High Fantasy is a paradox. It is one of the easiest genres to write and also the hardest. It is easy because it is a world of pure imagination, one that isn’t fettered by the constraints of reality. It is, at the same time, one of the most difficult genres to write well. This not because it requires more writing talent, not because it has long books or complicated plots, and not because it requires good character development. Other genres of fiction and many genres of non-fiction involve similar problems.
High Fantasy is difficult to write well because an entire world must be built. In High Fantasy, an entire history must be created, nations must be designed and borders drawn up. Animals must be created, or if not, more familiar animals must be given habitats natural to them. Towns must be placed, in logical, intelligent areas, in the same way they are placed in our world. Rivers must run courses that fit the laws of physics and deserts and rainforests must follow the appropriate patterns of meteorology.
All of these things must be accounted for, if they are going to be used in the book. It is a good idea to build them, even if they won’t ever appear in the story, because they often have an effect upon things that do appear. One of the things I like to start with is the animal.
Animals are easy things to build, one that fits nicely with the way humans think. They are also excellent starting points for the rest of your world-building. For the sake of argument, lets pick a reason for our animal. Many High Fantasy writers need a beastie to attack their main character, to give some “dash” to the story. Let’s go with that.
We don’t know where our character is, so we’ll build the animal first, then build the surroundings, the habitat. First off, remember, this is fantasy, so we have a great deal of leeway. This is where the easy part of High Fantasy comes in. Your imagination can run wild. Then comes the harder part. You want to add just enough reality that your readers actually believe the creature. For instance, the pegasus in the Magician’s Nephew was originally a horse, of a sort of reddish color, and was turned into an equestrian’s dream by a magical lion.
Now, this seems quite ridiculous, until we realize that it is a regular creature enhanced by magic. This makes all the difference in the world. The only difference between a horse and a pegasus is the wings. The horse, a vastly mundane, real creature, is given a slight dose of imagination and suddenly becomes something believably fantastic. The horse keeps us believing in the pegasus. It is our little bit of normality, which our brain-anchor will latch onto, allowing our imagination to dance on the waves without running aground.
Okay, to start, we agree that our character must be attacked. For this particular story, we are going to choose a cliched hero, one with bulging muscles and a sword that weighs more than a Volkswagen Beetle. He’s also dashingly handsome (which isn’t important to the beastie) and blindingly clever (which is). Now, all these attributes mean that we need our animal to be one of two things; (a) more cunning than the hero. (b) much bigger and stronger than the hero.
Since a battle of cunning is hard to write easily and quickly, let’s go with option (b). Now, what is a naturally strong predator (yes, we’ll use a predator) that could attack a man who can lift a small car? Well, how about a lion? Hm. No, a lion might work, but it would probably fall into category (a) instead of category (b). What about a snake? Nah, that could work, but why would a snake attack Our-Hero? Maybe he stepped on the reptile, but then, that would mean that the snake would have to be small enough for him to step on. Which, in turn, means that it’s not big enough to hurt him.
How about a bear? Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. Bears are naturally big and strong and, in the right season, pretty aggressive. (We’re also going to assume that our hero knows nothing about bears, because if he did, he’d know to stay away from them during that season) Unfortunately, no bear that ever lived would be able to beat this particular hero, since the man goes around fighting with a small car. Sorry, bear, we’re going to have to do something to you.
Of course, since this if fantasy, we have innumerable options for enhancing the bear, but since we’re using the cliche-highway already, lets go for the evil magician option. So, Our-Hero is going to the fields of Glorious Battle, to defeat the Necromagiciawarlomancer, and said bad guy (no, I couldn’t spell it twice) is terrified of the coming conflict. In order to avoid it and so win the Unending War of Terrible Magicks, he conjures up a bear to stop Our-Hero.
This bear must be based upon enough logic to make the readers believe it, but still use enough imagination to be interesting. It needs to be strong, but that’s already covered; it’s a bear. Unfortunately, hide doesn’t usually win against steel cutting edges. So, it needs armor. Now, it’s an animal, so lets give it an armor like a rhinoceros horn, essentially a hard substance that grows naturally. Nice and tough, so now the sword is not a problem.
But Our-Hero is strong and smart, so it follows logically (in terms of cliche) that he’s an expert swordsman. Maybe he can’t kill the bear now, but he can easily defend himself from mere claws. So the Necromagiciawarlomancer sits down to think. He wants a cup of tea, but that’s too much trouble, especially in the middle of the spell. Ah-ha! Well, maybe Our-Hero can defend himself from deathly blows, but surely he can’t keep from getting even a scratch? The solution presents itself! The claws of the bear should exude a natural poison, one capable of killing a full-grown whale, should the bear find itself in the ocean! Perfect!
Now we have a creature uniquely suited to the kind of combat we need. It’s powerful, enough to give Our-Hero a run for his silverflorin-goldpiece-halfcrown. It cannot be killed, not by the blows of swords, and though it cannot hope to get past the guard of Our-Hero, its poisoned claws can deal death in the slightest cut. But as a writer, we need the hero to have SOME way of killing it. Ah, we have it! The bear is susceptible to its own poison. If Our-Hero can but remove one of the claws with a clever sword stroke, he can fling it, dagger-like, into the beast’s maw, killing it.
So, we have created a creature, both unique and interesting, but also realistic enough to make readers suspend their disbelief long enough to finish the story. Our-Hero has a harrowing battle ahead, but one which will increase the suspense and lend some urgency to his particular quest.
I hope this helped some of you and amused the others. Next time, for WorldBuilding 01#, I’ll write about how to build environments.