I will say this three times. That makes it true:
I have nothing against light fantasy.
I have nothing against light fantasy.
I have nothing against light fantasy.
There. (We will not talk about my grudge against simplistic fantasy, because then I would have to foam at the mouth, and no one wants that. Besides, I know that simplistic fantasy isn’t the same as light).
1) Complexity begets complexity, if you let it.
Later fantasy novels in a series usually explain more about a world, because the author has more room to delve into the mysteries that she couldn’t in the first book, or because the protagonist is learning clues and answers to his initial questions. However, I get disappointed if a narrative explicitly states that there are no more mysteries, that everything known about the world is to be found in one or another of the books in that series.
Why? Because there’s no reason it has to be so. Sure, the author might stumble over a story that she’s really interested in writing in a sequel or prequel, or she might have to clear up something she would have preferred to leave shadowy because otherwise the plot makes no sense. But digging to the point that your world’s poor skeleton shows, shining so much light there’re no more shadows, ripping open all the caves where trolls and mysteries can hide? Piffle.
One thing that complexity can do really well is hint at more complexity, even if you have to explicate that particular piece of depth. You have Mysterious Character A. Eventually, you have to show who he is and what he’s doing there. However, you can have him refer to his family and ancient history, and NOT INFODUMP ABOUT IT. People have beginnings. They’re one of the best ways to add complexity to the story, as long as you don’t insist on subjecting every detail of their lives to the spotlight.
If you have to go and sojourn with Mysterious Character A’s family in the next story, you still don’t need to show all of his relatives. They can refer casually to people who aren’t there, to secrets in the family that no one wants talked about—and which, by the way, don’t turn out to be clues in the book’s mystery plot—to the inside jokes that you get in every family and which can bewilder outsiders listening in. Make a story come closer, and you can get other parts of it to retreat.
I’ve read plenty of fantasy worlds so stripped that it seemed as though none of their characters or settings existed before the author started writing. However, there’s also the chance of the opposite happening, which, ironically, ends up having the exact same effect: where every part of the world gets explained, it can seem as though the author doesn’t know what’s important to the story and what’s not, and bewilders her reader with a mess of elaborate, artificially constructed detail, which makes the story end up feeling like a game of pretend again.
Complexity walks the line, and shows that “extra-story” material exists without necessarily tying everything in the fantasy world back to the plot and characters on-stage at the moment. Learning to balance between those two extremes creates the most real-seeming complex worlds, I think, and the best sense of place and people.
2) Complexity gives room for sympathy for everybody.
Here I go with the sympathy thing again. You can always cover your eyes and skip down to the next point.
“Sympathy for everybody,” this time, is an authorial attitude and not a protagonistic (is that a word? Never mind, it is now) one. This is trying to think of every character in the story-world as a person with background, history, motivations, psychology, emotions, and so on and so forth. You might love your protagonist more, but at least she isn’t the only real person. The others can be seen and conceived of as real, too.
This leads to wonderful complexity. It prevents secondary characters from being treated as plot devices and hauled around as the needs of the narrative demand, thus making them do silly or out-of-character things—a fate which awaits far more secondary characters than protagonists. It has the author writing with a belief in her own characterization that will shine far better on the page than active dislike or boredom with some of the minor characters, and keep her more interested in her own story. It can lead to a fascination and growth with the story-world, and perhaps create some people who can become the center of their own, sufficiently different, stories in time. If the author has to settle into the head of a minor character in order to report something the usual viewpoint people couldn’t possibly cover, that person will feel real and less like just eyes on the action, and the author will know the reasons she has for noticing these events.
I’ve said before that the author should have empathy for every character, sympathy for none. That’s one way to do it. Then there’s this way: sympathy for everybody. I think perhaps sympathy isn’t so much the problem as most authors’ tendency to limit it to one or two characters. But fantasy already committed to complexity can accommodate this attitude easily, and it lends itself naturally to both point 1 and point 3.
3) Varied plots are no problem for a complex fantasy.
Have sufficiently complex characters, and a sufficiently complex narrative will be generated out of them. Really, if you’ve got people whom you can feel and portray as real interacting on the page—and commitment to making all of them real is, if not sufficient, at least a very good first step—then you’ve got a story, because you’ve got an existence going on. What you’ll need to do is choose where to cut and snip to pick out the particular story you want to tell, what threads of existence can be severed or knotted or bound to turn this into a narrative instead of a sprawling life.
But character interaction with a sufficiently complex story-world is good, too. What about those things that do exist independently of your characters? There are the institutions that form a “normal” part of most world-building notes, for example, such as churches and governments, but there are also things that humans affect and influence, yet are affected and influenced by (among tons and tons of other things):
- Environment (both natural and urban).
- Other species (animal, plant).
- Class structure.
- Societal attitudes.
And then you can start thinking about how those things interact with each other, and now there is a whole complex world spinning outside of your characters, influenced and affected by other people’s decisions, affected and influenced by the protagonists’ decisions, but also able to reach out and play merry havoc with them. This is the best solution to making your characters too god-like and only having good things happen to them, which is one possible consequence of too much sympathy. Not only good things can happen to them, because when they push, the world pushes back.
And this is great for complex fantasy because, well, I think it is silly for everything wrong with the world to be traced back to one cause, like a “false” religion or one evil historical incident. (Perhaps we have located the reason that I do not make a good Christian). Much better to have a lot of wrongs, a lot of rights, and a bunch of things that are neutral until someone kicks them.
4) Complex fantasy encourages ambition.
This is where I also get to say that I have nothing against books that deliberately limit the scope of their ambition because the story they want to tell is limited in time or space, or just meant as entertainment, or whatever. Yes, I know that some authors want to write those. That’s fine. But I’m not talking about them right now.
There is something really complex fantasy encourages that tugs at my heartstrings, at least. A barrier so high that it seemingly can’t be leaped is one of the best calls to leap it.
I think there are at least two ways this can work. One is the author handling so much complexity that it could potentially go out of control. If the things I described in the first three points sound intimidating, then you know what I mean. Something that could explode in big messy chunks all over the place is intrinsically more frightening than something you know will boil just the way you want it to.
The second is the author issuing a personal challenge to herself. For example, “I can’t write convincing romance” is a real good way, at least for me, to end up with a story idea centered on romance. “I can’t write [X] kind of character different from me in [gender/race/political beliefs/religion]” can also be an invitation to have that kind of character move into your head. And if you’re following that route of sympathy for everybody, then you’ll have to become just as intimate with that character as with one you’re more familiar with. (My particular bugaboo is writing a convincing fundamentalist Christian).
What’s good about this, if there’s so much potential for it not working? It encourages the author to stretch her wings, of course. It’s a good way to build storytelling skills that may be languishing while you concentrate on something you already know how to do really well. It’s the ultimate field test of a combination of skills. Somebody may do well with deft characterization; let’s blend that with a complex world-history, all of which matters to the plot, and see if characters and world manage to exist on the same page without one dominating the other. And it’s an obvious step to erase similarities that might start bogging down your writing. If you’ve written four stories in a row where the main characters are all escaped prisoners with long histories of abuse and mutilation, you might want to try writing about a high-class character who defends the status quo instead and has always had a happy life until the story opens. But yeah, just one change isn’t going to be enough, particularly if the problems of staleness run deeper than a certain kind of character or plot.
I think failed glorious ambition is better than settling for mediocrity, though. Both are different from just telling a tame little story when that’s all you want to do. But of all of them, I like failed glorious ambition best—except when it becomes fulfilled glorious ambition.
5) Complex fantasy has the room for ringing several variations on your theme.
Say that you’ve decided to play with the theme of vengeance. The hero wants vengeance on the local lord for murdering his parents. In most stories, he eventually learns the emptiness of vengeance, murder doesn’t bring back the dead, devoting his life to killing someone else will only leave the taste of dust in his mouth, etc., etc.
What’s wrong with this? Nothing. Except that vengeance has more variations than that, and you could make a bunch of them the thematic heart of a complex fantasy.
Perhaps the main character does want to kill the lord. Meanwhile, he partners up with other people who want to kill the lord for the same reasons. But there are also people who forgive their enemies, those who have claimed their vengeance and were perfectly happy about it, those who tracked down their enemies and brought them to justice, people who made a vow of revenge but forgot about it, and countless others. What kind of people they are will show how the theme of vengeance plays out in their lives. Some of them could have quite vociferous arguments with the protagonist about it, even ethical and moral arguments. But as long as the author a) shows a great enough panoply of arguments, rather than just one “self-evident” one that shoves the protagonist in the “right” direction, and b) keeps herself out of the narrative to the point that the audience can’t identify which character she thinks is right (sympathy for everyone, remember?), then I think this could be quite a fascinating story.
There’s no need to abandon fantasy clichés, I’ve heard it argued. Quite right. But to be truly used anew, rather than just repeated in a story that’s “good for its kind” or parodied, they have to be transformed, remade. The author has to commit to exploring and unpacking them, altering certain tiny things about them and seeing what happens, playing out the implications of them, and so on. A complex fantasy will have the room to do that in a way a simple fantasy won’t and that simplistic fantasies—the truly insipid and shallow stories—just can’t.
Hmmm. Perhaps the next rant will be on ways to recognize when an author might be repeating herself.