Epic fantasies are big stories, not just in the number of books it takes to tell the whole thing, but in the complexity, scope, and scale of events. They are grand adventures that dabble about those fascinating borderlines between nature, magic, myth, and the divine. But if the adventure gets too grand, the events too large scale, the cast too large, readers can get left back on the ground and feel detached from the story. The reading experience can become more like reading mythology than reading a human story. As a reader I like to experience epic events through the very personal lens of vivid, compelling characters. It keeps me connected. It makes it feel real.
What do I mean by a personal lens? In all my stories I use an intimate point of view, that is, we experience the events of the story through one or more characters’ perspective, seeing, smelling, hearing only those things that they see, smell, or hear, and knowing only what they know. Dust and Light and its follow-on, Ash and Silver, are told from the single point of view of Lucian de Remeni, age twenty-six – rich, privileged, well educated, and talented, born with magical bents for portraiture and history.
So what makes a compelling hero? Epic fantasy heroes and heroines get involved in larger-than-life difficulties, and it usually takes some combination of larger-than-life strength, endurance, or power, whether magical, spiritual, or intellectual to get them through. But that doesn’t mean a hero has to be godlike. Perfection is boring. Nor does it mean that a heroine has to be a chick in chainmail. Strength and power come in all kinds of guises.
Flawed, human people, with likes and dislikes, prejudices, vulnerabilities, doubts, fears, vices, and every other trait that we see in real life, are much more fun than perfection. Heroes who question, who vacillate, who get irritated or do stupid things from time to time, and, most importantly, who grow and change, are much more interesting than all-powerful players who are always angry, always cynical, or always embarked on a mission of vengeance.
Lucian de Remeni, the protagonist of Dust and Light, doesn’t know what’s happening to him. He’s grown up in a very restrictive, but very wealthy, privileged subculture, and he has exceptional talents in two magical disciplines – art and history. He is intelligent and talented and believes in the rules he lives by. OK, he made one small mistake when he was twenty, violating his society’s rules when it comes to fraternization with the opposite sex – and she was an ordinary (ie. non-magical person) to boot. But ever since, even though he’s done his very best to restore his reputation and his family’s honor, it seems the universe itself is determined to wreak havoc with his life.
His beloved grandsire ripped out half his magic and then contracted him to the most boring kind of work in a place where his superiors were constantly looking over his shoulder. (He draws identity portraits of fellow purebloods.) And then his entire family was savagely murdered by rampaging fanatics, leaving him with no family treasury, estates in ruins, and a fifteen-year-old sister who resents him. It seems the final straw when he loses his job and is contracted to a city coroner – an ordinary – to draw identity portraits of the dead. Humiliating doesn’t even begin to describe it. And when he learns that the stipend for his services won’t even maintain the lifestyle he is required to live, he is angry and confused to say the least. And that’s where the story begins.
We don’t know near everything about Lucian at this point (it’s only Chapter One, after all!) I don’t have any list of characteristics that I dump on readers from the beginning of a book. I’m an organic story developer, and I have a general idea about my point-of-view characters, but the specifics will show up as I write. How do I do it? I throw stuff at them, and figure out how this person would react. I want them to feel real.
Save for that one indiscretion, Lucian has always held to the rules and discipline laid out for him. They have been the structure of his life thus far. So does he have a meltdown when all this stuff happens? Or does he run off the rails? Or run away? Or charge into the Pureblood Registry and say what the heck is going on? It would be nice if he could talk things over with family or friends, but purebloods are not encouraged to have friends. They have extended families. But Lucian’s family is dead, except for one sister – and if you’ve had to deal with a smart, grieving, rebellious teenager, you might imagine how helpful she is.
Of course the difficulties keep on coming – because that is the story part of the story!
Another way I get to know my protagonists is by introducing them to secondary characters who will challenge, irritate, and otherwise expose all those flaws and weaknesses and vulnerabilities that can make a hero interesting. Enter Bastien the Coroner, Lucian’s new contract master, for example. An ordinary. But interesting and complex in his own right. If the story is going to feel real, the hero can’t be the only real person in it! Bastien has a chip on his shoulder when it comes to purebloods or aristocrats. (Relationships between people who have every reason to resent and dislike each other are such fun to write!) But business is business, and there is money in knowing who is who among the dead. And portraits that show unmistakable truth can be useful not only in figuring out who the dead people are, but also whether or why that person might have been murdered. When the coroner and his pureblood artist get caught up in a series of child murders, we start to expose the true colors of sorcerer, coroner, and some very important citizens of Navronne.
I’m not going to tell who are the wicked folk in Dust and Light. Be sure there are several…we’re dealing with murder and politics, after all! But I certainly want my villains to be just as complex and real as my heroic characters. Sometimes villains are written to be so unremittingly vile, one believes they get up every morning thinking, “What can I do to be evil today?” Well, ok, sociopaths can be interesting, but I prefer the villains who come outfitted in gray, and who bring more complex motivations to the table. And if I do it right, sometimes a reader just can’t tell whether the person is the Major Perp or an angel in disguise.
I can’t ignore minor characters, either. I like to think of every minor character as an individual who had a life before walking into the frame of the story and who will have a life when he or she walks out again. Which doesn’t mean every gravedigger or coffinmaker must be fully fitted out with dysfunctional family, political secrets, and interesting hobbies, but only that he or she shouldn’t devolve into a cliche. Minor characters certainly don’t have to be elves, dwarves, or hobbits, and they don’t have to come in threes.
Big events. A personal lens. Interesting companions on the story journey. And a hero I hope you’ll find compelling!
Though a devoted reader, Carol Berg majored in mathematics at Rice University and computer science at the University of Colorado, so she wouldn’t have to write papers. Somewhere in the middle of a software engineering career, she started writing for fun, and the habit ate her life. Carol’s fourteen epic fantasy novels have won national and international awards, including multiple Colorado Book Awards and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature. They’ve been read, so readers tell her, on five continents, on a submarine under the Mediterranean, in the war zone of Iraq, and on the slopes of Denali. Her newest, Dust and Light, is the first in a new fantasy/mystery duology about a sorcerer who draws portraits of the dead. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly calls Dust and Light “captivating and satisfying” and RT Book Reviews names it “outstanding.” Carol camps, hikes, and bikes in Colorado and lives on the internet at http://www.carolberg.com.