6) Don’t go overboard with the strange gestures.
One area where fantasy writers often don’t have much trouble is in creating strange hand and body gestures—for example, warding gestures against evil, secret signs for spies to use, or gestures that mean submission to royalty or which are appropriate to do in the presence of one sex but not another. It is possible to jump straight over the side into absurdity with them, however, so some guidelines:
- Does the gesture serve consistently in its stated purpose? Sometimes the author claims that these people always circle their hands above their hearts to signal “yes,” but then later in the story they’re nodding.
- Is the gesture one plausible with human or other-species physiology? A human culture which makes no gesture at all with its hands had better have a damn convincing reason, since the hands are so flexible as to be capable of entire unrelated sign languages. On the other hand, I desperately have to fight the urge to murder fantasists who talk about wolves crying or horses smiling.
- How elaborate is the gesture? Hard-to-produce signs, like kneeling, tapping the forehead three times on the floor, moving a step forward, and tapping again, are best reserved for extremely formal situations, because they would be a hassle to perform in daily life. If an elaborate gesture is performed in a common context, it would probably be shortened very soon, such as substituting three quick bobs of the head for knocking it against the floor.
Finally, if a gesture is an ordinary gesture, call it by its name. If your humans are nodding to each other, with no extra add-ons, don’t say they’re “zgeiwaking” each other. That just sounds silly.
7) Think about the clothes people wear.
By which I mean, do more than describe them. I have never yet been able to force myself through the dense paragraphs of description that most authors spend on clothes. My eyes are desperately crossing and my brain wandering to get away from the horror before I’ve gone more than a few sentences.
How would the clothes stay up? Most fantasy worlds don’t have zippers or Velcro, so exceptionally heavy clothes would have to rely on ties and laces, or maybe buttons, if they’ve gotten that far. Would a slender piece of string really be enough to hold, oh, a dress decorated and dripping with jewels up? I always wonder that when I manage to peek at the clothing description enough to notice the “dripping with jewels” part. Jewels tend to be damn heavy, unless they’re cut finely enough that they’re tiny chips. Unless you want the heroine’s dress to suddenly fall down with a snap in the middle of the court and send heavy diamonds and rubies bouncing everywhere, think about what’s holding it up, and how easy it would be to move in clothes like that.
That’s another thing, of course, movement. Whalebone corsets and heavy hoop skirts may look great, but they wouldn’t let the heroine race lithely across the room, step between the crown prince and the descending sword, kick the evil uncle in the balls, and then sprint out of the room and mount a horse. Even ordinary skirts wouldn’t be as easy to move in as trousers. A complicated arrangement of, say, jewel-dripping bodice, long flowing sleeves that connect to the sides of the skirt, and train would be awkward as hell to get anything done in. A lot of fantasy heroines have daggers “in their skirts.” But if they have it against their legs and they’re wearing skirts without slits, they’ll have to fumble for them, seconds in which the evil uncle will probably manage to kill the prince. This goes double for clothes that the protagonist isn’t familiar with, so if this is the tomboy heroine’s first time wearing a dress ever, I frankly wouldn’t expect her to stop the evil uncle. If she has to wear clothes to blend in at a ball, it would be good to have her practice first.
Oh, and footwear! Keep an eye on it. I’m always amazed that the princesses who have to dash out of balls into muddy gardens and cry because someone humiliated them don’t have their thin slippers soaked through in seconds. Litters and palanquins and palfreys and carpets do have a purpose beyond looking pretty: to spare a noble lady’s usually delicate shoes, or bare feet. Once again, a tomboy heroine could have feet hard as horn from running around, but it wouldn’t be likely for a princess who’s never even walked barefoot as a child.
8) Consider the means of shelter.
For example, if it’s the depths of winter and your characters are in a cold stone room, why don’t they have a fire? Do they heat the room by magic? Are they of a species that likes the cold, so they don’t need any extra warmth? Vice versa if they’re in a closed room in the middle of summer. To have a fire then could possibly be a luxury, or necessary for an older person or a pet, like a snake, that needed the warmth, but it would be odd for someone to have one just randomly. Authors seem to like writing cozy scenes in front of hearths, but seem nearly as likely to forget that sometimes it wouldn’t be practical.
How do your characters hide from the weather? A temple open to the winds might look very pretty, but it would also be very drafty. Do they have enclosed rooms in the center of the temple or house? Do they use the building only for certain purposes, say the worship of the wind god, and live elsewhere? Are they an order of ascetics or martyr-complex priests who enjoy suffering? Or doesn’t it matter because the climate doesn’t bring cold winds or violent storms? All these are possible answers, and I think it’s good to have one, because that could inspire more answers to other parts of the story. Perhaps the author never considered why the temple was so open, but goes with the wind god theory, and from there spins a whole new religion.
How practical are the buildings for defense, or other purposes? Against enemies in the wilderness, a ruined house might be worse than no shelter at all, if the party is tripping on loose floor tiles and trying to reinforce walls that can’t be reinforced. Or it might be good, if they do manage to build walls that join with the old ones and fend off, say, a pack of feral dogs that way. If a castle lets anyone walk in any door, it’s probably (at least I hope so) in a place that doesn’t suffer many serious attacks. A fort made of wood in a fire-prone area is asking for trouble, as is a tall, thin tower unsupported by magic in a windy place. I’ve personally seen about a foot of snow fell two very slender and thin pine trees, so a forest village in a snowy area should use sturdy ones for support.
9) Consider the treatment of the less obvious outsiders.
A character of a different race or religion or sexuality can stand out in a fantasy story, and many authors who write about them specifically structure the story to spin around that character’s difference. But how does your society treat the young, as opposed to the old? Is age a comfortable time in this place, or does the first broken hip mean death? Do the young suffer a loss of privileges if the elders lead? Do people generally consider youth or age as the more desirable time of life?
What about criminals who have been freed from prison, or who have escaped execution, or were under suspicion but now have been judged innocent? Ex-cons in our society often have a difficult time getting jobs, and suffer other, more subtle forms of prejudice. In the fantasy world, if your people are xenophobic enough or if the crime or sin was horrible enough, the merest breath of a suspicion could tarnish the character’s reputation. What do people do? Do they smile and make themselves welcome the person they suspect? Do they openly spit and scowl and stare? Do they turn their backs, or just pretend not to have, say, the food that a suspected criminal wants to buy? (One author who does this well is Lois McMaster Bujold in The Curse of Chalion. The protagonist Cazaril’s scars, from his whippings as a galley slave, make many other people think he was lashed for molesting children, and cause him trouble several times throughout the story).
What does your society do with the insane, or those who are believed to be so? If it’s based on history, the answer is unlikely to be comforting. Madmen and madwomen in other eras could be locked up, tortured, experimented on, subjected to various treatments like bleeding “for their own good,” or simply left to rot in massive rooms with no protection from other inmates who might be more violent. Food was poor, sanitation poorer still, and inmates could be physically as well as mentally ill. The horror of the madhouse was a real one. If everyone in your story has a quiet but persistent fear of being put away, then the reader can get a good idea what the madhouses are like even if the story never goes there.
10) Work out the little details as well as the big ones of mystic “themes” in your story.
A lot of authors like to introduce a metaphor that guides and governs the fantasy story, like the legend of a hero who will be reincarnated in the protagonist, or a pathological fear of death that the society as a whole has to learn to overcome. However, they often aren’t integrated into the story, just slapped on willy-nilly. I think that any fantasist can overcome that by working out the “ripple effect” of something so important to the story.
Sure, perhaps people tell stories of the legendary hero and wonder when he will return. But how else do they relate to it? The ways that people in the United States relate to Christ aren’t as simple as telling stories or reciting prophecies. Christ is also a proverb, a curse word, a symbol of other things (like innocence or pain or righteousness), a merchandising force, a touchstone in the mind, a name for churches to use, an archetype for stories that might never mention him by name, a figure in jokes, and in dozens of other places. If the fantasy hero has made a Christ-like impact on his society—“Christ-like” here meaning “as big as Christ,” not necessarily being a Christ figure—than appearing only in stories seems superficial.
Similarly, if a color or action or metaphor is important to your society, having it appear only in mystic signs in the sky is silly. Purple was important as the color of royalty in our own world, but it appeared in clothes to signal that royalty as well as in conceptions in the mind. We talk a great deal about “the heart,” but we don’t always mean the literal organ, and we don’t always mean the source of emotions, either; such expressions as “the heart of the matter” blur the boundaries, as does “Cross my heart and hope to die” and the gestures that go with it. Detached from a context of meanings like this, fantasy tropes often seem pale and sad in comparison to their vibrant cousins on Earth.
It might be taken to extremes, but I’m impressed by the persistence of the number 17 in Steven Brust’s work. It’s “mystic” to his long-lived Dragaeran race because they have seventeen Houses in their species, all of whom rule the Empire one after the other in a divinely ordained order that never changes. The shortest span of time a House can rule is 289 years (17 squared); the longest is 4913 years (17 cubed). They have seventeen courses in some meals, seventeen steps up to some of their buildings, seventeen steps taken to enter the Empress’s presence, and so on. At points it becomes a natural part of the story, sometimes it has attention drawn to it. But Brust never drops the number just because he gets tired of it, or replaces a part in the stories that would seem to belong to 17 with a less well-explained motif. The fact that all the Dragaeran books have 17 or 34 (numbered) chapters probably helps this.
Next rant is on council scenes, I think.