Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Romance and Agency

One of the big "debates" in Science Fiction and Fantasy right now is the question of women and the role they play in the genres we all love. Some have erroneously gone out and proclaimed that women authors are "killing" genres, which is kind of bullshit when you consider the fact that it would mean that Ursula K. Le Guin, Mary Shelley, Patricia McKillip, Karen Lord, K.V. Johansen, and an outstanding mix of old and new women authors have done so much to keep the money flowing into publisher's pockets, which keeps the genre going. There really aren't "male authors" or "female authors." Just great authors.

Mary only invented Science Fiction and Horror. But what does she really know?

And before anyone asks: I am not a feminist due to the fact I am  a humanist, simply because I think humanism encompasses all the things that feminism wants without all the political bullshit and gender-divisive language. I am a big fan of Judith Butler and Naomi Wolf though, so I do understand and support the goals and aims of the movement, as long as it is is for true equality and the realization of human dignity outside of gender, race, creed, and whatever else.

Seriously, cut that intolerant shit out.

But enough of that! Politics always sours a good table of friends.

What I wanted to talk about this time revolves around is the question of "Romantic Interests," because one thing that women readers and women writers often bring up is how female characters are relegated to being love interests. And it's true, speaking from person experience. Nine out of ten books I read within fantasy feature women who are treated as some sort of prize to be won by the hero.

So let's get some things out of the way. Nobody should be a "prize." When you get turned into an object instead of a person (which I think defines "objectification"), there is something being taken away from that person, which adds the nasty quality of "subjectification." What is being taken away is their right to be something unto themselves.

But is having a love interests a bad thing then? It depends.

At the crux of this argument I am about to make is that it all comes down to Agency.

What is Agency? It is not just something important for female characters, but for male characters, gay characters, black, brown, white, red, and green characters too. Agency is the ability for characters to act independently and make their own free choices.

Let's look a pair of examples of characters with agency and another pair without agency before we talk about its implications of how this fits into writing a relationship between two romantic leads, because the implications are where things might get contentious.

Please understand, everything below is my opinion alone.

Characters with Agency

Example #1

All rights go to CinemaBlend for the image.

Jen Yu from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is  one my favorite characters from one of the best (yet still universally underrated) films in international cinema. Played masterfully by Zhang Ziyi, she is a character that is all about her agency. Instead of being the kind of mewing princess that dreams of holding a sword and going off on adventures, she actually goes and does it throughout the entire movie without having to rely on someone else to do it for her or show her the way. From her choice to study Wudang in secret to deciding that her arranged marriage isn't for her, her willingness to give up her easy life for more than just love alone throughout the story demonstrates for the viewer quite clearly that she is a master of herself and her fate. That is agency in a nutshell. It isn't just that she decides to be a "kick-ass female," it is that she decides on her own to be a kick-ass female.

Example #2

All rights to R.A. Salvatore and The Forgotten Realms

One of my absolute favorite characters from the menagerie of R.A. Salvatore's Drizzt novels, Wulfgar of Icewind Dale was more than the average Thor/Conan stand-in that often overburdened any D&D property. Salvatore's books have been a high mark for a company that often executes before it really thinks. While all of Salvatore's characters get their time to shine throughout the twenty-plus book series, Wulfgar stands out to me as a realistic depiction to the torments of being a real hero. Raised by a dwarf-king and trained by a dark elf, Wulfgar has both the ability see outside of his native people's worldview, and at the same time, form it in a way that it fits within his as well. From deciding not to marry "the girl" and marrying the one he actually loved to giving up his rightfully-earned crown as King of Settlestone, he forged his own path based on what he felt and needed, not what others expected of him because of the typical tropes that usually come with this type of character. He took actual responsibility for the consequences of his actions. This is a marked difference from other warriors I often see in the genre, who are either drones for a higher power or people that just want to work within the system they operate in with little thought to why they do it. Having agency means having the ability to go outside the accepted notions of how people think "the story should go", and Wulfgar does that.

Now, let's look at

Characters *without* Agency

Example #1

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)

Please note, I am not picking on the character of Maid Marian herself, as there are a lot of great examples of her being a character with agency; in fact, Cate Blanchett playing the role is a perfect example of a character that could have topped the previous section. However, Maid Marian in Prince of Thieves is a pro-typical damsel in distress that feminists like Anita Sarkeesian point to when they talk about this kind of subject, even though Anita is equally full of shit (another topic for another blog, though, get back to the topic, Jay!) The problem here is that Marian throughout this version of the Robin Hood story is always having things done to her. Robin of Locksley returns to England, she falls in love on first sight. The Sheriff of Nottingham (played by the brilliant Alan Rickman) kidnaps her after trying to force her into a bogus wedding and tries to rape her, requiring her to be rescued by Robin because dammit, that is what needs to happen to get us to the climax of the story. She's a pretty set piece meant to motivate the protagonist to action and little more. She's a prize both sexually and in a proprietary sense, and prizes don't have their own agency if they are only allowed to be won. This is why Robin Hood: Men in Tights is so damned hilarious when they tackled this very issue.

Example #2

You know who this is? The best actress in that movie.

So this pick is probably going to earn me a lot of heat, but bear with me. Everyone loves Rue, but at the end of the day, she is one of the many characters in The Hunger Games that does not have an ounce of agency. Let's be honest: Rue is there to get jacked (killed) for the sake of Katniss Everdeen's plot, and if we go by the strictest definition of agency, then she is a character without it from the get-go.

This gets to an important point of characters and agency in the first place: not all of them are going to have it, nor do they all of them need it. The moment any author decides to harm, kill, alter, or change a character for the sake of of another character's plot, that character loses their agency and becomes a set piece.

This leads to the overall discussion of how Agency and Romantic Relationships interplay with each other, especially in stories where one of the characters in the relationship most likely won't be a point-of-view character. Let's look at two more examples of relationships with agency that only have one point of view in the relationship, and then let's look at one where there isn't any agency present.

Relationship with Agency

Croaker and The Lady, Glen Cook
***SPOILERS in this section***
Full disclosure, I have to admit my bias for this relationship as it is my favorite in all of fantasy. Croaker is the medic and keeper of the annals for The Black Company, a elite force of mercenaries that often hire their services out to the worst of the worst. The Lady is an all-powerful sorceress that rules over half the world, which she took from her husband, The Dominator. Slap these two together from book one, and you have one of the most unforgettable, awkwardly romantic, and organic relationships in one of fantasy' more under-appreciated works. The Lady is always in the seat of power next to our lowly medic, but these two develop an attraction that turns into friendship, and friendship into a love that lasts beyond the most difficult of travails. Yet what makes them work so well is that each is independent of the other, with one neither defining themselves on the basis of the other when it comes to their own self-worth. When Croaker is thought dead and gone from the result of a battle, The Lady steps up as the Company's new leader to take care of herself and the survivors, just like when Croaker finds out The Lady is potentially in huge trouble, he doesn't dash off to save her, knowing she has more than enough ability to handle herself. What makes these characters work so well together is their individual agency and how it interacts within the relationship. When they need each other, they are there, but when they can't be there, they don't just sit their thinking "Oh, what is he/she doing? What am I going to do? I MISS THEM SO MUCH I NEED THEM HERE RIGHT NOW!" It is a relationship that befits any strong couple: one of trust and honesty, not sycophantic reliance on one person.

They are a TEAM.

Now let's look at a

Relationship *without* Agency

Yep, I'm going there.
Once again, I am not bashing the film. In fact, I love this movie! But this movie features a romantic duo that is the exact opposite of Croaker and The Lady. Buttercup, from the get-go, is a blonde Maid Marian, meant to stand there, pout, look pretty, and smile and kiss Wesley on cue. Now, I know what many are going to say: That was the point. The entire movie/novel is meant to satirize the princess genre completely, but they do it so well that it popped into my mind pretty much immediately. Buttercup's entire world is built on two things: 1. I love Wesley and 2. Is Wesley coming for me? Every action she has is at the behest of him, but let's not let Wesley off the hook, either. His entire character  is about finding Buttercup and literally giving her whatever she wants, no questions asked, so everything I can say about her should be applied to him as well.

Like Lady and Croaker, who are a TEAM, this is DEPENDENCY.

And there is a crux of writing a Romantic Relationship with Agency involved:


Here is an easy guide to know the difference:

Does your romantic relationship feature two characters working in team, who make independent decisions for themselves outside of the relationship and can still be in a relationship?

Then YES, they have agency.

Does your romantic relationship feature two characters where one is dependent on the other for everything, who's role and function is dependent on serving the other person's story line or identity?

Then NO, they do not have agency.

It is pretty simple when you get down to it, but again, just because a character or a pair of characters do not possess agency doesn't mean they are automatically bad. Sansa Stark from Game of Thrones is distinct for the fact that she has no agency but is still compelling as a viewing glass into the workings of Westeros. She is our witness. As is Gollum from Lord of the Rings, who is meant to represent the corruption the One Ring brings upon all those who wear it. As with everything in writing, it all comes down to how your write it. Be thoughtful about what and who are you putting the page, and put real thought into how you want them represented. You will never please everyone, but a well-written character will always please more people than not.

Thanks for dropping by! If you liked what you read here, please click on the G+1 button the left side of the screen, or follow me on Twitter @JayRequard. Both help me grow the readership for this blog, and any help would be, well, helpful!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Gail Z. Martin sits down to talk about REIGN OF ASH!

Well, here we are again! Hot of the press or compiled into a stunning e-book, Gail Z. Martin's new novel, Reign of Ash, is now on the shelves of your local bookstore. As she had with its predecessor, Ice Forged, Gail was kind enough to sit down again with Sit.Write.Bleed and spill the beans on this brand-new release!

All rights belong to Orbit Books

Sit.Write.Bleed (SWB): So last time we talked we talked I asked you if there was any pressure in creating a new world after the great success you had with The Winter Kingdoms, and to paraphrase, one of your goals was to create something new with the world building when it came to Ice Forged and The Ascendant Kingdoms. Going into the second book, Reign of Ash, what sort of challenges did you face and what surprised you about the setting?

Gail Z Martin (GM): Ice Forged showed readers a very small portion of the world inhabited by my characters. Readers saw a little bit in and around the capital city of Castle Reach, as well as Velant and Edgeland. In Reign of Ash, that world starts to expand as Blaine’s mission to bring back magic turns out to be more complicated—and difficult—than he expected. His efforts take him farther afield, and readers get to go along for the ride.  This also expanded the scope of what I needed to invent, so I had to spend some time thinking about the terrain, topography, distances and climate of Donderath—both as it is now after the Cataclysm, and what it used to be.

SWB: As the last Lord of Blood, Blaine McFadden sets out in Reign of Ash to right more wrongs and bring magic back into the world. After creating such a compelling protagonist in the first book, what did you want to do with him this time around in terms of building him further as a character?

GM: Blaine has to learn to deal with failure in a variety of situations in Ice Forged. So in Reign of Ash, we see him try again, and get a sense of how he deals with set-backs. He also has to come to some big decisions about what role he wants to play in the new order, since all of the old leadership has been destroyed. It really challenges how he sees himself, what he’s willing to take on, and how he handles his obligations to the people who rely on him.

SWB: As a writer with a few series under her belt now, has writing this sequel changed how you look at previous sequels you have written?

GM: Well, as we speak I’m waiting for editorial feedback on War of Shadows, which is book #3 (sequel to Reign of Ash), so I’m a little ahead of the game!  I think my biggest ‘trick’ to writing sequels is asking “and then what?”  If I keep asking that question, I run into the same challenges that my characters face. Another challenge with sequels is keeping all the loose ends straight, and keeping the continuity between what you said in prior books and what you say in the new book.  And with each book, we come up with better systems to try not to drop the ball!

SWB: Let's talk about magic: what do you think goes into creating a good system? The Ascendant Kingdoms seems to be a world rife with magic that has strings connecting back to your previous fantasy work, but there is a keen differences in this world clearly (especially in terms of object magic.) When you set out to make Velant "tick" for the reader, so to speak, what was your mindset for creating something new yet easily understood?

GM: Magic has to make sense. That’s a bit of an oxymoron, since magic by definition defies standard physical laws, but the SYSTEM of magic has to make sense to the reader or it all falls apart. There have to be checks and balances to avoid the “Superman syndrome” where the character becomes all-powerful. So there need to be limits—on what magic can and can’t do, on how much of it can be used or who can use it or where it can be used or how often—something that keeps it from just being the easy way out of any problem.  It has to cost something to use, to learn, to acquire—otherwise again it’s too easy.

In my Chronicles of the Necromancer series, Tris Drayke struggled to keep magic from falling apart, at great cost to himself. He and Carina nearly died repairing the Flow, the power source of magic. So I asked myself—what if he had failed? What would have happened if magic just died? How would that affect people?  And that became a main aspect in the Ascendant Kingdoms series—magic fails and brings down the civilization that depended on it. And then what? How do people cope? Can it be fixed? If it gets fixed, will it be the same? If it changes, who wins and who loses? What’s the cost to fix it? Will the fix hold?  It all starts from What If.

SWB: On the spot question! Who do you like more: Jonmarc Vahanian or Blaine McFadden? You can only pick one!

GM: Jonmarc McFadden. (Honestly, it’s like asking which of your children (or dogs) you love the most!)

SWB: Looking at the market, the recent news came out that you are striding into the world of Urban Fantasy with your first novel in the genre, Deadly Curiosities (Solaris). What drew you to that genre, and do you think there are things you can take from Epic Fantasy into Urban and vice versa?

GM: It’s always about the story. Solaris Books invited me to be part of the Magic: Esoteric and Arcane anthology a couple of years ago, and the requirement was that the magic be “real”—meaning that they didn’t want the epic fantasy Merlin/Gandalf kind of lightning from the fingertips kind of thing. So I did a story set in modern times in the Deadly Curiosities world I had already explored for anthologies in historic settings—the idea of an antique shop that gets dangerous magical items off the market. Solaris liked it well enough to ask me to do a novel.

Writing urban fantasy is a big shift. The pacing is different. It’s set in the modern world, so unless you have a reason for the history/setting to be different from what it really is, you’ve got to the those details right—you’re not making everything up. The dialog is different. You’re writing about a real place. So it’s been a lot of fun and quite a challenge.

But it always comes back to the story and the characters. Get that right, and people will read it!

SWB: Speaking of publishing, it has been nine months since we conducted our first interview. Since then, what has surprised you in terms of changes in the industry?

GM: One of the things I’ve had a chance to experience personally since then is the role of Kickstarter to fund literary projects. So far this year, I’ve been involved in three Kickstarter/Indiegogo anthologies and I’m committed to another that’s coming up. That’s heightened my awareness of how authors are using crowdfunding to underwrite independent projects and lessen the financial risk. In addition to the projects where I’ve been a contributing author, I’ve watched and backed several successful projects where individual authors sought funding to continue their series or do new projects. It’ll be interesting to see where crowdfunding goes next.

SWB: As always, we end on a fun question. Last time I asked you about tropes you hate, and I believe your answer was warrior women in warrior brass-brassieres. Sticking with the theme of tropes, what do you wish you could see more of on the shelf at Barnes & Noble or on the page at Amazon?

GM: I’d like to see us lighten up a bit on the all-dystopia-all-the-time kick and the amoral protagonist. Not everything needs to be grim-dark, and we don’t need to compete on who can come up with the most messed up sorry- assed examples of human beings. If it’s true that you become like the five people you spend the most time with, what does that mean for dystopian/grim-dark fiction fans (and authors)? I understand the move toward heroes who are flawed/complicated/scarred, but personally, I still like to read about a hero/heroine who is the “good guy” despite it all. I think our heroes have gotten smaller of late, becoming so messed up that we the reader/viewer can sit back and feel superior despite the character’s heroic actions. I miss heroes who make us whish we were more like them. I think these characters can still be complicated/flawed/scarred (real people are!), but looking to do something bigger than personal gain.


As always, I would like to thank Gail Z. Martin for opportunity to interview her! You can find more of Gail at the links below, and go pick up her books! They are great readers for anyone who loves Heroic and Epic Fantasy!

Barnes & Noble

If you liked this interview, please share it! It gets the word out about Gail and this blog. Remember to follow me on Twitter @JayRequard! Thank for stopping by and see you next time!

Friday, April 4, 2014

Good news, everyone!

Well, it's real enough now to announce it!

I am happy to report that my Sword & Sorcery story, "The Ghost Stair", has been accepted in Deepwood Publishing's The Death God's Chosen. I received the first round of edits yesterday.

I don't know when the anthology will be out, but I am really excited get to work and be included in a collection of stories featuring some of the best newcomers to the scene. I'll have more information when the time comes.

Thanks and hope you all are well!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Writing Magic (Sorcery pt. 3)

(Please note: This is the third installment of a series of posts I am writing on the subject of magic and its incorporation into fiction. Links to the first and second installments can be found here.)

Writing magic can be a difficult thing for a beginning writer, and speaking from personal experience, it took me a very long time to be able to create exactly what I wanted on the page. Even now I work on it almost daily, trying to transfer something that seems so simple in my head but is in fact very difficult to execute. What I have discovered along the way is that the best way to tackle the intricacy of writing magic isn't to over-complicate for the sake of being "edgy" or "cool" or "gross, or whatever "adjective" you want to impress upon the reader. Clarity and active demonstration are the greatest indications of design.

Now without question magic is a tricky thing to write, mostly because you have to have rules, and once you break one rule, what is the worth of any of them?

What I suggest for writing magic aren't rules, but guidelines. Guidelines allow you to remain fluid and varied, all the while keeping you restrained enough so that you don't throw a gigantic plot hole into the story because of the magic, which often happens in fantasy fiction. Holes created by magic are often hard to fix without either taking out whatever action created them, or by having to redesign various aspects of your system on the fly.

I struggled with this problem in Paper Demons, a Sword & Sorcery short that was published within Thunder on the Battlefield by Seventh Star Press. At the time I was reading a lot of Taoist scripture and literature, and I wanted to incorporate paper amulets into a story where a small team of mercenaries face off against a wizard and her demons. I had seen paper amulets used before in Manga and Anime, but truth be told, I find the use of magic in those genres a little too convoluted. I also wanted to make their effects palpable in terms of texture. While I can't republish sections of the story here because of contractual obligations, I can give you a little in to how I solved it.

So here is what a paper amulet looks like:

This is a Taoist amulet like the ones used by priests and mystics in rural and urban China. The glyphs on them provide specific protections for a household (protection from fire, theft, sickness, etc.) and most people glue them to the walls of their homes, usually over a door frame. What I wanted with my villain character, the rebel wizard Wei-Tzu, was to have her own type of magic that was unique to the culture I was trying to lovingly portray. Wei-Tzu isn't inherently evil, she is just an impassioned rebel with a definite crazy streak. Amulets were going to be her way to suppress the mercenaries and summon her demons. If the amulets are destroyed, no more demons.

See how easy that was for me to explain it? That is how easy it should be for the reader to understand it. Let's recap:

1. Writing magic should be written in a way where it is not complicated for the reader OR the writer to understand.
2. Guidelines work better than rules. Guidelines allow for openness and flexibility while rules restrict and can lead to a rigidness that might create plot holes.
3. Write everything down in an easy place in an easy way so you can refer to it later.
4. Magic is a plot device, never independent of the story being told.
5. If you can explain it to a person easily and they can understand it, you *should* be able to write magic in a way a reader understands it just as well.

Looking at, everything save Rule #2 can be applied to writing science fiction as well. But that is a post for another blog in another time. If I missed anything or you want to add a comment, by all means, speak up and I will add it in here.

Thanks for stopping by and I hope to see you again soon!

Friday, January 24, 2014

How I Built my Magical System (Sorcery Pt. 2)

So last time we discussed general ideas behind constructing magic in fiction and how to simplify it so you can do it as well. This round I will introduce the magic system I created for my Sword & Sorcery stories. Magic is a common feature in my writing, and it falls somewhere between High Magic and Low Magic, another concept that I also mentioned last time and we will explore here.

From my view, High Magic has always been connected to High and Epic Fantasy, and usually revolves itself around currents of energy. Notice how I didn't compare it to Low Magic yet, because I want to just talk about High Magic first so the differences will be much clearer when we get to Low Magic.

High Magic, traditionally, has always been connected to either the evocative or the ceremonial, usually with the assumption that there will be a explicit manifestation of power. A great example of this in the real world is John Dee's texts on Enochian Magic, where in the 1580s he began to conduct rituals with Edward Kelly where they communed with angels and apparently learned the their language (hence the term "Enochian".) I used Harry Potter as an example last time as well, and many of the spells in Harry Potter are of themselves High Magic. Merlin in T.H. White's The Once and Future King, which everyone should read, features the wizard turning Wart (Arthur) into animals, which is another form of high magic. Basically, there is a boom and something happens. Finally, and I think it is the finest book showing the form, Ursula K. Le Guin's The Wizard of Earthsea is basically a book where most of the wizarding characters practice High Magic. From the moment the main character Ged opens the spell book and accidentally summons his shadow, it is a tour de force on what High Magic is and what it can be.

Worth every penny!

Low Magic, on the other hand, is much more difficult to pin down with a solid definition. One might say that High Magic creates things that could be considered Low Magic, a key example being something like an amulet or charm. Going back to Ged in Le Guin's The Wizard of Earthsea, in the beginning of the story he has an aunt who concerns who is a witch that concerns herself mainly with root work and using natural plants and materials to create charms. None of them are depicted as actual magic, but the idea behind them is that they are, and that idea causes the manifestation of power. Another example can be Excalibur, or better yet, the sword's scabbard in the King Arthur mythos. In the myth, it is the sword that makes Arthur king of all Britain, but it is the scabbard that grants him invulnerability in battle, which is lamented later on when he foolishly throws it away in battle. Funny how that works. There is a belief there that has power.

Another good example of this comes from one of my favorite stories, The People of the Black Circle by Robert E Howard. Sword & Sorcery by Howard's flavor was often a low magic affair, and this is seen clearly in the story where Conan wears a magic girdle to protect himself from the malevolent spells of the evil sorcerers. We never see it actually happen, as Conan shows up and just lays waste to the wizards, but the belief is there.

But the problem with Low Magic and High Magic, in my opinion, is much the like problem with the Chicken-And-The-Egg issue: which came first? Honestly, I think it is one of those conversations that doesn't merit huge debate, because at the end of the day what will matter is how you use either form to advance the characters on their way through the plot.

When I decided to construct my general magic system, I decided early on that I wanted to have a system that was both simple while at the same time allowing room and flexibility to grow without the strings of a story written beforehand affecting any that came after it. I was inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, and actual Occultism. What Tolkien did very well was utilize Low Magic through the use of objects, be it Anduril or The One Ring of Power, though those were products of High Magic and have definite manifestations. These simple objects didn't necessarily the flash and the bang, but they themselves allowed for powerful plot developments. Rowling, on the other hand, masterfully used to aspects of actual occulta and High Magic to create a system of spells which seemed easily accessible to the characters early on until the later books. It wasn't until the use of The Patronus Charm and Horcruxes that there were really limits on what a witch or wizard could do with their abilities, and any difficulty early on had more to do with the ability to learn, focus, and apply, much like learning in general.

What I really wanted to bring in was my own study of the occult and magick (with a 'k'), and provide a framework that was somewhat reminiscent of The Golden Dawn and O.T.O, which required not only mental clarity and focus, but a bodily component. Whether it is in the East or the West, the body plays a key component in magickal practice.

So taking the mental, physical, and the spirituality of Eastern and Western esoteric philosophies, I also wanted to have my magic users be different from other magic-systems other writers were using, but not too different. I borrowed a little bit from Glen Cook's The Black Company and one of his best characters, The Lady. Besides being the biggest and most under-appreciated badass in fantasy, she was also a great warrior that was in killer shape that could focus in and do devastating things with her power. In many ways, this reflects things that you notice about all real-world magicians: Aleister Crowley was a famed and highly-skilled mountaineer, WB Yeats was a man often seen in peak physical condition with a strict diet, and the lifestyle of Indian rishis, sadhus, and ascetics create individuals who often exposed themselves to the elements, hunger, and rigorous physical exercise through Yoga. People that practice magick are tough inside and out.


Like Cook's The Lady, none of my magic-users weren't going to be out of shape. No fat wizards or wheezy witches--the body in my system is the container for a person's energy, and the strength and quality of that container is going to play an impact. What is inside the container is the mind, and the mind when properly sharpened can manipulate the spirit, and that spirit is a key that unlocks the power.

So in simple English:

1. In my magical system, the practitioner must be able to align the mind, the body, and the spirit to summon High or Low Magic. This starts with an accumulation of energy (Genesis), manipulated by using their mind and the spirit (Will), and released in whatever form required (Manifestation.)
2. This places strain on the body, so if they force themselves into a spell that is more than their ability they can end up damaging themselves in a physical manner.
3. At the same time, they must be able to remained focused to complete their working.

Whether it is changing the weather (which is a form of High Magic that places a lot of stress on the body,) or creating an amulet for protection (Low magic that takes very little in the way of physical stress but much in the way of focus,) the world is theirs to manipulate. They can channel their being into creating great weapons, summoning entities from beyond through ritual, or battle using the forces of nature around them.

What matters, and this is something I spent a lot of time considering, is that they must sacrifice something. In the Vedic novel, my hero is turned into an Avatar against his will, and every time he turns back into his original form he loses all of his hair. As I mentioned before, if a magic-user overexerts themselves, they can lost body parts or even die! The act of magic takes something out of the practitioner, and while that something can come back like stamina does, overuse always leads to dire consequences. Even the act of learning magic, developing ability, and growing one's power requires a sacrifice of time (the body,) energy (the mind), and life spent in more pleasurable things (the soul.)

One of the best things I can tell you about writing a magical system: Put a price on it, and MAKE the characters PAY FOR IT.

I am going to go a bit further into this next, using one of my stories as a example of where I think it did it correctly. Until then, stay safe! 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Understanding "Sorcery" in Sword & Sorcery

Last time we talked about ideas on how to research combat, warfare, and the effects of battle in hopes of creating realistic violence in fiction. This post will be very different that one, as we will discuss the use and construction of magic, hopefully to fill in the other half as the title suggests. There won't be a book-list, but if you want some suggestions, leave a comment and I will be happy to assist in a direction.

Growing up with martial arts instilled me with a sense and interest in spirituality that led to me going out and finding out more about other world beliefs. One of the things I found interesting about all religions and spiritual paths is that there are so many different systems of magic inherently built into them. It doesn't matter if you are talking about mantra and tantra within Hinduism, Kabbalah in Judaism, or the entire offshoot of Islam known as Sufism--there are even intense systems of esoteric practice within Christianity. Have you ever really talked about communion with a Catholic?

Now, one thing that I want to get out of the way is the question "what do you think about this author's magic system or that author's magic system?"

The truth is there has never been a magical system I have ever read about where I can't point back to another magical system that hasn't already been created and used in the real world with the exception of the magical abilities and spells seen in Dungeon & Dragons, and even much of that was taken from Jack Vance's Dying Earth. Remember, nothing is original but the way it is executed. But it doesn't matter if you are Faith Hunter, who masterfully uses skin-walker lore and shamanism from Native American magic in her Jane Yellowrock novels, or Brandon Sanderson, who uses what he calls "hard magic", a system that has rules written around manifestation.

But for me magic is simple to construct if you think of it this way: Genesis, Will, and Manifestation.

Let's define these:

Genesis: This is the origin and mode of creation or alteration, which magic definitely is. It can be as simple as someone saying a spell in Harry Potter or starting to chant a mantra, this is a place where magic begins. This genesis can be both within and outside the characters you use in your story. For example, in my Vedic Sword & Sorcery novel, there is a scene where The Hero is given a piece of Soma or hallucinogenic mushroom by The Teacher, which I drew from the Rig Veda and Terence McKenna's theory on what the botanical plant the Ancient Vedic kingdoms may have used for ritual use, though later on I use other plants since we know that there are many types of flora that create similar effects.

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The Genesis in is The Hero being given the mushroom cap, just like there is Genesis taking place when Harry Potter decides to use the Patronus Charm to fight of the Dementors. The magic is drawn from some place either within or without. So what happens when the spark is lit? You have to do something with it, which leads us to...

Will: this something that gets stressed in magical systems both real and fantastical, whether it is Aleister Crowley's system of ceremonial magic or rolling for a magic missile in D&D. In all magical systems the user has to make a decision and "will" their expectation to manifest. Let's use Harry Potter and the Patronus Charm again, because I think the scenes written around the teaching of the spell to Harry really help exhibit this idea.

When Lupin instructs Harry that to conjure a Patronus, he has to summon all of his happiest memory and turn their wand into a circle while incanting "Expecto Pantronum!" The happiest memory-portion of the spell is the will. Harry has to draw this memory as he uses the spell, and the power of that summoned memory can make the manifestation as weak or as powerful as the effort he puts into it.

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So I've covered Genesis and Will, both of which lead to...

Manifestation: This is the ultimate result of a magical working. So Harry has seen the Dementors coming for him, he has summoned his happiest memory, and now there is a white deer scaring the crap out of them. This is the same as your D&D character laying waste with his Cloudkill spell or Thoth-Amon summoning a fanged demon to slay one of his masters that is attacking Conan in The Phoenix on the Sword. What this is, plain and simple, is the result.

I am going to cut it off here for now, but next time I am going to discuss the different between High Magic and Low Magic, which are two very distinct forms you often see in fantasy. I will introduce the magical system I use, the origins of how I built it, and the "rules" I wrote around it and why I picked those "rules" to form the backbone of the system.

Until then, stay safe!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Understanding The "Sword" in Sword & Sorcery

One of the things that drew me to the genre of Sword & Sorcery early in my writing career was the gritty realism often exhibited in the stories I loved, something that was wholly different from the other genres of fantasy I was reading at the time. Now I love a good spell battle, fantastical creatures being used on the field, and wizards galore, but at the end of the day I truly think nothing beats two individuals (man or beast) meeting in some exotic and mysterious location to hammer it out to the bitter end.

There is an air of drama in combat shown with Sword & Sorcery that I think is desperately needs to be learned by writers if they are able to excite, in some cases disgust, and most importantly, depict action-oriented battle scenes and the reality of their effects. Currently I am working on a small pamphlet for some friends of mine in Charlotte Writers, a group I work for as the Head Organizer, which looks at writing combat from both my experiences as a martial artist in various disciplines (though I am always quick to mention that I am a master of none of them--not yet, at least, and even then...) It is still a few weeks away from being done, but I will publish it here when it is complete. Still, I believe there are things writers can do to get better acquainted with writing combat beyond joining the service or going out and participating in martial arts, and that is research!

I am going to include here a list of a few of my favorite books, placed in categories of Fighting, Combat, Effects and Outcomes:

Fighting: The Art of Moving

IAI: The Art of Drawing The Sword by Darrell Max Craig
Samurai Swordsmanship by Carl Long and Masayaki Shimabukro
Highland Broadsword by Christopher Scott Thompson
Highland Knife Fighting by Christopher Scott Thompson
Fighting with the German Longsword by Christian Tobler
Sigmund Ringeck's Knightly Arts Of Combat: Sword and Buckler Fighting, Wrestling, and Fighting in Armor by David Lindholm
The Way of the Warrior by Chris Crudelli
Pencak Silat Pertempuran: Vol. 1 by Sean Shark
Winning Wrestling Moves by Mark Mysnk
Mastering Jiu-Jitsu by Renzo Gracie

Combat: The Way of Fighting

On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and Peace by Dave Grossman - I should note that this selection might have appeared in the group below, but due to including another of this author's selections below, I placed it here.
Soldiers and Ghosts by J.E. Lendon - Truly one of my favorite books, especially since I focus on The middle to late Iron Ages in my settings.
Strategy: Second Revised Edition by B.H. Liddell Hart - This is truly awesome.
The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi
The Art of War by Sun Tzu (Sawyer Translation)

Effects and Outcomes: The Cost of Both

Battlefield Angels: Saving Lives Under Enemy Fire by Scott McGaugh
Ancient Medicine by Vivian Nutton
Ditch Medicine: Advanced Field Procedures For Emergencies by Hugh Coffee
On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Dave Grossman

These books are only a few of the sources I have used over the years, and I keep gathering new and reputable books over time as technology avails itself as a new window where martial artists, teachers, and researchers are gathering and presenting information into the digital age. One of the best sources for this is Youtube, where I found videos on Shastar Vidya and Pehlwani, which are the martial arts I used for The Vedic Sword & Sorcery novel that is nearing completion. You can find almost anything there to help you get a visual idea of martial arts and combatives you may want to use in your work.

I hope this has been helpful, and if you have any questions, criticisms, or concerns, by all means leave comment!

Thanks and stay safe!