I met author and editor Joshua Palmatier in 2005 at the World Fantasy convention in Madison, Wisconsin. We had breakfast and later at the convention I heard him read from his novel, The Skewed Throne, book one of his “Throne of Amenkor” trilogy. I was blown away by the reading, and his novel, The Skewed Throne became my favorite book of the year. It’s an impressive, realistic, and dark fantasy novel with awesome details, and tons of action. Here’s a post he offered to allow me to share from his blog about gritty fantasy, which he does so well.
First off, thanks, Paul, for inviting me to guest blog today. I really appreciate it.
I recently attended Arisia, an SF&F con in Boston, and while there I participated in a panel called “Mud and Blood: The Grittier Side of Fantasy.” This was not a surprise, since the most common adjective used to describe my book is “gritty.” But the basic idea behind the panel was to talk about dark fantasy. I thought it would be a good topic for my guest post.
The main question is, what is it about dark fantasy that intrigues me as a writer, and do I really need to include all of the mud and blood, the dirt and grit? The answer is yes. *grin*
I have to admit that I don’t sit down and intentionally write “dark fantasy.” I never thought of my books as dark, I simply wrote them, the way they wanted to be written. (I’m an organic writer, which means I just sit down and write to see what happens; very little planning ahead of time.) And for me, a book and the characters in it aren’t realistic unless they have to deal with the mud and blood, dirt and grit. Those are the elements that make the world real for me, and so I include them naturally. They’re a part of life.
I also feel that people don’t change unless they’re forced into it. We’d all rather stay the way we are, so in order for a character to have a believable character arc in a book, some rather serious and significant emotional pain needs to be inflicted. We often joke that writers like to torture their characters, but it isn’t really a joke. If we expect the character to change, SOMETHING has to happen. Often, that “something” isn’t nice. And in the end, this is what makes characters interesting and gets the reader involved. Being forced to deal with the gritty reality of life is what draws the reader in and makes them sympathetic to the character.
That doesn’t mean that, as a writer, you can’t take it too far. There is a line that has to be drawn by every writer and every book, a line that the mud and blood, dirt and grit, shouldn’t cross. It differs from book to book, but a reader can only take so much grime and so much character torturing before they lose their sympathy and simply start thinking the writer is cruel. Writers need to balance the “dark” with some hope. In my first book, THE SKEWED THRONE, my character, Varis, starts out in the slums called the Dredge. I spent a lot of time trying to make the Dredge as real and believable as possible. Varis is struggling to merely survive, and for a while it feels as if she may not succeed. I couldn’t possibly write an entire book where this was the dominant feeling. At some point, you have to introduce something to counter the grit and give the reader hope that things will change. In my book, Varis meets a Seeker named Erick, who begins training her to be an assassin. That doesn’t mean there aren’t painful experiences yet to come, even after she escapes the Dredge, but at every stage there is hope that, sometime soon, good things will come. And eventually, they do.
So, in my opinion, you need some mud and blood, some dirt and grit, in order to make the world feel more real, and in order to make the character arc believable. Making the world believable in a fantasy novel is even more important than in other novels. But you have to be careful that you don’t take it too far an alienate the reader from not only your world, but the sympathy they have with your characters as well.
Joshua Palmatier (aka Benjamin Tate) is a fantasy writer with DAW Books, with two series on the shelf, a few short stories, and is co-editor with Patricia Bray of two anthologies. Check out the “Throne of Amenkor” trilogy—The Skewed Throne, The Cracked Throne, and The Vacant Throne—under the Joshua Palmatier name. And look for the “Well” series—Well of Sorrows and the just released Leaves of Flame—by Benjamin Tate. Short stories are included in the anthologies Close Encounters of the Urban Kind (edited by Jennifer Brozek), Beauty Has Her Way (Jennifer Brozek), and River (Alma Alexander). And the two anthologies he’s co-edited are After Hours: Tales from the Ur-bar and the upcoming The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity (March 2012). Find out more about both names at www.joshuapalmatier.com and www.benjamintate.com, as well as on Facebook, http://jpsorrow.livejournal.com/ LiveJournal (jpsorrow), and Twitter (bentateauthor).