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How close do you want to get to the villains in a fantasy novel? Frankly, the closer you get to a really bad character, the more it influences the mood of the book. In my epic fantasy, Fallen King, the story follows six characters and three of them could be called bad guys. I had a concern that if I spent too much time within the thoughts of these villains, the book would start to feel like a dark fantasy or even like a horror novel. However, I also felt seeing events from their perspective added a richness to the novel.
Let me introduce these three “villains”:
1. Lord Drass Halen-Dabe. This young man is resentful of his cold father (General Fors Halen-Dabe) and ambiguous toward his older brother, Mordel. He joins his brother’s scheme to overthrow their uncle, the king. However, Drass tires of doing all the work while his brother gets the glory. When his brother’s allies tempt him to leave Mordel and join them, Drass must decide if the offering power is worth what it will cost him.
2. Brother Brodagar. He is a dragon priest of the Crimson Order but, more importantly, he is an Embraced One- a demon possessed man. Brodagar is sent to learn the secret of Warhaven. Getting the answer will bring him great power. Failing at the task will probably mean banishment of his Other and death for him.
3. Captain Galdon. He considers the army his only family and is fiercely loyal to it. He is so loyal that he chooses to remain even after Lord Silossiak declares himself emperor. He struggles to survive as one of the only Tlocanian officers who is not demon possessed. He despises what his beloved land has become, but he cannot imagine betraying his fellow soldiers.
There are worse characters in Fallen King, some so influenced by demons that they are now insane, but these three are the ones we get to know intimately. We learn of their fears and desires, their crimes and kind acts.
Keeping Villains at arm’s length. In the other fantasy novel that I have released this year, Road of Leaves, takes a different approach to the enemy. The point-of-view stays with the main character, Thomas the magician’s apprentice, never leaving his side. We never see into the minds of any of the people attacking the Road. That has some distinct advantages and challenges.
We only experience Thom’s confusion and fear, and it is the uncertainty of who the enemy is and what the enemy is doing that adds to the book. At least I think so.
So, what do you prefer? Do you want your villains close at hand or at a distance?
In fantasy, the author takes the audience into a strange and often dangerous land. We want to see that land, to smell it, to feel its wind and temperature shifts. There are so many strange and unbelievable things in this wild country, that we often need a sense of “place” so that we can better follow the story. Maps help tether us to this new land. Maps help us to understand a very foreign place- a land where magic lurks.
Personally, I love having a map whenever I enter a new fantasy land because it helps me visualize where the characters are and the places they are traveling through. Here are a few of my personal preferences in fantasy maps (and a few pet peeves):
1. Clarity- I detest blurry or tiny maps crammed onto a page. Even if I could locate that magnifying glass that’s around the house somewhere, I still won’t be able to find anything on that smug the publisher threw into the front of the book. I know its usually better in the hardcover edition, but really? Does it have to be that bad for the paperback?
2. Applicability- Does the map have anything to do with the story? Are the important locations even shown? No, I don’t mean the major cities or highest mountains. If half the book is spent in a particular town, then you need to put it on the map. Please.
3. Beauty- I love it when a map is a piece of art as well as informative.
4. Sense of Wonder- Can you taste the magic in the map? Does the map add to the fantasy? I have always felt that the Middle Earth maps do that; I can sense how wild and dangerous the lands are, just by studying the maps. The mountains soar high, while the forests brood.
5. Mysterious– Are there other places hinted at on the map? Lands beyond its boundaries or areas that are murky on purpose? I like a map that implies an even-greater world beyond its borders.
6. Believable– I want a map that either follows the laws of nature or has a good reason for breaking them. Do you have a desert next to a rainforest? Well then, I expect the author to have a good story to explain why the rain never makes it to the sand. Do you have radical changes in topography? Then the story should reflect how that influences the weather and temperature and commerce. Do the distances between places match up to what the story implies? There are a few authors out there who should enroll in a basic course on Physical Geography (or at least the artist who drew the map needs that class).
7. Details– I want some intriguing details in a map. I love Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea map, with all of its tiny islands and their quirky names. The novels and the map work together, creating a richer experience for the reader. I wanted to go sailing around those islands myself, after reading the books and seeing the map.
What about my worlds? I have two fantasy series, one with maps and one without. The Cirian War Saga novels actually have two maps each. One it the map of Na Ciria and the other is a more local area (the Border Realm for the series’ first book: FALLEN KING).
My map-making skills are modest, but I hope that the Na Ciria maps help readers to better visualize this wild and beautiful country, with its rushing rivers and majestic mountains.
For my other series, the Ways of Camelot novels, I chose not to include any maps since the Arthurian legends are so full of contradictory locations and place names. I had no desire to wade into the middle of any of that. Instead, my stories center around a nondescript magician named Thomas and his journeys through the magical routes that lead into and out of Camelot. The first book in that series, ROAD OF LEAVES, stays mainly on that enchanted way and the Road cannot be mapped since it shifts every night.
In most fantasy tales, magic plays an integral part. Magic can be wondrous or frightening. Characters use magic to defend the right and to ravage the countryside. Often, magic becomes one of the characters in the story. In Road of Leaves, the shifting Road seems to develop its own personality and has an integral role at the tale’s climax. In Lord of the Rings, the rings, especially the One, have something of a will of their own.
Many of us love fantasy stories, because a good tale will transport us into a new, wondrous, and dangerous land. Stories about magic feed our imagination and remind of us of our childhood dreams. But, it should be costly for someone to acquire any magical powers.
What must you SACRIFICE to gain magic?
It would be boring if magic was easy to learn and unlimited in its power. I agree with Author David Farland on this: magic must cost the person something. In his Runelords books, magic is acquired by “borrowing” the powers from dozens or hundreds of other people. The lords sometimes took the powers of others with force, but they dared not kill them- the person needed to survive or the lord would lose that newly-gained enhancement.
In my CIRIAN WAR SAGA novels, the characters have to submit to supernatural forces to gain power. The heroes are empowered by their prayer devotion to El, while the villains find magical powers through demon possession and human sacrifice. Neither way to power is cheap or easy.
In my WAYS OF CAMELOT (WoC) novels, the characters must study for decades to learn how to recognize and use magical elements. They sacrifice their youth, many of them never getting the chance to marry or have a family.
In the WoC novels, elements are rendered from magical plants, insects, and animals. It takes skill and time to be a magician, but more importantly it requires crushing magical things into powders. Something or someone dies to release the power needed to craft an enchantment. Then the darker truth comes out: some magicians are killing magical people to get their properties too.
What LIMITS magic?
If magic has no limits, then a magician becomes a god-like. How can anyone oppose him? I found some super hero tales boring for just that reason. The “hero” wasn’t anyone I could relate to because he had no flaws or restrictions on his power.
In a good fantasy, the magic has parameters. Either there are some things that magic cannot do or the magician is limited. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo struggles with his sword, trying to master its magic. He also contends with the ring, which often is working against him. If either had provided him unlimited powers without conditions, then the story would have failed.
In the WAYS OF CAMELOT novels, I purposely don’t use the terms “spell” or “casting” because the magic is something that is crafted, using a combination of magical elements, mundane elements, and usually some spit that attunes the enchantment to the magician. It takes time, although some enchantments can be prepared in advance. In this world, you can’t just shout out a phrase or think a thought. There is work involved in creating magic. Real, physical labor.
In the Cirian War Saga novels, the powers of El are gained through a life of devotion. It requires the discipline of prayer, hence the Attuls are known as Prayer Warriors. Should they falter in their faith, then El’s power will weaken in their life.
For the villains, they need a steady supply of victims to sacrifice to create their blood magic. They also need the cooperation of the demon within.
What are the ETHICS of magic?
Another aspect of magic is the ethics involved. Is magic good, bad, or amoral? In most fantasy stories, magic is used by both sides. So what makes magic either good or evil? Magic’s goodness or evilness can be determined by the practitioner, by how it is used, or by its inherent nature.
For my WoC novels, the issue of ethics became more pressing because the stories are set in King Arthur’s times and include Christian characters. For a Christian, there are Biblical injunctions against the practice of witchcraft and sorcery, which is why I differentiate between those “dark arts” and the natural magic in the Ways of Camelot novels. I also have the magicians craft enchantments, much like a smith or carpenter or weaver. It is work that one learns to master like any other profession; you just happen to be working with magical elements.
So what is the COST of magic?
Magic, because it overrules natural law, is a dangerous thing. So magic should also be hard to learn and difficult to practice. The answer differs by the story, but there should be a significant cost of some type. Magic is powerful, so it should never be an easy or simple thing to do.