N is for…. Nasty

Following on from my G is for Gender post on the wonderful Cafe Aphra blogsite, I was asked to provide a piece on the letter N – that’s when I decided to get NASTY!  Read on….

Searching for inspiration 2: the parameters of magic

In Searching for inspiration 1 – I got some great feedback on the issue of creating great battle scenes in novels. I’ve not yet had time to read the books you all suggested, but I will –  after that and a bit more thinking time I’m going to tackle the re-write of my own battle scenes. The second major issue – which I need to solve before I can tackle my battle scenes, is getting the magical elements of my book just right.

For a fantasy writer the use of magic is a major issue.

I’m currently mid-way through an old fantasy novel written sometime in the 1980’s. Let’s just say it’s probably ‘of its time’. In many ways the book is well written, but the novel’s hero has the ability to summon and command powerful gods. So, whenever he’s in a bit of a tight spot he utters some spell and conjures a god who sorts it out. I’m going to plough through to the end because I hate to leave a book unfinished and am hoping its all grist to the mill, but there’s very little tension for me in seeing him facing any enemy.

If magic can conquer all, then it would, end of story. So, without trying to put fetters on our imaginations, I think fantasy writers need to come up with some ‘rules’.

Now I’ve read some blogs which firmly disagree with this. I can see where they are coming from too – after all, this is fantasy it is supposed to be fantastical.  There are some great books where magic is an unknowable force, even for the most knowledgable characters in the novel; where magic can be conjured but its effects never be accurately predicted. But this is a ‘rule’ in itself – this creates the tension. You don’t know what will happen when someone casts a spell, it could depend on their mood, their ingredients, the words they use etc.

One pitfall (I don’t think I’ve fallen into), is to use magic to get myself out of a writing dead-end. As with the novel I’m reading right now, using magic to solve every problem is just boring after a while. It smacks of lazy writing, even if the manifestations of the magic are amazing and awesome (I hate that word) it’s still a cop out.

Despite knowing what I like and dislike about other fantasy novels, I have found myself needing to take a step back from my own writing to make sure I’m on the right track. I’m not going to go away and draft some intricate magical system, I think it’s a fools errand. I’ve written some random notes about vaguely where I think the magic comes from and how it manifests in my world and what it can and cannot do. My major issue is the use of magic in combat. I want to have a lot of proper medieval style battles – just ‘cos that’s what I like 😛  – so there’s no way I want my magic making such battles irrelevant. I’m still undecided, however as to whether magic should have some place in it.

For me the magic isn’t the key to holding the novel together. It runs through it, helps to create the texture of the world but is only one element weaving through the story.

Once again any recommendations for books with subtle or well-crafted magical elements would be great. Also I’d love to hear about how other fantasy writers tackle this issue.

Developing strong female characters in fantasy novels

A couple of weeks ago I knocked 80,000 words (yes, eighty thousand) out of my manuscript. Now, at 174,000 words the tome was very, very heavy so it could certainly bear this loss. What I cut, however, was my female lead, Agnes.

I didn’t cut Agnes out because she was a weak character, or because she was female I cut her out because her journey was essentially running in parallel with the main storyline. I was bringing her through childhood to a point where, at the end, she’d be primed for action in book two. I love her and certainly want to revisit her, but when I took a step back I saw there was just no need for her. I felt upset to have lost Agnes, but pleased with myself for having been so brutal.

Now I have a book full of men. I like men. I especially like the men I have created, but I can’t bear to carry on with a book with so skewed a bias. I do have three female characters, one of whom was crying out to be developed, but I want to be careful as to how I do develop them.

Often you find that in films and some books strong female character = ‘bitch’ or ‘plucky but ultimately ineffective’. (I mean Keira Knightly in  Pirates of the Caribbean, did anyone even notice she wasn’t in the last one? Sorry, I’m not keen on Ms Knightly)

I’m not a feminist, or at least I don’t think I am. Come to think of it I’m not sure what one is anymore, so perhaps I am, but I do think it’s important to consider what stereotypes you reinforce or reflect when you write.

Any recommendations for fantasy books (or any genre) with good female characters who aren’t bitches, overly masculine, or just a tragic love interest would be greatly welcomed – I know there are many out there.