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I’ve reached a point in my Arthurian story where I’m going to have to start writing something about the (very limited) human magic systems. Merlin’s magic is based on draconic abilities and I can do anything I please with that. But any purely human magic systems in fifth-century Britain would be based—at least somewhat—on the original Druidic practices. Somewhat, because the Romans appear, uncharacteristically, to have done their best to squelch the Druids. (The Romans were usually fairly lenient toward local religious customs.) And, of course, because Christianity would have come to Britain sometime in the fourth century and that would have had some effect on how—and by who—the ancient practices were carried on.

So, I have tried to do some research on the Druids. Unfortunately, the only really reliable answer I’ve been able to arrive at is: Nobody knows. The bare handful of ancient writings by Greeks or Romans contemporary with the Druids barely say anything about their practices. And most of those are phrased by comparison, always unfavorably, to Greek or Roman practices, which actually says more about the attitudes of the writers than about the Druids themselves. Later writers appear to have made up a lot of what they say they know.

About the only thing that seems reasonably certain is that the Druids did have some methods of divination and might have also had some knowledge of healing and herbs.

So, it looks like I’m going to have to make up whatever magic system I use for the few humans who will have the ability. And, in this case, try to make it fit into a fifth-century context. Fortunately, I intend for any real magic (as opposed to herb lore, for example) to be fairly rare and somewhat limited.

Nevertheless, I thought now might be a good time to go into some of the questions I might ask myself in developing a magic system for one of my stories. These questions don’t always need to be answered in the story, but I may need to know the answers, even if my characters don’t. Also, some of the answers can be fodder for more conflict or obstacles for my story.

  1. Who can do magic?
  2. How do they acquire magic?
  3. Where does the magic come from?
  4. What is needed to perform magic?
  5. What can magic do?
  6. Are magic users organized in some way? How?

Sometimes, it takes a while for ideas to percolate and then for me to voice them—to myself, first.

Another point Gail Carriger made in her book, THE HEROINE’S JOURNEY, is that readers or audiences of the two journeys are after different things. Those who favor the Hero’s/Warrior’s Journey are looking for excitement. Hairs-Breadth Escapes! Battles! Starships exploding! (Even in space, where there’s no oxygen, but . . . never mind.) Those who favor the Heroine’s/Leader’s Journey are not averse to excitement, but they’re looking for something else. She calls it comfort, which is as good a way to describe it as I can come up with. The satisfaction that things come out all right, happily, in the end—which the Hero’s/Warrior’s Journey doesn’t deliver.

However, when I think of LORD OF THE RINGS, I can’t help noticing something. Frodo is definitely on a Hero’s/Warrior’s Journey, but most of his solitary battle is internal, fighting against the growing influence of the Ring. After the breaking of the fellowship, almost all of the “exciting” bits—the battles—take place in Aragorn’s part of the story. Helm’s Deep, the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, and the Assault on the Black Gate. And, as I argued here, Aragorn is on a Heroine’s/Leader’s Journey.

Which leaves me thinking. If a Heroine’s/Leader’s Journey supplies enough excitement along the way . . . well, I suppose some of the adrenalin junkies might think the ending is sappy, but they got the excitement they were after, so they’re not disappointed. And those looking for the satisfying ending of the Heroine’s/Leader’s Journey still got that.

Is it possible to please both with the same story? It seems so, but I need to think some more on just how to make that work.

Or, at Least One Modified Pantser

A meme has recently started going around in writer’s groups on social media:

There are three kinds of writers:

  1. Those who plot their stories.
  2. Those who discover their plot along the way.
  3. Those who know what will happen but their book is a bit feral still, needs a bath, has bitten and will bite again.

That wording for the third group is perhaps a little bit strong. I call myself a modified pantser and I think most of us in the middle have probably developed a few tactics for taming that feral story.

All of us have to find the process that works best for us, individually. Usually by trial and error. I’ve certainly been no exception to that.

The first novel I wrote (not counting that thing I wrote in college), I outlined. It’s been a while so I can’t remember exactly why. Probably I thought you were supposed to. Part way through, I noticed that I was spending a significant part of my writing time revising the outline as the story grew and changed in my imagination.

This is also the first story in which I had to deal with a full rebellion by one of my characters. I reached a scene, called for in the outline, and I just could not write it. After a couple of days of thinking about it, I realized that the problem was that the character just would not do what the outline called for. It was out of character for him. But, with or without the outline, I needed him to in order to get where I wanted the story to go. The solution, eventually, was to change the situation enough that the character would see doing what I needed him to do as for the greater good—and, bonus points for torturing my characters, still be very unhappy about it.

I also outlined the next novel. When that story diverged from the outline fairly early on, I closed the outline and just kept writing.

I did not outline my third novel. I was literally writing the last few pages when I looked up and said to myself, “But it doesn’t come out to a story.” I knew instinctively that something was missing. It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out what because I wasn’t grounded enough in the craft yet. The problem was that the story wasn’t really centered around a story problem. The problem was there, but it wasn’t . . . featured, I guess is the best way to put. It didn’t create turning points (plot points) in the story. Once I realized that, it was easy enough to fix.

So, by this point, I’d demonstrated that outlines don’t really work for me. I’m not a plotter. But, neither does just plunging in and winging it—the stereotype of the pantser. And so my process evolved. I need to have signposts along the way—the major plot points like the inciting incident, the key event, the mid-point, and the climax. This helps to keep me from veering off too far (something that did happen in the third novel) and also helps to keep the story problem central to what my characters are doing. But it leaves me free to just let what happens in between flow naturally for my characters.

I also, now, tend to have at least chapter headings and a few notes set up for maybe three to five chapters ahead of where I’m currently working. Things like which character will have the viewpoint and a couple of sentences about what will happen in that chapter. Maybe a snatch of dialogue that came to me while I was washing dishes or walking the dog. In my current WIP, maybe a couple of research notes copied in for easy reference. This isn’t an outline. More like the headlights illuminating just enough of the road ahead. This usually works for me, but occasionally a story will require more—or less—structure to work. As my dog agility instructor used to tell us, “You have to be rigid about being flexible.”

I’ve been thinking about the writing process—especially my writing process lately. We usually divide writers into Plotters and Pantsers, but the real world is rarely that black and white.

Plotters outline their stories, sometimes extensively, before they ever put Chapter One at the top of a page. Their characters may be built to fit the plot and, some would say, they tend to create plot-driven stories.

Pantsers, on the other hand, are said to write by the seat of their pants, discovering the plot as they go along. A pantser’s characters are more likely to lead them off script—or, at least, be more likely to be allowed to go off script. The result is often a character-driven story.

G. R. R. Martin likened it to the difference between architects and gardeners. An architect plans the rooms and where the windows and doors will be before starting to build. A gardener plants a seed and watches what grows.

But the real world is rarely that simple and there is a whole continuum of writing processes between the two extremes. I’d venture to say most writers are somewhere between.

This issue isn’t really about reader expectations, much. It’s just something of a reality about the two sub-genres. And something I’ve been thinking about.

Sword and Sorcery stories are almost always short—no longer than novel-length at most and often shorter. Where the main character(s) of a Sword and Sorcery spawn a series, it’s almost always episodic—each story is a separate adventure. Like detective fiction, the only common denominator in the series is the protagonist(s). (And I only say ‘almost’ because there may actually be an exception out there, but, if so, I can’t think of it.)

  • Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian stories were mostly novelettes or novellas . A novelette is basically a very long short story, from 30 pages to 60 pages long. A novella is from 60 pages to 200 pages. A more or less average novel (if there is such a thing) would be about 400 pages, though anything over 200 pages counts and, of course, some are much longer.
  • Same with Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories.
  • Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone started out the same, but did grow into several novel-length works as well.

Whereas, although I can think of a few single-book examples, for Epic Fantasy more often than not a series is the default. A reader expectation, in fact.

  • Lord of the Rings is one very long story published in 3 volumes, adding up to (in my copy) almost 1100 pages (excluding the appendices).
  • David and Leigh Eddings’s Belgariad and Malorean are each 5 volumes.
  • Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, finished by Brandon Sanderson, is . . . 14 volumes and over 10,000 pages!

My theory about that is that the smaller stakes of Sword and Sorcery cannot support a longer story. The goal simply isn’t worth it when that many obstacles and risks begin to pile up. There are, after all, other possible adventures and, probably, other treasures and a character smart enough to be interesting ought to recognize that at some point. But the obstacles and risks are much more worth it if the character is saving the world.

I also think that failure to realize the difference between Sword and Sorcery and Epic Fantasy—especially when it comes to length—can cause a story to fail. We, as readers or audience, lose interest if the stakes are too low to support the weight of the story.

There are stories that don’t fit the Tolkien mold. Not as many as there should be, but it’s hard to defy reader expectations.

For my money, the best of these is Lois McMaster Bujold’s SHARING KNIFE series, which consists of four full-length books, and one novella: BEGUILEMENT, LEGACY, PASSAGE, HORIZON, and “Knife Children”.

Like LORD OF THE RINGS, the SHARING KNIFE is not really a series in the classic sense, but more of one long story published in four parts, with the follow-on novella published later. It shares a lot of other similarities with LoTR, too. Intentionally, since the author was consciously writing an answer to LoTR.

The world of THE SHARING KNIFE doesn’t have a single Dark Lord. Instead, an ancient magical experiment went very wrong, seeding the world with an unknown number of dormant monsters called malices or blight bogles that emerge randomly. Each malice essentially eats the essence of the world around it, creating a blight reminiscent of the aftermath of a nuclear blast—everything in the area dies and nothing can live in that area for decades, centuries, or, in extreme cases, millennia. It’s dangerous even to step into such blight. And the longer a malice lives, the more powerful it becomes and the more of the world it blights to sustain itself.

And only one group of humans, called Lake Walkers, can kill malices. Only they, with their innate magic, can make the weapon necessary to kill a malice—a knife made from the thigh bone of a Lake Walker and primed by being plunged into the heart of a dying Lake Walker, so that the knife can capture the essence of that death to share with a malice and teach it to die. Two Lake Walker deaths for each malice death.

Lake Walkers patrol obsessively to find and kill malices before they can do too much damage, with no hope that the threat will be eradicated in their lifetimes. Only hoping that the long war will not be lost in their lifetimes. Their lives are defined by this task. Meanwhile the rest of humanity lives largely in blissful ignorance, most not even believing that blight bogles exist. But if ever a malice escapes such a death, it will destroy the world.

For further analysis of the similarities—and differences—between LotR and THE SHARING KNIFE, try these two articles:

Tussling with Tolkien: Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Sharing Knife: Horizon | Tor.com 

Absent Gods, Absent Catastrophes : The Sharing Knife and The Lord of the Rings – DataHead — LiveJournal

I love LotR, but there are more than enough stories now following that pattern. And, frankly, one-dimensional dark lords and simple solutions are beginning to get a little old.

I want more stories like THE SHARING KNIFE, too. And others in which the answer isn’t simple—or immediate. (Simple is not the same as easy. Destroying the ring to destroy Sauron is a simple solution, but anything by easy to accomplish.) But that kind of story—even though it may have many exciting battles—doesn’t seem to satisfy readers of epic fantasy, who have been taught to expect the one battle to end all battles.

I don’t know, maybe we need a new sub-genre of epic fantasy for these kinds of story. But what would we call it?

THE LORD OF THE RINGS is surely not the first example of epic fantasy. Myths and legends from ancient times have plenty of examples—including the Arthurian legend I’m currently working with. But it has become the archetypal example of the genre, what most people think of first when the subject comes up. It’s a good example of epic fantasy—but not of all that epic fantasy can—or even should—be.

Because part of any story, and particularly speculative fiction, is to reflect the common experience of its time in a way that allows readers to process that experience differently, to look at it in a neutral setting in a way that’s not possible with real world events. Tolkien, in part, did exactly that with LORD OF THE RINGS. But LoTR reflects his experience of war, which is not ours.

Tolkien fought in World War I. So, let’s take a quick look at that war. WWI lasted four years. It was the first major war in which air planes (open-cockpit bi-planes, back then) were used extensively. The first major war in which chemical weapons were used (and they were banned by most of the participants shortly after the war). Much of it was trench warfare.

Just superficially, we can see a lot of parallels with LoTR. The Nazgul are given flying not-quite-dragons. Too close a brush with the Nazgul results in an affliction called “the Black Breath” in which the sufferer sinks slowly into death. In the books, the orcs dig trenches across the Pelennor fields before the battle (though the trenches don’t seem to have any impact on the battle once it starts). But look a little deeper.

Honestly, most of the Fellowship have no business just leaving everything behind and taking off on this quest. Boromir, in particular, is his father’s general and Minas Tirith is already at war. Sam appears to be his Gaffer’s sole support. Most of the others have responsibilities at home, too. If you think about it, it does seem odd that they just take off for the duration.

This does reflect Tolkien’s experience, in which most of the young men went off to war and then returned to pick up their lives when the war was over. Except those who died or were too badly wounded, physically or spiritually, of course.

And not very many wars—or military actions—are completed in only four years anymore. But, again, that was Tolkien’s experience. One side won and everyone, at least on the winning side, could go back to their lives. Which most of the Fellowship also do after the war.

We haven’t lived in that world or experienced war in that way for a couple of generations now. It’s only reasonable that our generation’s epic fantasies should reflect our experience, not our parents’ or grandparents’. Yet reader expectations of epic fantasy still seem to be centered on a big battle to end all battles before the survivors go back home.

I like those exciting—and final—endings, too. Sometimes. But . . . shouldn’t we have both kinds of stories?

I mostly want to share some of my thoughts about reader expectations of epic fantasy. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while.

It’s probably best to start by defining what epic fantasy is—and what it’s not. Epic fantasy is defined by the reason the characters attempt whatever it is they’re trying to do and the stakes if they fail. As with the Hero’s (or Warrior’s) Journey, the characters in an epic fantasy set out to accomplish something that will be of benefit to more than just themselves. Frodo goes to save Middle Earth from enslavement by Sauron, for example. (There’s a reason why epic fantasy usually has at least on character who is also on a Hero’s (or Warrior’s) Journey.) And the stakes, if they fail, are greater than just the chance that the hero may die. The stakes in LORD OF THE RINGS are all of the world, including Frodo’s beloved Shire, being cruelly enslaved.

This is what differentiates epic fantasy from its first cousin, sword and sorcery. The two sub-genres are superficially similar. Both tend to be second world fantasies and very often involve a quest. But sword and sorcery is much more about some personal gain for the characters—adventure, treasure, or revenge, most often. And the stakes are usually the risk that a character may die in pursuit of that goal. For sword and sorcery, that’s the ultimate failure. Whereas, in epic fantasy, a character’s death is not a failure so long as it helps to achieve the larger goal.

Sword and sorcery stories are usually smaller in scale to match the smaller goals and stakes, though, of course, the characters may have more than one adventure over the course of a series, like Conan the Barbarian, to name only one classic example. By contrast, epic fantasies have a greater tendency to be . . . well, epically long. The greater stakes can support a bigger—longer—story.

But all of that is not what really defines reader expectations of epic fantasy. That’s more defined by the story that really popularized the sub-genre: LORD OF THE RINGS. More on that in my next post.

Naming one of these heroic journeys the “Hero’s Journey” has so many consequences. It implicitly devalues the other and denies the heroism of the Leader. But if you believe that Aragorn’s story is a Leader’s Journey, as I do, you have to accept that both journeys are about heroes—just different kinds of heroes. And that opens up thinking about other aspects of these journeys. Valuing or considering just one closes off some of those avenues of thought—and that’s limiting to us all.

Having the tools to recognize the Leader’s Journey as distinct from the Warrior’s enabled me to notice things—like recognizing that Aragorn’s heroic journey was fundamentally different from Frodo’s and why. It adds another dimension to some of my favorite stories. And, even an old favorite, read or watch many times, can get a new shine by noticing the signs of which journey (if any) is being enacted.

It shouldn’t be surprising at this point that stories that involve a team (heists, buddy cop, super hero teams) are usually Leader’s Journeys for the team. That doesn’t mean, of course, that all of the characters are on a Leader’s Journey. It’s interesting (to me, at least) to notice which characters fit nicely into the team. And which find it more difficult, but manage in the end. And which just can’t function as part of a team. (I’m looking at you Tony Stark/Iron Man.)

More, understanding this has made me realize that a number of my stories are actually about Leaders, not Warriors. And that I screwed up. Not in the stories themselves, although I hope to be able to write this journey better now that I have a better grounding in it. More mindfully. But I erred by not telegraphing the correct journey to the readers—in the covers, in the blurbs, in the early chapters. Because if the reader understands what kind of story they’re going to get they are better able to choose and also more likely to be satisfied readers. So that’s definitely something I can learn to do better.

I certainly don’t want to mislead readers about the story they’ll get in one of my books. On the other hand, since I can’t expect readers to know about the Leader’s Journey, even if I call it the Heroine’s Journey (maybe especially then), I’ll have to find another way to set their expectations. Kind of like reader expectations of epic fantasy, but that’s another line of thought. Maybe I’ll blog about that next.

Here’s where I’m going to go off and argue that some very masculine hero-type male characters are actually on Leader’s Journeys (and why I don’t want to use Heroine’s Journey as a name for this kind of story).

Let’s start with Aragorn. Breathe, I’ll wait. Okay, now that you’ve gotten over your near heart attack, let’s look at the points of his journey—including material from the Appendices.

Aragorn’s father was killed in an orc attack when Aragorn was only two. His mother worried that someone was trying to wipe out the remaining heirs of Isildur, so she took baby Aragorn to Rivendell to be raised as Elrond’s foster son. Elrond shared her fears and gave the baby a different name, Estel (meaning Hope), to protect him. Aragorn didn’t even know who he really was until he came of age. (Disguise and loss of identity.)

Shortly after he found out who he really was—and what he could become—Aragorn met Arwen, who had been away visiting her grandparents, Celeborn and Galadriel, in Lothlorien. And he fell in love with her. Arwen wasn’t immediately as impressed with a very young Aragorn.

Aragorn set about taking up his duties as Chief of the Dunedain of the North and became friends with Gandalf. He was known around Bree as Strider. He also travelled in disguise, using the name Thorongil (Eagle of the Star) to both Rohan and Gondor and even farther afield. (Disguises.) He became a very great warrior and leader. On his return, Aragorn stopped in Lothlorien, where Arwen was again visiting. With help from Galadriel, he made a much better impression this time and the two plighted their troth.

Elrond, however, was not pleased because it meant that Arwen would make the choice to be mortal, rather than go into to West when the last of the elves left. He said he would only give his blessing to the marriage if Aragorn became King of Gondor. (The only family Aragorn has left is his foster family and his foster father is trying to stop Aragorn from forming a new family. His existing support network offers no solutions.)

Time passed and Aragorn joined the Fellowship. When Gandalf fell in Moria, Aragorn took over as leader of the group and he would have gone with Frodo to the end. But Frodo (Hero/Warrior, remember?) chose to go off alone. And Aragorn, as a Leader, accepted that choice. As Boromir was dying, swore to save what was left of the civilization of the Numenoreans. “I will not let the White City fall, nor our people fail.” Boromir was the first man of Gondor to recognize Aragorn as his king.

But first, Aragorn set out to rescue Merry and Pippin. (A Leader is loyal to his team and doesn’t abandon them.)Aragorn started recruiting more team members almost immediately. Once Gandalf had broken Saruman’s hold over him, Theoden rejected the idea of helping Gondor, “Where was Gondor when the Westfold fell?” But after Aragorn (and his friends) helped to win the Battle of Helm’s Deep, his attitude changed. When Aragorn announced that the beacons were lit and Gondor called for aid, Theoden replied, “And Rohan will answer.”  (The Leader recruits new team members, sometimes by helping them first.)Aragorn even recruited the dead to help him with the Corsairs.

At the battle of the Pelennor Fields, Aragorn flew the banner Arwen had made for him—the banner of a king of Gondor—from the lead Corsair ship, which raised talk of the return of the king in the city. Following the battle, Aragorn set up his tent outside the walls, refusing to enter the city—yet. But he did enter, cloaked and hooded (another disguise), when Gandalf asked for his help with some of the injured. Aragorn was able to help those, like Merry, Eowyn, and Faramir, who were suffering from “the Black Breath”, because, as the saying in Gondor went, “the hands of the king are the hands of a healer”. Talk of the return of the king accelerated.

The power dynamic shifted at this point. Gandalf deferred to Aragorn who was the true general and leader of the combined forces from that point on.  Aragorn proposed and led the assault on the Black Gate to divert attention from Frodo. (The Leader will try to save all of his (or her) team, even the hero. They are the source of the Leader’s strength, after all.) On his return, Faramir greeted him at the gate and recognized him as king.

Finally, Aragorn’s reward is to marry Arwen. (Happy ending, reunited with family, including the new found family of his team.)

See how much easier it is to think of Aragorn as a Leader? No one denies that he was a great warrior, but his path, his journey, was not the Hero’s Journey.