Friday, January 25, 2013

Medicine and Healing in Fantasy

I don't know about everyone else, but I had a bit of a rough week. First off, I developed a nasty sort of infection so that I could barely move my arm. Then, I needed surgery to remove the infection, and not just any surgery, but the whole anesthetized enchilada. Since then, I've had to go back to the doctor's almost every day for poking and prodding -- also known as "healing."

Now, as a writer, there's a definite silver lining to this otherwise-unfortunate circumstance. That is to say, if I ever need to write a character who develops an infection and has to have surgery or is anesthetized, then I'll know what it's like! And, what's more, it got me thinking about medicine and healing in fantasy. So let's explore that topic in today's blog post.

Fantasy stories are by their very nature dangerous. Whether your hero battles a fire-breathing dragon or your heroine takes up swordfighting, the chances are quite high that one of your characters will be injured in the course of your story. (If no one gets injured in your entire story, well, maybe now's your chance to re-think your strategy.) What, then, is your poor bleeding character to do? Below, I'll explore several options for types of medicine and healing that you could use in your story.

1. Herbal Lore 
Pros: This is really the quintessential fantasy healing method. For example, in Lord of the Rings, Aragorn's athelas or kingsfoil plant brings healing to people who have been hurt by the Nazgul. It can be quite effective in medieval-style fantasies in particular.

Cons: On the other hand, it seems to me that so many fantasy stories abound with strange herbs with interesting properties. If you are going to use herbal remedies, then make them unique somehow. Beautiful flowers, meaningful symbolism, deceptive appearance--the options are almost unlimited. Another thing to keep in mind is that it takes quite a lot of knowledge and training and skill to find and administer herbal cures. In other words, don't let just anyone plaster plants on your characters!

2. Magical Healing 
Pros: Again, this is a method of healing that feels quite natural in most fantasy stories. Plus, in some cases, you may have situations where characters aren't affected by regular diseases or wounds but rather by dark and evil forces at work. In such situations, magical healing may be the only cure. Remember Radagast the Brown in the Hobbit, when he heals that tiny and absolutely adorable hedgehog Sebastian? That's a situation in which magical healing works wonderfully.

Cons: Magical healing can't be a cure-all for any problem. Even in a magical and fantastic world, there needs to be pain and suffering and loss in order to make your story meaningful. For example, again in Lord of the Rings, when Frodo returns to the Shire, he feels the pain of the sword-stab he received on Weathertop. In the end, the pain of his wounds (physical and, perhaps, spiritual) makes him decide to leave Middle-Earth forever.

3. Modern Medicine
Pros: Using modern medicine like painkillers and antibiotics and stitches is quite an unusual choice for a fantasy story. Because it's so rare, it's always very interesting. And, too, if you introduce some sort of epidemic like the plague, then modern medicine can offer quite effective cures. In an old version of a fantasy story I was writing, teens from earth get transported to another world, and they are carrying modern medicines that they use in the story.

Cons: Obviously, modern medicine would not work in every novel. Some fantasies are so historical in nature that using modern medicine would be out of place. However, sometimes you can borrow concepts and ideas from modern medicine and translate them into your story in ways that would work. Also, don't forget that modern medicine requires a whole lot of training. To become a doctor or a nurse, you need to go through years and years of rigorous schooling. Even in a fantasy story, don't cut corners--make your healers work for their medical skill.

Medicine and healing in fantasy is such a broad topic that one blog post can't begin to cover everything.  What about medical schools? Hospitals? Apprenticeships? Well, maybe that will be a post for another day. In the meantime, let me know what type of healing you use in your own stories or particular forms of medicine you've noticed in other books. Stay healthy, and keep writing!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Accessories in Fantasy

Recently, one of my readers read the Fashion in Fantasy series on the blog last year and commented that something seemed to be missing. After a bit of thought, it came to me: I'd barely begun to scratch the surface of one of the most essential elements in a fantasy story--the accessories.

Don't look so surprised. After all, what self-respecting fantasy story doesn't contain at least one necklace-with-amazing-powers or a turban filled with a dark presence or a scarlet cloak rippling in the chill winter breeze? Clearly, in the realm of Faerie, even ordinary objects and accessories have the potential to become extraordinary. We, as fantasy writers and readers, should exploit that potential.

So let's explore accessories in fantasy in more depth. First, let's take a quick look at all sorts of objects and accessories, and, second, how you can use them in your story.

The types of accessories are virtually endless, but let me list some here to get you thinking. There is jewelry, from a necklace to a single gemstone or a golden ring. There is headwear, like crowns, tiaras, turbans, fedoras, and all sorts of hats. There are handbags (what self-respecting girl, after all, even in a fantasy world, wants to be without her trusty purse?). And, too, there are all sorts of shoes--glass slippers, seven-league boots, the latest chic Jimmy Choo heels.... It could be a rusty old key or broken eyeglasses or a small handmirror. There are lots more ideas--more may come to your mind as we continue. Above all, make sure that the accessories you choose are uniquely suited to the world of your story.

Next, let's think about the uses for these objects.

  • Flair: Some objects may not have any fantastic powers but may simply add to their personality or their signature "flair." Examples: Little Red Riding Hood's red riding hood; Sherlock Holmes in his tweed suit with a magnifying glass
  • Love: As a symbol of love and trust, accessories can be unparalleled. Even in the "real world" we use rings and jewels to convey how precious our loved ones are. Example: Aragorn and Arwen's jeweled necklace from Lord of the Rings
  • Family Heirlooms: Again, as in the real world, the objects that have the most meaning to us are often the ones passed down from generation to generation. (Of course, such objects may very well have powers beyond simply surface value.) Using such objects would give a bit of the backstory behind your characters and what they value in their lives. Example: Harry Potter's invisibility cloak, inherited from his father
  • Historical Item: This type of object can be used to expand your storyworld and give insights into the background of your tale. History is important because it affects the present. (This type of item can, of course, be combined with some sort of power as well.) Example: Aragorn's crown of Gondor from Lord of the Rings
  • Contains a Secret Message: Such uses for accessories abound in many of the best stories. After all, who would think to look for a message in the engraving of great-grandaddy's spectacles or in Aunt Marge's scarf? Examples: Madame Defarge in Dickens' Tale of Two Cities was most adept at hiding information in her knitting; the broken eyeglasses in the first Transformers movie contained coordinates to a hidden object
  • Contains Magical Powers: This, of course, is the quintessential use of an accessory in fantasy. Whether it confers invisibility, superspeed, control over the elements, or more, an object in a fantasy novel can be a great repository of magical power. Examples: seven-league boots; magic mirror
  • Contains Evil or a Curse: This, too, is a common (but important) use of artifacts in fantasy. A curse can lie unsuspected in a normal-looking object, posing a threat to all who draw near. Or, worse, an object may contain an evil being that the hero must conquer. Examples: JK Rowling in the Harry Potter series has done an excellent job in hiding evil in the most unexpected places--under a turban, in the first book, and inside a cursed necklace in the sixth; Also, Frodo's ring contains a definite evil, I'd say.
As you can see, the use of accessories in fantasy is a crucial art to master, and one that gives fantasy writers many possible tools to help or hinder the heroes along their quests. Comment below and let me know if you remember any particular accessories from fantasy stories you've read, or if you have special accessories in your story that are meaningful in any way.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Review: The Candidates

Today’s book review is of a fantasy school story that I picked up for “research” on last month's blog post about fantasy novels set inboarding schools. The hardcover edition had a bit of an off-putting cover—full of weird red streaks of light—but the story itself was enjoyable. Now for the review!

Title: The Candidates (Delcroix Academy Series, book 1)
Author: Inara Scott
Page Count: 293

Stars: 3.5 of 5

•    3.5 = enjoyable. May have minor content issues or flaws in the writing. 

Teaser: Dancia Lewis is far from popular. And that’s not just because of her average grades or less-than-glamorous wardrobe. In fact, Dancia’s mediocrity is a calculated cover for her secret: whenever she sees a person threatening someone she cares about, things just…happen. Cars skid. Structures collapse. Usually someone gets hurt.

But when recruiters from the prestigious Delcroix Academy show up in her living room offering her a full scholarship, Dancia’s days of hiding may be over. Only, Delcroix is a school for child geniuses and diplomats’ kids—not B students with uncontrollable telekinetic tendencies. So why are they treating Dancia like she’s special?

Age level: 15+ (mid-teen)

Violence: 2 of 5
•    2 = PG-level violence that's a minor theme in the book

Romance: 3 of 5
•    3 = romance is a major theme of the story but is appropriate for most teens

Language: 1 of 5
•    1 = replacement swear words

Christian worldview: Despite the almost-demonic-looking cover, there wasn’t anything anti-Christian in the novel at all. The source of people’s special “powers” are not explained, but it’s evident that they are some sort of inborn genetic trait rather than an evil power. Furthermore, the Academy makes each student swear to use their talents and abilities only for good and not for evil. (Which, in my opinion, is a rather wishy-washy pledge, but at least they’re trying to tell the difference between right and wrong and attempting to act in the right way.)

My Personal Opinion: This was a solid story. Personally, I always enjoy reading debut novels, because there’s often a freshness and originality to the writing that’s hard to find in longstanding authors. The book was a solid start to the series—it left me wanting to read more.

There were definite weaknesses, however. The main character, Dancia, often acted in annoying ways—shoving off friendship, refusing to research her “gift,” blindly trusting one group of people and still trying to make up her mind about another. She felt wishy-washy, yet she was portrayed as a strong heroine. It also annoyed me that everyone in the novel seemed to be calling Dancia great and honest and strong, when I didn’t see any such signs! In the end, she was an average character, but not one that left me begging for more.

As for the plot, it had its slow moments, for sure. The tension in the story arose mostly because of a lack of information, a bit like a mystery. Unlike most fantasy novels, there wasn’t a single force of evil against which to struggle. Instead, the plot was more one of discovery and the ominous foreshadowing of some future evil. I was fairly satisfied with this style of storytelling—it was refreshing not to see a villain in a fantasy-type novel, for once!

So, overall, The Candidates was a fairly good read that was enjoyable but did not possess any outstanding characteristics to take it from good to great. If you’re looking for a light fantasy (or if you just enjoy reading boarding school stories), I’d say pick it up and see if you like it.

The New Year & Fantasy (Revisited)

Happy New Year, everyone! Welcome to the year 2013!

That is, unless you're one of the many people around the world who celebrate the new year at other times. For example, Chinese New Year this year is not until February 10. In the Jewish calendar, the new year, Rosh Hashanah, was celebrated September 16th of 2012. And even in the Western world, up until about 1750 A.D., the new year was celebrated on March 25th. (If you're interested in finding out other dates of new year's celebrations, you may find this Wikipedia article on the New Year informative.)

In fact, a quick glance through all the new years around the world reveals that there have been celebrations in winter, in spring, in fall, and in summer to celebrate the coming of the "new year."

This brings us to an important point: there is no one right new year. This also means that, for your fantasy world, there's no reason to stick to January 1st as the time to usher in the next year.

Why is the particular date of the new year so important, though? Couldn't we just ignore it and move on with life? Well, the obvious answer is, yes. Certainly. But let me give you a few reasons to include--or at least think about--when the new year occurs in your fantasy world.

  • Very nearly all cultures in our world celebrate the new year at some time during the year. Why should a fantasy world be any different? It'll make your culture seem more true-to-life.
  • The new year is often a time to gather with family or close friends. If you need an excuse for your main character's slightly insane uncle to kidnap her, why not let the action happen during the new year celebrations, while the family is too busy toasting with rice wine to notice?
  • Also, the new year is a time to make new goals, change direction, and acquire a new purpose in life. You can use this time of year to have your character reflect on his or her past, and plan for the future.
  • Finally, the new year is often a time of romance. If your hero and heroine haven't quite got up the courage to have a sweet moment together, then the dancing and celebration of New Year's might be the perfect time to make a match.

So maybe, by now, you're convinced that a new year celebration might be helpful in your book. Well, how do you go about writing one? Actually, the process is quite simple.
  1. Decide on a season. Is this a harvest-time new year? A wintry, snowy, cold, and bleak new year? A spring new year, with new life and new growth in the air? A summer new year, with scorching heat and crops growing strong and tall under the sun? (Remember, too, that your world's calendar system will have an important impact on the new year. Does it celebrate lunar or solar months? How does it keep track of the passing of time?)
  2. Decide on particular customs. Is the new year a time for romance, or is it more for family? Is it a big party with lots of food or a small gathering with a few near and dear to your heart?
  3. Have your characters look back on the previous year. Any milestones?
  4. Have your characters look ahead at the new year. You could foreshadow difficulties and danger, you could give them a change of heart, or you could leave them in ignorant bliss about the path that lies ahead of them.
Whatever you do, and however you write, make sure it's consistent with your characters, your story, and your world. Enjoy!