Fantasy’s Core Attributes, Part 1: Interesting, Complex, Kickass Protagonists

Previously, I brought up the idea there are core attributes to any fantasy story. In this post, I’m going to examine the first of those attributes I listed: Interesting, complex, kickass protagonists.

The one element of this triad you may be able to do without is “kickass.” Fantasy is filled with more than its share of affable, slightly bumbling fools who turn out to be heroes in the end. They don’t kick ass so much as avoid dying, at least at first (the classic, overplayed apprentice). I suppose you could say that even if it’s by accident or in spite of the hero, ass will, at some point in a fantasy story, get kicked, and kicked good. If, for some reason, the ass kicker isn’t your protagonist, than it will be one or more of the protagonist’s allies. Personally, however, I like my protagonists to be competent.

Everyman need not apply

Fantasy is just not suited to an everyman protagonist. Everyman is boring and uninteresting and does not kick ass. Everyman’s complexity is banal and no different than our own. If there’s something special about the everyman to be revealed down the road, then he’s not an everyman, but still has the potential problem of being boring and uninteresting in the meantime.

Take good ol’ Bilbo Baggins, for instance. Bilbo may at first seem the quintessential fantasy everyman, no? But Bilbo is interesting to us because he’s amusing in his fastidiousness, and because of the internal conflict he suffers between respectability and having an adventure. Because of Bilbo’s ancestry, he is not an everyman (or in this case, an everyhobbit). He has a rather adventurous line of ancestors, for one thing, and for another he’s a hobbit, which means it’s in his nature to pull from surprising reserves of fortitude and bravery when the sticking point is reached. So, again, he’s not an everyman.

The closest thing to an honest everyman I’ve ever read that was a successful fantasy is Smoky Barnable in John Crowley’s Little, Big. However, that novel is unique and unconventional compared to nearly everything else ever published and classified as fantasy. Some wouldn’t even call it fantasy (I would). Crowley was very good at writing whatever the fuck he wanted to write and letting others worry about on what shelf to stock it in a bookstore. The original title of the book became an almost hidden subtitle: Little, Big: Or, the Faeries’ Parliament. You can’t tell me that title’s not fantasy. But by leaving off the second part, it made the book seem more literary.

Non-vanilla wish fulfillment

In fantasy, the protagonist is often someone we wish we could be. If the protagonist isn’t an admirable character, then she needs to be a character with whom we identify and empathize. But she still needs to be more interesting than the reader. Being a witch, wizard, warrior, royalty, thief, assassin, or even simply non-human qualifies. Being a different sexual orientation or gender identification qualifies. We want to read about characters that have abilities or perhaps even anatomy beyond our ken.

The standard fantasy protagonist has been for many years a heterosexual white male or a humanoid stand-in for the same (dwarf, elf, hobbit, faerie, etc.). Simply straying from this wide, paved path will make your fantasy story more diverse and different, but you could also dig deeper. For example, Kameron Hurley’s Mirror Empire has characters that change gender over time or who are not simply male or female in the binary way to which we’ve been socialized in our own lives. We now know that human sexuality exists along a spectrum, it’s not binary. What you “know” about gender and sexuality is only what you’ve been taught. Why would you copy something that is a learned behavior into a fantasy world as though it were axiomatic when it’s not?

This is so much more fun and interesting than copying all of the bullshit you once assumed is true about our own world onto your fantasy world, don’t you think?

Elves, schmelves

Another way to dig deeper is to have characters which are not human, but which also avoid the overused humanoid races such as elves or dwarves. In the fantasy MMO Guildwars 2 (which I play), players can be human but they can also choose from four other races which are not found in your typical fantasy story. The sylvari are probably the most unique of these races: they are plant people, who grow within a gigantic sentient god-like tree and are “born” fully grown by awakening from a common Dream. They have leaves for hair and plant-like features. Because they literally “fell off the tree” yesterday, they’re more like curious, impetuous children than clichéd elves as snotty, fastidious near-immortals.

Why go with the tried-and-true when that way is essentially a inescapable ditch of clichés? Why not make up your own races, your own biology? If you’ve put a lot of thought into the nature of your setting (which we’ll discuss in the next post), you might conceive the most perfectly-matched races for that setting, too, almost in the same vein as a science fiction author dreaming up an alien planet and its inhabitants.

Don’t forget the kickass part

An Everyman character is not admirably good at anything, which is another way for him to be boring and uninteresting. Being impossibly good at something is also boring, but to my thinking, it’s better to tone that down than to try to make a boring Everyman interesting. Is your protagonist a swordsman? Make him a bloody good one. Is she a magic user? Give her some really good magic genes or have her graduating at the top of her class in magic school—or, she would have, if it wasn’t for the villain sabotaging her academic career…

Even if your protagonist kicks ass in a way that’s expected, such as fighting or magic skills, you can make this more interesting by changing up how she feels about it, or how she acquired her skills, or what price she pays in other parts of her life for having such skills.

Especially don’t forget the complex and interesting part

This doesn’t mean make your character a “Mary Sue.” Protagonists still need flaws to balance out the stuff about them we admire. There needs to be dark, painful stuff that haunts them from both the past and the present, because some mistakes you just never stop paying for. Some mistakes are still yet to be made.

To become great, sacrifices must be made, which means a heavy price has been or is going to be paid. What is that price? Who else pays? When you’re connected to other people, your actions don’t exist in a vacuum. The tragic truth of life is that other people will pay for your mistakes, and you will pay for theirs. How does this manifest in your protagonist?

Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy illustrates this in a heartbreaking manner. The hero doesn’t get the glory. The hero pays the price. You don’t necessarily have to be that grim. Your hero can have a little glory, too (perhaps in a swag bag as he leaves the after-party). But part of what makes for interesting and complex characters is that the price they pay in life shapes them, makes them who they are.

Next up

The next core attribute of fantasy stories after this one is a setting that inspires feelings of saudade. I’ll link to that article when I’ve published it (hopefully sooner rather than later). If you don’t want to miss the next one, be sure to follow this blog (use your WordPress toolbar above or put your email into the box in the right column) to get updates when new content is available.



Core Attributes of Fantasy

So if fantasy isn’t just dudes with swords rescuing maidens in a forest, what else is it? What can it be?

If we took away all the overused tropes, the clichés, the ethno- and gendercentric privilege, what remains?

What remains is the core of what makes a fantasy story a fantasy story.

What remains is what broadly defines an entire genre. Everything else is mutable.

Unless we can point to common elements that are true for fantasy stories regardless of anything else (settings, protagonists, technology), we have no genre at all, let alone one capable of evolution. These core attributes must also be true regardless of what subgenre of fantasy you’re writing or reading: from urban to grimdark, it doesn’t matter, these core attributes should be present in force in any fantasy story.

Try these on, see how they fit:

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What do Agents Want from Fantasy?

It’s never been a better time to be a fantasy writer.


The genre is undergoing epic change.

Tolkienesque white straight male hero stories birthed the fantasy genre for our modern age, but now their sword arm weakens. They won’t disappear completely, nor should they, because there’s a place at the feasting table for everyone.

But they won’t ever be the same. They’re changing, and their transmogrification will continue, like a cursed hero who eventually realizes what he thought was a curse is actually a blessing, and so he ceases to seek its lifting and begins to take advantage of it instead.

More importantly, a more diverse kind of fantasy is growing, not as a matter of some deluded form of political correctness, but because people are starving for it. Writers are writing the stories contained within their hearts, and publishers seek to sell books to a hungry audience. And just for the record, my definition of political correctness is that it’s what assholes call it when they get called out for talking like assholes.

Agents desperately want more diverse stories to sell to publishers. Every year on Twitter, agents put forth the kind of stories they’re seeking so authors can query them. If you look at tweets using the #MSWL hashtag, or visit the Manuscript Wishlist website, you can easily see this for yourself. A huge amount of requests were for MG, YA, or NA regardless of any other specified genre. But for those requests that were specifically for fantasy (and often sci-fi, too), a surprising proportion of them were similar to those below:

It’s diversity, stupid.

And look at the number of retweets and favorites these tweets also have. This shit is on fire.

What are you writing?


How Journaling Helps Me Write Novels

Keeping a journal helps me be a better writer and storyteller. I confess I’ve not been a consistent diarist my whole life. There were times I filled notebook after notebook (I’m old enough to predate the internet age, ain’t that some shit, huh?). There were years I didn’t keep a journal. Not long after the moment I finally kept my promise to myself (and others) to become a writer and began writing my first novel, I began journaling again.

Journaling is deeply personal, not just because what you write is a big secret (it doesn’t necessarily have to be), but because my approach and technique are unique to me. Personal to me. Yours will be personal to you. But of course you can still direct your journaling.


A conversation with yourself

I tend to simply start writing about what’s on my mind. What’s usually on my mind is the story I’m currently writing, so my journaling becomes a conversation with myself. I jot down inspirations and then try to follow them through to their logical conclusions. I argue the pros and cons about ideas with myself.

If I’m mired in some difficulty with my manuscript, I’ll often begin my journaling by stream-of-consciousness bitching about it to myself. Soon enough, I’ll have thought of several possibilities through the difficulty. I list them and try to see where they go. I extrapolate on them, try to carry them out their ends. Which one is the most exciting? Which one makes the most sense?

This, for me, is an embodiment of the idea of E.M. Forster’s quote: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” You can’t walk down a path until the path exists, and sometimes the path only exists if you build it as you go.

Capturing dreams

The first thing I try to do in the morning is write in my journal. Notice I said try. Life doesn’t always work out the way you want, nobody’s perfect. I would never pretend I do anything consistently all the time, I despise hypocrisy. Sometimes a dream is still fresh enough in my memory that I can capture some of it. I believe dream imagery can be strong inspiration for fiction. If nothing else, you can analyze yourself a bit (I go with the notion that dreams are our way of processing and working out issues and deeply learning).

pathMost of my dreams are about me crying as I eat my way through a tunnel of Twinkies and being chased by women who all tell me they have a boyfriend when I turn around to speak to them.  Then I wake up with my pillow case over my head. I have no idea what it means.

If you’re a fan of The Artist’s Way then you know about “Morning Pages.” I don’t follow the morning pages formula blindly but I agree with why it works and that’s why I write first thing every morning.  I don’t journal by hand, I type it into Evernote. I used to use Penzu but then I didn’t feel like paying for it anymore, AKA “being broke.”

Journaling helps with my entire life

Talking to myself helps me get through life. That’s not not specific to writing, but I think it’s worth mentioning because it’s something everyone can use. Writing about something helps me understand it and understanding it helps me figure out what to do. It helps me know how to explain myself clearly. I can give myself pep talks.

Journaling helps me cope with depression. Whenever I try to use journaling as a way to complain or feel sorry for myself or wallow in bittersweet nihilism, it ends up getting shorting itself out because once I get the words on the screen in black and white, they look clichéd and ridiculous. But if I had never got those exact words out into the light of day, the vague feelings behind them would’ve continued to grow and gain power in the dark. I’m not saying I don’t get depressed, I’m only saying it helps me cope.

Do you keep a journal? What’s your way of doing it? What does it do for you?

photo credit: RubiRubiRubi via photopin cc

photo credit: Jon Noel via photopin cc

Nobody Told Me Writing Would Do This To Me

Over the course of watching a movie, you may come to feel enough for a character that you feel a bit damp in the eyes if it dies.

Over the course of reading a novel, it gets even more intense, because you feel like you’ve lived with this person (or as this person) for an extensive time. When they die it’s like losing a real person in your life, because these characters are real to you.

Well, when you’re the writer, it is a hundredfold worse. You created these characters. You know them inside and out. You relish writing their every word. You come to love them like you love a living being. And they are alive. They’re alive in your mind and your heart.

So when you kill one, oh my fucking God does it hurt.

You will not be ready for this. Nothing can prepare you for this.

I had to stop writing. I had to just sit there and just weep in actual grief. This is nothing like laughing at your own jokes at a party. If your own writing doesn’t make you feel something then holy shit do you suck or you’re a sociopath, one of the two.

All this loving effort I had put into this character and now it had to die. You have to have those “OH NO THEY DIDN’T” moments in your story. People making terrible mistakes is the juice that powers fiction.

Sometimes, you have to kick people in the heart.

But everything you dish out for your reader, you as the writer feel ten times more.

When I first began this journey, I thought about how cool it would be to have a book at the end of the process. I had no idea I would go through some of the most intense emotional states I have ever experienced in my life just writing a novel. I can only hope that I am competent enough that even a fraction of it comes through for readers.

photo credit: peripathetic via photopin cc

12 Things I’ve Learned Writing the First Draft of My First Fantasy Novel

I’m finally done with my first draft and it’s currently over 100k words. Here’s a few things I’ve learned. I don’t think you’ll find any advice here.

More like if you need somebody to shoot up with, I’m your guy, c’mon, let’s go.

1. Writing a novel sends a spiritual message to the universe

And the message is this: somebody please stop this idiot.

Distractions will multiply and swarm you. Children will need you (even if you don’t have any–don’t ask me how that works). The best game in the world just came out and of course you must play it. Naps are wonderful. Chores will suddenly be appealing. More on these later.

2. It’s a shitfest and thov shalt give no fvcks


This picture is never inappropriate.

A first draft is so much easier if you just don’t care about mistakes or how good it sounds.

The purpose of a first draft is to just have it and be fucking done with it so you can revise and rewrite.

And yet I constantly found myself getting bogged down in word choice and showing-not-telling and avoiding passive verbs. I would go back and change things and damage my word count progress. It slowed me down more than it helped with anything.

A shitty first draft is still better than a good incomplete first draft.

Incomplete books don’t get published.

My first draft is a total shitfest and I just can’t care. That doesn’t make me a bad writer. It makes me a good writer because now is not the time to care. Caring comes later, during revising and rewriting, which will get its own post like this when I get there, so just you wait.

3. Daily word count was my new god

I got on my knees because I now worshiped at the temple of Completing the Draft.

Yes, at this point it’s about quantity, not quality–up to a point. The story itself can’t suck. The characters need to be interesting. A lot of that comes before you set down a single word of narrative or dialogue. There is just no better indication of progress for a first draft (which is just the beginning of the entire process, after all) other than word count, so word count is All.

Often I would catch myself just sitting there, spacing off into the screen, not even thinking about what to write. Huge fucking time waster. I catch myself at it more often and immediately just start throwing words onto screen without even caring at how bad it is.

It’s a first draft.

Get it done.

4. Nothing about the story is immutable

My story is far more malleable than I ever would’ve imagined. I would’ve never thought I could do such scream-filled whiskey-and-rusted-saw surgeries and bloody vivisections to it.

Characters came and went. Or they lived, died, and then lived again. Events were reordered or dropped or added. I’d make a rough outline and then add a crazy number of scenes as I did the actual writing because my dots were too far to connect and I needed more dots (or, if you’re a long-time MMO player, moar dots).

5. This house is clean

cleanAll the things you used to procrastinate on now seem like fantastic fucking ideas compared to working on that first draft.

Never mind that you just had a character completely violate your fantasy world’s rules, it’s been a long time since someone completely reorganized the pantry.

I’m not saying things shouldn’t get done. Don’t let your children or pets starve, but otherwise the most important thing that needs to get done is your first draft.

Funny how I’d clean everything but my desk.

Also funny is how the more I wrote, the more I wanted to write. Any moment not spent writing was spent feeling guilty for not writing. Okay, never mind, that’s actually not funny at all.

6. My eyeballs hated me

I ended up totally killing my eyeballs staring at a screen all night.

Computer monitors emit a lot of blue light, which fucks with your body’s day/night cycle.

It also makes your eyes feel like scratchy, itchy little balls of sand embedded in your face.

You can ameliorate this with glasses tinted to block out the blue light waves (expensive and cumbersome) or use a program that alters your monitor’s light output, like f.lux (free and easy).

Now my eyeballs don’t hate me so much and I can sleep better, too.

7. My body freaked out

I had a bout of carpal tunnel syndrome when I first started. I thought it was legit. But then I thought about the timing and became seriously suspicious of myself. Around the same time, I was watching old episodes of Hell’s Kitchen (Gordon Ramsay is my Patronus) and several times there were chefs who mysteriously had major ailments hit them at the worst possible time, and all I could think was: yeah, you’re choking.

I suddenly saw myself in the same light. When I realized that my carpal tunnel was psychosomatic, it disappeared and hasn’t returned even though I spend all day on the laptop. I spend solid hours writing and not a smidgen of pain.

8. Dialogue is simple, except of course when it’s not

Making different characters speak differently than each other and unique and consistent for themselves when writing dialogue is harder than it seems.

After a while, using dialogue tags (he said, she said, etc.) or not using them turns into a big gooey melted mess in my brain.

In almost every case, any dialogue tag except for said sounds contrived and draws attention to itself.

9. Lovey-dovey hanky-panky spanky-wanky

Just say that subhead out loud to yourself.

Now go around all day saying it to yourself.

I guarantee you’ll feel better.

You’re welcome.

Sex scenes are fun, but difficult. You have to treat them like any other scene: these characters are devouring each other (not literally, unless, you know, that’s how it’s done in your fantasy world) because doing so advances the plot and the characters. Otherwise it’s just gratuitous fucking, which is not what you want unless you’re specifically writing erotica, where it’s the reverse and the plot is subservient to the sex.

What can be more challenging are the simple relationship moments: looking into each other’s eyes, the first kiss, a tender moment, lies and betrayal, unleashing supernatural powers against your ex in a vengeful blood-frenzy.

You know, normal stuff like that.

10. Pinterest is both a godsend and a hellhole

Pinterest is like blue meth for fantasy writers. I already wrote about it so I won’t duplicate myself, here. I find Pinterest both infinitely useful and an infinite timesuck. I try not to even look at it until it’s at the end of the day and I’m already done writing.

11. Sleep is my frenemy

You read that in his voice.

You read that in his voice.

Sleep is my most important ally. Coming and going out of it I reap the fruit borne of my subconscious mind, which is working overtime like a pod of gigantic, majestic sea creatures deep beneath the waves of the surface of the conscious mind, singing deep songs to each other and sending up signals to me.

Sleep can also be a psychosomatic tool of self-sabotage. I’ve had step-children and nieces who, like magic, were suddenly stricken with exhaustion or the urge to spend twenty minutes in the bathroom when faced with the chore of dishes.

It was truly amazing. You point it out to them and they splutter and and prevaricate and just do it again the next day as if it were real and you didn’t just point it out to them the day before it’s bullshit.

Adults are no different: I hate this scene. What the fuck is this character supposed to do, now? And why is the answer to lie down and close my eyes? I’m falling out of my chair…

How do I know if I’ve got to power through? How do I know when I really need to just lay down for a nap? It’s not always clear, but more often than not, I’ll err on the side of more sleep because I never sleep for more than five hours at a time, anyway. Usually I only sleep for three or four hours at a time, so chances are I need a nap.

12. Once I became truly determined, I always found a way

If you want to write, you WILL fucking find time and press ahead regardless of distractions around you. I try to be smart and try to get most of my writing done when my nieces are at school or at night when everyone’s in bed, but one of them is too young for school and of course there are school vacations, so I simply have to deal. Living in the ‘burbs, there’s no coffee house to walk to.

What I do have is Spotify and a big fucking pair of over-the-ear headphones, so I drown out the noise with music, and I write.

Yes, I get interrupted.


I get back to writing.

Yes, the word count sometimes rises slowly.

But it rises.



photo credit: Brian Auer via photopin cc



I Made a Dirty Sex Thing!

I unexpectedly ended up writing my first sex scene. A few days ago (after I wrote my scene, of course) I was reading about how romance writers classify how heated the romance and sex will be in their stories. At the milder end of the “heat” scale is the “closed door” where sex is implied but not described. Tasteful, but certainly not exciting. At the higher end of the “heat” scale you have throbbing, slippy-slappy wet body parts. Exciting for some, offensive to others.

Naturally, I went right for the high end of the “heat” scale and before I knew it I had written a blisteringly explicit scene, featuring my favorite bad Fae, Melisent. More importantly, it nicely solved a plot issue I’d been worried about and when it was over, well, there was a lot of blood.

So, that happened.

I would never exclude a sex scene because I’m a prude (which is sort of like Bruce Banner saying he’d never turn into the Hulk unless he was angry). Likewise, I would never include one just for the sake of gratuitous pandering. I have one because what happens during it advances the plot and the characters. A sex scene can foreshadow, either explicitly (heh) through direct action and dialogue, or implicitly, that is, to help the reader understand how a character thinks or feels or reacts which might matter later on. But if they’re just fucking to be fucking, well, that’s what erotica is for. The scene I wrote is actually major turning point in the plot and for two of its characters (just two–no three-ways or orgies for you, sorry).

Scenes in a story should evoke a primary emotion or sensation in addition to fulfilling their obligations to character and plot. In describing a view, I may want the reader to experience awe and wonder (particularly important to fantasy). In describing characters I want certain details to evoke danger or confidence or comedy.

In the case of sex scenes, a good sex scene should also make you feel something. There are all kinds of definitions of “good,” here, because there are so many reasons and motivations people want to boink each other–and some of them aren’t very nice. But in the situation where people are having a good time exercising their baby-maker muscles, my goal is to make you suddenly wish you were not on that commuter train with all those people around while you’re reading it. It should move the needles on your gauges (hopefully into the red). For a sex scene, basically I want the reader to get all hot and bothered. Taste is highly subjective and we’ve all got our turn-ons (or for some of you, fetishes) and turn-offs. But all I can do is try to make something that gets my own blood flowing a little faster.

One humorous, interesting aspect to writing this scene was afterward I felt like I was the dirtiest, most depraved person alive (I know, I know, I said that like it was a bad thing). But then I thought about some of the sex scenes I’d read in other books (I’m looking at you, Anne Rice, except not directly into your eyes because that would be awkward) and my sex scene didn’t seem all that messed up, after all.

Which was even funnier, because then I felt lame like it wasn’t dirty enough.

Ah, the emotional roller coaster of being a writer!

How do you feel in general about writing or reading sex scenes? Do you enjoy it? Does it make you squick? Know any fantasy books that have particularly good ones I should know about? I need all the help I can get.