Some lines from Swinburne appropriate to what I’m feeling today. “Dolores,” again.
In yesterday’s reach and to-morrow’s,
Out of sight though they lie of to-day,
There have been and there yet shall be sorrows
That smite not and bite not in play.
The life and the love thou despisest,
These hurt us indeed, and in vain,
O wise among women, and wisest,
Our Lady of Pain.
I am so going to write a story based on the Dolores worship Swinburne describes.
I love politics. I love intriguing nobles. And then I see what people do to them, and I want to cuddle them.
1) Follow the KISS rule.
This is “Keep It Simple, Stupid,” and you’ve probably heard it in other contexts. In the case of political intrigues in fantasy novels, it applies when the nobles are engaging in Byzantine schemes for no apparent reason. I’ve read several novels where the nobles in question could have gotten away with open murder, since the people they were plotting against were so despised, or at least simpler plans than they used. Yet they went on and on with secret meetings and passwords and poisons in wine as though the solution weren’t sitting at their belts.
If your nobles can assassinate someone, and it isn’t the kind of murder where they would feel guilt, why not have them do it? Or if it’s a case of embarrassing someone publicly so that that person gets exiled, why not do that, instead of tangling themselves in labyrinthine intrigues?
Always look for the simplest solution, and if there aren’t legitimate reasons why your nobles can’t follow it, then take it. Or think of some legitimate reasons.
2) Don’t make the plots stupid, either, or self-contradictory.
Those scheming nobles have the same problem as the evil dark lords; everything is going so well until the heroes come along. If they’ve managed to hide what they’re doing for months or years, especially from discerning people, how do your heroes find out? The nobles acting stupidly is not a good reason, unless they reveal the plot that way within a few days.
Similarly, double-crossing is fine, but nobles should not forsake the motives they intrigue for, or double-cross themselves. This simply makes no sense. I’ve read a few stories where the intriguing noble wanted the throne at the beginning of the story, and then took actions that would take him farther and farther from the throne. If you have a character blinded by a fault like arrogance, then this might be excusable, but most of the time there’s no explanation. And I’m left scratching my head and wondering where the smart nobles at the beginning of the story went. Perhaps the stupid conspiracy-brewers have them locked up in closets somewhere (since, after all, they wouldn’t be smart enough to kill them).
3) Try to avoid some of the more obvious cliches.
Secret meetings, secret passwords, and poisons in wine are all well and good if there’s a reason for them. Often enough, though, the nobles could do their plotting in daylight and in nice open rooms without any poison if they’re clever enough, and no one will ever know. (See points 1 and 2).
Do they need to meet in secret? Why? Who will report them? The development of the plotters’ antagonists, whether those are the heroes or another faction of villains, should take just as much time as the development of the intriguers themselves, and it’ll provide you with a good idea of how much secrecy is necessary.
Do passwords work? How easy are they to learn? Any conspiracy is vulnerable to betrayal from within, and passwords are a fairly simple way to betray someone.
Finally, do some research on poisons. Some are nasty and kill quickly but are obvious in their effects (curare, cyanide, mercury). Others may be harder to procure (arsenic, for example, will probably not just be lying around in a fantasy world). Try to figure out what your characters could realistically have access to, what might happen when they used them, and what might give them away as using them.
4) Why do heroes always arrive in the nick of time?
With the exception of George R. R. Martin’s series, this seems to happen all the time. The evil nobles are just about to kill the king, and the heroes come charging in and stop it. This can be very exciting, but few authors handle such rushed tension well; either the hero suddenly is thinking too quickly after a novel full of sluggishness, or the evil guys pause to do things like gloat before striking. I think it would make a nice change to have the heroes figure it out, not tell anyone, and then trip up the evil people as the intrigue explodes. After all, beforehand, it would be only their word against the intriguers’, unless they had concrete proof.
5) Try to avoid the detective denouement.
This is the part where the hero explains everything to an awed and admiring audience. It might work well in a detective novel, though even there it’s tired; it works less well in a fantasy. People who enjoy political intrigues in fantasy novels often have “puzzle-solving minds,” to quote Guy Gavriel Kay, and do well when left to solve them on their own. The whole explanation is insulting, since it probably includes many things the readers have figured out for themselves.
It’s also a shortcut to lazy writing (those suckers are all over the place). If something didn’t seem to make sense, the author can just tie it up in the denouement, instead of having plotted it well enough that someone could have figured it out on his or her own, if he or she just read it the right way. Tightly-plotted intrigues should work like the best of mystery novels; they can have red herrings and false suspects and unexpected twists and turns, but those have to be embedded realistically in the story, not just announced by the authorial voice from out of the heavens.
Finally, I feel the detective denouement ends the story too neatly. Fantasy novels often do have happy endings, but they also have a problem with too neat ones. All the evil people are punished, we learn what happened to everybody, all the secrets emerge from the woodwork, la-dee-la-dee-la-la. The explanation by the character just adds another burden onto a work that may already be struggling under too much tidiness.
Shorter than usual. Let me know if you can think of anything to add.