By Fantasy Author Sandy Lender
Whether she's working with capes, coffins, caves or castles, a speculative fiction author can introduce fantasy elements in otherwise ordinary settings or circumstances to advance plot and develop character. When you take the ordinary and drape the extraordinary around it, you create an alternate reality for the reader. You create a fantasy element. How you use that element dictates its effectiveness. It can be window-dressing or it can be a plot device. In this article, I'm going to discuss using the fantasy element as a plot device, but doing so without losing credibility in the reader's eye.
My publisher, Bob Gelinas, shared in one of his lectures at his Professional Novelist's Workshop that following the ordinary with the extraordinary is one way to retain the reader's suspension of disbelief. If I introduce a character by starting with the extraordinary aspect of her personality, I ask the reader to suspend disbelief immediately without winning his or her trust.
Instead, Gelinas teaches, writers should give the reader some familiar information first. Let the reader get comfortable. When you have the reader's trust, you can spring the extraordinary, or in my case, the fantasy element on him. When I first describe my main character, Chariss, in my fantasy novel Choices Meant for Gods, I show the reader that she's a compassionate young woman. She's standing on the balcony of a benefactor's home. She's smart enough to have figured out her benefactor's danger. And then I mention that her tears are violet-colored. Like her eyes. Like the jewel on her cheek.
After all the ordinary stuff, I give Chariss some features that you'd only find in a fantasy novel. These elements make her different from other people in her society for an important reason that advances the plot as the reader delves into the story. They're not just window-dressing.
One of the oldest fantasy elements we fantasy authors like to use is the prophecy. A prophet or a written prophecy predicts some heinous future event that the plot moves toward. In CMFG, the prophecy describes Chariss, describes her important role, sets up the plot twist at the end of the novel, etc. But prophecies aren't the only extraordinary elements fantasy authors fall back on. Consider the creatures that you don't typically run into at the city zoo.
Dragons of every make and model, size and shape, color and creed grace the pages of fantasy novels from Goodkind to Tolkien. When the big bad dragons of Lawrence Watt-Evans's Dragon Weather destroy a village and kill young Arlian's grandfather, they (as the fantasy element) set the plot in motion. They unknowingly impart a special power to the youth—to be discovered later in life—and give him his initial quest for vengeance. But before he introduces the extraordinary fantasy beasts, Watt-Evans makes them part of the ordinary legend and lore of the society his characters inhabit.
In my novels, the characters consider dragons extinct so introducing one has to be extraordinary to everyone, including the reader. How does the fledgling dragon that appears to my main character advance plot? In the first book of my Choices trilogy, he looks like window-dressing, but his importance, and his ability to influence the outcome of battles, thus manipulate plot, comes to light in the second novel, Choices Meant for Kings.
Dragons aren't the only fantasy creatures fantasy authors have in their arsenals. Young Adult Author M.B. Weston incorporates unicorns in her Elysian Chronicles series, allowing the creatures to work among the plot as messengers/informants, carriers and soldiers in their own right. In the first of her series, A Prophecy Forgotten, a massacre of the unicorns signals a potent moment in plot development that the reader won't soon forget.
Authors also create their own fantasy creatures. For the Choices trilogy, I've created a variety of monsters from my imagination that serve not as window-dressing, but as tools for the evil goddess who works to thwart my main character. Ryfel and edras are demons from the dark spirit world that I introduce after the reader has become comfortable with the ordinary mythos of the war in which the beasts were first formed. When I have the reader's trust, the reader's belief in the first war where the evil goddess Julette fought the other gods and goddesses of the world, I can later suggest that Julette fought "dirty". Because the reader believes in the war, believes in Julette, believes she's capable of dastardly things, the reader also buys into the demons she created and what they look like, what they can and cannot do, how they can teleport between the "real" world and the dark spirit realm, etc. And having an edras kill a prophet is a pretty big plot development. In CMFG, I use the ryfel to help prove Chariss's prowess and convince the other characters that she is The Protector the prophecies claim her to be.
This isn't an in-depth study on the use of fantasy elements to advance plot and develop character, but I hope it helps show how a writer can set up the reader to believe an extraordinary element. Putting a fantasy element in the story to advance the plot will be foiled if the reader rolls his eyes and loses his belief in the world and the fantasy elements within it. Keep the reader deeply engrossed in the world by leading in with familiar concepts that make him or her comfortable enough to accept the extraordinary fantasy element you introduce to move your plot along.
Fantasy Author Sandy Lender is published by ArcheBooks Publishing. Her first novel, Choices Meant for Gods is available now at www.amazon.com. The second book in the Choices trilogy, Choices Meant for Kings, will be released this fall and is already receiving rave reviews. For more information, check out Sandy's page at www.todaythedragonwins.blogspot.com.