Making the Fantastic "Real": An Interview with Rosemary Edghill
by Moira Allen
Think of fantasy literature, and you're likely to think of elves and dwarves, heroes and dragons, goblins and trolls. Dragons grace a hundred fantasy covers, while no magical quest would be complete without an elf. Such denizens of the fantasy realm have become staples of the genre. And that can be precisely the problem.
To many, the very thought of all those elves and goblins, dragons and dwarves, is actually a turnoff. The races of fantasyland have often ceased to be enchanting and become cliches. After all, we all know what elves look like, don't we? They're tall, have silvery hair and Spock-like ears, love music, and live forever (or at least a very long time). Their names are invariably long and full of "l's" and "r's". Most have some form of magic, and nearly all are inordinately fond of trees. Oh, and they can't stand cold iron.
Dwarves, on the other hand, hate trees but love gold -- and have no problem with iron. They're short, and rarely considered an "attractive" people (certainly not compared to elves). They often have no magic of their own, but they wield a mean pick, shovel, mattock, or ax. Their names are equally short, usually something like "Brock" or "Diggle" -- no doubt easily grunted between swings of a pickax (Swing "Unh!" Swing "Hey..." Swing "Brock..." Swing "Look!" Swing "Gold!").
Does that mean would-be fantasy writers should stay away from the "stock characters" of fantasy? Not at all, says Rosemary Edghill, author of numerous fantasy and science fiction novels, including "The Twelve Treasures" series (The Sword of Maiden's Tears, The Cup of Morning Shadows, The Cloak of Night and Daggers) and most recently The Shadow of Albion (with Andre Norton). In Edghill's tales (including those she writes under the name of eluki bes shahar), you can be sure of one thing: Any "classic" fantasy character you meet is going to do more than simply break tradition. It's likely to kick tradition in the butt.
Abandon Stereotypes, All Ye Who Enter Here
The first question a writer should ask, Edghill declares, is not necessarily how to best portray a fantasy race or character, but why you want to use such a character in the first place. "Why are these characters dwarves? Do you need somebody to make your hero a magic sword? Do you need someone to help him find an underground city? Do you need a non-human race to interact with your human race? What's going on with your story?"
Once you've answered this question, Edghill advises going beyond "traditional" fantasy images and descriptions. "A stereotype is a double-edged sword: It always carries the danger that the writer will neglect his duty to imagine." It's too easy to assume that the reader will automatically understand what dwarves are like based on sources such as Tolkien, TSR, and the scores of novels that have used those sources as models.
Instead, "go back to the drawing board and start from the first principles in creating a fantasy race," advises Edghill. "Go back to the folklore and mythology and see what's there. That's where elves and dwarves and giants came from in the first place. It's not going to provide you with a blueprint to slavishly follow, but it will provide new tools for the toybox of your imagination. If you only read other people's fiction for your sources, sooner or later the Xerox Effect sets in."
This is exactly what Edghill has done in her "Twelve Treasures" series. "My elves were a deliberate riff on the elvish stereotypes -- tall, fair, forsoothly, glow in the dark -- because I wanted to play with the notion of High Faerie clashing with 20th-century New York."
Abandoning stereotypes can mean asking oneself some difficult questions, however. Once a writer moves past assumptions about what a fantasy race or character "ought" to do, she is left with the question of what such a race would really do under certain circumstances. Thus, once Edghill's elves left New York and returned to their home turf, she found herself "working out all the logical ramifications of having a race of immortal magic-users sharing the landscape with standard-issue humans in a feudal-level society." The outcome? Elves with an attitude!
That attitude, she says, springs from her own beliefs. "Do I believe that power corrupts? Yes. Are my elves in a position of power? Yes. And it goes on from there." Yet even the question of "good" and "bad" can be a matter of perception. "Overall, I think my elves aren't that different from the feudal overlords in our own history, who sincerely believed they were a different order of humanity from their serfs," says Edghill. "You can see this dynamic in any group that divides itself into 'Us' and 'Them' -- it's only human (even if it isn't very nice) to limit your compassion to 'Us' and not care what happens to 'Them.' My elves are more indifferent to human pain than anything else, but from the victim's side, that can look an awful lot like gloating."
The Reality Factor
Just as Edghill uses cultural parallels (and a huge amount of historical research) to create realistic fantasy races, she uses human parallels to bring individual characters to life. "If your characters don't at least echo some human traits, you'll almost certainly have two major problems. One is that you're going to have to do a lot more work -- both in writing them and in imagining them -- to bring them to life on the page. The other is that you will run a real risk that the reader simply won't care what's going on among these incomprehensible people."
To Edghill, the elements that make a fantasy character believable (and interesting to the reader) fall into two categories: "The things that make him similar to the reader, or to someone in the reader's experience, and the things that make him true to his exotic self. If a reader can't imagine sharing any of the same concerns as a character, I think they lose sympathy for that character. And without that emotional connection, you don't have a story anyone will keep reading."
In her science fiction series "Hellflower," for example, a character named Butterfly "is not only worried about staying out of trouble with the law and preventing galactic war (both of which I'm presuming my readers have little personal experience with), she's also worried about looking silly, coming out second-best in a conversational encounter, and her laundry. In 'The Twelve Treasures,' Melior [the elf] is not only worried about preventing a resurgence of civil war, he's worried about having the money to pay his taxes and concerned with how his sister is adjusting to a crippling injury."
Even villains must evoke this sense of identification. "While some of my villains are meant to be entirely villainous (meaning I don't court reader sympathy for them), with others I'm striving for that shock of recognition, that acknowledgement of kinship between the reader and the character on the page. As for realism -- hey, even if the guy is a ninja assassin, he has to brush his teeth."
Revealing the details of a character's personality or situation that will evoke that "shock of recognition" isn't always easy. Contrast is one tool Edghill uses to keen advantage -- by placing a high elf on the streets of New York, for example. "You need to give your hero someone to talk to, and a place he's never been. When I'm in New York with Melior, he's seeing the city in terms of contrast to what he's familiar with: It's too big, too dirty, too crowded, too noisy. Since he chooses to notice these things, the reader understands that these things aren't true about Melior's home."
Contrast can also work when a character is on familiar turf. "When I'm in Ruth's POV, she's looking at the familiar Manhattan setting and trying to imagine how it looks to someone who's never even seen a really big city before, so Ruth is also looking at New York with fresh eyes. It's her leap of imagination that gives the reader a way to understand her character."
How a character handles action is another way to reveal that character. "Does he lose his head? Behave ruthlessly? Run like a rabbit? Is he surprised? Prepared? Irritated? Bored? All these answers come out of what you know about your character's personality, and to know that, you have to know his background. Even if you don't tell the reader what that background is, the reader should get a sense of internal consistency from your character that will pull him into your story."
These traits don't evolve out of nowhere, Edghill notes. "My character-building tools include the fact that no trait exists in a social vacuum. If elves are immortal, for example, do they still have kids? Lots or a few? How do they respond to death if they aren't born with the absolute certainty that they're going to die? How does it change a character's psyche if you remove the fear of mortality? (I'm still working that one out!) I think you can use human interaction as a framework on which to model nonhuman interaction."
Humanize, Don't Homogenize
One approach Edghill uses to bring fantasy races alive is "that ever-popular parlor game, 'What if a sentient race had evolved from (insert species here)?' What if cats had hands? Larry Niven's sfnal kzin are very catlike, but cats aren't tribal animals. What is a society that serves the emotional needs of tigers going to be like? Poul Anderson's ythri are based on raptors. What kinds of cities would highly evolved hawks build? What social choices could a primate society could make besides those we've made? What if our culture really resembled that of baboons?"
Regardless of the source of a race or culture, however, Edghill warns writers against the danger of making all members of that race too similar. "My peeve-alert goes off when all members of a race are identical, when all cultures and technological levels are identical, and when nothing has changed over thousands of years. Look at the diversity you'll find even in an Amish town where everybody is of the same race and the same religion." In 'The Twelve Treasures,' Edghill offers good elves and bad elves, "because the only truly homogeneous culture is an insect one. The more self-will each member of a race has, the more different they are going to be."
To avoid the problem of racial homogeneity, Edghill advises writers to study -- hard. "Read some history and sociology and get an idea of the diversity in medieval culture (any medieval culture). English feudal culture is the basic template for Big Fantasy, but it can be a very rich template. If you read enough real-world nonfiction to understand Tolkien's sources, you'll avoid generating a cookie-cutter Lord of the Rings clone. The more you understand about the building blocks of fantasy, the more unique and original your writing will be."
One book Edghill recommends is Diana Wynne Jones' The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, "which nails every fantasy cliche. Once you've read it, you'll become very sensitive to the points in your own work where you might have been tempted to become, ah, lazy."
Edghill got her own start writing Regency romances, and has read widely in nonfiction. "I'm still a major history junkie, and I think it's especially important for fantasy writers to understand Times Not Our Own. People in, say, Renaissance Italy didn't think the way we do in the 20th century. They made different assumptions about the nature of reality, and had different expectations of their lives. I'm not saying you should write historical fantasy, but a lot of fantasy is about creating a, well, fantasy world. It's going to be different from the world outside your window, so you need to know what 'different' feels like."
Finally, Edghill advises the writer not to ignore cliches, but to use them to advantage. "If you're doing something because you think it's 'required' by the genre, look carefully at your assumptions. But if you have a new spin on an old notion, that's another matter. I love cliches, because I like to turn them on their side. I've never met a cliche that didn't have a dance or two left in it, if you know where to look."
The bottom line, says Edghill, is that "if the people in your stories are real people, the situations they're in are not only going to interest your reader, they're going to go in fresh directions."
This article originally appeared on Phantastes