[GUEST POST] 3 Things Betsy Dornbusch Learned by Writing Fantasy


Betsy Dornbusch is the author of a dozen short stories, three novellas, and two novels. She also is an editor with the speculative fiction magazine Electric Spec and the longtime proprietress of her website, Sex Scenes at Starbucks.

Three things I Learned Writing Fantasy

by Betsy Dornbusch

Besides that it’s challenging, all-consuming, damned fun, and as addictive as those new churro ice cream sandwiches.

I’ve learned lots more than three things from writing fantasy, but I decided to tie this to Exile, The First Book of the Seven Eyes, my book that just came out in paperback. I wrote Exile eight years ago and these are the challenges that jumped out at me then. You’d think I’d have moved on by now. Except as I draft Enemy, the third book in the series, I’m finding these challenges have become more tenets I lean on. Problem is, they each have inner conflict. You know, to keep things interesting.

Reality is the Story’s Bitch or Everybody Poops

Getting whacked with a sword hurts, even with armor on. Sword fights don’t usually last long enough for conversation, a la Princess Bride, and the fighters are rather occupied with trying to kill each other anyway. Blood stinks, but you know what stinks worse? People dying, especially en masse. And you know what stinks even more than all that? The battlefield a few days later. Longtime soldiers and people who work with their hands have calluses and scars and skin aged from the sun. When it rains, the ground gets slick and muddy. Mud is heavy and sticks to itself. It slows you down to have to drag it along, or scrape it off your boots every five steps. Speaking of slogging along, people get tired. Days of hiking on a Quest, even on a reasonable trail, requires sustenance, clean water, rest. And pooping on the ground.

I’ve read plenty of fantasies where authors neglect to mention these realities. Either they don’t know, are envisioning sword fights in clean-swept lists, or they just don’t like pointing out that life in a pre- and some post-industrial worlds is generally dirty. Fair enough, because Story.

Everyone poops. We all know it. Especially readers, who are smarter than us writers by a longshot. So if you’ve got your bad guy in the privy, something besides pooping had better happen in there. There’s one mention of such a thing in Exile, and it creates a seemingly simple opportunity for Draken. The rest of the time, while I put a lot of effort into realistic action and description, I assume my readers are smart enough to realize my characters take regular, uneventful potty breaks.

Tropes like a Twist

I was recently on a panel where we had the audience call out tropes they hate. For every trope someone yelled, dragons, medieval settings, magical McGuffins, dark lords, prophesies, someone else yelled that they liked that one all right but they really hated this other trope over here. We all like different tropes, and we like them twisted up into a different shape than the one we read before. I always thought I hated the Mysterious Magical Advisor, for instance, until I wrote one myself. Osias is a MMA, but he is also a necromancer, a religious figure, and is, well, silver-skinned-three fairly simple qualities that lead to a host of intriguing magical opportunities.

Too many tropes are … too many. Of course we must flip our tropes upside down and shake them to find out what else comes out. But fantasies are quest stories, they are discovery stories, and coming-of-age stories. Tropes and archetypes represent age-old, humanist themes. They remind us what sort of story we’re reading and why we love them so much, even as we’re rolling our eyes. They draw us back into the genre time and again, no matter how they’re dressed up.

The World is a Big Place

Every time a character turns a corner, writers have decisions to make about the world. What’s the most offensive thing someone can say; what’s the grandest compliment? What about that world makes them insults and compliments? What are curse words like? Are they based in religion, dirt, prejudice, attractiveness, body waste, lewd acts, or, gods forbid, something else? Because each of those questions are going to lead to more questions.

Even when a character saunters into a tavern we have to decide who patronizes the place, what’s the barkeep like, is the place dirty or clean, what are they serving, what do they drink it out of, and how does your character pay? What is money called? What does it look like? What’s its value, and how common is it? What’s the alternative when characters don’t have it? Not all of this is going to make it on the page, but a writer has to know, because as soon as we don’t, no matter how carefully we’ve planned, that character is going to turn another corner. Which leads to the biggest question of all… how much is too much?

Fantasy readers like different, cool stuff. It reminds them: Here, now, is somewhere different. Of course we all have our preferences. Some readers lament about food scenes in books; they make my mouth water. I like reading about the countryside in Middle Earth.

On the flipside, I’ve read stories were absolutely nothing is familiar, and while it’s a rollicking adventure to navigate such a world, sometimes I think “just put them on a damn horse with a recognizable weapon already.” Glimpses of the familiar ground us.

If I have to call the act of writing fantasy by a simple term, it’s balance. All writing requires balance, but in fantasy our need for the familiar constantly vies with our love of the new and strange. It’s easy to get carried away, but most of all, fantasy is imagination running circles around reality. Therein lies the challenge, and all the fun.

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