Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Making Men of Myths – Part 1

Author’s Note: this post contains extracts from Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson & The Olympians series and some big spoilers, especially for the first book; Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, so read with caution if you are planning on trying these books out and don’t want to be spoiled.

If I had to sum up my original idea for starting to write this book, I would have gone for this: ‘What if British Folklore was based on real events?’ Folklore’s been a long-time fascination and is sadly under-explored in modern fiction.

Anyway, if I wanted this to work at all, there was something that I had to get right instantly: Gods. I suppose since this is fantasy, I should say The Old Gods?

If these characters didn’t feel both real and other-worldly at one and the same time, the whole idea would fall apart. Fortunately, there’s a really good example of the many ways you can go about achieving this out there: The Percy Jackson & The Olympians series.

Ch.14 Making Men of Myths - Part 1

If you haven’t read Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series … just … treat yourself and go do that! Like, right now. It’s January, people, what else do you have to look forward to until The Thaw comes?

I myself found the series through what I have dubbed ‘reverse marketing’ in which the film is such a  bad adaptation that people’s complaints over how much better the books are actively caused me to seek the books out. I had a couple of friends get so upset and vocal about how good the books were and how badly the films had mishandled what was great about them that I just had to find out what the fuss was about.

And, oh boy! I was so glad I did. They are funny, they are exciting, they are full of little quirky nods to the original Greek mythology that’ll make you smile if you’re all nerdy and into that. (Who me?) But they don’t assume you know everything about everything and set everything up properly, so you won’t get lost if Greeks and their beliefs was, say, twenty years ago for you.

More importantly for this post, Rick Riordan does an excellent job of making the Greek gods feel both completely alien, and also strangely human. They are clearly powerful, immortal beings, but they also embody everything good and bad about humanity too.

Author’s Note: I did think about looking at Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, but there the old gods are weakened and diminished from their old forms and strength and facing off against new ones, and that’s a very different topic!

OK, so you need to establish characters who are god; they need to feel real enough that the readers buy into their existence, but they also need to be consistent with their legends that you are drawing from. For anyone playing the home-game with this series, this ties into a previous post I wrote about Why Villains need Rules to be terrifying.

It’s all about combining the human and the alien, relatable and unknowable. And there are many ways to communicate this balance in your character;

How do they look? Like us or like something you could picture being painted on the Sistine Chapel surrounded by thunder bolts?

How do they behave? Like an animal? Like a human? Like a force of nature? (Whatever that may conjure in your imagination)

What is their history? Many gods are described as being immortal, or at least as being far, far older than any human could ever be. They’ve watched over humanity for hundreds or thousands of years, so what kind of history have they built up and how does that affect them?

Now, the Percy Jackson series has loads of gods and goddesses in it, far too many for me to talk about in this post, so we’re looking at what Riordan calls The Big Three, Zeus, Hades and Poseidon, who helpfully illustrate three main approaches.

Appearance

In the series, Rick Riordan did something very interesting; he updated the appearance of the gods to modern fashions, but often had their clothes reflect their roles and thus personalities. For example Ares is dressed like a Hell’s Angels biker, reflecting his status as the God of War.

Hades is the first of The Big Three to appear in person however and he is immediately set apart from the other gods we’ve encountered already:

He was the third god I’d met, but the first who really struck me as godlike.

He was at least three metres tall, for one thing, and dressed in black silk robes and a crown of braided gold. His skin was albino white, his hair shoulder-length and jet black. He wasn’t bulked up like Ares, but he radiated power. He lounged on his throne of fused human bones, looking lithe, graceful and dangerous as a panther.

… When he sat forward in his throne, shadowy faces appeared in the folds of his black robes, faces of torment, as if the garment were stitched of trapped souls from the Fields of Punishment, trying to get out. The ADHD part of me wondered, off-task, whether the rest of his clothes were made the same way. What horrible things would you have to do in your life to get woven into Hades’s underwear?

So Hades is immediately more imposing than anything we’ve seen before, and we’ve seen beings who have empty eye-sockets that fill with fire so far in this book, so that’s really saying something! He’s not changed his appearance like everyone else, suggesting that either he’s had no need to change, probably because Death is consistent in the human existence? Certainly he stands out and there is absolutely no way to mistake him as anything other than the god he is.

He’s also shown as being a very menacing presence; there are souls of the damned woven into his clothing, his throne is made of human bone. Many people find death and the afterlife a frightening concept and Hades really reflects this too. Hades at this point has always been spoken of as a pretty evil figure, semi-Satan-like if you will, and his appearance really reinforces this.

We meet Poseidon and Zeus right at the end of the first book, The Lightning Thief, and they have followed the trend of changing with the times, appearance-wise. However, they both have very different takes on this. Zeus, as the Lord of the Gods, has really taken to power dressing:

Zeus, the Lord of the Gods, wore a dark blue, pinstriped suit. He sat on a simple throne of solid platinum. He had a well-trimmed beard, marbled grey and black like a storm cloud. His face was proud and handsome and grim, his eyes rainy grey.

As I got nearer to him, the air crackled and smelled of ozone.

So Zeus dresses like most world-leaders, successful business-men and crime-bosses; sharp suit and well-groomed. Everything about him reinforces his status as the God of Thunder, and as the God In Charge. It’s hard to show in short quotes, but Zeus as a character is incredibly touchy, even for a god in this series, and he flaunts and reinforces his power at every possible moment. Zeus is in charge and he doesn’t want anyone to forget it for even a moment. He is always listening out for people being disrespectful:

“But I’ve never even been to Olympus! Zeus is crazy!”

Chiron and Glover glanced nervously at the sky. The clouds didn’t seem to be partly around us, as Grover had promised. They were rolling straight over our valley, sealing us in like a coffin lid.

“Er, Percy…?” Grover said. “We don’t use the c-word to describe the Lord of the Sky.”

“Perhaps paranoid,” Chiron suggested.

 The interesting thing about Poseidon is how he sits at the opposite end to Hades on the ‘How Much Do I Look Like A God?’ range:

The god sitting next to him was his brother, without a doubt, but he was dressed very differently. He reminded me of a beachcomber from Key West. He wore leather sandals, khaki Bermuda shorts, and a Tommy Bahama shirt with coconuts and parrots all over it. His skin was deeply tanned, his hands scarred like an old-time fisherman’s. His hair was black, like mine. His face had that same brooding look that had always got me branded a rebel. But his eyes, sea-green like mine, were surrounded by sun-crinkles that told me he smiled a lot, too.

His throne was a deep-sea fisherman’s chair. It was the simple swivelling kind, with a black leather seat and a built-in holster for a fishing pole. Instead of a pole, the holster held a bronze trident, flickering with green light around the tips.

Poseidon couldn’t possibly look less like a god if he tried for a century, which he very possibly has. His throne’s a folding chair, he’s wearing Bermuda shorts, I mean in a later book he even comes with this:

He wore a battered cap decorated with fishing lures. It said, Neptune’s Lucky Fishing Hat.

I am not making this up. And the strange thing is that, at least to me, the effect is that Poseidon is actually the most intimidating of The Big Three. Zeus and Hades have had this huge rivalry for hundreds of years and flaunt their power as much as they can, albeit in very different ways. But Poseidon gives the impression of a god who is so powerful that he doesn’t need to remind everyone.

It makes sense in a way: Hades is the Lord of the Dead and Zeus rules the gods and thunder, but Poseidon is the god of storms, earth-quakes, the sea and horses. That’s all the seas in the world, and a portion of the land and air under his control. Poseidon effectively knows that he has ‘It’ in spades and can afford not to flaunt it, which considering the company he keeps is kind of terrifying.

And speaking of terrifying…

Interactions with Percy

(Percy is our point-of-view character throughout the books. How much he relates to the characters he encounters therefore shapes how much we, the readers, can relate to them too.)

So a lot of the gods Percy encounters for the first time need to identify themselves to him as gods. Usually this is because they are cloaking their powers to blend in and it works. Percy could easily mistake them for other magical beings or totally normal humans.

The Big Three, however, have no such first-impression reveal; they are immediately identifiable as gods, giving off a god-like aura of power and menace:

I immediately felt like [Hades] should be giving the orders. He knew more than I did. He should be my master. Then I told myself to snap out of it. … The Lord of the Dead resembled pictures I’d seen of Adolph Hitler, or Napoleon, or the terrorist leaders who direct suicide bombers. Hades had the same intense eyes, the same kind of mesmerizing, evil charisma.

And then the other two:

The gods were in giant human form, as Hades had been, but I could barely look at them without feeling a tingle, as if my body were starting to burn.

So the Big Three are united in the aura of power they emit, which links them together when they are distinguished by their appearances. Makes sense as they are very much presented as three brothers, and for all their differences they need something in common.

So that’s first impressions done, but then they start talking and once more the differences between them are stark.

Percy is talking to Hades in an effort to convince him not to start a war with his brothers. We’ve already had the price of failure presented to us at the start of the quest:

“And do you know what a full-fledged war would look like, Percy?”

“Bad?” I guessed.

“Imagine the world in chaos. Nature at war with itself. Olympians forced to choose sides between Zeus and Poseidon. Destruction. Carnage. Millions dead. Western civilisation turned into a battleground so big it will make the Trojan War look like a water-balloon fight.”

“Bad,” I repeated.

So there’s a lot on the line and everything in the book has been pointing to Hades starting this mess while framing his brother Poseidon for it, to anger his other brother Zeus. And we all need to appreciate that this feels exactly like to original Greek myths, right here. It’s all egos and pulling ridiculous stunts over absolute nonsense because Greek gods apparently cannot be trusted to talk to each other…

Anyway, Hades so far has been totally alien in appearance and presence and then Percy suggests that the war would benefit Hades because people will die and he’ll have more subjects to rule over and this happens:

“Have you any idea how much my kingdom has swollen in this past century alone, how many subdivisions I’ve had to open?”

I opened my mouth to respond, but Hades was on a roll now.

“More security ghouls,” he moaned. “Traffic problems at the judgement pavilion. Double overtime for all the staff. I used to be a rich god, Percy Jackson. I control all the precious metals under the earth. But my expenses!”

“Charon wants a pay raise,” I blurted, just remembering the fact. As soon as I said it, I wished I could sew up my mouth.

“Don’t get me started on Charon!” Hades yelled. “He’s been impossible ever since he discovered Italian suits! Problems everywhere, and I’ve got to handle all of them personally. The commute time alone from the palace to the gates is enough to drive me insane! And the dead just keep arriving. No, godling. I need no help getting subjects! I did not ask for this war.”

I have never related to a character so fast in my life! I mean, yes, Hades is talking about ruling the world of the dead, which I cannot say I have any experience in at all, but c’mon… We have all had commuting issues and trouble at work, right? Hades suddenly became so relatable, I totally forgot for a minute that he’s dressed in woven souls and sitting on bones!

Now contrast this with Zeus, who continues his desperate efforts to be the most commanding and intimidating thing ever and therefore can barely say ‘thank you’ properly:

[Zeus] rose and looked at me. His expression softened just a fraction of a degree. “You have done me a service, boy. Few heroes could have accomplished as much.”

“I had help, sir,” I said. “Grover Underwood and Annabeth Chase –“

“To show you my thanks, I shall spare your life. I do not trust you, Perseus Jackson. I do not like what your arrival means for the future of Olympus. But for the sake of peace in the family, I shall let you live.”

“Um … thank you, sir.”

“Do not presume to fly again. Do not let me find you here when I return. Otherwise you shall taste this bolt. And it shall be your last sensation.”

Thunder shook the palace. With a blinding flash of lightening, Zeus was gone.

Oh Zeus…

To be fair, I don’t think we’re ever meant to relate to Zeus especially, except insofar as we all know at least one person who’s just trying so hard. I always loved Poseidon’s take on the same moment:

“Your uncle,” Poseidon sighed, “has always had a flair for dramatic exits. I think he would’ve done well as the god of theatre.”

See, Poseidon totally knows what’s up…

Anyway, then again there’s Poseidon, who on first impression is the most relatable and normal-looking of the three, and as a character therefore compensates by being the most removed from human understanding of the three. And this is Percy’s own father here, so that’s really saying something:

“Perseus,” Poseidon said. “Look at me.”

I did, and I wasn’t sure what I saw in his face. There was no clear sign of love or approval. Nothing to encourage me. It was like looking at the ocean: some days, you could tell what mood it was in. Most days, though, it was unreadable, mysterious.

I got the feeling Poseidon really didn’t know what to think of me. He didn’t know whether he was happy to have me as a son or not. In a strange way, I was glad that Poseidon was so distant. If he’d tried to apologize, or told me he love me, or even smiled. It would’ve felt fake. Like human dad, making some lame excuse for not being around. I could live with that. After all, I wasn’t sure about him yet, either.

And there’s the way that Poseidon actually relates to his own child:

“Your mother is a queen among women,” Poseidon said wistfully. “I had not met such a woman in a thousand years. Still … I am sorry you were born, child. I have brought you a hero’s fate, and a hero’s fate is never happy. It is never anything but tragic.”

I tried not to feel hurt. Here was my own dad, telling me he was sorry I’d been born. “I don’t mind, Father.”

“Not yet, perhaps,” he said. “Not yet. But it was an unforgivable mistake on my part.”

“I’ll leave you then.” I bowed awkwardly. “I – I won’t bother you again.”

Although I do have to say that, in this series, Poseidon is actually one of the best parent-gods in the whole cast, which says terrible things about everyone else… And Poseidon actually does tend to make an effort with Percy, by which I mean that he does clearly care and he tries to show his son affection as best he can. The fact that he’s so weird and stilted about it, however, continues to highlight how very not-human he is too.

Like, this is Poseidon telling Percy he’s proud of him:

I was five steps away when he called, “Perseus.”
I turned.
There was a different light in his eyes, a fiery kind of pride. “You did well, Perseus. Do not misunderstand me. Whatever else you do, know that you are mine. You are a true son of the Sea God.”

And this is Poseidon relating to Percy having a birthday several books later:

“I couldn’t miss Percy’s fifteenth birthday,” Poseidon said. “Why, if this were Sparta, Percy would be a man today!”
“That’s true,” Paul said. “I used to teach ancient history.”
Poseidon’s eyes twinkled. “That’s me. Ancient history.”

And speaking of ancient history…

History with Fellow Gods

So, I would argue that the main difference character-structure-wise between gods and, say, super-heroes is their age. Superheroes grow old and die (Maybe. Technically. Theoretically. If the comic books will let them.) Gods go on and on and have been around essentially for forever. And the challenge for writers is in how to showcase that longevity without constantly having to outright say These characters are immortal and really old, guys!

Rick Riordan is very good at making use of the original Greek myths to give a sense of the gods having lived and interacted, both with each other and with heroes, for hundreds of years. They speak of ancient myths as if they happened recently, and that helps us as readers get a real sense of how long they’ve spent developing rivalries and grievances and grudges.

“Husband, we talked about this,” Persephone chided. “You can’t go around incinerating every hero. Besides, he’s brave. I like that.”
Hades rolled his eyes. “You liked that Orpheus fellow too. Look how well that turned out.”

And those long-past interactions also directly affect the plot as it is happening in the present too. Remember that war in the first book that we were worrying about? Well, it’s not just Zeus being all paranoid:

“Then again, Poseidon has tried to unseat Zeus before. I believe that was question thirty-eight on your final exam…” He looked at me as if he actually expected me to remember question thirty-eight…

“Something about a golden net?” I guessed. “Poseidon and Hera and a few other gods … they, like, trapped Zeus and wouldn’t let him out until he promised to be a better ruler, right?”

“Correct,” Chiron said. “And Zeus has never trusted Poseidon since. Of course, Poseidon denies stealing the master bolt. He took great offence at the accusation. The two have been arguing back and forth for months, threatening war.”

In fact throughout the whole series, the whole pantheon of gods are mostly at each other’s throats far more than they ever can manage to work together. They’ve all stood on each other’s toes and made life difficult for each other, and clearly relished doing so. Even in the face of a bigger threat they can’t work together for a long time. They’ve spent centuries falling out and hurting each other and it’s nearly impossible for them to put all that aside. As we saw in A Very Potter Case Study 2, in a well-written plot, the consequence of an argument is that the next argument is worse and the characters less likely to give each other the benefit of the doubt.

So by establishing a long history between ancient beings, we can relate as an audience to the many layers of challenge throughout the series, with enemies attacking from without and rivalries weakening the group from within. And because we can relate so well, we also feel more tension; in the same position, could we put our differences aside for someone else?

In Part 2, we’ll be looking at how I converted some figures of folklore into living, breathing characters; where I drew inspiration from for their appearances, their personalities and their powers.

If this was helpful, let me know and as always, if you’re new then check out the rest of the series here. See you next week!

Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Compelling Characters – A Very Potter Case Study (Part 2)

Welcome to Part 2 of A Very Potter Case Study! If you haven’t read Part 1, then this isn’t going to make any sense at all! You can find Part 1 here.

#3 – Build Conflict out of Characters, not Plot

All good stories need conflict. It’s the reason the story exists, it drives the plot forwards, it’s the catalyst for characters to grow and change. As such, your story’s conflict needs to be compelling. But you know what’s not compelling in the slightest? Conflict which is only there because the plot needs pushing forward a bit. Because then your characters are just being pulled along by the plot, and are not pushing the plot forward themselves by their own actions.

2Ch.12 A Very Potter Case Study - Part 1

To look at compelling vs less-compelling conflicts and the difference between them, I’d like to look at two arguments between the Golden Trio in the series, one in The Prisoner of Azkaban and one in The Order of the Phoenix.

Let’s start with the less compelling one. At the beginning of The Order of the Phoenix, Harry has heard little-to-nothing from Hermione and Ron over the summer holidays, despite them knowing he’s just suffered through the magical world’s version of the Hunger Games, watching a schoolmate’s murder and being the sole non-evil witness to the rise of the Dark Lord via dark magic. The previous year was a touch stressful, one might say?

What little Harry’s friends have told him essentially exists to tell him that there’s a lot that they aren’t telling him, and I think we can all think back and agree that there are few things as irritating from those around us than being constantly told that there’s something they are refusing to tell us.

‘HARRY! Ron, he’s here, Harry’s here! We didn’t hear you arrive! Oh, how are you? Are you all right? Have you been furious with us? I bet you have, I know our letters were useless – but we couldn’t tell you anything, Dumbledore made us swear we wouldn’t, oh we’ve got so much to tell you, and you’ve got things to tell us –…’

‘Hedwig!’

The snowy owl clicked her beak and nibbled his ear affectionately as Harry stroked her feathers.

‘She’s been in a right state,’ said Ron. ‘Pecked us half to death when she brought your last letters, look at this –‘

He showed Harry the index finger of his right hand, which sported a half-healed but clearly deep cut.

‘Oh, yeah,’ Harry said. ‘Sorry about that, but I wanted answers, you know –‘

‘We wanted to give them to you, mate,’ said Ron. ‘Hermione was going spare, she kept saying you’d do something stupid if you were stuck all on your own without news, but Dumbledore made us –‘

‘- swear not to tell me,’ said Harry. Yeah, Hermione’s already said.’

[Author’s Note: As a general rule in life, can we all agree that when the owl is Judging you, you are doing something wrong? Owls know these things, I tell you…]

Ok, so now the group is addressing this lack of communication, and when I first read this I was thinking to myself, seriously? That’s it?!

Dumbledore told them not to tell Harry anything? That’s the explanation? Now I recognise that Dumbledore up until this point in the books has been shown as a great and benevolent figure, but this still isn’t credible. Hermione and Ron have never flinched away from defying their authority figures before now, and I refuse to believe that this is where they’ve chosen to start obeying commands without question.Ch.9 Fantasy Idioms - A Shortcut to Writing a New Language

Hermione set a grown man on fire aged eleven, and brewed a highly illegal and dangerous potion using instructions she swiped from the Restricted Section of the school’s library under false pretences aged twelve. Ron stared down the wand of a convicted crazed criminal, while standing on a broken leg, to act as a human shield aged thirteen (yes, Sirius Black wasn’t really the Bad Guy™ but Ron didn’t know that!) and as previously mentioned organised the illegal smuggling of an illicit dragon out of the school in his first year!

The set up for this disagreement makes no sense at all, and the next part of the argument doesn’t improve things, because Hermione and Ron are shown to be very aware that they are harming the group by their actions, but still don’t have a good reason to do so:

‘So why’s Dumbledore been so keen to keep me in the dark?’ Harry asked, still trying to keep his voice casual. ‘Did you – er – bother to ask him at all?’

He glanced up just in time to see them exchanging a look that told him he was behaving just as they had feared he would. It did nothing to improve his temper.

‘We told Dumbledore we wanted to tell you what was going on,’ said Ron. ‘We did, mate. But he’s really busy now, we’ve only seen him twice since we came here and he didn’t have much time, he made us swear not to tell you important stuff when we wrote, he said the owls might be intercepted.’

‘He could still’ve kept me informed if he’d wanted to,’ Harry said shortly. ‘You’re not telling me he doesn’t know ways to send messages without owls.’

Hermione glanced at Ron and then said, ‘I thought that, too. But he didn’t want you to know anything.’

And here we have the reason why this conversation is happening – the adults, especially Dumbledore, are trying to keep Harry in the dark. This is the plot-point that’s being set up. And that’s a fine plot-point, no problems there. But how is the plot served by Hermione and Ron just going along with it? The argument is over by the next chapter; it’s not setting up the idea that on top of Harry being in the dark, the adults are trying to isolate him from his friends or anything. Harry’s not really being abandoned by everyone in his life. Look, the next time it comes up, all is forgiven:

‘Harry’ll tell me and Hermione everything you say anyway!’ said Ron hotly. ‘Won’t – won’t you?’ he added uncertainly, meeting Harry’s eyes.

For a split second, Harry considered telling Ron that he wouldn’t tell him a single word, that he could try a taste of being kept in the dark and see how he liked it. But the nasty impulse vanished as they looked at each other.

‘Course I will,’ Harry said.

Ron and Hermione beamed.

This whole argument just isn’t consistent with what we know of the characters in past books, and it doesn’t help the main arch of this book’s plot, which focusses on the adults keeping secrets, not the teens.

The plot-point is perfectly serviceable, and continues throughout the book. The adults go to some really quite spectacular lengths to keep Harry from knowing things (and frankly, if they’d put this amount of effort in during Harry’s first year, I feel like The Philosopher’s Stone would have gone very differently!)

Ch.12 A Very Potter Case StudyBut why couldn’t Harry have arrived at Twelve Grimmauld Place to find Ron and Hermione at odds with the adults? Hermione admits that she considered there were ways to communicate other than owls. Ron’s family sent Harry a muggle letter last year and Ron himself has tried using a telephone before. Fred and George spend this year showing off the true potential of their inventions in both information gathering and diversionary tactics, can’t they have been found in league with Hermione and Ron to try and contact Harry without the adults’ interference? The plot wouldn’t be affected at all. Hermione later this year helps Harry contact Sirius, and sets up and maintains an illegal defence club, not to mention cursing the sign-up sheet to ruin the life of whoever breaks the secret to outsiders, so she doesn’t seem to be that changed from previous years in the long-run.

This whole thing exists to push the plot forward, and the established characters aren’t supporting it at all.

So what does a character-driven conflict look like?

Prisoner of Azkaban’s plot is I swear about one half argument between Harry-and Ron and Hermione. The whole conflict goes on and on and keeps going and it’s absolutely riveting the whole way through! Every time I read it, I’m completely hooked and I desperately want them to make up with each other, but I’m also fascinated by the many ways they are clashing. And this is because the whole thing is based on the characters’ established traits reacting with plot-based stimulus. The plot is affecting the characters and they are responding, but they aren’t becoming unrecognisable to serve the plot’s needs. Harry, Ron and Hermione are recognisably Harry, Ron and Hermione throughout.

The argument is a superbly crafted work of art, I’m not even kidding. It’s got all these layers and it moves between peaks of anger and these valleys where everything calms down and you think it’s going to be fine soon, and then it gets kicked back into anger again. JK Rowling was absolutely on top form all through this book, and this argument is one of the things that makes it so great. There’s clearly been a lot of time and effort put into making it so good, and it really pays off.

I would argue that in fact the argument in The Prisoner of Azkaban is actually 2 or 2.5 separate arguments, but like all good writing, they all feed into each other, with the earlier one setting up some aspects of the later one, and the later one being made worse by the earlier one having happened. Untangling it for the purposes of analysis has been a nightmare, and I’ve focussed on two main themes that run throughout.

Friendship – An exercise in trust

The first argument, which I like to call The Firebolt Incident, is really Harry’s argument with Hermione. Ron doesn’t have that much of a role, except for backing Harry up. It kicks off when Harry, in need of a new broom, receives a brand new Firebolt for Christmas anonymously. Harry and Ron are excited but Hermione instantly has reservations:

‘Oh, Harry! Who sent you that?’

‘No idea,’ said Harry. ‘There wasn’t a card or anything with it.’

To his great surprise, Hermione did not appear either excited or intrigued by this news. On the contrary, her face fell, and she bit her lip.

‘What’s the matter with you?’ said Ron.

‘I don’t know,’ said Hermione slowly, ‘but it’s a bit odd, isn’t it? I mean, this is supposed to be quite a good broom, isn’t it?’

Ron sighed exasperatedly.

‘I’s the best broom there is, Hermione,’ he said.

‘So it must have been really expensive …’

‘Probably cost more than all the Slytherins’ brooms put together,’ said Ron happily.

‘Well… who’d send Harry something as expensive as that, and not even tell him they’d sent it?’ said Hermione.

The thing is, there’s nothing wrong with Hermione’s concerns, but she never elaborates further except to say:

‘I don’t think anyone should ride that broom just yet!’ Said Hermione shrilly.

Harry and Ron looked at her.

‘What do you think Harry’s going to do with it – sweep the floor?’ said Ron.

So we, and Harry, know she has concerns, but we don’t get anything further. We know that Hermione is upset about the Firebolt, but there’s no further conversation, although we do get this extra bit:

[Harry] devoted himself to examining the Firebolt, which he had brought down to the common room with him. For some reason this seemed to annoy Hermione as well; she didn’t say anything, but she kept looking darkly at the broom as though it, too, had been criticising her cat.

It all seems weirdly emotional for Hermione, who likes logical deductions and fact-based analysis. We, like Harry again, are utterly confused about what could be the matter. This isn’t the first mystery the group has tackled after all; puzzles are a yearly staple of Hogwarts for them, so this refusal to talk about it and instead just silently sulk is out of character. We do get a climax to this tension though and, while it all makes sense after-the-fact, it’s totally out of left field for both Harry and the readers.

[Author’s Note: I’ve cut a lot out of this section that didn’t apply directly to the argument, sorry. Hopefully it still reads ok.]

‘Coming?’ Harry said to Hermione.

‘No,’ Hermione muttered. ‘I want a quick word with Professor McGonagall.’

‘Probably trying to see if she can take any more classes,’ yawned Ron

… Harry went straight up to the dormitory, collected his Firebolt and the Broomstick Servicing Kit Hermione had given him for his birthday, brought them downstairs and tried to find something to do to the Firebolt… He and Ron simply sat admiring it from every angle, until the portrait hole opened, and Hermione came in accompanied by Professor McGonagall.

… Hermione walked around [Harry and Ron], sat down, picked up the nearest book and hid her face behind it.

‘So this is it, is it?’ said Professor McGonagall beadily, walking over to the fireside and staring at the Firebolt. ‘Miss Granger has just informed me that you have been sent a broomstick, Potter.’

Harry and Ron looked around at Hermione. They could see her forehead reddening over the top of her book, which was upside-down. …

Professor McGonagall turned on her heel and carried the Firebolt out of the portrait hole, which closed behind her. Harry stood staring after her, the tin of High-Finish Polish still clutched in his hands. Ron, however, rounded on Hermione.

‘What did you go running to McGonagall for?’

Hermione threw her book aside. She was still pink in the face, but stood up and faced Ron defiantly.

‘Because I thought – and Professor McGonagall agrees with me – that that broom was probably sent to Harry by Sirius Black!’

So Hermione has seen a risk to Harry’s life, and acted to keep him safe. That’s laudable, but what she’s also done is sacrifice Harry’s trust in their bond. Rather than laying out her concerns to him and giving him time to think through the clues and draw his own conclusions (you know, that thing that Harry does every year and is usually proven right all along?), she went behind his back to the Deputy Head of the School and got it taken away from him, only afterwards giving any kind of reason. Did she think Harry wouldn’t listen to her? Maybe, but since she never gives him the chance, this seems pre-emptively harsh. Did she think she just knew better than Harry what was for his own good? Harry’s trust-issues are well-earned and wider than a Quidditch pitch, so even though as readers we can see logic in Hermione’s actions, we can also sympathise with Harry.

Even Harry can see both sides in the dispute, despite his frustrations:

Harry knew that Hermione had meant well, but that didn’t stop him being angry with her. He had been the owner of the best broom in the world for a few short hours, and now, because of her interference, he didn’t know whether he would ever see it again. He was positive that there was nothing wrong with the Firebolt now, but what sort of state would it be in once it had been subjected to all sorts of anti-jinx tests?

Ron was furious with Hermione too… Hermione, who remained convinced that she had acted for the best, started avoiding the common room.

It’s like this perfect storm of everything Harry reacts most poorly to; people taking control over his choices away from him and thus rendering him powerless, and uncertainty about the future. Of course it’s resolved simply enough when Harry gets his broomstick back, miraculously still working despite two non-professionals (in broomsticks) having fiddled about with the spells that make broomsticks fly. But there’s crucially no real conclusion in the group; no one apologises and therefore nothing really gets a chance to heal:

‘I got it back,’ said Harry, grinning at her and holding up the Firebolt.

‘See, Hermione? There wasn’t anything wrong with it!’ said Ron.

‘Well – there might have been!’ said Hermione. ‘I mean, at least you know now that it’s safe!’

‘Yeah, I suppose so,’ said Harry.

It’s a small thing, the lack of any real closure, but it comes into play multiple times later on when the group is fractured again by Hermione’s cat appearing to have eaten Ron’s rat. The Golden Trio is held together by shared loyalty and friendship, and the fractures to those connections are showing badly.

‘Can’t you give her a break?’ Harry asked Ron quietly.

‘No,’ said Ron flatly. ‘If she just acted like she was sorry – but she’ll never admit she’s wrong, Hermione. She’s still acting like Scabbers has gone on holiday or something.’

Ron has seen Harry feel hurt by Hermione before without closure or apology and he’s unwilling to allow himself to be hurt in the same way. Ron’s definitely the most emotionally aware of the group in this book, he knows what he needs to past the argument; he just doesn’t think he’s going to get it:

‘If she’d just get rid of that cat, I’d speak to her again!’ Ron said angrily, ‘but she’s still sticking up for it! It’s a maniac, and she won’t hear a word against it!’

And further blows to the pair’s trust in Hermione keeps being dealt too. Later on Hermione tries to intercede in the interests of Harry’s safety again, and again seems all too happy to break Harry’s trust in her to do this:

‘Harry, if you go into Hogsmeade again… I’ll tell Professor McGonagall about that map!’ said Hermione.

‘Can you hear someone talking, Harry?’ growled Ron, not looking at Hermione.

‘Ron, how can you let him go with you? After what Sirius Black nearly did to you! I mean it, I’ll tell –‘

‘So now you’re trying to get Harry expelled!’ said Ron furiously. ‘Haven’t you done enough damage this year?’

And it says something that relations reach such a low point in the end that when Hermione receives devastating news, the look on her face only suggests one thing to Harry and Ron when they see her.

He broke off; they had reached the corridor where the security trolls were pacing, and Hermione was walking towards them. One look at her face convinced Harry that she had heard what had happened. His heart plummeted – had she told Professor McGonagall?

‘Come to have a good gloat?’ said Ron savagely, as she stopped in front of them. ‘Or have you just been to tell on us?’

‘No,’ said Hermione. She was holding a letter in her hands and her lip was trembling. ‘I just thought you ought to know … Hagrid lost his case. Buckbeak is going to be executed.’

But the group does heal, and as was always foreshadowed, the one thing the Golden Trio needed to do was apologise and forgive each other:

‘Oh, Ron!’

Hermione flung her arms around Ron’s neck and broke down completely. Ron, looking quite terrified, patted her very awkwardly on the top of the head. Finally, Hermione drew away.

‘Ron, I’m really, really sorry about Scabbers …’ she sobbed.

‘Oh – well – he was old,’ said Ron, looking thoroughly relieved that she had let go of him. ‘And he was a bit useless. You never know, Mum and Dad might get me an owl now.’

Destabilising the Familiar – Conflicting Character Roles

Ch.7 - The Ghost in the MachineNow the second-half of the Great Argument is very different in nature and here’s why; this is the argument where Ron and Hermione switch traits and roles and it’s just so confusing for everyone. No really, hear me out. Ron is the emotional one in the group. Harry has the weirdly accurate intuition, Hermione logically works through clues to a sensible conclusion and Ron has the emotional depth.

I should stress here that this isn’t the same thing as out-of-character behaviour as in The Order of the Phoenix. For one thing, there’s no new traits in the group, such as a previously unseen docility, Hermione and Ron have essentially just swapped traits. Secondly Harry, standing in for the reader, is utterly baffled by this and unsure of any way out of the situation. This is uncharted territory and the book acknowledges this straight out, there’s no pretending that this is normal:

It looked like the end of Ron and Hermione’s friendship. Each was so angry with the other that Harry couldn’t see how they’d ever make it up.

Back to this trait-swapping. The Mysterious Affair of Scabbers is the time when Ron has all the logically followed clues and Hermione is stubbornly making an emotional judgement. Ron has a whole year of Crookshanks’ many witnessed best efforts at chasing and trying to catch Scabbers, Scabbers’ blood on his sheets and Crookshanks’ hair in the room where Scabbers was last seen alive. Added to a general Rule of Nature that cats eat rats, this does seem like a logical conclusion. But Hermione…

Hermione, meanwhile, maintained fiercely that Ron had no proof that Crookshanks had eaten Scabbers, that the ginger hairs might have been there since Christmas, and that Ron had been prejudiced against her cat ever since Crookshanks had landed on Ron’s head in the Magical Menagerie.

Personally, Harry was sure that Crookshanks had eaten Scabbers, and when he tried to point out to Hermione that the evidence all pointed that way, she lost her temper with Harry too.

‘OK, side with Ron, I knew you would!’ she said shrilly. ‘First the Firebolt, now Scabbers, everything’s my fault, isn’t it! Just leave me alone, Harry, I’ve got a lot of work to do!’

We, the readers, end up sharing in Harry’s bewilderment a little. It’s understandable that Hermione should defend a beloved pet, but she’s not on very firm ground as far as the evidence points. She’s outright ignoring what’s in front of her to defend her cat, and blaming others for following their logically drawn conclusions. Leaving aside what actually happened in the book, it’s worth noting that even when the adults try to intervene and patch things up, their argument is not ‘Hermione’s in the right’ but ‘Look, does this really matter?’:

‘Hermione,’ said Hagrid.

‘What about her?’ said Ron.

‘She’s in a righ’ state, that’s what. She’s bin comin’ down ter visit me a lot since Chris’mas. Bin feelin’ lonely. Fris’ yeh weren’ talking to her because o’ the Firebolt, no yer not talkin’ to her because her cat-‘

‘- ate Scabbers!’ Ron interjected angrily.

‘Because her cat acted like all cats do,’ Hagrid continued doggedly. ‘She’s cried a fair few times, yeh know. Goin’ through a rough time at the moment. Bitten off more’n she can chew, if yeh ask me, all the work she’s tryin’ to do… I gotta tell yeh, I thought you two’d value yer friend more’n broomsticks or rats. Tha’s all.’

Harry and Ron exchanged uncomfortable looks.

So everyone’s swapped behaviours, this is confusing and unsettling to everyone, and because JK Rowling is a genius and clearly decided that this wasn’t enough, what we also get to see is another aspect of Ron and Hermione’s character traits. They are both attacking each other with the other’s main trait. Character traits have been weaponised in a way.

Ron using Hermione’s logical ways has turned this against her, pointing out unwelcome facts and drawing logical conclusions that Hermione understandably doesn’t want to face. Hermione, in turn, is behaving as Ron normally would, stubbornly holding on to an emotional belief regardless of contradictory information, and then lashing out angrily at others when they don’t support her. We, as readers, are seeing the uglier side not only of Hermione and Ron, but of these character traits too, because when removed from their customary character, we see them on their own. Sure, loyalty to beloved friends (and cats) is good, but what if you’re wrong? Is it so good then? Is loyalty worth more than the truth? In the same way, logic and evidence-based thinking is great. But does that make it alright to force people to face up to possibilities they are uncomfortable with? Would we like it if people treated us in literally the way we would treat them?

Ch.3 - The Joys and Hardships of Life After Death - smallThe arguments in The Prisoner of Azkaban are some of my favourite in all of literature because JK Rowling isn’t just showing childhood drama, or giving us easy answers here. She’s asking us to question ourselves, our own behaviour and what we would do if we were convinced we were in the right. Hermione and Ron are both absolutely convinced that they are in the right, that the other is clearly wrong, and will do anything to prove it. Wouldn’t we do the same, if it was us? What’s your main character trait? Do you ever use it on others? Would you like it if people treated you like that?

It’s a hard question, isn’t it?

There’s certainly no lack of plot being served throughout all this conflict, but it’s not the only thing being served.

But how do you end a conflict in which everyone is using each other’s worse traits against them? Of course, as book readers already know, what brings the group back together is needing to team-up to defeat a larger shared enemy; Lucius Malfoy’s efforts to have Buckbeak the Hippogriff executed, and their efforts to help Hagrid appeal the decision. Between the need to join forces to defend Buckbeak and the climactic showdown with Sirius Black, the group is forged anew in very much the same way as they found each other to begin with.

It’s the troll in the girls’ bathroom all over again; they are all forced to put themselves at risk to defend each other, they lie and deceive the authorities to do the Right Thing, they lean on each other’s natural strengths, rather than exploit each other’s weaknesses. The stakes are bigger and the metaphorical monster is bigger these two years down the line, but then again, so are Harry, Ron and Hermione. It seems fitting somehow, that this is what heals the group.

Because that’s what conflict should do, in the end; it should feel like it fits in with what we’ve already had established. This might sound ironic, but what conflict in a narrative absolutely should not do is conflict with the narrative, and the characters driving it. If major elements of the narrative are pulling in different directions then there’s no anticipation of what might come next, because the audience has no coherent sense of foreshadowed doom. We can’t tell where the narrative is going, so where is the threat meant to be coming from and what is it going to affect, and actually if none of these characters are the ones we invested our emotions into in the first place, do we even care? And there’s the final disaster to all narratives: the reader no longer being compelled to follow the characters down their journey.

Stories need to be cohesive to be compelling.

Found this useful? Let me know in the comments; if it’s popular I’ll do more in-depth looks at some other stories, books and films, focusing on what story-tellers can learn.

If this is your first time with the Chronicles in Creation Series, check out other chapters here. See you next week!

Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Compelling Characters – A Very Potter Case Study (Part 1)

Last time on Chronicles in Creation, we looked at how designing compelling characters is, like all vitally important things, difficult to do. Today we’re taking an in-depth look at one of the finest examples of the art in recent times: Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger – the Golden Trio – by JK Rowling. In fact, this post is so in-depth that I’ve had to split it into two parts. For Part 2 click here.

SPOLER WARNING – I’d like to think this was obvious, but this post is going to be talking about the plots of multiple Harry Potter books in great detail! If you aren’t familiar with these works, maybe skip this post?

Ch.12 A Very Potter Case Study - Part 1

Character Flaws vs Character Traits

A lot of writing advice on character-creation starts by emphasising how important it is to make sure your characters have ‘flaws’ as well as ‘strengths’. Essentially we’re told that there are ‘good traits’ and ‘bad traits’ and that characters should have a balance of them. I’m never very convinced about this, as I feel that it can be very limiting and potentially really damaging as well. Think about it; what exactly are ‘good qualities’? Being clever? How are you going to define that? Many people might say something along the lines of ‘is good with books’ but what about people who can build beautiful works of art or craft really useful objects with their hands, but can’t read or write easily? Is ‘patience’ a good trait? What if that just means the character never stands up for themselves and suffers needlessly?

Ch.14 Making Men of Myths - Part 1There’s also the concern that this binary thinking can easily be used against people. ‘Female traits’ – such as domestic skills, loving relationships, gentleness – are often shown as being ‘bad’ or at least are undervalued, and more masculine traits – physical fitness, skill with weapons, the ability to intimidate one’s foes into submission – are often considered as ‘good’ and to be emulated. This has been challenged in recent years, but it’s worth looking past the efforts to redefine ‘good/bad’ in characters and challenge the idea of binary character traits at all. Changing one binary definition of ‘good trait/bad trait’ isn’t addressing the real problem here, it’s just swapping out the window-dressing.

There’s a school of thought I’ve discovered recently which really struck me as a much better model. The idea is that rather than divide characters up into ‘strengths’ and ‘flaws’, you simply give each character a variety of character traits, which can be good or bad to have depending on the character’s circumstances, and then keep putting them into situations where they are at an advantage or disadvantage.

This strikes me as a much better model because it provides writers with far more possibilities. Think about it: a main character who has ‘flaws’ must, by the end of the story, either have conquered those flaws and eradicated them from their being, or succumb to those flaws and ultimately fail on some level. Those are your two options here for a satisfying ending. And that can get very repetitive.

Ch.14 Making Men of Myths - Part 2By giving a character traits however, they have to learn that all of human traits have positive and negative aspects and therefore a character must strive for balance between these aspects. The narrative is set free from ‘overcome your flaws’ and can instead explore the full extent of its characters, watching them grapple with situations that they cannot excel in naturally, but may triumph in through struggle and effort. It’s much more realistic for readers, who also live in a difficult world which doesn’t magically fit in with our strengths, and by not forcing the narrative into a well-worn formula, the writer has more creative freedom too!

I’d also like to mention that it’s less potentially damaging to readers who aren’t willing or able to fit the conventional ideas about what’s ‘good’ in fictional characters and by extension real people, but I’m not the first person to say that and others have done it better elsewhere.

So, how does JK Rowling help us here? JK Rowling has created some of the most memorable and relatable characters in modern fiction, and she’s done this by specifically constructing her stories around the idea that it is not a person’s intrinsic traits which make them good or bad, but the actions that person chooses to take.

As Dumbledore so wisely tells Harry in The Chamber of Secrets: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

#1 – Give Everyone Distinct Traits (Make Them Stand Out From Each Other)

You know what readers hate? Not being able to tell characters apart. The more characters you have, the more they need to stand out from each other instantly so readers aren’t stuck flicking through pages trying to work out who’s speaking to them, etc.

So give your characters their own very distinct personal traits that they can be easily identified by.

Harry, Ron and Hermione are really good examples of this – yes, they work together well as a team, but they are each very distinct from each other and those around them. You aren’t going to mix up Ron’s dialogue with Neville Longbottom, are you?

JK Rowling is also clever in designing the trio’s main traits; each trait is shown as having positives and negatives, and usually she will display both sides within the same chapter. But like all good writers, she doesn’t sit the reader down and just tell us this straight, but shows us the benefits and drawbacks through the character’s lives and interactions.

Let’s take a look…

Harry Potter

The word I would describe Harry as he gets established at the start of the series is undoubtedly ‘Fast’. He’s physically fast, of course:

Dudley’s favourite punching bag was Harry, but he couldn’t often catch him. Harry didn’t look it, but he was very fast.

Which is later expanded on when he learns to fly and is shown to be brilliant at the role of Seeker. But he’s also prone to doing things without thinking, as if his actions are so fast his brain hasn’t caught up yet:

‘I had a dream about a motorbike,’ said Harry, remembering suddenly. ‘It was flying.’

Uncle Vernon nearly crashed into the car in front. He turned right around in his seat and yelled at Harry, his face like a gigantic beetroot with a moustache: ‘MOTORBIKES DON’T FLY!’

Dudley and Piers sniggered.

‘I know they don’t,’ said Harry. ‘It was only a dream.’

But he wished he hadn’t said anything.

Later on in the series, we see that Harry’s tendency to act without thinking can be both a help and a hindrance. He can think on his feet and act in a crisis like no other character, which saves his life on multiple occasions, but he also drops himself into trouble just as often by acting without thinking things through.

Ron Weasley

Ch.14 Making Men of Myths - Part 3This might sound weird, but if pressed to say what trait was unique about Ron Weasley, I’d say ‘Family’ every time. Yes, Ron is his own person, but as a character he is defined primarily by his large family, especially at the start. No other family featuring in the whole series is so numerous; seven children in total. No other features as prominently as a group. The Weasleys are tightly knit, and often come in as the sources of help. Ron contacts his brother to smuggle Norbert the Norwegian Ridgeback out of Hogwarts, the twins help Harry out as Quidditch team-mates and later in the books with the Marauders’ Map and such.

Ron is introduced to us for the first time absolutely surrounded by his family, contrasting with Harry who is on his own having been abandoned by the Dursleys at the station. The initial benefit is clear – Harry, without any kind of inherited knowledge has no idea about catching his train to Hogwarts, but Ron, with his mother and brothers already familiar with Platform 9 ¾, knows exactly what to do.

‘Hello, dear,’ she said. ‘First time at Hogwarts? Ron’s new, too.’
She pointed at the last and youngest of her sons. He was tall, thin, and gangling, with freckles, big hands and feet, and a long nose.
‘Yes,’ said Harry. ‘The thing is — the thing is, I don’t know how to –’
‘How to get onto the platform?’ she said kindly, and Harry nodded.
‘Not to worry,’ she said. ‘All you have to do is walk straight at the barrier between platforms nine and ten. Don’t stop and don’t be scared you’ll crash into it, that’s very important. Best do it at a bit of a run if you’re nervous. Go on, go now before Ron.’
‘Er — okay,’ said Harry.

But once Ron and Harry start talking, the downsides of so many others going before you are fairly obvious too.

‘Wish I’d had three wizard brothers.’

‘Five,’ said Ron. For some reason, he was looking gloomy. ‘I’m the sixth in our family to go to Hogwarts. You could say I’ve got a lot to live up to. Bill and Charlie have already left – Bill was Head Boy and Charlie was captain of Quidditch. Now Percy’s a Prefect. Fred and George mess around a lot, but they still get really good marks and everyone thinks they’re really funny. Everyone expects me to do as well as the others, but if I do, it’s no big deal, because they did it first.’

Harry may be standing alone, but he’s never going to be overshadowed by anyone else either. Ron’s family is constantly present in his life, contrasting him with Harry’s family, only ever felt by their absence.

Hermione Granger

Hermione’s main trait is much easier to identify; she’s book smart to a fantastic degree. Everything she knows about the wizarding world, she learned from books. Books are how she relates to the world.

‘Nobody in my family’s magic at all, it was ever such a surprise when I got my letter, but I was ever so pleased, of course, I mean, it’s the very best school of witchcraft there is, I’ve heard — I’ve learned all our course books by heart, of course, I just hope it will be enough — I’m Hermione Granger, by the way, who are you.’

Hermione is unique in the Golden Trio; she has to wait four chapters for the inherent weakness of her main trait to be highlighted. This is because it simply takes this long for her to be put into a situation where her book smarts can’t help her. JK Rowling didn’t try and force this information upon the reader, it just comes along naturally when the occasion is there:

Hermione Granger was almost as nervous about flying as Neville was. This was something you couldn’t learn by heart out of a book- not that she hadn’t tried. At breakfast on Thursday she bored them all stupid with flying tips she’d gotten out of a library book called Quidditch Through the Ages. Neville has hanging on to her every word, desperate for anything that might help him hang on to his broomstick later, but everybody else was very pleased when Hermione’s lecture was interrupted by the arrival of the mail.

Hermione throughout the entire Harry Potter series absolutely hates flying. Like, she really hates it, and this isn’t a major drawback in everyday life but the books keep on having moments when she can’t get out of it. With Hogwarts being a school environment, she has plenty of opportunities so show the good sides of her ability to memorise and regurgitate information from her books and is rewarded with praise and House Points, but JK Rowling never forgets to find situations where Hermione is at a disadvantage either.

There are good and bad sides of all traits, if you think about it, and Rowling shows them off clearly to her readers whenever it is appropriate. She never over-does it, to the point where Harry being a fast flyer is a bad idea, for example, or where readers might wish that Ron didn’t have a family because they keep getting in the way. It’s always done just enough that we can see that nothing is a completely good or bad thing.

#2 – When Grouping Characters, Always Put Contrasting Traits Together

You know what no one likes, again? Everyone on the page being the same. Literally nothing is more boring than a group of characters who might as well be interchangeable. It’s not just dull, it encourages that slide into that ‘good trait/bad trait’ thinking we’re avoiding here too; if the heroes all have the same traits, even if the antagonists don’t you’re still sending a message that these traits are objectively ‘the best’.

Ch.21 Hide and Seek MacGuffinsThe Golden Trio are amazingly well-grouped, because they are all each other’s opposites, yet they all have things in common. In the Harry Potter books, their shared traits are what prevents them from being each other’s antagonists, but because they are all so different too, the readers can appreciate the conscious choice each member has made to be a part of the group, so their camaraderie feels earned.

As we’ve already seen, Ron is immediately introduced as the polar opposite from Harry with his large family and he also has diverse native-born wizarding knowledge, providing Harry’s character with something new to contrast against his inexperience with this new world.

‘What are these?’ Harry asked Ron, holding up a pack of Chocolate Frogs. ‘They’re not really frogs, are they?’ He was starting to feel that nothing would surprise him.
‘No,’ said Ron. ‘But see what the card is. I’m missing Agrippa.’
‘What?’
‘Oh, of course, you wouldn’t know — Chocolate Frogs have cards, inside them, you know, to collect — famous witches and wizards. I’ve got about five hundred, but I haven’t got Agrippa or Ptolemy.’
Harry unwrapped his Chocolate Frog and picked up the card. It showed a man’s face. He wore half- moon glasses, had a long, crooked nose, and flowing silver hair, beard, and moustache. Underneath the picture was the name Albus Dumbledore.
‘So this is Dumbledore!’ said Harry.
‘Don’t tell me you’d never heard of Dumbledore!” said Ron. “Can I have a frog? I might get Agrippa – thanks.’
…Harry turned the card back over and saw, to his astonishment, that Dumbledore’s face had disappeared.
‘He’s gone!’
‘Well, you can’t expect him to hang around all day,’ said Ron. ‘He’ll be back. No, I’ve got Morgana again and I’ve got about six of her… do you want it? You can start collecting.’
Ron’s eyes strayed to the pile of Chocolate Frogs waiting to be unwrapped.
‘Help yourself,’ said Harry. ‘But in, you know, the Muggle world, people just stay put in photos.’
‘Do they? What, they don’t move at all?’ Ron sounded amazed. ‘weird!’

So Harry and Ron are very different, got it. But why are they friends then? Because they can also bond together over something they both share. In their case, they both know what it’s like to not have very much and to have to make do with the little they can get. Nothing in either boy’s life is easy, and they both have to learn not to equate self-worth with physical possessions.

‘You never get anything new, either, with five brothers. I’ve got Bill’s old robes, Charlie’s old wand and Percy’s old rat.’…

Ron’s ears went pink. He seemed to think he’d said too much, because he went back to staring out of the window.

Harry didn’t think there was anything wrong with not being able to afford an owl. After all, he’d never had any money in his life until a month ago, and he told Ron so, all about having to wear Dudley’s old clothes and never getting proper birthday presents. This seemed to cheer Ron up.

Also food helps with bringing people together as always!

‘Go on, have a pasty,’ said Harry, who had never had anything to share before or, indeed, anyone to share it with. It was a nice feeling, sitting there with Ron, eating their way through all Harry’s pasties and cakes (the sandwiches lay forgotten).

Hermione, by contrast, is introduced only in ways that set her up in conflict with Harry and Ron, and is almost shown as an antagonistic character. That may seem harsh, but look at how similar her remarks are to those of Draco Malfoy, Harry’s major personal antagonist in the series. (Yes, I know, I know there’s Voldemort, but he’s this shadowy figure for almost the whole thing, and Harry has barely any rapport with him to compare to the complicated and invested relationship he has with Draco Malfoy.)

Hermione with Harry

‘I’m Ron Weasley,’ Ron muttered.

‘Harry Potter,’ said Harry.

‘Are you really?’ said Hermione. ‘I know all about you, of course – I got a few extra books for background reading, and you’re in Modern Magical History and The Rise and Fall of the Dark Arts and Great Wizarding Events of the Twentieth Century.’

‘Am I?’ said Harry, feeling dazed.

‘Goodness, didn’t you know, I’d have found out everything I could if it was me,’ said Hermione.

Hermione with Ron

[B]ut the girl wasn’t listening, she was looking at the wand in [Ron’s] hand.

‘Oh, are you doing magic? Let’s see it, then.’

She sat down. Ron looked taken aback.

‘Er – all right.’

He cleared his throat.

‘Sunshine, daisies butter mellow,

Turn this stupid, fat rat yellow.’

He waved his wand, but nothing happened. Scabbers stayed grey and fast asleep.

‘Are you sure that’s a real spell?’ said the girl. ‘Well, it’s not very good, is it? I’ve tried a few simple spells just for practise and it’s all worked for me.’

…[S]aid Hermione in a sniffy voice. ‘And you’ve got dirt on your nose, by the way, did you know?’

And then there’s Draco Malfoy:

Draco with Harry

Three boys entered, and Harry recognized the middle one at once: it was the pale boy from Madam Malkin’s robe shop. He was looking at Harry with a lot more interest than he’d shown back in Diagon Alley.
“Is it true?” he said. “They’re saying all down the train that Harry Potter’s in this compartment. So it’s you, is it?”
“Yes,” said Harry. …

“[M]y name’s Malfoy, Draco Malfoy.”
…He turned back to Harry. “You’ll soon find out some wizarding families are much better than others, Potter. You don’t want to go making friends with the wrong sort. I can help you there.”
He held out his hand to shake Harry’s, but Harry didn’t take it.

Draco with Ron

Ron gave a slight cough, which might have been hiding a snigger. Draco Malfoy looked at him.
‘Think my name’s funny, do you? No need to ask who you are. My father told me all the Weasleys have red hair, freckles, and more children than they can afford.’

Yes, Draco is far more antagonistic, but he and Hermione both start by assuming they know everything about Harry because they’ve heard about Harry Potter the legendary figure, and both insult Ron by making him uncomfortable, especially about his appearance. Yes, Draco has a family-based grudge against Ron, which sets him further up against the pair, Harry being envious of Ron’s large family and all, but there are definite parallels. This makes Hermione becoming friends with both Harry and Ron feel like an achievement, something that was earned and the reader is instantly invested in the group as a whole in a way they never could be if it was easy for them all to bond together right from the start.

So how does Hermione overcome this rough start to become a part of the group? By the three of them sharing traits: bravery and bending the rules for the benefit of the group. When Hermione is endangered by a troll loose in the school, Harry and Ron save her, and later on Hermione puts her academic record at risk to take the blame for the situation. They share a dangerous task together, requiring them to work as a team, and in doing so they are triumphant.

[Author’s Note: I know it could be argued that Harry and Ron are responsible for Hermione being in danger, but the troll had already entered the bathroom, all Harry and Ron do is lock the door and Hermione was on the opposite side of the bathroom when they get there. So can we all just leave the blame with the monster who let a troll endanger children inside a school, please?]

First Harry and Ron show that they are willing to take responsibility for other people’s safety – even putting their own lives at stake for Hermione:

As they jostled their way through a crowd of confused Hufflepuffs, Harry suddenly grabbed Ron’s arm.

‘I’ve just thought – Hermione.’

‘What about her?’

‘She doesn’t know about the troll.’

Ron bit his lip.

‘Oh, all right,’ he snapped. ‘But Percy’d better not see us.’

…It was the last thing they wanted to do, but what choice did they have? Wheeling around they sprinted back to the door and turned the key, fumbling in their panic – Harry pulled the door open – they ran inside.

Hermione Granger was shrinking against the wall opposite, looking as if she was about to faint. The troll was advancing on her, knocking the sinks off the walls as it went.

‘Confuse it!’ Harry said desperately to Ron, and seizing a tap he threw it as hard as he could against the wall.

The troll stopped a few feet from Hermione. It lumbered around, blinking stupidly, to see what had made the noise. Its mean little eyes saw Harry. It hesitated, then made for him instead, lifting its club as it went.
‘Oy, pea-brain!’ yelled Ron from the other side of the chamber, and he threw a metal pipe at it. The troll didn’t even seem to notice the pipe hitting its shoulder, but it heard the yell and paused again, turning its ugly snout toward Ron instead, giving Harry time to run around it.
‘Come on, run, run!’ Harry yelled at Hermione, trying to pull her toward the door, but she couldn’t move, she was still flat against the wall, her mouth open with terror.
The shouting and the echoes seemed to be driving the troll berserk. It roared again and started toward Ron, who was nearest and had no way to escape.
Harry then did something that was both very brave and very stupid: he took a great running jump and managed to fasten his arms around the troll’s neck from behind. The troll couldn’t feel Harry hanging there, but even a troll will notice if you stick a long bit of wood up its nose, and Harry’s wand had still been in his hand when he’d jumped – it had gone straight up one of the troll’s nostrils.

And then Hermione leads the charge of lies to cover up the group’s actions, proving that some things are more important than being on the authority’s good side all the time:

‘What on earth were you thinking of?’ said Professor McGonagall, with cold fury in her voice. Harry looked at Ron, who was still standing with his wand in the air. ‘You’re lucky you weren’t killed. Why aren’t you in your dormitory?’
Snape gave Harry a swift, piercing look. Harry looked at the floor. He wished Ron would put his wand down.
Then a small voice came out of the shadows.
‘Please, Professor McGonagall — they were looking for me.’
‘Miss Granger!’
Hermione had managed to get to her feet at last.
‘I went looking for the troll because I – I thought I could deal with it on my own — you know, because I’ve read all about them.”
Ron dropped his wand. Hermione Granger, telling a downright lie to a teacher?

‘If they hadn’t found me, I’d be dead now. Harry stuck his wand up its nose and Ron knocked it out with its own club. They didn’t have time to come and fetch anyone. It was about to finish me off when they arrived.’
Harry and Ron tried to look as though this story wasn’t new to them.

Like with any good ‘Building a Team’ narrative, the reader suddenly gets a glimpse of how well the team can work together, despite and because of their differences. It’s been hard, it’s been a struggle, but now we can see that it’s also been earned. As JK Rowling summarises it for us:

The common room was packed and noisy. Everyone was eating the food that had been sent up. Hermione, however, stood alone by the door, waiting for them. There was a very embarrassed pause. Then, none of them looking at each other, they all said ‘Thanks,’ and hurried off to get plates.

But from that moment on, Hermione Granger became their friend. There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.

Part 2 of this post can be found here.

Found this useful? Let me know in the comments; if it’s popular I’ll do more in-depth looks at some other stories, books and films, focusing on what story-tellers can learn.

If this is your first time with the Chronicles in Creation Series, check out other topics here

Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Worlds Within Worlds: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

So you want to write a book and you need a world to go into it. Where on earth do you start, and what do you need to think about?

When I started out designing a world I could place my stories into, I quickly developed a system which I hope will be useful to other aspiring writers. First, look at what ideas are already out there and see what works for you, then look at your own ideas and which ones you feel are the strongest and most interesting or original, and finally put these things together and locate what else you need to come up with to glue it all into coherency.

Ch.10 Worlds Within Worlds I

Uncomfortable Bedfellows

So if I were to be totally honest, I’m still in two minds about whether I gave myself a huge handicap right off the bat. I suppose time will tell and all that, but the more I struggle with keeping my ideas tonally consistent, the more I suspect that there was an easier way to do this…

Firstly, I had a whole lot of characters that were straight out of the dark and grim world of the old folk-stories I had grown up listening to, and original characters who fitted in with them. Fairy queens who steal children and entrap the unwary men; giants that eat people; river spirits who drown people. Curses which are broken by daring deeds and enormous personal sacrifice, and blessings which are only useful in the hour of darkest need. That sort of thing.

Ok, good start. Classic fantasy set-up right there.

However…

This meant that I couldn’t simply set it straight into the ‘real world’, especially in modern times, as that would take me into the world of urban-fantasy and for a fairy queen to fit in there, she’d need to be a very different person. She would probably have needed to have a dating website that ensnares the unwary man looking for a casual hook-up but unaware that he was flirting with a much more deadly power. That sort of thing.

And there are several authors who have done this to great effect and I’ve really enjoyed a lot of urban fantasy, but since that wasn’t the sort of story I wanted to write, it was best not to set myself up for it.

But I didn’t want to divorce these characters completely from the real world either. I wanted to have ‘normal people’ interacting with them and responding to them, so I couldn’t just go off into a different world like Middle Earth or Westeros. Hmmm…

Riding in to the rescue, for me at least, was folklore. I know that folklore and fantasy as a genre has a reputation for being somewhat backward looking. It’s always set in a world that is based on Medieval Europe, at least to some extent, and many of the customs, values and characters are lifted from those histories wholesale.

But folklore is, at least to me, a reflection of people struggling with real-world issues of the day, and most of those issues haven’t really left us. We still have dangerous people who hide in the shadows of poorly lit back-streets. We still teach our children not to talk to strangers, and for good reasons. We still need to be suspicious of people who offer us bargains which are simply too good to be true and therefore probably are. Life hasn’t moved on that much.

This was what gave me hope that I really could find a way to bring fairytale monsters and heroes into a recognisable, normal human world, with a bit of tweaking. With that in mind, I set about digging through a variety of stories about magic and men living together to see if I could find inspiration. As I have said before, strong ideas last longest, so looking through older stories for strong concepts is, I feel, a great way to find good building blocks to begin construction.

I needed a way to have a world of magic and a world without it in the same story. I needed ideas for how to travel between worlds. I needed a sense of how long was reasonable for any travel to take. Physical and magical practicalities to pin everything else on to. Fortunately these problems are new or unique to me either, and there was plenty of ideas and solutions out there to draw from.

Myth and Legend

Back when I was researching my thesis in the Anglo-Saxon conversion to Christianity (it’s much more hilarious than you might think, honest!) I uncovered several articles on the Anglo-Saxon superstitions surrounding why there were monsters in the human world.

In Saxon folklore, there was a belief in two worlds; the world of men which we currently inhabit and an Other world filled with magical and supernatural beings. There were gateways between these two worlds which were most closed in the clear light of day, and most permeable when you couldn’t see very well: at night when it’s dark, in heavy rain or fog, or when travelling over large spaces of land or water when you lose sight of all landmarks which tie you to home. There were also seasonal variations, with solstices being generally a good time to assume that things were able to cross between the worlds.

Folktales and Fireside stories

When I was a small child adults around me would tell stories of people who tried to sail to Wales or Ireland and lost their way, ending up in the land of the Fairies by mistake, or how people would lost their way on the mountainsides, be taken in by kindly (or not so kindly) goblins and may or may not be seen ever again. I think she was trying to teach me about the importance of properly navigating and not getting lost in bad weather, as her elders had doubtless done before her, and it had always left me with a sense that fairyland was a place one really could just stumble into, given various factors.

Of course there are also a whole slew of stories that feature more concrete doorways between this world and worlds of magic; fairy rings, caves, sacred clearings in the woods or abandoned buildings have definitely all been used to great effect before.

Related to that, as I started reading more widely into the folkloric traditions of the British Isles and what other people had to say about the Fair Folk and the land they lived in, Tir na Nog, I found that another aspect kept cropping up again and again. Many storytellers told tales which said that Tir na Nog was not bound to such human concepts as physical space or time. One storyteller I heard spoke of ancient times when kings would pay the fairies grand and elaborate tributes because Tir na Nog’s gateways could open up wherever they wanted and, if angered or not appropriately bribed, they might be persuaded by one’s enemies to transport their army right past your defences to where you were most vulnerable.

(For anyone wondering, these tales tend to contain some dishonest trickster stealing one or more kings’ gifts and what I can only call ‘Hijinks’ promptly ensue until everything can be resolved happily. Having said that, there are also the more tragic versions in which the theft of the tribute is the reason given for people getting turned to stone, or changed into the animals which are eaten by their tribe’s feast, or whole regions being flooded, giving rise to oddly-shaped seas of lakes, so it doesn’t all end happily…)

The idea of magic messing around with time has enjoyed a wide forum of employment since the days when bards first used the concept. Time, as we were told so wisely by Ford Prefect, is an illusion (Lunchtime doubly so.) It’s hard enough to keep track of with modern time-pieces, and so it is no surprise that magic messing around with time was a common theme when telling tales of fairies and magic lands.

C.S. Lewis has probably written the most famous modern example with the Chronicles of Narnia, in which (for anyone who might possibly have missed it) however much time you spend in Narnia – be it an afternoon, several months or a lifetime – no time at all will have passed in this world.

Traditionally, the results of such magic are less fun; one might join the fairies in dancing and drinking for one night, only to find that a year and a day has passed for men and your friends think you dead and murdered. In the darker-still versions, one tends to find that your best friend who saw you last has been tried and executed for your murder, usually with you returning only after that friend has died, for maximum dramatic impact. In others, you might spend a night with the fairies only to find that over a hundred years have passed, your friends are all dead, and the world is completely changed and incomprehensible to you now. Again there are darker versions of this tale in which it seems that fairies either can or choose to only flout time for so long and all those decades you were missing for catch up with you at once and you age and crumble to dust in a few minutes. Yes, folklore did it before Indiana Jones and yes, it still sounds like a horrible way to die to me…

Children’s Books

Magic that can take you anywhere has been around for forever too, from magic carpets to disapparation. But as a child the first examples I had was a whole series of different stories with doors which could open instantly onto wherever you wanted to go. Mr Benn, for example, with the door in the fancy dress shop, or Morwen’s house in the Enchanted Forest Chronicles. In this series, Morwen’s house has two doors, front and back. In theory. In reality, the back door opens to wherever Morwen wants it to, be it her library or her backyard. But only Morwen can command the door; it’s her house after all. This idea of portals which can only be commanded by one person really captured my imagination too.

My favourite example of squiffy time-and-space travelling used on a grand scale is in The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. In the land of Fantastica (I know they call it Fantasia in the film, but it’s Fantastica in the books, I swear!) the rule is that if you want to go somewhere, you just set off in any random direction and you will arrive where you wanted to go. But if you actually wanted to go somewhere else (subconsciously, say) you will end up there instead. I have yet to figure out how the children in Fantastica go to school when they have exams. Maybe I’m thinking about this too hard…

*

So, having collected all these different ideas I liked and had seen could definitely work in a narrative context by others, I boiled them all together in a strong brew of late-night tea and biscuits, left them to stew for a lunar cycle and dried it off in the raging sun of a British summer!

And now comes the harder parts; coming up with some ideas of my own and making them work. Inspiration is a great place to start, but sooner or later you have to make some decisions of your own and build your own world, not keep playing in other people’s sandpits!

Found this post interesting or helpful? Check out the rest of the series here.

Posted in Chronicles in Creation

How to Build your Fairy City

Or: What Your Building Can Say About You…

Updated with images – 29/01/18

So I’d like to start this post with a special dedication to all my friends who live with me and my writing. Friends are the un-celebrated support network behind any artist or writer and we just don’t give them enough thanks!

This post was born out of the following, I swear I’m not making this up, real-life conversation:

Me: Hey, I’ve just had a thought

Friend: What?

Me: What are fairy cities like? What do they look like?

Friend: …

Me: I mean, do they have large cities? Do fairies have a social structure that would support that? Because they seem like they’d be ‘Bigger Is Better’ people-

Friend: … Cameron…

Me: – but they also seem to have a pretty feudal society and that only really allows for kind of small ones. And would they be too territorial for close-quarters living?

Me: And what do the buildings even look like? Do you think they’d be all tall and ethereal? Or one story high and made out of sturdy rocks? Like super-defensive?

Friend: …It’s gone midnight, Cameron. Talk to me later, yeah?

To all of my friends who bear with my madness; your patience is noted and appreciated. I thank you all.

Ch.7 - Fairy Cities - small

Anyway, this post is going to look at world-building from one very specific direction; choosing a specific end result – in this case the final ‘look’ of Tir Na Nog’s cities – and working backwards to figure out what would need to exist to allow this to happen.

I’m a big believer in looking at a lot of different approaches to world-building, and trying out all of them. Even if you find this helpful, please don’t feel like you need to use this for everything you go on to build or indeed feel like it should work in all scenarios, because it probably won’t. Different approaches force you to ask different questions and that’s what’s fantastic about world-building. Go crazy and try everything you can get your hands on! The end result will be much better!

Why Think About Cities This Much?

So, Cameron, why are you giving any though to what the cities of the fairies look like?

I hear you ask.

Well, fantasy fiction has historically had a bit of a leery relationship with the idea of cities. They tend to feature cities as far off in the distance, mentioned and referenced maybe but only entered, if ever, during a fraught quest or at the climax. (Also, is it just me that keeps finding cities as being almost exclusively where The Bad Guy™ lives, rather than normal places of normal people with lives and businesses?) So the focus is never on the city itself as a functioning population hub but as the place where the action happens. And for good reason.

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Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

Fantasy tends to really like to base itself in medieval feudal societies and they don’t have the sort of social structure to maintain big cities like the modern world does. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t cities, but by our standards they’d be pretty small, and they are rare and they usually are the result of very specific factors coming together, like the joining of two or more main roads, or a crossing place on a river…

Mostly the population lived in smaller towns and villages; the larger your settlement is, then the more people living in it, and the more food it needs to keep going. Since the middle of a settlement is not where the good agricultural activity is, that means that the ‘hinterland’ (the land which is essentially there specifically to feed the town) gets larger too, but now the distance food has to travel from the outskirts of that hinterland inwards is larger, and after a while it’s not worth it. Pre-industrialisation, goods just take a lot longer to move than we can easily conceive of now – a horse and cart laden down with food can travel around 12 miles in a day, according to my research, assuming that there aren’t highwaymen or robbers or flooding…

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Sarlat Périgord Foie Gras, Sarlat-la-Canéda, France. Photo by Tom Parkes on Unsplash

Plus, once you get a lot of people into a single area, you need to keep the peace between them, dispense justice, collect revenue to keep the public buildings and infrastructure maintained and pay the people who are keeping that peace I just mentioned. It’s a lot more complicated than just shoving people together and calling it a city. There’s hierarchies to sort out and maintain and differentiate. The priorities of the society will shape the city’s major centres – hospitals, libraries and universities, banks and markets, churches and temples, public parks, etc. Trade routes to be established so goods can come in and out, and industrial areas to develop and spread. And then of course cultures change and develop…

No, wait! Don’t panic! I know it sounds complicated but that’s not really a bad thing! You’re a writer after all! You get to be the boss of this world, and you get to make those decisions now! Just be aware that you might need to think about these things if you want to go into detail.

It’s worth stressing at this point that some writers do not go into detail, and that’s not necessarily going to impede your narrative at all.

In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien has the Fellowship rest at the city of Caras Galadhon, the largest city of Lothlórien. What do we know about it? Well, it’s built up in the massive mallorn trees, on platforms connected by stairways and ladders, and it’s lit by “many lamps”. That’s not a whole lot of description of a major city. We get some highlights of important places; the fountain, the mirror of Galadriel and there’s a palace that Galadriel and Celeborn live in, but none of them are described in that much detail. And did that affect the plot at all? Nope!

So please don’t read this post and panic because you haven’t really described your city (if you have one). Especially if the plot is just glancing through it, the city doesn’t have to matter all that much. Books are there to tell stories with words, they aren’t a visual medium like comics or film where designing a set is vital for the whole narrative to work.

I personally made the decision to tackle the idea of fairy cities. I haven’t read about a lot of them and I really wanted to take the opportunity to really think one out. I like a challenge and it’s something that is potentially distinctive in my writing. I don’t even know if they are going to be a major feature, but I know I want to give them a try. I want to see how the cities built by fairies – who are not and never have been human and who have had very limited and mostly rural experiences with humans – would be different from our own. I wanted to experiment to see how their political structures would affect their physical surroundings. What would be the same and what would be alien to us?

You will have your own ideas which are different and unique and you’ll want to play to those strengths.

What Buildings have to do with People?

OK, so architecture says a lot about the people who built it. It says a lot to those people as well, actually. Before the rise of literacy among the general population in Europe, architecture was the main way that ideas and concepts could be spread to the masses.

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Church of Saint-Pierre, Caen, France. Photo by Thomas Millot on Unsplash

There’s a reason that the Catholic Church built those huge cathedrals with their stained glass windows depicting Biblical scenes and lessons, and (pre-Reformation times) were decorated inside and out with painted statues and huge murals also depicting important stories and ideas: Heaven, Hell, Saints and Angels protecting the innocent and punishing the wicked, Devils are bad and do bad things, what the major sins are and what happens to those who succumb to temptation.

You get the idea.

Also buildings reflect the changing power dynamics and attitudes of societies too.

This bit is grossly over-simplified, I’m sorry, and I should stress that I am not a qualified architectural historian or anything of the kind!

The Renaissance saw a revival of what became known as the Neo-Classical style of architecture, which reflected the period’s renewed interest in Greek and Roman culture, ideas and society. The ‘Middle Ages’ (as they were now called, since people had clearly lived beyond that age and into a new one) were despised as the ‘Dark Ages’, a time without all this clearly superior Classical literature and scholarship of science. The backlash to that dismissal was then seen in the rise of the Neo-Gothic architecture of the Later Victorian Era (timings approximate) where the revival of medieval ‘gothic’ architecture was used to celebrate the poetically reimagined vision of the Middle Ages as a more exciting and untamed era of adventure and great deeds – just as the Europeans imagined their own actions and innovations to be; exploring new lands and conquering mountains, seas and desserts instead of dragons and griffins.

What I’m building up to here is the idea that architecture is a reflection of the people who design it, and therefore these two things need to match. If you give me a peace-loving society with no recent conflicts, but everyone lives in well-built and defensive castles and fortified towns, I’m going to have some serious questions. Which could be answered with something interesting like ‘There was a war recently and no one wants to talk about it, but that’s why they love peace so much’ or ‘The masses are told that they are a peaceful nation, but the Powers That Be are war-lords and are preparing for a terrible war.’

See? Inconsistencies can add up to fascinating world-building on their own. A war-faring culture that lives in undefended settlements might simply be terrifyingly good warriors, like the Spartans who had no walls to defend their towns because their army was amazingly effective.

So about these Fairies?

OK, so I always say this: When you sit down to do some world-building, start with what you already know, then work out from that. This approach has never let me down, because I stop focussing on the things I haven’t worked out and start focussing on all the things I’ve already figured out, which is both more positive for me as a person, and means I’m not figuratively looking at a blank page, but at a puzzle piece which just has some gaps in it. (Sometimes big gaps, but they’re still just gaps, right?)

What did my image of my fairies tell me?

My version of fairies are based on the Early Medieval folktales’ version; not demigods like the pagan Celtic peoples knew them (Tuatha Dé Danann), but more powerful and interesting than the little house spirits the Church would make them into by the time of Shakespeare (he describes them as being small enough to hide inside acorns when frightened). The best concise description I have ever found for fairies as I pictured them comes from (who else?) Terry Pratchett, in Lords and Ladies:

Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.
The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their meaning.
No one ever said elves are nice.
Elves are bad.

That’s it, that’s it right there! Those are my fairies! Beautiful but cruel, interested in beautiful things but not with lives, covetous and jealous and magical. That old phrase about a person who could “kill you or kiss you”? Those are my fairies.

I knew that they would have an elf king and a fairy queen, that each ruler had their own distinct court; so they’d need palaces. I knew that they liked music and dance for the sounds and the colour and the movement, that they liked theatre and the inherent falseness of the magic of the stage; so they’d have large public venues to enjoy them in. I knew that they would have big parties to celebrate and show off in, so some big open spaces to “dance upon the green” would need to be incorporated.

But there’s another side I needed to conceive of. I knew that all the glitter of my fairies would be – not hiding exactly, but definitely distracting from – another, darker set of priorities. I knew that they would collect lives like some people today collect action figures – to be kept on a shelf and displayed for pleasure but never ever used. That they would consume more than mere food, and that they would barter in dark secrets and blood-stained memories. I knew that they would craft beautiful artworks and terrible weapons in the same shops, and sell lucky potions and deadly poisons in the same markets, and not always tell you which it was you were buying, because they’d get a kick out of watching you take a gamble with your own life and lose.

So now I needed to think about what aesthetic best fitted that sort of culture.

So About Those Cities?

These days with the wonders of the internet, whenever I need to find a specific ‘look’ to fit an amorphous concept, I use Pinterest, but any other way you have for finding lots of images will work just as well! Go forth, scramble around and collect every single imagine that strikes you as fitting. They don’t have to match, they don’t have to be exactly fitting. You’ll go through them later and throw out the ones that don’t work anymore, or find patterns you didn’t even realise you were tracing out in these little snippets.

I have a whole set of photos cut out of old magazines at home which are literally just windows and doors and I am reliably informed that they have no visible common aesthetic at all. They do. They are the doors I think belong in a character’s house, which is large and has a lot of different types of rooms, like any large old house, and it was only later that I realised that they were also the doors into different realities…

Anyway, I went away and looked at lots of pictures of buildings. Lots of them. And finally I found something that really worked for these fairies: Gothic Architecture! … Sort of…

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Looks absolutely beautiful, doesn’t it? Like they made it out of sugar paste instead of stonework… Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

So, if you’ve ever been inside a Gothic cathedral the first thing you’ll probably have been struck by is all those massive windows. They’re huge and (or at least they were) filled with coloured glass, and they have these amazing spiders’ web of stone and lead running between all these pieces?  I’m fascinated by Gothic stained glass windows, they’re just so pretty…

But the thing is, Gothic architecture can be beautiful and romantic and intricate and absolutely full of tiny details and little carvings that just add so much… but they are also really sinister too. At least to me. Like, there’s a reason why Gothic architecture is associated with vampires and evil spirits and malevolent magics too. Those walls are really tall, and they just loom over you, and all the angles come to sharp points of stone that catch the light and throw claw-like shadows everywhere, and the halls are full of these statues that may or may not be watching you, right? I love visiting old cathedrals, but sacred ground or not, you will never pay me enough to stay inside one overnight. Nope, not happening! Nuh-uh.

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Looks much more sinister in black-and-white with a bit of fog though, huh? Photo by Linnea Sandbakk on Unsplash

So I started to imagine an entire city based off of the sort of design that went into a Gothic Cathedral. All that grand sense of height and looming presence, filled all over with stained glass caught up in these intricate webs of silver-lead and impossibly fine stone, throwing glittering points of coloured light everywhere. All those sharp-edged columns and pointed arches upon arches to build a ceiling like a ribcage over top of huge, echoing, cavernous halls. Lots of wide spaces, yes, but lots of twisted shadows too, that you aren’t sure are occupied or not…

And like the real cities of old, lots of hungry people living tightly together with not much food… and there you are, all alone…

Thanks for reading this post, I know fantasy architecture is a weird topic! 

If you liked this and found it helpful, check out the rest of the series here.