I’m really going to try to keep myself from ranting about just political fantasy here, because gods know it’s not just political fantasies that can lose their plots.
1) Ask yourself if the plot has to be complicated.
Really. Does it? There’s more than one reason why it might not have to be:
- Clear plots may fit the characters you’re using.
- Clear perspectives on the world may also fit the characters you’re using.
- If a Byzantine city, plot, or group of people encounters a threat they’ve never met before, all their plans may well go flying out the window.
- Desperate times may call for desperate measures—not overly-complicated ones.
- If the Byzantine plot is basically decoration on a birthday cake, and has nothing to do with the heart of the story, something is really wrong.
I think overplotting is getting to be a problem in fantasy, not on the level of always making villains stupid and ugly or overusing angst, but getting there. I’ve read many fantasies now that boiled down to just a final battle or a love story in the end; the plotting and planning and politics and philosophical issues in the background were so much icing. It’s as if the authors assumed the background, particularly the political background, had to be complicated, and didn’t spare breath to question that.
Is that a problem? Yes, I think so. You’re requiring your readers to memorize a bunch of information, characters, plots, and so on that you never intend to use, and taking their attention away from those things that do matter to your world and your story. So. Ask yourself if you need them before you put them in there.
2) Make sure that even minor characters have their own goals, or give good reasons why not.
Those goals can be the same as the goals of a major character. After all, the big bad guys have got to have their flunkeys, lackeys, messengers, fall guys, honey-pots, and so on.
What irritates me is when there’s a person running around in the plot who gives a mysterious message to the heroes, or tries to lure them into (obviously wrong) sex, or tries to expose their embarrassing secrets, and I can’t figure out why. I mean, maybe the protagonist did something to this little guy in the past, so he’s trying to take revenge. (It would be a fascinating change to make the revenge justified, which it never is if it’s against a hero). Or maybe he’s working for one of the big bad guys, as mentioned above. Or maybe he’s doing a favor for a friend, whom he might or might not know wants him to do these things for Nefarious Purposes. Or maybe he builds himself up in the court by finding people to pick on, and the protagonists are his targets for whatever reason. But there needs to be something there.
A person whom the author manipulates to show up at any point when she needs to cause a little commotion, then dismisses again without notice and without explanation, and arrives at the end of the book having never explained at all, is a Plot Device. I don’t think this is good. If nothing else, the author may notice “Oh, no, I never did mention why he’s doing that!” and tack on a big explaino about his abusive childhood or something at the end. But, again, tacked-on, rushed, last-minute= not fully absorbed into the plot= probably not necessary. Before you create a host of minor villains, determine what their place and function is.
I think it’s actually harder to find places for the little guys than the big guys, because authors may want to cause fear or wariness of the big bad guys in their protagonists and so spend time building them up as fearful or caution-making figures. All the little guys get is scorn, though, since they’re gadflies. Well, gadflies can bite your story as easily as your heroes if you don’t keep track of them.
3) Remember that murder isn’t always the best tool.
People in complicated fantasy plots are always threatening to kill each other, whether it’s over a political matter or a money matter or over those secrets that the Wise Old Mentor can’t tell the hero yet and he should just shut up about.
And my question is: Why?
There are a number of problems with death as a threat. First thing of all, it’s often permanent, or else the cost of resurrecting someone is enormous. So it doesn’t make much sense that the Wise Old Mentor would threaten to kill the hero upon whom the world’s safety depends.
Second, it’s often out of character. Will the little, sniveling, cowardly guy who’s only a minor servant of the great and powerful Evil Regent Uncle (it tends to be uncles) really threaten to kill the giant, bronzed, barbarian swordsman in front of the whole court? If he’s really cowardly (see point 4), he wouldn’t do something like that. It’s also stupid to make death threats in public, particularly if the swordsman is a barbarian and wouldn’t have problems with chopping someone’s head off, and if the barbarian is currently in the king’s favor. And what good would it do the Evil Regent Uncle to have one of his servants picked up and carted off to the dungeon? The usual justification for this is that it distracts attention from the true criminal, but any politically savvy king is not going to forget his suspicions about one person just because another does something stupid.
Third, I think fantasy authors use death threats as a source of drama. “He might kill him! OOOOOH!” Personally, I can think of many, many worse things that the villain might threaten the hero with, and if conditions 1, 2, or both apply, I’m not going to believe that the hero’s life is in any danger. It’s a bad sign when I know the author wants me to fear a villain, and I’m yawning and thinking, “Next.”
Tone death down a bit. Think of what your villain, in your situation, with the goals you created for him, would do. If it’s threatening the hero with death, fine, although if he wants the hero to do something for him, you’ll have to work to convince me that he means the death threat. If it’s taking his sanity away bit by bit until he lives in a dream-world where he doesn’t know what’s real or what’s not, now you’re talking.
4) Typical fantasy villains plotting risky and complicated political moves? Yeah, whatever.
There’s this huge disconnect between the usual portrayal of fantasy villains and what they’re supposed to be able to do. So the Dark Lord can spy on his enemies faultlessly, get his armies ready before the good guys know what’s going on, corrupt people on their side to his, fool everyone around him into believing he’s just a good guy too, master the ancient evil magic, and so on…
Yet when it comes down to it, the good guys defeat him easily, and he proves to be too arrogant/emotional/proud/stupid/cowardly to defeat them.
What. The. Fuck.
Yeah, I’ve ranted about this before, but that was in context of the final battle itself, where the Dark Lord does something incredibly stupid like fighting the good guys on ground they’ve picked. In Byzantine plotting, the authors want their villains able to plot like the grandest of Byzantine nobles, yet stupid enough that the heroes can defeat them easily, or so cowardly that, if it come down to their having to kill the protagonists like they threatened, they can’t do it.
Will you stop it? If you want a complicated plot, that means that there have to be minds in the story that could think of the twists and turns in that plot. If you need someone to react instantaneously when another nobleman threatens him, he has to be the kind of person who can react instantaneously. If you need a villain to keep the hero alive in a dungeon for a long period of time, then that villain had better have a damn compelling reason.
Simple elementary logic. Yet it gets ignored because authors are more focused on the plot twists than creating characters who can actually apply them. Pay a bit more attention to the characters, please and thank you.
5) Show the danger, the wit, the threats.
Here’s a witty, dangerous court, yay! It glitters in shades of blue and green and gold like a peacock’s tail, yay! There are people here who make vipers look like they’re on fire, yay! I walk eagerly into some fantasy court that the book tells me is like this—
Hey, why are all the people spouting clichéd dialogue and using clichéd gestures and making plans that make no sense and could be unearthed by a five-year-old in about an instant?
I’m tired of being told that courts are dangerous, witty, and beautiful, when I haven’t seen anything like that yet. Once again, I think there are some qualities that need showing, some that need telling, and some that could use either depending on the situation, and these qualities must be shown. I’ve seen court scenes that convinced me the court was the way the authors wanted me to see it as—the Sailing to Sarantium scene, set in, actually, an alternate Byzantium, was one of them, and Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is riddled with them—but they’re rarer than the ones that claimed to be dangerous and then fell flat on their painted faces.
Exercise your mind here. Political fantasy is gaining in popularity (see point 1), so it’s developing its own category of overused devices, and you’ll have to think a little harder to make your politics not just a copy of all the others. If dialogue like “You’ll never get away with this!” springs to mind when writing a court scene, try harder.
And I did say that I wouldn’t make this rant exclusively about fantasy politics, so that’s enough of that.
6) Don’t forget the ripple effect.
Person A tries to introduce poison into Person B’s food, because Person B was indirectly responsible for the death of Person A’s youngest sister. Person A fails, instead causing Person B to have a minor choking spasm. Person C notes the choking spasm and a touch of blue around Person B’s lips, a well-known sign of the poison chyrdis, and goes researching to try and figure out if that’s what it is, and who would put it in Person B’s food, or if Person B, a well-known attention whore, did it to herself. Meanwhile, Person D, who is watching Person C for Person E, notes Person C’s burst of activity and snooping about and thinks it may mean that she’s been discovered. She hurries to Person E to give a full report, and is spotted on the way by Person F, who thinks it’s awfully weird that she’s hurrying up to Person E’s tower when Person E doesn’t give a shit about anyone…
You see how it goes. People’s plans should affect each other, especially if they’re all in a fairly confined area, like a royal court or a single family. They don’t have to all tie back to each other, there doesn’t have to be a single villainous mastermind—perhaps in the case above, Person E and Person A don’t have a clue about each other—and they don’t all have to be equally threatening. But do show the interaction of webs and tangles and plans and schemes, hmmm? That’s what makes Byzantine plots fun. It’s no fun if the reader tries to walk a single strand and winds up walking…well, a single strand, with no connection to anything else.
7) Don’t manipulate events to give everybody “evil” a comeuppance.
Byzantine plots can take place behind the scenes, in isolated dungeons, in smoky rooms, in horrible towers, at night, and so on. Then comes the end of the book, and suddenly perfectly composed villains who’ve shown no signs of stress confess and crack everything in public, or an archer’s perfectly aimed arrow hits, instead of the hero, a minor villain who decides to sacrifice her life for him and then reveals that she’s in love with the hero and been so all along, not that the hero or the readers had a hint of this.
I want a hit of the crack these authors are on.
No, seriously, I can understand the temptation. When you’re tying up loose ends, it’s nice to have the villains reveal themselves and get punished, have tear-jerking moments, and then send the heroes home happy. But if you can’t get the plot to work in such a way that it all seems to happen naturally, then it’s best not to have it happen that way.
In some cases, this means revising and retrofitting. In others, it means being patient and acknowledging that not every villain will turn out to be a sniveling wreck as he confesses his crimes or an unsung hero. And in still others, the author has to write a different sort of ending, because the story refuses to work itself out well.
The trick is knowing, long before your readers do, what kind of ending the story requires and how you’re going to write it.
Will answer comments on the psychic powers rant later; need to go somewhere right now.