When I sat down to write about Grant Scotland, I was much more interested in what he was doing and how and why than where. I don’t know if it’s like that for other fantasy authors. I’ve never bothered to ask anyone. I don’t know very many. I suppose I could do a Google search and find out, but as I mentioned before I’ve stopped reading author interviews. When they don’t bore me they intimidate me, especially the ones that talk about using a “formula” or having a “plan.” I’ve never been a very good planner. Experienced internet users might see where I’m headed with this:
When people start talking mysteriously about their writing technique, I always feel like I’m back in a high school classroom and everyone’s giving answers and I haven’t even figured out what the question is yet. So, I gave up trying to figure out how other people write and just decided to move forward – plans and formulas be damned. Of course, I certainly do have “plans” just not “THE PLAN.”. Story plots are planned out, obviously, and character histories are mapped out so I can keep track of motivations. But world-building? No, not so much. My goal more or less from the start has been “My world is just like the real world, except in the places where I tell you it’s different.”
Still, I became frustrated after writing a few chapters of Spy for a Dead Empire because I found I didn’t have any choice but to build the world, or at least Grant’s experience in it, before I could go any further. I could’ve used our own world, but I wanted the freedom to shape it myself. I didn’t want to share it with Caesar or Charlemagne or King Arthur or be restricted by having to explain some fantastical element with real world logic. I’ve seen other authors do that and it just looks like too much work. I want Grant Scotland’s world to be largely mysterious to him and I want to stay focused on his own personal conflicts, be they internal or external. For example, my world has magic. Grant doesn’t really understand it. Do you need to? You don’t, but maybe you want to. That’s fine. I’m not judging you, but you’ll probably be frustrated by my writing if that’s the case.
My approach probably has a lot to do with writing in first person, but it also has something to do with my own reading tastes. I’ve found I’ve started to move away from typical “epic fantasy” because authors of books in that subgenre seem to focus so much on the geography and culture and history that they leave the characters they write about seeming small and uninteresting. I’ve labeled these authors as “Dungeon Masters.” What do the individual struggles of their puny characters matter in the grand schemes of the massive forces at work upon the operatic stage of terrestrial and extra-planar strife?
Of course, this is all a matter of taste. Many people like that sort of thing, as long as it’s well written, and there are certainly many wonderfully talented authors working in the subgenre today. I’m more interested in believable characters existing in believable worlds and working at knife-fight range with the obstacles I throw at them. I want to keep the reader linked as personally as I can manage. That’s perhaps the main reason I chose to make sport of the fantasy tropes of Orcs, Elves, Dwarves, Gnomes and all the other “races.” They always seemed too alien to be considered actual races like the ones we know. When reading most fantasy books, it drove me nuts that authors never explained how these completely different sentient species all came to evolve and exist together on the same planet. Nor how Elves who live for 1,000 years have the same perception of reality as Humans. Usually in fantasy there are gods at work, so it can be pretty easily explained through creationism and some sense of static technological advancement, which always seemed to me to be a boring cop out. But imagine if all these different sentient species had evolved in tandem! Wouldn’t that have been one hell of a primordial soup?
A little far fetched? Yeah, I couldn’t imagine it either. This line of reasoning is what led me to reimagine these archetypal fantasy races as distinct human ethnicities instead of different species. By doing so, I feel like I can lay a subtext about racial and cultural alienation if I want to (sometimes I want to) by getting rid of the piggish snouts, long ears and inexplicably Scottish talking beards. But, I knew if I paid too much attention to my world as a character, I’d risk bogging myself down and losing focus on Grant Scotland’s character. So, I made a deal with myself. Every time I needed to add a piece of the world to my story, I’d go ahead and invest a certain period of time to flesh it out with notes and sketches before moving on. But that’s it. No grand map. No detailed history of the rise and fall of empires and kingdoms. No memorable characters drunkenly sung about in smoky halls of sweaty barbarians during the long winter nights. No elaborate pantheons with colorful deities and improbable creation myths.
There’s just Grant stumbling around in a dark and dangerous world, trying to find some answers and maybe even rediscover some sense of home. That’s not to say there won’t be a map at some point and certainly not to say there aren’t larger forces at work that haven’t been written about yet, I’m just doing the lion’s share of fleshing those things out in tandem with the book plots rather than ahead of them. I don’t know, maybe most authors are like that, too, but I’d be really surprised if Georges R. R. Martin didn’t have the entire history of Westeros jotted down somewhere in a book he’ll no doubt clean up and publish all Silmarillion-like after the Song of Ice and Fire is finished being sung. I wouldn’t blame him. I’d probably buy it.