Monthly Archives: May 2014

Parents Are Cannon Fodder!

Parents are cannon fodder!

I have your attention now, yes? There is a prevailing trope in fiction that parents are essentially used for the hero or heroine’s character development (if they’re fortunate) by dying at some point in the story. The absence/killing off of parents is a very prominent staple of fantasy books, right along with absentee parents and “oh, look, that is my dad bent on ruling the world” syndrome. Okay, the last one can apply to the hero or heroine’s mom too, but it is usually their dad. Off the top of my head, I can name Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings (Aragorn, Frodo, Eowyn and Eomer among others), The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Kate Daniels series, Divergent, and Hunger Games as books across the different fantasy subgenres that all have at least one parent who is dead or dies. Okay, I’ll throw in Star Wars too just because it’s combined parents are cannon fodder with absentee parent and “My dad’s an evil overlord” all in one angst-riddled character arc…and that’s only pulling from the movies.

Now, even I have written stories where the parents must die in the backstory because it would have thrown my plot out the window if they had lived. However, I have made the decision to defy the trope in my WIP urban fantasy and not only have the parents live but they’re happily married without neglecting their children in the process. What if more Christian fantasy writers dared to defy the All Heroes are Orphans trope instead of defaulting to using parents as cannon fodder because it’s the easy solution? I think it would be interesting and maybe a little more in keeping with “Honor your father and mother” than killing all the parents. But, in all seriousness, while it is true that the heroes who come from broken homes or are orphans are very relatable to children experiencing the same situation, the lack of parents who are competent, survive, and have a loving relationship with each other and their children (note: this does not mean everything is rosy and perfect) can send a rather detrimental message about parents in general or even imply that children who are not orphans or from broken homes cannot be heroes. Not every fantasy book with the orphan hero falls into this unfortunate implication, Harry Potter, for example, does rather well in providing heroes who are in both situations with Harry being the orphan and Ron and Hermione both coming from homes with loving parents.

I do think that there are stories which cannot be written without getting rid of at least one parent (it’s usually the mom) to drive the hero down a specific character development arc. However, there are also stories where I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the author hadn’t opted for the easy route of parent cannon fodder. Sometimes it even feels as though the parent cannon fodder trope was enacted as a copout to avoid spending time developing the parents as characters. These are the stories where you don’t know but you still suspect it would have been more potent and more interesting to keep the parents around to introduce how the hero’s character development would affect the established family dynamic. There is obvious conflict when the parents have been unjustly executed or made the big heroic sacrifice to keep their child alive or perhaps to show how they finally approve the child’s heroic destiny. But, what about the unexplored conflict of the parents who are commenting about their child’s destiny and how they don’t approve of going all the way to the mountain of menace to destroy some enchanted sword because back in their day they let the evil minion soup come to them for glory and battle?

Maybe you are plotting your next fantasy and are in the midst of figuring out the all-important backstory for your hero or heroine. What if instead of going the route of orphan/dad’s an evil overlord, you consider bringing in a whole family who is quirky yet functional? Fantasy writers are often accused of using the same tropes and staples as the greats because they aren’t creative enough to think outside the fantasy trope box. Well, we might not be able to reinvent the wheel, but we can at least paint it a different color. Prove the critics wrong (oh and maybe cut down on the “are you sure you had a happy childhood” questions) and take the plunge into rarely explored waters of Parents are Useful and Stay Alive. At the very least, it should make an interesting character study and you can also give your hero or heroine something other than revenge as a personal motive for their heroic journey.

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Two Must-Have Resources for Fantasy Writers… Two-for-One Book Review

Two of the biggest snags for me personally revolve around picking the right names and getting the travel plans for my characters I’ve unceremoniously dumped in the wilderness right. Oh, and those travel plans are a true headache when you’re jumping from a small group to stealthily moving an entire army across mountainous terrain, especially if, like me, you want the vast majority of the army to arrive at their destination in fighting condition. Things are so much easier if you’re writing the army where it’s okay if they drop like flies. However, I have discovered two new resources for both the pesky names and keeping your characters alive without being too anachronistic (medieval enthusiasts are likely to hunt you down if your historical fantasy characters eat potatoes in medieval-esque Europe, btw).

Name Your Medieval Character: Medieval Christian Names (12th-13th Centuries) by Joyce DiPastena – 4 out of 5 Stars

As a fantasy writer, I’m always searching for the perfect name. Sometimes the feel of the world or character needs a medieval name, which can be difficult to find, especially for women. This book has an excellent list for both male and female names. I liked how DiPastena took the time to indicate when a name was most popular or going out of fashion or restricted to a particular culture, such as if a name was only popular with the Normans or was a hold out from the Anglo-Saxons, which has the bonus of being useful to anyone writing a historical fantasy. While the main focus is on names popular in the 12th and 13th centuries, there are also names whose popularity peaked or waned in both past and future centuries up to the 15th century. The only reason I didn’t give this book five stars is because I would have found it even more helpful if the author had included name translations since I prefer giving characters names that sum up their character, highlight an important aspect of or ideal behind the character, or is ironic. It’s a great resource for medieval names and aids in determining whether a name will make your character part of the crowd or the odd duck out, but if you want to know the meaning behind the names, you’ll have to compare it with medieval name sites (such as Behind the Name). Available on Kindle and in paperback, this is a must have for anyone contemplating using medieval names or setting their fantasy in a heavily inspired by medieval times world.

What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank: A Fantasy Lover’s Food Guide by Krista D. Ball – 5 out of 5 Stars

One of the most difficult things for me when writing it figuring out what my characters should be eating, drinking, and carrying with them. I am constantly scrambling to track down which berries, fruits, vegetables, etc., are available in a particular season. This book is the solution I wish I had found when I first began incorporating specific details about meals and traveling into my stories. Whether writing a medieval-esque sweeping fantasy or a Victorian mystery, Ball provides enough hints, tidbits, and even recipes (usually one a chapter) to help address some of the most obvious (or not so obvious) blunders writers make regarding food, drink, and keeping your heroes and heroines alive while traveling. I appreciate the seasonal calendar guide in the appendix (it will make figuring out what exactly is served at the feasts so much easier), but my favorite and most useful section is in regards to marching an army and the different ways to keep them from being too weak to fight at the end of the road. The comparison to modern hiking and army calorie requirements (for both men and women) to keep fit and not die while getting from point A to point B truly helps bring home the situation of how important it is to figure out proper rations. After all, in fantasy, we usually throw enough problems at our characters that we shouldn’t toss starving to death on top of it…unless the story requires it, of course. 😉 I recommend this book for every writer. It compiles all the information you usually have to search through multiple websites and survival/ancient/medieval life books into one source. Available on Kindle and in paperback, What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank is an absolute must-have for Fantasy writers!

Look for more book reviews every Wednesday.

Next week – Tamed by Sarah Witenhafer

Christian Author, Secular Fantasy

Is your fantasy too secular for a CBA publisher? Or maybe your passion is to write fantasy that will reach mainstream audiences who will never set foot in a Christian bookstore. Christians in general have a bad habit of mistaking discernment with an outright ban on all things secular. Of course, not everything secular is sinful. This includes fantasy.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, Is Writing Christian Fantasy an Oxymoron, Christian authors originally had no choice but to publish their fantasy work with the ABA because there was no market in the CBA for the fantasy genre. There is still a very narrow market within the CBA for the fantasy genre with the focus being more on speculative allegory than any of the other fantasy subgenres. Moreover, there is often an expectation for fantasy written by Christian authors to possess overt Christian symbolism in the same vein as Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia.” So, what about the Christian author who writes secular fantasy?

Secular fantasy does not always translate into a book devoid of Christian symbolism or Christian influence. For example, Lewis, Tolkien, George MacDonald (author of various fantasy books including “At the Back of the North Wind,” “The Princess and the Goblin,” and “Lilith”), and Madeline L’Engle (author of “A Wrinkle in Time” and other works) all wrote books where their faith had an obvious effect on their work or their books were written as allegories. A more up-to-date example of a Christian author who writes secular fantasy would be Stephen R. Lawhead. While a number of his books have been distributed through Christian publishing house Thomas Nelson and its imprints, “The Pendragon Cycle” was originally published through HarperCollins’ now defunct science fiction/fantasy imprint Eos and redistributed through HarperCollins’ science fiction/fantasy imprint Harper Voyager. “The Pendragon Cycle” is often categorized as mythic history (aka historical fantasy) as it combines the legend of Atlantis, Celtic mythology and Arthurian legend while weaving Christian truths throughout the books. Druids, the Celtic and Atlantean religions, pagan rituals, etc., are present within the book but characters also come to know the One True God.

Some Christian authors view the secular fantasy genre as a mission field and write with the mindset of exposing fantasy enthusiasts who would never pick up a “Christian” fantasy to the truth of Christianity. I applaud their efforts. However, I also caution those who are considering writing secular fantasy as an evangelism tool to be careful of browbeating the reader with their beliefs or taking an objectionable story and simply sticking some Christian elements into the mix. Now, there will always be critics who will say a Christian author’s fantasy is too Christian for secular readers or too secular for Christian readers, but it is important to keep in mind that a story does not need to be treated as if it is a pamphlet on salvation in order to have an impact. For example, I would consider “The Chronicles of Narnia” as moving beyond evangelism and initial salvation to exploring the different walks experienced by believers. In seven books, I have never felt as though I were reading the same story of “you must be saved” over and over.

When writing secular fantasy, I urge Christian authors not to let the evangelism overwhelm the story or force the evangelism aspect in when it doesn’t flow naturally. It will weaken the story and make the reader feel as though the author is trying to beat them over the head with a thinly disguised Bible. Planting the seeds of Truth does not always require an author to say, “This is Jesus. He died for you. You must believe in Him in order to experience everlasting life.” Sometimes, the Christian author is only meant to prepare the soil for the seed and allow the planting and watering to be accomplished by others. A character who struggles and grows through various challenges (including attacks on his or her faith) is one who will resonate with readers. A character who is angry with their God due to a particular tragedy or hardship in their life is relatable. You don’t have to be preachy in your fantasy to carry out work in the mission field of the secular market. All you have to do is allow your faith to suffuse and live through your writing (I’ll explore this topic more in a later post) in order to have an impact, much like Tolkien’s faith peppered “The Lord of the Rings” with various Christian elements including the Christ motif.

I would also advise Christian authors to keep in mind that secular publishing houses have a bit of a double standard when it comes to religion being featured in stories. I have read many secular fantasies where the characters prayed, worshipped, and continually mentioned the will of their deity with as much or greater frequency as one would find in a Christian novel; however, that deity tends to be a polytheistic one or a mother goddess. So, in order to publish a secular fantasy, Christian authors should be aware that they will probably be informed that they cannot have a mirror representation of the Christian Trinity. In fact, they might not be able to include a representation of God the Father and Jesus Christ but they’ll be able to have a single deity who can encompass both. I personally believe it is all right to write fiction that does not perfectly mirror doctrine, although I do not believe Christian authors should go the route of polytheism and mother goddess cults as the means of communicating Christian truths. Of course, the exception to this particular struggle would be historic and urban fantasies since those stories are often set in an alternate universe where Christianity is present with characters’ personal beliefs running the gamut from prominent to subtle, depending on the plot.

Perhaps you are an aspiring writer, someone who wants to write fantasy but is worried about a secular publisher forcing you into including un-Christian elements such as explicit language or sex scenes. In addition to having a lawyer who specializes in publishing contracts searching for any hidden caveats regarding content, a Christian author has the option of negotiating for a clean read. Clean reads are not inspirational fiction, but neither do they have explicit language, sex scenes, or other gratuitous elements featured in their stories. By being upfront about what you will not and have no intention of ever putting in your books, one can avoid nasty surprises or confrontations during the negotiation and even editing stages. Bottom line is that there are options for Christian authors who want to write secular fantasy without compromising on their personal beliefs.

Is Writing Christian Fantasy an Oxymoron

I’ve heard a lot of protests against Christian fantasy over the years. Some Christians firmly believe that a Christian should not read fantasy and definitely shouldn’t write fantasy. And that’s okay, if fantasy causes them to stumble in their Christian walk, they should by all means avoid it. However, I do not believe that fantasy in and of itself is inherently evil, just as I don’t believe other categories of accepted genres, such as romance, are inherently evil, it all depends on the writer. There are Christian romances that have left me in shock that a Christian publishing company published them and there are Christian fantasies that left me wincing because they only seemed to slap a “spiritual angle” on a very un-Christian book. On the other hand, I have read wholesome and satisfying Christian romances and fantasies.

Ironically, the absence of a market for fantasy in the CBA is what drove many Christian fantasy authors to publish in the ABA. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, for example, were both Christians and their books are saturated with their faith even though they published under a secular label. Tolkien was not a fan of allegory and he despised the idea of “The Lord of the Rings” being considered an allegory; however, his faith still brought prominent Christian themes into play. Lewis, on the other hand, wrote his “Chronicles of Narnia” as an allegory where Aslan was meant to represent Jesus Christ.

Part of the reason I mention Tolkien is because he is an example of how Christian writers do not have to write an allegory in order for fantasy to reflect their faith. It is possible to write fantasies from a Christian viewpoint without having to incorporate an overt Christian theme, such as salvation and repentance, or with it being a strict allegory. If Christian writers are remembering to apply biblical principles such as “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it might impart grace to the hearers.” (Ephesians 4:29 NKJV). This admonition is applicable to the written word as well. We want to encourage and build up our fellow Christians while also maintaining the truth that we as Christians are meant to be in the world but not of the world, which means we should be able to tell when we pick up a Christian fantasy that it is written by a Christian for Christians. And if we publish our works in the secular market, we may have to be more subtle with the Christian elements, but it should still be different from those works published by non-Christian authors, i.e., explicit sex and cursing and graphic details should not be featured. If you would be embarrassed to stand before God and admit you wrote something because of the content even though you sprinkled in some prayers, Bible verses, God’s name, and the phrase “I’m a Christian,” then you are not writing as is appropriate for Christians.

I believe that we can address the hard stuff, the messy stuff, and every other challenge we face living in a broken world without being unnecessarily graphic (but I’ll save the discussion for determining whether something is gratuitous for another day). The bottom line is that while not every Christian can accept fantasy, it is not a sin for Christians to write fantasy. It’s the question of “meat” as addressed in Romans 14:20-21 and I Corinthians 8:1-13. For Christian fantasy writers, this can be interpreted not as a blanket rejection of writing and reading fantasy, but an admonition to be mindful of if a family member, friend, or fellow Christian can’t accept fantasy as being something other than a New Age promotion of false beliefs and witchcraft. Don’t discuss your fantasy in front of them and consider waiting to work on it until after they leave the room. You don’t have to stop writing Christian fantasy because some Christians object to it, but you don’t have to throw it in their faces either. Is writing Christian fantasy an oxymoron? Not as long as it is written to honor God (but this doesn’t mean our characters have to stop and pray every other paragraph or be preachy…unless that is a specific character’s personality).

Have you ever been told a Christian can’t or shouldn’t write fantasy? Do you have a favorite Scripture verse to support other Christians who are diving into writing Christian fantasy?

“At all ages, if [fantasy and myth] is used well by the author and meets the right reader, it has the same power: to generalize while remaining concrete, to present in palpable form not concepts or even experiences but whole classes of experience, and to throw off irrelevancies. But at its best it can do more; it can give us experiences we have never had and thus, instead of ‘commenting on life,’ can add to it.” – C.S. Lewis

This is the power of Christian fantasy. What books or movies first taught you how fantasy could enrich your life?