Saturday, October 11, 2014

Pitfalls of Writing Fantasy - Or Why Your Heroine Can't Sleep So Much

Posted by: Jeffe Kennedy
The other day on Twitter, Angela James, Editorial Director at Carina Press, asked about common tics in writing fantasy genre as part of her really useful writing workshop Before You Hit Send. She used as an example that romance writers can fall into the trap of repeatedly describing hair and eye color. A few of us pitched in thoughts and the results were very interesting.

Then yesterday I started reading a fantasy romance that I'd put off reading for no good reason. You know those books - everyone and their Cousin Fred recommends it and it's been in your TBR pile for literally YEARS and you keep somehow not getting to it. When you finally, randomly - or because the number of recommendations reaches some titration point - actually read it, it's really wonderful and you gobble it up, exactly as everyone and their Cousin Fred said you would.

Yeah. So I really like this book.

But I did notice a tic, one I've noticed in other fantasy novels that take place in low tech alternate worlds or sometimes historicals. It's sometimes hard to think up what your characters do all damn day.

Because they're not watching reality TV or surfing the internet or addictively following Twitter, are they? They don't have carpools, dance recitals, soccer games and PTA meetings. They don't spend two hours every day commuting to work and another eight hours participating in meetings and conference calls. If you're lucky - and by which I mean, if you've done your job as a writer - there's sufficient conflict to keep them running around dealing with it. Inevitably, however, there's down time. This is particularly exacerbated with heroines who are upper class ladies. There's a tendency to have them lolling about all day while the women who actually do the work of keeping people clothed and fed tend to them.

What did these women do all freaking day???

Needlework, right? And gossip. I dunno. Watch any historically set film and that's all the women seem to do. No doubt this reflects a deep cultural bias where the men run around doing active, dynamic stuff and the womens dangle embroidered handkerchiefs out the unglazed castle windows.

One of the best parts of writing fantasy, I think, is that you can tear up these tropes. Maybe you historical types out there can, too? There ARE a lot more bluestocking-type heroines running around doing cool things in historical romances than HBO would have us believe. In fantasy, however, the heroines can wield great big swords and work magic and shift into predatory beasts. It gives them a lot of cool shiz to get up to all day.

So, why do we sometimes fall into the pit of having the heroine take a lot of long naps, in between bathing, eating and waiting around for the very hot hero to return from doing his active, dynamic stuff?

I think it's partly that internalizing of "if she's not loading the dishwasher, going to work, feeding the kids and dealing with the groceries, then what the hell DOES she do" thing. And it's easy to let the hot, hunky warrior hero be all protective and nurturing. Which inevitably leads to naps, meals and sex.

The other thing that happens, I believe, is something I did in writing my first novel, the fantasy romance Rogue's Pawn. At that time in my life, I was freakishly busy. I had two young stepkids, I worked a full-time career job, took or taught martial arts five nights a week, including some classes a two-hour drive each way. I often did not go to bed until one or two in the morning and then would get up at five or six to try to cram in an hour or two of writing on the novel. I was chronically sleep deprived and the novel took *forever* to finish.

When I couldn't sell it to anyone, but some wonderful people had given me great feedback on it, I went back and did a major revision on it after about nine months of distance. Guess what I saw? My heroine was exhausted ALL THE TIME. She had headaches. She took naps. She went to bed early and slept in late.

Shocking, huh?

It was amazing to go through and revise for that. Partly I'd committed a newbie writer mistake, but I've seen much more experienced writers do it, too. Being able to channel parts of ourselves into our heroines makes our work come alive - that's part of the magic we bring to the process, not unlike acting - but we need to apply the craft also, to ensure that we're not "leaking" our personal woes and wishes into our characters. Kind of a write-raw, edit at leisure deal.

It also helps to get enough sleep.


  1. Another 'bleeding through from real life' I've noticed is when the character stops to rhapsodize over tea or coffee.

    1. Oooh, yes! I've noticed that one, too. Every other scene they're dying for coffee...

  2. It's amazing what you notice when you revise a first draft. Like the tea and coffee thing, I noticed that several of the characters in my books are very fond of their wine! But I think its difficult and takes a lot of discipline not to let your own habits and foibles, and of those around you, bleed into your writing.

    1. I think that's exactly right, Cynthia - the discipline bit. Parts of us and the people around us will inevitably leak into the books, but then we have to impose discipline and shape the characters in deliberate ways. My characters tend to be very fond of wine too! Something that became a problem when my scientist heroine in Rogue's Paradise is pregnant and it suddenly occurred to me that she couldn't be swilling wine all the damn time. Oops.


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