Just a brief explanation before we begin (beyond the obligatory disclaimer that, of course, these are only ways that I think are a good idea): I like complex fantasy plots because of the need to transform and rework clichés. Yes, overused ideas can still yield a good story. The problem is that you actually have to work with the ideas to make that happen. If you start out with the idea to write a good story about a peasant boy saving the world, then, guess what, it’s your responsibility to make it good. Vague dreams of transformation mean nothing. The transformation must occur.
These are some ideas of how to get from “I want to write a good story about a peasant boy saving the world!” to “Here is that good story.”
1) Introduce multiple reversals/non-stereotypes.
Just one will not do.
This is the core of the problem I have with retold fairy tales. Somehow, the fairy tale is supposed to become an original and completely new story just because it’s told from the POV of the wicked witch instead of Hansel and Gretel, or from the POV of the woman guarding Rapunzel instead of Rapunzel and the prince. Thing is, that doesn’t happen. The trick doesn’t work. Perhaps this worked when people first started doing it (though all the examples I’ve read that did nothing more than reverse the viewpoint were manifestly uninteresting to me), but I tend to think not; rather, the audience went “Ooh, shiny!” and the stories were spared the necessity of being actually good writing.
So. Get rid of the idea of the gimmick, the one change that will somehow result in your magically having to do nothing else. Get rid of the idea that you can retell Tolkien from the POV of the evil side and somehow, gasp, it will be wonderful. First of all, it’s been done, multiple times, and second, no it won’t—not if Jacqueline Carey’s Banewreaker and Godslayer are any indication.
What about multiple reversals, though? Rather than just changing the viewpoint, you change other things, such as the fundamental assumptions driving the tale. For example, if you start out with an older sibling protecting his bratty younger brother from kidnapping, but resenting his duty, the story does not have to end with the siblings growing into their own people and taking their separate paths, not if you upset the assumption that self-actualization is the main purpose of society. Perhaps this society is collective, tightly focused around blood family, and what happens is the story of the siblings growing into the people they are “meant” to be and becoming comfortable with their roles. Done right, this could be extremely intriguing. It does have the “original” spin, in that many collective societies in fantasy are automatically seen as evil and many “heroes” are supposed to become as individualized as possible, but it involves ripping apart some of the author’s assumptions, too, which is nice.
Other examples of questioning fundamental assumptions: making war literally unthinkable, so that the story cannot end in armed conflict; trying to construct a believable religion, rather than a vague “spirituality” that pleases because it is so fuzzy and undefined; writing from the viewpoint of someone who willingly constrains his own power out of concern for others, instead of growing into a massive superhero with unlimited power.
2) Think like a careful villain.
This may not be literal if your story has no villains, but antagonists or opposing sets of protagonists instead. What I mean by it is the process of making your protagonist’s life complicated, thorny, and nasty in a believable way.
That means avoidance of two simplistic paths: making the hero’s life easy by means of coincidence, stupid opponents, and “nick-of-time” realizations and rescues; and making the villains melodramatically evil and over the top. I have complained about the former when I had no idea why someone decided to help the hero or why in the world he managed to dash in just as the villain was about to set the bomb off, but I can complain about the latter, too. Specifically: Why in the world is this villain psychologically and physically torturing the hero, instead of just killing him? How did he learn what would hurt him most? How does he keep appearing out of thin air to foil his happiness, when he should be in the next country by now with all the people hunting him?
Nasty plans, as well as cool ones that benefit the hero’s side, need backing. Say that you come up with a nasty plot idea that you would really like to use, because not only does it provide good drama, it plays on the hero’s blind spots/psychological weaknesses. Well, good then. But how are you going to get it to appear believable, instead of just slamming it into the story?
A set of questions to ask:
- Is the villain/opposing protagonist someone who would actually use this plan? Is it in-character for her to do so?
- Can this plan be physically and financially set up? (If it requires a big-ass laser beam and the villain has previously shown no sign of possessing such a laser, how did she acquire it?)
- Does the villain know what she needs to to use this plan, such as the hero’s blind spots? (Keep track of your knowledge flow. See point 3).
- Is there a reason that this plan is in motion at a dramatic moment in the plot, instead of earlier?
If you can work up convincing answers to those, and strip away extraneous elements that make no sense, then the main task is going to be convincing yourself to be that nasty to your protagonists. Come on. You can do it. You’re that nasty to the villains, after all.
3) Who knows what can spin you a complicated plot in no time.
And not by means of stupid, contrived things like infodumps or “intuition” or characters who keep silent when they have every reason to tell the truth. Simple, ordinary human error and simple, ordinary human greed will work quite nicely.
Imagine a character who overhears a conversation between two people using code. She doesn’t know what the code means. She hears only a few sentences. She is in the middle of a busy day, and she forgets to write anything down; she may not think she needs to. (Or she’s someone not that familiar with the political ground, such as a child; this works to great effect in one important scene in Martin’s A Game of Thrones). There is a conversation floating around in the story, information present, to tease the audience and hint at a plot thread, but the character is neither concealing the information for no good reason nor lying to the reader about it. And when the suspense snaps and the surprise comes hurtling down the chute, the readers can wince while the character is caught in the trap.
Okay, change of character. This time, the one who overhears does know what the code means, and the importance of the information she’s discovered. However, she is not a shining saint, and she is not a villain’s lackey. She’s just an ordinary person with no particular allegiance to either side. She can sell the information to the highest bidder. Or she is part of a political faction, and tells her faction’s leader, but no one else. Why not? After all, she thinks her side is in the right.
So here is immensely important info, the beginnings of a complicated web—but it’s not known to everyone, the way that most important information in fantasy, like the identity of the major villain, seems to be, and it’s not even all known to the protagonists, which is the case with most other important information. The people in the know will do different things from people not in the know, and may do harmless or vile things to keep the secret. You’ve got mystery and intrigue brewing. And if you’re a writer like me, who introduces bits and tidbits of knowledge because she likes the metaphor or it seemed like a cool idea at the time, you have the interesting task of going back and actually figuring out what the hell is going on.
4) Use superfluities and dangling threads—but not all of them.
I suppose this one may break Chekhov’s Rule, the idea that if you have a gun hanging on the wall in Act I, it must fire in Act III. On the other hand, I don’t like stories that follow Chekhov’s Rule so carefully that every random mention turns out to mean something in the end. They feel too slick, too polished. They’re not really complicated or messy enough to convince me that their characters are alive. Every psychological issue is addressed, every problem resolved. Blecha.
So you can write superfluously. Scatter around details that could mean something deep and profound, but don’t have to. They might be red herrings. They might be neat details for the story’s world, mentioned for the sake of giving a character or a ritual a sense of history. They might be twists of phrase that sounded cool at the time—and as long as they don’t get in the way of telling a good story, I see no reason they can’t be there.
Then say that you run into a plot problem, or you want to complicate something that’s too simple and transparent. All you have to do is reach back and grab a thread that fits, weaving it into the new corner of the story. At first, it didn’t mean something; now, it does. If you don’t use all the extra details that way, there’s an element of suspense and uncertainty. The reader won’t be able to predict exactly what you’re doing or where you’re going, because in all that mess of threads, some of them might be important and others probably won’t. They’re chosen for good, logical reasons, but those reasons are usually impossible to guess without sharing the author’s brain. And the ones that aren’t vitally important to the plot can still be good ornaments, or jokes, or “shadow-givers”—those stories that go deeper than the one that’s being presented in the book, and make the world more than a piece of cardboard scenery for that one play.
5) That sympathy thing again.
If you’re intent on giving all your characters a complicated subjectivity and psychology, then you get away from too-simple characterization—for my money, the biggest problem that plagues clichéd fantasy. There are plenty of stories I might have enjoyed, even stories of peasant boys saving the world, if the hero wasn’t just a typical teenager, and his parents weren’t just punching bags (that’s usually his adoptive parents, because, of course, he’ll turn out to be royal, and his royal family was the best thing ever), and the people who came to accompany him on his quest didn’t fall so neatly into prescribed roles, and his antagonists weren’t all out for the same manifestly simple evil things, like torture and rape and murder.
That doesn’t mean the hero has to be without issues, and his parents have to be nice to him, and the people who travel with him can never make jokes or give him information or fall in love with him, and his antagonists can’t be nasty. But give them brains about it. Don’t make them act like they know they’re characters in a story. Complicate their inner lives. At the very least, if you’re going to give them a motivation like “saving the world,” show how they, the unique people, interact with the notion of saving the world. (That’s one reason I’m so tired of insane villains; most authors can’t do an interesting brand of insanity. One mad villain is pretty much like every other mad villain).
I promise, if you do complicated characterization, the complicated plot will come, because there’s no way that you can have a bunch of breathing, living people whose heads you can inhabit and whose viewpoints you can understand interacting with each other and not have a complicated plot. If anything, you’ll probably have to trim it a bit, not tell some stories or pursue every issue to its very end, because there simply won’t be room.
6) Create a fictional situation that has no exact real-world parallels.
Time for a dose of irony. I think this is something fantasy inherently does well. For example, (a sufficiently complicated treatment of) vampirism is not something that has a real-world parallel, because what gets called “vampirism” in medical science is a radically different disease, and there aren’t, you know, undead walking around in the everyday world. So whether you’re going the urban fantasy route and mixing vampires in with modern humans, or historical fantasy and showing how vampires appeared in a certain age of our own world, or other-world fantasy and showing how vampires interact with a society that never existed, you’ve got something that should keep you on your toes.
But people take this and ruin it. They romanticize vampires into wimps who don’t actually want to drink blood, and whine about it all the time, and really aren’t all that different from ordinary humans when you get right down to it. They turn oppressed mages into perfect analogues of an oppressed religion. Even women in a society that never existed somehow suffer the exact same treatment as middle-class white women in the US in the 1950’s (and have the 1960’s feminist sensibilities to go with it, without a word on how they developed them). One major act of fantasy writing seems to be flattening the potentially interesting differences so that the author can make an allegory about an oppression in our own world.
I find this tiring. Most people already know what they think about those oppressions in our own world. There are a few still-controversial situations an author can relate her oppressions to—American gay rights, for example, or several different religions—but even then, many readers have kneejerk responses. And the author, surprise surprise, also knows what she thinks about this situation, and usually cannot resist the temptation to preach.
Shake that temptation, create something that may have features of several different ethically sticky situations in our own world but is an exact mimicry of none of them, and provide good arguments for both sides. (Ideally, the author herself will not know whom she agrees with). Then step back. I think this is one way to make the plot complicated and make people think about what they’re reading and how they’re responding, instead of just siding automatically with the character who spouts the viewpoint they agree with. And it avoids the stupid, stupid, stupid process I call flaw-scrubbing, whereby a character starts out with a prejudice or a certain objectionable point-of-view, meets one person who doesn’t fit his stereotypes, and thereby Learns The Error Of His Ways. Because god forbid that fantasy treat beliefs in any depth, or allow people to make errors of judgment, or have more than one side that could be right.
I may tackle the idea of writing collectivist and tradition-driven societies as other than Evil and Wrong next.