This is connected to other rants I’ve done on changing fantasy societies and making an ordinary person the hero, but I think it deserves its own series of complaints. Or perhaps I’ve just been reading too many fantasies again where the heroes can do everything.
1) Decide the reason that your society doesn’t just run on magic/mages don’t rule.
Most fantasies give mages—or at least the hero mage—fantastic powers. He can blow up mountains, fling fireballs long distances, bring people back from the dead or from wounds that should be mortal, destroy the evil villain where no one else can do so, and so on. Sometimes the things other mages can do aren’t far behind. And they don’t seem to suffer from lack of strength or desire to do what they want. Why aren’t they ruling the world, then?
There can be excellent reasons. The author can have set up a series of limitations on what magic can do. Maybe it only works inside a given area. Maybe it depends on materials that are rare and expensive to obtain. Maybe the mage can only draw a certain amount of strength from himself or from some other source in the world before collapsing.
The point is, insure these limitations actually appear in the story. I detest it when the author sets something up as an absolute rule—“No mage can ever do this, no matter how much she wants to”—and then breaks the rule for the heroine. Of course, she would never, ever use this power for personal gain. Of course not.
If your characters are human-like or have human-like emotions, there’s going to be at least a few people who would see nothing wrong with ruling the world with this power. Breaking the rules you yourself have put in place is just asking for trouble. Why wouldn’t the other mages try to influence this exceptional magic-user to lead them, or even experiment further on their own and try to imitate her powers? Having them fall obediently into line and the heroine somehow shed all temptation just turns your characters into caricatures of good.
Just as there can be excellent reasons that mages aren’t running the world when your heroine appears, there can be excellent reasons she doesn’t want to rule the world. The point is to show that she is that kind of person. Don’t expect your readers to assume she is just because you’ve made her the heroine of your story. Unless there are theological or metaphysical reasons against it, you’d think the magic would choose a “wrong” person at least part of the time.
2) Keep the psychology reasonable, as long as you’re dealing with humans.
A lot of fantasy psychology, even of non-human races, is reasonably human. This is either because a lot of them are human-shaped and experience the world physically a great deal as we do, or because the authors are human and there’s simply no way to know exactly what a dragon would think and imagine, if we believe it’s completely different from the way we think and imagine. The point is to take those limitations and bend them in new ways, rather than ignoring them for the sake of making the story easier to write.
Does your hero have an enormous grudge against someone else? Why? The reason had better be pretty damn good. If it’s a minor thing, and the hero is not generally shown as being a petty and small-minded person, then something is wrong. This can be a glimpse at deeper things about your hero. Perhaps he would have forgiven his rival, but his rival happened to lock him in a closet when he’s claustrophobic, and he’s never forgotten the shiver of fear. (That’s a crude example, but you get the point). If, however, the hero is supposed to be just all-around noble and yet holds this stupid grudge, I’m convinced the author wants the grudge as a plot point but doesn’t want to go to the trouble of justifying it. Or the hero’s rival is the usual ‘shallow, spoiled bully, and the hero is the only one who sees him for what he is’ stereotype, which makes even less sense. After all, if no one else sees this rival for what he is, he has to be a pretty damn good actor, and must have his own reasons for that.
It’s all right to make your heroes less than shining paragons of virtue. Really. In the end, it pays off, because it hints that there are people around the hero who are just as strong and complex, and it sets up many other plot points (such as an epiphany scene, or a confrontation) more believably.
3) Be aware of established physical limits.
One of the reasons that Shining Heroes make me roll my eyes so hard is because they can often do things that no ordinary person can do, without even an attempt at an explanation, magical or otherwise. They can survive a fall from a two-hundred-story tower—and with all bones intact, no less! They can hack someone else’s head off without pausing. They can lug a dead body around with no mention of its weight.
In a way, this ties into a lot of other rants I’ve done, especially on how much it pays to keep an eye on time in your story. If your character absolutely must go without eating for a few days, note that he’s getting hungry, and weaker. If he goes without sleep, he should start seeing hallucinations within about five days. If he breaks a leg, it should damn well hurt.
If there’s a healer around to take care of all this, mention it, please. Don’t snap the limits apart for the sake of attending to the hero’s mad dash to save the princess. It’s so much better to see the clever way in which the hero plots to steal food, don’t you think?
4) Keep limitations of age and time in mind.
Older heroes and younger ones should not be supernaturally skilled. Older heroes will have the experience, but their bodies will have begun betraying them. Younger heroes don’t have the experience unless they’ve been training since childhood; they could get lucky by, say, flinging a stone and hitting a bird, but if they’ve never hunted before, they shouldn’t kill everything they aim at. (Also, see point 5).
I’ve ranted before about teenagers who are master swordsmen even though they’ve never picked up a sword before, children who can defeat grown knights, and so on. With older adult heroes, the same thing can happen, though the reasons why it’s ridiculous are different. If a fifty-year-old swordsmen is covered with scars and old wounds, he’d probably going to be pained by them. The lesions may pull at his limbs and keep him from moving as freely as he could wish. He could have arthritis or another disease that would mean he can’t handle his sword as well as he once could. He certainly can’t run as fast as he did when he was twenty or thirty. He won’t be able to catch his breath as well as he did after a run. Most fantasy worlds don’t have the best of dental care, so it wouldn’t be unusual for him to be losing his teeth, which will affect his diet. If he gets a fresh wound, or if he gets sick, his recovery will be slower.
All pretty pure common sense, assuming a normal human. All stuff that usually gets ignored when the fantasy author hauls out the wise old mentor.
Wizards might seem the better choice for the wise old mentor, since a lot of people are accustomed to think of them with beards and staffs. But even they get along incredibly well, without any mention of magic to aid them. They don’t suffer a lot of the indignities or infirmities of old age, either. I have yet to read about a wizard who had to gum his food, or a story where part of the apprentice wizard’s duties included changing a bedpan. (If you have read such a story, let me know, please).
Fantasy worlds are harsher than our own, even in most of the prettified versions. Keep that in mind when you have an older hero.
5) ”Each work of literature is allowed one fantastic coincidence. No more.”
I wish I could remember who said that; it was in a book of writing advice that I read years ago. I think it’s essentially true, though.
I hate Idiot Plots- the kind that only function when every character is an idiot- and I hate plots that rely on coincidence. Think up a better way for your hero to meet his love interest than them both deciding to visit the same shop on the same day and just happening to go around the same corner for random reasons. Or, if that’s going to be your coincidence, think up a better reason for the Dark Lord to hate the infant princess than that she just happens to be the only one who can defeat him.
Fantasy usually uses its coincidence under the guise of destiny. This just happens to be the most important moment in history, for [insert vaguely explained reason that most readers accept.] This mage student just happens to have a power that no one has ever seen before. This goddess just happens to choose this one prince to represent her. And so on. Of course, if you use a coincidence to explain that, your readers are much less likely to accept a string of coincidences in other places as plot points. (No, not even if you call it fate, Terry Goodkind).
Why does it have to be coincidence, anyway? Why does it have to be completely new? This shows off a fantasy obsession with newness that I don’t quite understand. Why does it matter if there were scores of people with that magical gift before? Surely the important thing is how this particular wielder of that gift uses it? Surely your character doesn’t have to be a necromancer, guardian of a werewolf pack, mate of a vampire, leader of a group of wereleopards, and lust object of every man who comes along to be interesting. (Hamilton’s Anita Blake is all of those now). Why does a character have to be unique in ability rather than personality?
All right, scraping off the irritation now.
6) There’s a limitation to how many loose ends you can leave.
I love what I’ve heard called “slingshot endings,” endings which leave the reader unsure how well something will work or how long the narrator will really last. I’d like to see more of them in fantasy, which seems to leave no doubt that the marriage will be perfect and the Kingdom will last its monarch’s lifetime.
On the other hand, I could stand to see less of lazy plotting.
Twice now I’ve had the unpleasant experience of reading an amateur fantasy story where the author brought back a character she’d just killed the previous chapter—with no explanation. Or gave the hero a magical power that could not under any circumstances be used to save his life and had it do just that—with no explanation. Or stated emphatically that Reynard had red hair because he turned it that color with a spell and then stated equally emphatically a few chapters later that his hair was brown and shoulder-length in memory of his mother.
*bang bang bang*
If it helps, make a list of important plot points like that. I sometimes forget names of characters’ parents, say, and need to go back and look them up in the chapter where I vaguely remembered them being. But don’t just let them go. If you are posting your story as finished and complete, or, gods forbid, offering it for professional publication instead of for copyediting, you owe it to your readers to make it as good as possible, not the kind of story where you think, “Oh, well, I’ll go back and revise it later.”