, there is a twist that I, at least, wasn’t expecting. In one episode, called “White Bear,” you think you’re watching a woman flee from hunters in a strange future world, only to discover that something completely different is happening, and even that she’s not the person you thought she was. I don’t want to give away spoilers. Just go watch this TV show. It’s very much The Twilight Zone evolved to fit a more evolved audience.
Audiences are quite clever (and world-weary, media-numbed, and cynical), but then writers are clever too. Good writers don’t just tell the obvious story but look for the added twist of the blade that will make it all the more interesting for the reader. They think about the meta of the story, the larger implications of it.
3. In terms of prose, do you cleave to the “clear window” philosophy or do you enjoy more poetic language?
Both have their time and place, though I will admit that the moment I can’t see what’s happening in my mind’s eye is the moment you’ve lost me as a reader. There’s both an art and a craft to writing, and the craft isn’t just about spelling. It’s about choosing the right words to clearly convey what you want the reader to imagine/experience/feel/know in any given moment of your story. If you feel that going purple is the right move, then do it. But, do it on purpose, and do it so that it works. Just spilling purple ink all over the page doesn’t make good writing. You’re not there to show your cleverness with rhyme, alliteration, metaphor, hyperbole, or an abundance of fancy adjectives. Those things can actually be quite distracting and short-sighted. You’re there to convey a story.
4. What are the scariest story, novel, and movie that you’ve ever seen?
Woo, this is the hardest question of all. There are so many! I have to admit that my choices are affected by the fact that I was an impressionable young woman/girl when I encountered them. They scared me and, dare I say it, even scarred me.
As an adult, I don’t get scared, but I do get horrified. And that’s an important distinction. I never really think that Hannibal Lecter is coming to eat me. And yet, there’s something about his personality as portrayed that takes cannibalism and makes it truly horrifying.
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. This story may well have been the one that taught me not all monsters are hairy and have fangs.
The Exorcist. This novel stuck with me for decades, and I’ve never forgotten it. I read the book before I saw the movie.
This one gets a tie: Carrie, the original, not the remake. This movie had me so tense by the end that, when the (spoiler) comes out of the ground, I burst into tears and then cried for ten minutes. I was, admittedly, 13 years old at the time. But, I’ve never forgotten that moment. And the other was Jaws. To this day, I hate being in deep water and even have the occasional moment of panic in concrete swimming pools.
5. What advantage does prose fiction have over film and games?
With prose, the writer has powers and opportunities that the filmmaker and game designer don’t. You can be clearer about what’s happening, describing things that most people would miss if watching a movie or playing a game. You can build the reader’s experience with greater control of their emotional journey. You have more time and space to build to your climax with prose. And you can describe the invisible thoughts and feelings of the characters in greater detail.
With a film, you have to choose carefully what you show from moment to moment. Thus, they tend to have a narrower perspective than prose. It’s the old complaint that the movie doesn’t play exactly like the book. There’s a reason for this. The creative philosophy is often one of cutting to improve rather than one of embellishing to improve.
The same is true with video games. You’re limited in what you can show and share about a character’s thoughts, feelings, and activities, depending on the point of view (which is usually quite limited). You have to tell the story within a much smaller box than if you had a whole novel in which to allow it to unfold.
While the sight and sound is good and can relay a lot of information in a very short time, it’s still not as hardy as a good novel.
Keep an eye on Angel’s latest acts of horror at her website.