I am currently fifty-five pages into Anne Rice’s first book, Interview with the Vampire. I picked it up because as a fantasy writer, I believe it is important for me to read the classics that started the fantasy genre in the first place. Books like these are our roots and if I want to understand where fantasy is now, I have to understand where it started. (Not to mention that one of my works-in-progress does involve the concept of vampirism and Ms. Rice has fleshed out the mechanics of her vampires extremely well)
What I did not realize before I started this book is that the title is way more literal than one would think. The whole thing is Louis, the aforementioned vampire, speaking to a boy who does interviews while a tape recorder clicks along in the background. It is not a conversation; Louis simply monologues away while the boy interjects briefly every three or four pages. Everything Louis says is in quotes, including his long paragraphs, and the effect is that 90% of the novel is told in the first person as Louis speaks to the boy.
This is particularly interesting to me because sometimes, this is how my characters appear to me. I’m sitting in a room with them and they’re talking to me about their adventures. Or sometimes I’m writing and they are leaning over my shoulder, saying (often quite rudely), “Hey, wait, that’s not how it happened. Fix it.”
An author came to speak to my program last week. His name is Bill Ransom. I had not heard of him before. Apparently he worked with Frank Herbert on some of Herbert’s sci-fi novels and has published some poetry and six novels of his own. One of the things he said during his lecture is that writing in the present tense is “too exhausting, both for the reader and the writer.” And while I agreed with most of his lecture, this scrap of prescriptivism got to me for some reason.
Because guess what popular book is written in present tense? The Hunger Games. And how many people found The Hunger Games too exhausting to get through? Exactly.
It all comes down to style.
Readers come for the story, but they stay for the style. You could have a brilliant plot and super-developed characters, but if your style is boring or uncomfortable to read or doesn’t flow, you will lose readers.
And the thing about style is that you can’t plan it. It appears in your writing and you can direct it one way or the other, but being intentional about it requires a level of self-awareness that is impossible for most authors. As a friend of mine said: “Style is not your decisions, it’s the mistakes you keep making.” I believe that’s true. It is so unconscious that it can be called a mistake.
I know my style varies slightly from novel to novel. While I have a novel in progress, I’m careful to read books that have a similar style so that I can stay in the mindset of my own story. And I was raised on Shannon Hale and Patricia C. Wrede, so my writing will always sound a little bit like them no matter what I do.
It’s important to identify what has influenced you and what your style sounds like, even if you only find things that sound similar. In all the arts, self-awareness is so extraordinarily important because your success depends on others enjoying your work and by extension enjoying a piece of your soul.
I mention Anne Rice in part because her book has an unusual structure that shows off her style in a unique way. I would enjoy reading it for that alone; the fact that it’s also a wonderful story is a bonus.
Here’s my shortlist of classic fantasy books that, as a fantasy writer, I believe are important to study. We are only as good as the foundation we are built on, and fantasy is sitting on earthquake-safe concrete.
In no particular order:
1: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien is the grandfather of modern fantasy and so many stories have been inspired by and taken elements from his work. Any story that features human-sized elves or orc-like creatures, for instance, which were definitely not a thing pre-LOTR.
2: The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Oh, Lewis, you thought we wouldn’t notice your biblical story arc. Lewis and Tolkien were pals back in the day and worked on their stories together, sending manuscripts back and forth for editing. I believe the reason there is a lamp-post in Narnia is because Tolkien claimed that no good fantasy story would have a lamp-post in it. Narnia is a good example of both blending the real world uncumbersomely with a rich fictional world and the writing of a series of unrelated stories in one vast land.
3: The Redwall books by Brian Jacques. Pretty much any story that features talking animals who are humans in every way but physically is borrowing heavily from Jacques. Though now we think of talking animals as primarily a feature for children’s books (Frog and Toad, anyone?), the Redwall books are equally appropriate for adults. This only furthers my theory that anything can work, it just needs the right author.
4: The Land of Oz books by L. Frank Baum. No, I’m not just talking about The Wizard of Oz. Baum wrote quite a few installments in the world of Oz, my particular favorite being Ozma of Oz. He is a good example of an unconventional fantasy land, an almost dreamlike location that doesn’t seem to borrow from anything but interprets real-life things like scarecrows into light absurdity (fields of apple trees that throw apples at you). His writing style isn’t my favorite, but it’s worth it for the world he has created.
5: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. If you want even more absurdity, look no further. This book is just absolutely nuts no matter how you look at it. Juster twists logical fallacies and obscure idioms up in a pleasing knot and wraps it all up in an engaging story. It’s a fantastic illustration of surrealist writing. This is one of those books you read to learn what is possible in the wide world of fantasy. It’s not all knights and dragons, folks.
6: Interview with the Vampire (and sequels) by Anne Rice. Stepping away from what is traditionally known as “high fantasy” (monarchy, peasants, dragons, elves, you know the type), more supernatural creatures like vampires, werewolves, and zombies are the sort that always seem to occur in real-world-esque storyworlds. As Tolkien is the grandfather of high fantasy, Anne Rice is the mother of the supernatural. Her vampires are classy and her writing of them has laid down a lot of the rules for how they are traditionally written nowadays.
7: The Odyssey and The Iliad by Homer. In the interest of full disclosure, I have not actually read either of these yet. I’m getting there, okay!? But so much unrealistic fiction is based on Greek mythology that it would be irresponsible of me not to include it. So much of our literature, from the obvious (Percy Jackson) to the more opaque (DC comic heroes), has threads of Greek in it that it’s impossible to keep track. If Homer were receiving royalties, he would be a trazillionaire by now.
8: The Harry Potter books by J.K Rowling. All right, all right, I know, these were written within the last twenty years. But Rowling has crafted something nearly unheard of in modern writing: a series of fantasy novels that appeals equally to adults, teens, and children. My mother and I read the first three or four together equally invested in the story and when the last book came out every third person I passed on the street had a copy of it. And although there are other wonderful books about magic schools (hey there, Lev Grossman), Harry Potter stands out and has since become the pattern after which many magic-school books are modeled. (Also, if you want an example of how Tolkien has affected fantasy, Dumbledore is essentially a refurbished Gandalf)
9: The Brothers Grimm fairy tales and Aesop’s fables. Where did fantasy start? Urban legends and ghost stories. And what did those turn into? Fairy tales! If memory serves, the Grimms basically went door-to-door across Germany and collected all the old wives tales, which they then embellished and turned into the horrifying children’s stories we know and love. The one thing I have consistently recommended to budding fantasy writers is to buy a copy of The Complete Stories of the Brothers Grimm (whichever one has upwards of 200 stories in it, the G-Bros were prolific as heck). It makes for good flipping-through when you’re stuck on a plot point. Same goes for Aesop, I just have more personal experience with the Grimms.
10: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare. Or really any of his fantastical plays, honestly, but Midsummer is the token one. And with good reason, because there is so much crazy magic and obnoxious pixies it makes you want to smack a sorcerer. There are so many ways to write and yes, one of them is flowery prose plus dick jokes plus iambic pentameter, which if you think about it is a really hilarious combination. Shakespeare is also worth studying for his plot construction.
I’m not saying you have to read all of these to become a good fantasy writer, or that even most fantasy writers have read all of them. But if you want to have a base understanding of what fantasy is at its core, this is an excellent place to start. And the better you understand something, the better you will be able to bend it to your will. These books will show you where certain tropes started and how they can be used, and since most of these writers are creating the first iteration of a trope you’ll see repeated, they are often a good example of intentional writing and unlimited inventiveness.
Disclaimer: These are not “perfect authors.” None of these stories include canonically queer people, for example, which is a thing we need more of in fantasy.
Good night. Don’t let the vampires bite.