Jul 16 2012 11:00am

Drawing Wire, Wikis, and Smiting: Epic Fantasy War at SDCC

Drawing Wire, Wikis, and Smiting: Epic Fantasy War at SDCC

The panel was called “Epic Fantasy War,” but it ended up being more about epic fantasy worldbuilding in general. Editor Betsy Mitchell led a discussion with a veritable who’s who of fantasy authors, including Brandon Sanderson, Raymond E. Feist, Robin Hobb, N.K. Jemisin, Christopher Paolini, Rachel Hartman, Patrick Rothfuss, Heather Brewer, and Lynn Flewelling.

The conversation started with a discussion about the value of research—Mitchell observed that there’s often a misconception that fantasy is “easier” to write than science fiction, because less scientific research is involved. Rothfuss pointed out that this is untrue; historical research is still necessary, because even though you’re not writing about “the way it was,” you have to learn “the realistic way it could have been.” Rothfuss himself recently spent some time learning how wire would be drawn in a medieval culture: “It was a huge pain in the ass for them to do and me to research.”

In contrast to panelists like Paolini, who has gone so far as to build a forge, Feist chimed in with a moderately dissenting opinion—“You don’t have to be an expert; you just have to convince.” The craft of writing, he argued, is understanding exactly what information you need for your narrative—working smarter rather than working harder. Sanderson’s approach is similar—learn enough to fake it, and then find an expert.

And most of the panelists described tricks of research that fall outside the usual notion of sitting down with a pile of books. Hobb praised the value of primary sources, like a medical examiner friend you could call in the middle of the night to ask questions about bullet wounds; Hartman and Jemisin talked about the “passive research” that you do simply by living your day job or learning things for other aspects of your life—the slow accrual of information that will eventually inform your fiction and help you build a believable world.

Mitchell then asked the panelists about their methods for keeping track of characters and story elements in sweeping, epic stories. Feist talked about the “writer’s muscle memory” that you develop over time, where you learn to think about characters in a certain way and let your subconscious do a lot of the work. A number of authors have resorted to Google to search for what fans have written about their own material, and Sanderson and Jemisin spoke of the value of maintaining a personal wiki for their fictional worlds. The danger, as Jemisin pointed out, is that the wiki can be a time sink—you can work on it for hours and feel like you’ve been productive, when you actually haven’t.

The discussion then turned to the types of characters each writer enjoyed writing. The general consensus seemed to be in favor of those with greater complexity, particularly villains—“there’s nothing like getting into someone’s head who’s going to do something absolutely vile, and justifying it,” said Hobb. Rothfuss spoke of the challenges of writing a character who is a mature woman and a mother—something he said that was “as enjoyable as it is hard.”

When the floor was opened to audience questions, the first questioner decided to call back to the panel’s title and asked why so much epic fantasy involved universe-ending wars. “When in doubt, up the stakes,” Feist said, quoting Stephen King. Rothfuss added that you also can’t discount the influence of Tolkien and the War of the Ring. In response to a question about writing LGBT characters that were neither marginalized nor villainous, there was a general sense from the panel that all of them were determined to actively include complex and positive characters that bend gender norms in a positive way. N.K. Jemisin, echoing her comments in the Racebending panel, talked eloquently of her desire to write a fantasy world that reflects the diversity of the world in which she lives. The only discordant note was struck by Paolini, with what seemed like a badly judged joke about gay elves.

The discussion closed with a question on rules-heavy magic versus rules-light, and why the authors chose their particular methods. Sanderson said that his systems were informed by his fascination with the age of discovery, “an era in our history where science was this wonderful magical thing that people were just discovering.” Of course, as Rothfuss pointed out, the idea of “scientific magic” is just one approach; there is also “poetic” magic that is numinous and intuitive. The question, ultimately, is of what serves your story the best. Jemisin agreed—some of her books have rules-based magic—but when you’re writing a story about gods doing god stuff, “why should there be any rules to smiting? It’s fricking smiting!

Karin Kross is attending her fifth San Diego Comic Con and is filing this report from the line for Hall H—she has been in this line long enough to write and file two whole blog posts. She and her co-conspirators are blogging SDCC at nerdpromnomnom.

Mordicai Knode
1. mordicai
The "you only have to convince" benchmark only goes so far some point you will have educated readers who aren't convinced, you know? I mean, my paltry knowledge of history & anthropology rears its head in more than a few fantasy novels-- "hey, they have barbed wire? That should radically alter their civilizations!"-- so it is something to be careful of. Besides that, I think research adds texture, even if you don't see it; it makes the mortar of your world...well, stickier.
Earl Rogers
2. Earl Rogers
Paolini saying something that shows poor judgement? My heart won't take the shock.

I don't mind characters in fantasy having sexual lives, I just wish more authors would show it for an actual purpose in the story. Beyond, well, showing that sex exists.

("Dur-hey" mutters my inner critic)
Mary Buchner
3. HeyMaryHey
If anyone knows what the "gay elf" joke Paolini said is, I would love to hear it!!!
Karin L Kross
4. KarinKross
Re: gay elves. My notes are vague, but as best as I recall, it was something to the effect of "I've always thought that most elves seemed gay".

It seemed just a wee bit tone-deaf, in my opinion.
Mary Buchner
5. HeyMaryHey
Ah, I thought it would be something along those lines. I'm not sure that Paolini was mature enough to be on this panel with those amazing authors.
Earl Rogers
6. S.M. Stirling
N.K. Jemisin, echoing her comments in the Racebending panel, talked eloquently of her desire to write a fantasy world that reflects the diversity of the world in which she lives.

-- the problem is that this is a-historical, if you're talking about fantasy based on the past.

Until the post-Columbian, post-1492 mass migrations, it was rather uncommon for people to meet others of very different physical type. Especially outside a few cosmopolitan port cities, and it wasn't all that common even there.

There were exceptions (the Mongol invasions of Europe and the occasional individual like Marco Polo, or the late-Abbasid slave plantations of southern Iraq) but they were just that, exceptions.

The overwhelming majority of people lived their entire lives in small and, by our standards, homogenous communities. The whole world was like the most isolated backwaters are now, in that respect.

This is why the concept of "race" is largely a product of the last 500 years. Prior to that people were vaguely aware of geographical variations, but didn't attach much importance to them except as curiosities.

(A few years ago a group of Europeans visited a very remote part of southern Ethiopia, and a woman burst into tears at the sight of them. She explained afterwards that she'd assumed they all had a terrible skin disease, probably leprosy. Nobody there had ever seen 'white' people, or even pictures of them.)
Mordicai Knode
7. mordicai
6. S.M. Stirling

Well, good thing nothing exceptional ever happens in a fantasy novel, right? I mean, most of the epic fantasy I read concerns serfs who never venture farther than a mile from their home, right? I mean, that is totally what epic fantasy is like. Right? I mean, sure, there are other species, elves or orcs or whatever, but people with a different skin tone would be ridiculous.
Earl Rogers
8. S.M. Stirling
7. mordicai

Do I detect a certain degree of willfull misreading and personal hostility? Yeah, thought so. Dude, that is not cool.

I'm not slanging anyone, just pointing out some historical facts.

Fantasy doesn't have to cleave closely to historical models -- that's why we call it 'fantasy' and not 'historical fiction' -- but it often does take them as a template. If you're going to use the template, you should first know why it is the way it is, and then come up with reasons to modify it.

Exceptions do happen in fantasy: hence you get Conan wandering down south of Stygia, exposing the locals to his volcanic blue eyes -- though fortunately he doesn't die of malaria or yellow fever or dengue fever or some similar tropical mankiness, which is almost certainly what would have happened to any real instance of an Irishman traveling around West Africa before modern medicine. Explorers had very high mortality rates.

(Traveling outside your local disease environment was -very risky- in the old days, another thing fantasy and bad historical fiction tends to ignore. Most people who did so just died, unless they had unusually robust immune systems or were plain lucky. Of course, having your hero laid up groaning with runny guts every time he or she crosses a watershed and meets new bacteria in the water is a bit of a drag. Also cities were extremely dangerous disease pits, where usually more people died than were born.)

"but people with a different skin tone would be ridiculous".

-- dude, examine your assumptions. Skin color is a climatological adaptation based on a few genes. We tend to attach a lot of importance to it because it's immediately visible, but it's not except as social mythology makes it so.

If you move people into a new environment, eventually they will adapt to it, vide Darwin -- Anglo-Celtic Australians, if left in that sunny land undisturbed for a few thousand years, would all be dark-skinned because melanin protects against skin cancers.

Australia has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world, IIRC; too many pale integuements intended for sucking up scarce sunlight in cold misty islands to avoid rickets. And -their- ancestors were dark-skinned, since they originally came 'out of Africa'.

So it goes.

Furthermore, the minute groups of people come into contact they start screwing each other, literally and metaphorically. Babies (and cultural miscegenation) result.

Hence -- unless you've got some apartheid-like segregation mechanism -- they tend after a migration to even out genetically fairly quickly in any given area, from a long-term viewpoint. Ditto culturally. Difference requires distance, geographic or social, to endure. I have some Indian ancestors, for example: but I'm not an Indian.

Even -with- strong social segregation this happens, just more slowly. "White" Afrikaners, according to the DNA evidence, are 6 or 7% "black" by origin, with a dash of Asian due to longstanding contacts with other parts of the Dutch empire during the 17th and 18th centuries. For that matter, about 72 million "white" Americans show strong DNA evidence of recent West African ancestry, and of course as Alice Walker put it, 'black' Americans are the 'mestizos of gringoland', almost all with recent European (and Indian) ancestry.

If you're introducing nonhuman species into a story, orcs or whatnot, you've got some justification for them not blending in; interbreeding may be difficult or impossible. But that doesn't apply to human beings.

So if you want a preindustrial fantasy setting with demographics like, say, contemporary San Francisco or London (as opposed to say, Addis Ababa or Beijing) you're going to have to do some fancy footwork.

It'll have to be the result of some odd recent happenstance (Invasion via dimensional gates, anyone? Transport by flying carpet?) and will be temporary. It's temporary in San Fransisco and London, for that matter. In the long run everyone will be beige, barring some civilization-collapsing catastrophe.

Personally I don't read (or write) fantasy to find settings like the place I live, or people like me.

If I want to see my own reflection, I can go into the bathroom and look in the mirror; and if I want to see my neighborhood, I can walk out the door. And there's contemporary mimetic fiction.

I go to science fiction and fantasy for places and people who -aren't- like me.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
9. tnh
S.M. Stirling @8: Steve, Mordicai is unambiguously one of the good guys. Play nice.
I go to science fiction and fantasy for places and people who -aren't- like me.
Why, so do I.
Mordicai Knode
10. mordicai
8. S.M. Stirling

I guess the core of my argument is: arguing that "Fantasy" as a genre is meant to accurately reflect serfdom during the European Dark Ages is a really narrow tactic, & it excludes the diversity that the actual real world-- & real historical world-- has to offer. Not to mention the exceptional nature of fantasy heroes. But then, we've been over this argument before.

As for the tendency of skin tones to normalize according to evolutionary pressures-- distance from the equator & sea level-- that happens on a vastly different scale than history happens. You can talk about the "temporary" nature of "odd recent happenstance" but a quick look at the history books puts the lie to that; slavery in America for instance resulted in a hetrogeneous population, for instance, or Moors into Spain.

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