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So this is the other part of the mystery rant—this time, less about detective fantasies or detective heroes, and more about plots with political conspiracies.
Now, I really enjoy court intrigue and dastardly plotting. One of the reasons I enjoy Simon R. Green’s Deathstalker series (which is space opera, and space opera unapologetic about laying on the evil-evil-evil villains and totally over-the-top battles, no less) is because of the numerous plots that people are hatching. Intertwine, backstab, cackle madly! He even gets away with explaining everything in big lumps of omniscient voice with me, because I just enjoy it so goddamn much. Hey, everyone needs one guilty pleasure author.
But lately it seems that a lot of first-time fantasy novels I read, and stories on Fictionpress.net, feel they have to use political plotting because it’s “in.” And here’s where they falter.
1) Make sure the villains’ goals are actually coherent, and that their plans would achieve them.
Say that you have a bunch of nobles who want to keep the true heir off the throne because her coming back would mean their graft is more likely to be noticed. (I know, it’s supporting the myth that people of the right blood are just so much more intelligent than anyone else, but play along for the moment). So answer me this: Why do they not just kill her, instead of bringing her back and then plotting labyrinths around her?
I’ve read several fantasy villains lately who would benefit from a look at the Evil Overlord list, particularly the parts about not explaining everything to your enemy, not leaving them for dead at the bottom of the cliff, and not seeing them alone in your private chambers.
If you want to write political intrigue in a fantasy, the very first step should be figuring out what your plotters have to gain from it, and why it would be better to mysteriously and inefficiently attack her and her friends from the shadows instead of just dropping a rock on her head the moment they find out she’s the heir. Yes, do this even before you daydream about the cool scene where the heroine confronts the main villain with evidence of his dastardly plotting.
2) Take basic security measures to keep the plots secret.
Yeah, your heroine has to find out about them somehow, but how stupid are villains who leave the doors ajar to their conference rooms, don’t check for secret passages when they know of their existence, and just “assume” they’re alone instead of taking a final look around first? As I noted in the first part of this rant, the number of overheard conversations is truly astounding.
Once again, I don’t think writing this way is really writing good fantasy. It’s not having your hero triumph through her own cleverness or sneakiness or daring. It’s dumbing down the villains, or at least this part of their plotting, just to make your protagonist look good. And it’s worse, not better, when the writer manages to plot well elsewhere. She seems able to come up with truly complex and intricate plans then, but not a complex and intricate way of revealing them. And that’s just a shame.
3) Put magic to good use.
Ye gods! If there are mages in your fantasy world who can kill people quickly and quietly and from a distance, why in the world are these people bungling around with poisons and assassins throwing daggers from the shadows? And why do their targets all seem to lack magical protection against the poisons and daggers, being forced to resort to food tasters and fistfights?
You’re writing fantasy here, not a Hollywood movie script. Use the genre to its utmost lengths. Flex those magical muscles. If your world is strictly medieval and magic isn’t all that common, go and read history; real-life medieval nobility and royalty still tried to take measures to protect themselves even if those measures relied on superstition. This is why “unicorn horns” (most likely narwhal teeth) were so popular. They supposedly defended their owners against poison. Try introducing a similar precaution into your tale, especially if magic does exist but is just rare. At least it makes more sense than the nobility and royalty, who would be able to afford magical protection if anybody could, eating everything in sight or having a food taster who never does his job right.
As for the assassins… yes, it’s really exciting when they jump out from those shadowy corridors. However, that kind of ambush requires meticulous plotting and thinking like a villain. How did he manage to get there and lie in wait? How did he know the heroine was going to pass that place? Why didn’t the guards who are often depicted doing rounds of a castle detect him? How was he planning to get away if the attempt failed, or even if he did manage to kill the heroine and promptly found himself in hostile territory, with people alerted to danger by the presence of a corpse? These are all questions that need to be answered before you write the cool ambushes. An assassin who sneaks in through a one-way secret passage, jumps out and menaces the heroine on the way to her room in a well-lit and well-guarded corridor, and then gets himself caught by the protectors surrounding her before he can run away is one who probably wouldn’t have survived this long at his trade.
4) Don’t have your villains doublecrossing themselves.
Say that you’ve satisfactorily answered point 1; your villains have to use intrigue to get around the true heir, for whatever reason. However, if your main villain betrays information to her—like letting slip the location of a secret meeting in a loud stage whisper—and then himself is at that meeting, that’s a real head-scratcher there. Yeah, you can say that he wants to make the heir think he’s on her side and get rid of the competition at the same time, but wouldn’t the better and simpler course have been to go to her and pretend that someone just approached him about the meeting? That way, he gets rid of the competition and makes the heroine think he’s never taken a treacherous action against her. And she’s much less likely to suspect him when evil things start happening after the capture of those dastardly traitors, since, after all, he nobly refused an offer to betray her. If he’s at the meeting, that indicates these traitors trust him somewhat, and any princess worth her over-inflated reputation for intelligence should wonder why.
Likewise, say that your heroine’s evil half-sister wants her sibling dead, dead, dead so that she can take the throne. She captures the true princess…and then she dumps her in a cell and keeps her there instead of killing her. Why? The usual explanation for this is that Evil Sis wants insurance, or something else vague and hazy. But if she has been shown throughout the story as wanting death for Good Sis and nothing else, then you’re going to have an awfully tough time convincing your audience that she would change her mind just when it happens to be most convenient for the story.
Think like a plotting villain, not like an author trying to make things easy for your main character. Their actions should make sense, too.
5) Keep the threat shadowy. It’s more threatening that way.
There’s another problem with the villain who stage-whispers things to the heroine, or in fact any character in a black cloak who pops up and starts throwing clues around. It removes a big part of the sense of dread. If your heroine’s best friend takes a tumble off the battlements when he’s walking along them alone in a high wind, well, that could be an accident, couldn’t it? Even the sudden heart failure of her elderly adviser could be. And the way that her sister suddenly fled the castle; she’d always talked about wanting to become a nun, after all. And the wind blowing around the door is what blew out the candle…
Integral to the best conspiracy plots are, I think, the sense that somebody or something is doing things, but you don’t know what, and you even think the whole thing could be a product of your own imagination. To inflict your readers with a really good sense of paranoia, provide completely naturalistic explanations for events as long as you can. Where a lot of fantasy authors falter, I think, is in saying from the get-go that there are people plotting against the heroine; it’s just a matter of what group or person, and what they want. Yet the best conspiracy is the one that no one suspects until it’s too late, or suspects at all. The best traitor is the one that a reader can look back on later and say, “Yeah, I see that,” but when they find out the first time, they should scream in sheer horror. (Martin is really good at this, too).
And, on occasion, you just might want to leave those events naturalistic. Maybe the heroine’s best friend really did die in a high wind, not by the shove of any human hand. Maybe she’s never, ever going to know.
6) If you write from the villain’s point-of-view, do it well.
The most eye-rolling scenes of Lynn Flewelling’s I’ve read came not from her Tamir trilogy, much as I disliked the thing, but from the parts of her Nightrunner series devoted to the villains. They’re so patently evil that it’s silly. They even think about how evil they are. And the reader knows what they’re plotting, so it robs the book of a lot of its suspense.
Other times a fantasy author writes from the villain’s point-of-view, but keeps it concealed as to who it actually is, so the whole thing is in dialogue, or both participants are in cloaks, or something. There tends to be much use of the omniscient voice, and “a figure,” and people croaking “You!” and things falling to the ground in death throes. This strikes me as cutesy (and wearing, since so many people have used it now). Do we really have to know what these people are doing? If there’s going to be an attack on the heroine, why show people plotting it? Why not let it be a complete surprise?
If you absolutely must write from the villain’s point-of-view, I think it should be as sympathetic and open as possible, so that the character becomes not a villain at all but just another player in the great game. That avoids the ‘evil people who think they’re evil’ trap, and the cutesy one. And while it might rob the book of some suspense, it eases that loss by giving us another person to relate to as a person. There are some books where I’ve found myself rooting for the “villain” more than the “heroes.” Kay’s Tigana is one of those.
And tomorrow I’ll begin on underappreciated fantasy authors.