modern epic romance

Creating the Modern Epic Romance

Some time ago I gave a talk to the Shakespeare Society here in Bendigo (I’ve since given abridged forms of this talk elsewhere) called Creating the Modern Epic Romance. It’s a bit silly, but you might enjoy it.

This evening I’d like to talk about 2 things: why the fantasy (I loathe the word, but must perforce use it) … why the fantasy market has exploded throughout the western world in the years after world war 2, and some of the highs and lows of trying to write in a genre that demands not only thick books, but never-ending streams of thick books that deal with distant worlds, eternal quests, and an undying conflict between good and evil that can never be solved.

Fantasy is now the largest — and growing larger by the month — genre in fiction in the western world. Its fans range from children to inmates of aged care homes, from bricklayers to judges. Love of fantasy crosses all sexes, all classes, all ages, all walks of life. It sells as well in K-Mart as it sells in top notch book shops. There are millions of Australians, more millions in western Europe, the UK and the USA, who badger bookshops and publishers for more, please. A successful author is never left alone and never left in peace. She or he has got to get the next book out as soon as she or he can, and preferably last week. Why?

People who have never read fantasy, or who don’t like it, believe that fantasy is a) a fad based on Tolkien and, b) is childish. The reading public is bound to grow up at some point (when they will, presumably, start to read Jeffrey Archer), and the Tolkienish fad will die. Neither view, in my view, is justified. Fantasy is far older than Tolkien (again, it is only in the post WW2 years that the genre has been called fantasy) and it is far from childish — although there is a large proportion of fantasy out on the market that is either meant for children … or is indeed just plain childish. The fantasy genre as a whole is not helped by the fact that there is some very, very bad fantasy out there.

So before I talk about some of the highs and lows of trying to create the ‘modern epic romance’, I’d just like to talk briefly about where fantasy has come from, and why it still sells so well.

People often assume that fantasy began with Tolkien (and Tolkien is the greatest burden the modern fantasy author must labour under and eventually escape from if they are to succeed). But the assumption that fantasy began with Tolkien is wrong — the history of the genre extends back thousands of years into the folk tales and myths of pre-medieval society. All human societies have always loved epic tales and myths, they’ve loved their constructs which are used time and time again, and today’s fantasy genre is merely a continuation of a love that has endured for thousands of years.

But not only is fantasy a continuation of an ancient love of myth and epics, it is one of the only ways people can now access that ancient love. Apart from the odd film, or role-playing game, there is virtually no other way people in our society can sate their craving for epic romance (although they might not think of fantasy as epic romance) that is relevant to their world.

But what is it about fantasy — or whatever — that people adore? There are several aspects to this, several things, or several needs, that fantasy can provide that people find it very, very hard to find elsewhere.

What? Action and adventure, yes, but it is far more than action and adventure. Romance? Yes, but it is more than romance. Fantasy allows people to — safely — indulge in their craving for a world where the mysteries of that world outnumber the sureties or the answers, where life is a constant conflict between the forces of good and evil, light and dark, and where life itself becomes a quest — a frightful, dangerous quest, but a quest where people can at least become something other than the mundane, where they can grow into some thing, or someone, with the power to aid the forces of good into eventual victory (of sorts) over the forces of evil. Fantasy gives their life a meaning they can’t find in their daily lives.

That may seem a tad pretentious, so let me explain myself in a bit more detail. Before the rise of modern science, let’s say before the sixteenth century, people lived in an enchanted world that was literally filled with the forces of good and evil: saints and angels, demons and sprites, spiteful elves and homely goblins. All of these creatures and beings truly existed, because the medieval world — and world view — allowed them to exist. The medieval world was literally a magical and an enchanted world but a world under constant threat from the forces of evil. People grew up and lived in a world where the ultimate goal was the salvation of their souls. People knew that the angels and saints were engaged in constant fight with the forces of evil for their souls. Life was a continual contest between good and evil. It was a horribly scary world, because the forces of darkness could snatch you or your child or your one remaining cow at any point, but it was a world that sated whatever desire it is that lives within humans for the unknown, for the mysterious, and for the unexplained. It was a world that was rich in food for the soul.

And then, if I can push things along a bit, along came the science. At the same time the Church, or churches and religion, began to fail and to lose their influence. In the new, brave and sterile logical scientific world, science exiled the elves and the angels. They didn’t exist. They were cute, but they were childish. The ancient conflict between good and evil, the never-ending fight to stay one step ahead of the demons and sprites who lived in the dark spaces of your home and farmyard were pushed safely into the realms of children’s fairy stories. People could relax. The only important things in life were to get a good job and pay off the house.

Science expunged the mystery and the danger from our lives. And perhaps, for a while, we thought that is what we had always desired. A safe life.

No longer does our world endure the once eternal conflict between the forces of good and evil. No longer must we keep a light burning in the house lest the demons creep out of the gloom and snatch our children. No longer need we appease the gods in the woods so that our crops might continue to grow. We only need to add blood and bone, and the only person we need to appease is the check-out girl at Safeway.

Our lives have indeed become a safe way. We have science to explain it all for us, and to get it all done for us. Life is full of logical explanations. There are no mysteries left, or, if there are, then the people in white lab coats assure us that they’ll be solved next week, or next year at the outside. The unexplained is no longer allowed to exist. It must be explained. It cannot be allowed to remain unexplained.

Science has done wonders for our lives — and I am the first to admit that I love the comforts that science has brought to our lives — but science has stripped us of mystery, and of romance, and of adventure and of the unexplained. We are not allowed to partake in the mysterious and the unexplained any more, because there are no mysteries left, and there are no adventures left to dare, and there certainly aren’t any demons lurking in the gloom under the gum tree waiting for the first chance they can get to snatch your soul. The forces of darkness have been repelled. Three cheers for science.

Well, our lives have become safe and comfortable, true, but they have also become bland and boxed. Being able to achieve a good job, and being able to pay off the house is wonderful, and it sure brings a nice warm feeling inside … but modern life goals are no match for the mystery and enchantment we’ve lost in the quest for a ‘safe and comfortable’ and totally explained life.

Our souls — the very ‘whatever it is’ that makes us human — crave romance and excitement and mystery. And isn’t it a remarkable observation on today’s society that one of the few places that people can find mystery and romance and adventure, one of the few places that people can once again engage in the quest and in the eternal conflict between good and evil (apart from religion), is labelled ‘fantasy’. That very label speaks volumes for what is important, and what is not, in today’s society.

It is, therefore, heartening to know that ‘fantasy’ sells in huge numbers, and it is heartening to know that one of the things that I am told over and over again — especially by young people, but it comes from all age groups — is that they read, and adore, fantasy, because it replaces the mystery and romance that they feel has been lost in their everyday, and somewhat mundane life. It fills the gap — and where else are they to go? Yes, people want a good job and a paid-off home, but they want a garden for their soul as well, a garden with strange, unmarked paths down which they can quest for the unknown and mysterious … and where they can risk their lives and souls in that quest.

Why else are we alive?

Having said all that, especially having said that people crave the mystery and excitement of the quest where death awaits around the next corner, people don’t actually want to literally experience the quest. No-one wants to wake up one morning and find Evil Incarnate at the front door and saying something like, “Swords at dawn okay for you, then, mate?” A book is a nice safe outlet for the yearning for the quest; it sates the craving in the soul for mystery and adventure and danger without the need to fret about how good your sword-wielding skills are.

So, fantasy sells well, hugely well, because it fills a need, in an otherwise often soulless existence, for mystery and romance and adventure, a need for a quest in which we can find ourselves something other than we first thought, and a quest in which we can prove ourselves. All the ‘cliches’, or constructs of modern fantasy, are there because people want them to be there.

However, and whatever the history that stretches back hundreds if not thousands of years, there are some things which are out in modern fantasy writing. I’ll talk about these in a while, but there’s one I just want to mention at this point. Strangely, I had someone say to me on the weekend that they’d had a manuscript rejected by Pan Books because, and I quote, “No-one wants to read about the quest these days.” I could cheerfully assure the rejected author that a) not only were Pan Books extremely suspect when it came to knowing what was in and out (after all, Pan had initially rejected me as someone who would never be able to sell a single book … some months ago my agent was on the phone to Pan about something else when she sweetly interjected that were they aware that Douglass’ sales were 200,000 and climbing, and what was it exactly they’d said about me?) … where was I? Ah yes, the rejected author who had included a quest and had been rejected by Pan on that count. Well, not only can Pan not always be trusted to know what can sell and what can’t, but I think the quest is very much in, and probably will be for all human time.

The quest is vital to both the fantasy book, as it is to our daily lives, but the author must be aware of what the quest is about before they embark on trying to build one themselves. Certainly there is always something that the heroes, or characters, or whatever, quest towards, whether it be a magic sword, or enchanted ring, or the single book in creation that can tell them how to deal with the evil lord that’s currently gobbling up the ice-bound north. What the author must realise is the object of the quest is never, never important, it is the quest itself, and what the characters who quest learn about themselves. A quest, for whatever object, is really an internal quest for what lies within, even though it is acted out in an external quest that may extend across a thousand leagues and several mountain ranges in the process. A quest is about finding yourself, about finding your true meaning, and about being transformed in the process. Whatever Pan thought, readers still long for the quest because it gives them the hope that one day they might find that kernel of truth within themselves, and become something other than what they appear, or what the world tells them they are.

So the quest is still a very, very vital part of the fantasy epic … the trick is not to make the object the important part of the quest … but to make the internal and very personal quest of the lead characters the important thing. The bad fantasy books around that make me tear my hair out are those in which the characters don’t change during the quest: they remain the same people as when they began. For the reader, that is one of the most frustrating, even hopeless, situations, because it denies them the hope for their own voyage of self realisation.

So here we have the fantasy author who wants to write a book, and hopefully one that will provide a garden for all those hungry souls out there. How does one go about creating the ‘fantasy’ world, how does one create the modern epic romance, and what are the highs and lows that involves?

First of all, one must create a world in which to place your epic. Again, before the rise of science in the sixteenth and later centuries, such tales were placed in our world, because this was a world in which goblins and elves and evil workers of enchantment and magic could exist. But science has banished all these creatures and peoples and enchantments to the realms of children’s fairy stories, to the world of fantasy, so the modern author, in order to allow their readers to suspend disbelief and immerse themselves in the tale, must perforce create a new world, or a different world, or, place their tale in one of our past worlds.

Thus, one must create a new world — and one of the great luxuries of being a fantasy writer is being able to create a world in which you make up all the rules. I remember speaking to a author who does crime fiction (can’t think of his name) who, in the past year or 2, put out a book about a murder mystery in Melbourne. At one point in the book, the author had the hero take a ride on a number 8 tram through the streets of Melbourne where he finally got off at the corner of St Kilda Road and some smaller street. Not sooner was the book out than the author was overwhelmed by mail from readers saying that the Number 8 tram not only didn’t stop at that particular corner, it didn’t go down St Kilda Road in the first instance, and what the hell did he think he was doing, ruining the story like that? The poor fellow was tearing out his hair, because he’d spent months researching that book, and taking tram journeys around Melbourne and making sure that people could get off a Number 8 tram at such and such a corner, and so he went back to check his copious notes, only to find out that he’d meant to put down a number 18 tram, but somehow in the printing process the 1 had been dropped and the entire murder mystery had been endangered in the process. No wonder I prefer to create my own worlds! At least none of my readers can actually take the merchant ship across the Sea of Death to prove that the Island of Fear actually lies in the Bay of Tears rather than the Inlet of Grief.

However, having said that the fantasy author creates a new world, we create is actually this world … but this world very slightly warped and returned to a more magical and — perhaps — a more naive age. The template for most fantasy writers is the medieval world — the last western world in which the fantastic was allowed to exist.

It is also, even for most Australian writers, a northern hemisphere world, where January and February are cold and snowy, and June and July are hot. Why? I am often asked … well, mostly because we’re forced to by the expectation of our readership. We might live in the great hot southern land, but our culture, and our mythic imaginations, are mostly European. And the northern European landscape (both geographic and mythological) is still where most fantasy writers choose to set their grand tale. Again, there are exceptions, but they are the exception.

Whatever, the fantasy author must recreate this world … with only a few slight changes (and those slight changes are generally to be able replace the mystery and magic that science has cut out). The problem in creating a vastly different world, and the reason why we don’t do it, is that the reader won’t be able to relate to it, and the one thing most fantasy readers want to do is to relate to the world they are being presented with, and to be able to place themselves within it. They want/need to be able to partake in the journey as well. They still need to be able to access the quest.

I just want briefly to mention how I create this ‘new’ (or revamped earth) world. Sometimes people who want to write fantasy feel daunted by the whole idea of having to create a new world, of having to create a plot that is deep enough to sustain at least one thick book and hopefully 3 thick books, and also creating all the characters and situations to go with this in depth plot. Not only that, but in creating a new world you must also create a new religion, a new culture (and a culture with myths that stretch back hundreds if not thousands of years), a new language, new systems of counting, new of ways of relating to space and time (new distances, new ways to tell time), new swear words … the list goes on and on. And, you must do this for every race you create to live in your world: every race has its own culture, languages, religions, myths etc. How long is all this going to take? the would-be author thinks, and perhaps decides it would be best forget the entire idea.

So how long does it take? No less than half an hour, no more than 2 hours, and 2 hours is more than ample. Quite literally, all you have to do is create a map, that is, create a landscape … and that landscape will then present to you the types and numbers of races, the structures of their societies, what is important in their lives and how they live their lives. It also give you religions, gods, systems of magic, government … whatever. Even the myths that stretch back into the unseen past. The landscape itself will give you the rest.

I’ve always started with a map. I sit down and take a half an hour to draw freehand, and without any planning, a map of a land. Here’s the coastline (always putting in a bay or two so you can have a port town … ports always come in useful), here’s a few towns, here some lakes, here hills, here’s a bog, here a road, and so forth. Oh, and always a fog-bound island or two off the coastline from whence fierce pirates or mysterious barges can sail forth from time to time. Once you’ve done that, then you can see where different peoples are going to live: here the people who live on the plains and grow crops and herd livestock; here the hills where live isolated groups of mysterious monks; here the peoples who live in the soaring mountains or the flat wastelands. The landscape dictates how they live, and from there you move quickly to the nature of their religions etc., the types of conflicts which might occur between the various races, the resentments that will blow up, etc. etc. etc. By morning tea time you have a plot and something to keep you out of mischief for several years while you write it up. Easy.

Now, I’ve always found that process easy, but I didn’t realise how easy it was for other people until this past weekend when I conducted a workshop on how to construct the fantasy world for the Bendigo Writers’ Group. I divided people up into groups of 3 or 4, gave them some general instructions and some do’s and don’ts, and set them down to, in their first half an hour, create a landscape. I must also add that about half the group were made up of people who’d never read fantasy and didn’t know much about it.

So I left them to it and wandered off to the kitchen and had a cup of tea and eaten all the chocolate biscuits the Writers’ Group had kindly provided, and then I wandered back in to see how everyone was going. I was stunned by what had taken place in my absence. All the groups, in half an hour, had not only created a landscape, represented by a rough map, but had also created the societies, races, creatures etc. which lived in their landscape. Myths and cultures were there as well. Not only that, they’d also got well started on their plots. All in half an hour. None of this had I asked them to do … it was just that once they had a landscape before them, the peoples and races and cultures almost literally leapt off the page and bit them on the nose. By the end of the workshop, which extended over 5 working hours, most groups had books ready to be typed up.

It showed me two things. One, the power of the human imagination given only a few prompts. And 2, what the human imagination does once it can visualise the landscape of a different world. Instantly it populates that world with gods and religions, races and conflicts, heroes and scoundrels, and even a thousand years of myth. One group, in presenting their world, got so carried away they began their presentation with the hundreds of years of myth and history that had shaped the races of their land.

Well, back to the creation of the fantasy world. Like most fantasy authors, I almost always use a clone of the western European medieval world as a template. In fact, my societies and landscapes are the medieval world, and I bless the day I decided to bind up my first year lecture notes and send them off to a literary agent as fantastic fiction. I haven’t looked back since.

Even though the author may choose to recreate one of our past worlds, most often the medieval world, the author faces some restrictions, and a few things that he or she must be very, very careful about. Because the fantasy world is so largely (if loosely) based about the eternal conflict between good and evil, the issues within the fantasy book can too easily become rigidly black and white. It therefore becomes a huge temptation for the fantasy author to portray not only issues, but cultures, in purely black and white terms. It becomes too easy, in using the template of a paternalistic and racist world, to be both sexist and racist in the newly created world.

An example: in many fantasy books (and some of mine, I admit) the main plot is driven by the conflict between two races (generally of very different creatures). Here is the race which leads a blameless (if rather boring) life on the plain, and here the malformed, dark and evil creatures who live in the hills and who, through sheer evilness, resolve to invade the good folk who live on the plains. Dark enchantment is hurled about by the handful, and at the very last hour the good (if somewhat naive and boring) folk who of the plains find amongst themselves a golden hero who is able, through sheer goodness and strength and bravery, to revive the forces of the good against the evil swarming down from the hills, and defeat them — generally only by the skin of his teeth. Ultimately the forces of the hill folk are completely wiped out, their culture is destroyed, their homes burned, and their leader killed in a particularly disgusting — but totally justifiable — way.

There is no shading, there are no grey areas, simply the good and the bad, and the bad have no redeeming qualities and must be wiped out … often only because they are ‘different’.

That’s bad. but it is all too easy, and the author has to be careful to avoid it while still trying to couch the tale in terms of this eternal conflict between the forces of good and evil, light and dark.

So, how to avoid it? The most successful fantasy books about are those which shade the difference between good and evil to the extent where there is almost no difference at all. There may still be a conflict between two races, or two types of beings, one of which closely resembles us and one of which might well closely resemble deformed toads, but the issue of who is right and who is wrong, who is cruel and who generous, who good and who evil, can be blurred to the extent that the readers should despair that any one side, or race, must lose at all, or must despair at the flaws and faults of the so-called good guys.

The sexist trap is also an easy one to fall into. Again, if the author bases his or her work on a medieval template — which society was highly sexist according to our understanding — then having weak and directionless female characters becomes too easy. Female characters can be shoved into roles that don’t allow them to choose their own destiny, or where they are merely beautiful appendages to the golden (and male) hero. Men, on the other hand, become the ones to lead the quests (their beautiful appendages carry the backpack with the food), it is the men who obtain the magic sword (their beautiful appendages will dust it off for them and glue the enchanted ruby back into its spot on the hilt), and it is the men who then thrust the magic sword — grunting manfully — into the dark overlord’s person (while their beautiful appendages swoon gracefully, and beautifully, in a gloomy corner). While this is easy too use (and I admit to having played about with it myself), no-one really wants to read it any more.

And, I am more than pleased to say, it seems to be the men leading the charge in not wanting to read it. I’m certainly pleased that my books have sold well, but I am more than surprised that my main readers seem to be men, because while I use the basic formula (golden hero leads quest to destroy evil overlord), I have strong female characters, and in almost all situations and books it is the girls who save the day after the golden heroes have tripped up miserably over their pointy-toed shoes and don’t know what to do next.

The other trap that fantasy authors have to be very careful not to fall into is what I call the ‘cute-trap’. There has been, and remains, I guess, a perception that fantasy is somewhat childish, and that if grown ups still read it, it is because they yearn for the tales and constructions of their childhood. Feeding this perception is the ‘myth’, if you like, that Tolkien is the grandfather of all fantasy, the best fantasy writer there ever was, and all fantasy not only derives from him, but must be as much like him as can be. All of that is false. Tolkien was/is only one aspect of fantasy, and his style is but one aspect. Tolkien was very, very good at what he did, but Tolkien-pretenders are so far out they’re lost somewhere on the Sea of Death as far as the current market is concerned. Why? Mainly because although many readers start with Tolkien, they grow up and move on, and they want fantasy that has grown up and moved on as well.

So Tolkien pretenders are out … what else is ‘out’? Cute furry creatures are out. Cute scaly ones are, as well (at least as main characters). Elves, goblins, dwarfs and dragons will virtually get a manuscript rejected on first sighting. There’s a manuscript that has been going around the Australian publishing houses for the past 3 years. It’s basically a very good manuscript, but it has a goblin on p. 49, and that’s been its death knell with every publishing house thus far.

What do publishing houses and readers want? Grit. Realism. What many hopeful authors over the past 30 years have overlooked — and I’m convinced it is the key to success in today’s fantasy market — is that, as I have said, the people who read Tolkien as children or teenagers, and who adored him, then proceed to grow up. For many years there was a huge hole in the fantasy market. Readers of 25, 35 or 55 still wanted to read fantasy, but they were sick to death of cute (especially if it lived behind a green door), they were sick to death of dragons, they were sick of people being stuck in the guts with swords and not saying, “Oh, gosh, that hurts”, and they were beyond sick to death of teenage hero after teenage hero. The adult readers wanted fantasy they could relate to, not the stuff of childish imaginations. They wanted to be able to partake in the quest, and they were not being allowed to.

About 15 years ago readers started to get what they wanted, although it came out only in dribs and drabs. Books that addressed real issues, books that had flawed heroes of over 25, books that had grit. Where pain was pain, and people endured large amounts of it. Where sometimes the good guy died and evil won. Fantasy over the past few years has become increasingly darker, and I don’t think that has any other reason for it than the fact that the market was over-stocked with the cute-Tolkien would-bes.

But while there are several aspects of fantasy that are ‘out’ in today’s market, there are some things about fantasy books that have remained, and I suspect will remain, the same for a very, very long time.

The first and most obvious of these is that fantasy books not only come in thick, but they also come in series of 3, 6, 9 or 13. One of the things I’ve learned as an author is that stand alone books often don’t sell. There are exceptions, but the market literally demand a tale that doesn’t end for a very, very long time. People want to immerse themselves, and they don’t want to leave. There is only one time I’ve been castigated for writing very thick books: a man came up to me once and said that he found my books very hard to read in bed because they were so thick. “I can only use one hand for the book,” he said, and so I asked why he could only use one hand to read in bed. Why? “Because I like to keep the other hand on my wife’s breast,” he explained.

So writers are stuck with the thick book, and the need to produce thick book after thick book. (Readers not only like to immerse themselves in the tale, of course, but they also like to get as much value for their $14.95 as they can.) This creates its own problems … fantasy authors have been known to pale and get the shakes when their agent rings them up to say, “Your last was such an outstanding success we need another 5 more. By next year, if you can.”

Can you imagine how hard it is to create a plot that you know will probably have to go on for 3 thick books and, if the initial series is successful, may have to go on for another 6 or 9 thick books?

So how do you do it? I always start by creating as many characters as I can: I can always kill them off later if I find I don’t need them (I know my characters spend their time between scenes in a pleasant room somewhere drinking endless cups of tea and saying things like, “Oh god, she’s halfway through book 2, that means she’s going to start to kill off those of us she’s decided she doesn’t need. Look out, chaps, half of us are for the chop!”). But what a large number of characters means is that I must also create numerous subplots to keep everyone gainfully employed, And what that means is that I am going to have to end up tearing my hair out trying to keep track of them all. Often, although not always, I must keep huge charts showing where every character and subplot is at all times, just so that I can keep everything under some semblance of control.

But just as often things get completely out of control. One of my nightmares, and one that occurs in just about every book, is that, as the quest runs its course, all the characters from every one of the plots ends up in the same inn at the same time. (Everyone always stays at roadside inns on quests. It’s just one of the things one does.)

Think about it. Thirty-five characters, all of whom are important enough to justify their own scenes, end up in the same inn at the same time. Thhis is no scene where they can all have their say — that would be a book in itself — and only some 3 or perhaps 5 of them will ever be able to talk. So where does that leave the other 30? Standing against the wall so involved in their jugs of beer they don’t feel like talking?

Over the years, and the books, I have evolved my own way of dealing with these scenes. In the early days I’d have the lead character stand up and say something like, “Well, I know what we’ve all got to do, and I’m going to stand here for an hour and tell you, and I don’t want anyone else speaking until I’ve finished.” And then when he has finished, he can say something like, “That’s it, no more to say. Now, everyone off on the quest. Hop to it! Go!” And out the door they’d all obediently go.

But you can’t do that too much, and I still have those damn scenes with everyone crowded in the same room and with not much for most to say. So now I’ve evolved a different way of dealing with it.

First, everyone gathers and someone buys the lot a round of drinks, complaining about the price as she or he does so. That takes care of half a page but I’ve still got all 35 standing and wanting to have their own important say. So, before the hero arrives, I stage a fight. Ten people are involved, out of which 6 are so badly injured they slip into a coma and can’t say a thing for the rest of the scene (down to 29). Several of the other characters, let’s say 5, can be so concerned about the 6 in a coma they decide to ride off in search of herbal healers. (Now we’re down to 23.) At this point the hero arrives and is so appalled by the carnage he ejects from the room the 4 fighters who are still on their feet (down to 19), plus 6 more men whom he says should have stepped in and stopped the fight in the first instance. (Down to 13.) Another 5 can be thrown out for swearing, or for being too drunk (down to 8), 2 more can be sent off to make sure the horses are okay (down to 6), another can be sent off with an important dispatch for the king (5), a further 3 can be sent to make sure nasty black creatures aren’t about to crawl down through the roof . That means we’re down to 2. One of these 2 can get upset with the hero and storm out of the room, and the other can drop dead from the poison put in the beer earlier by the landlord concerned that the 35 would not stay about to pay their bill (he was right).

That means the hero is left in an empty room (apart from those in comas or dead), with no one left to tell what to do. He can sit down and have a beer and wonder why there’s never ever anyone around for him to talk to. Problem solved.

The other problem with masses of characters is that you forget what you’ve done with them. I may have smiled with the author who got the number of the Melbourne tram wrong, but I’ve done far, far worse. After a while, especially when into the fifth book of a series, and there’s 4,000 pages behind you, and perhaps 3 or 4 years of writing, you just forget what’s what, who’s who and who’s got what. The odd instance where someone’s eyes mysteriously turn from blue to green is mildly annoying, but sometimes it gets far, far worse. In my most recent book (Pilgrim) I had a character who had nimble enough fingers to take up weaving as a craft … what I’d overlooked that I’d blown off his left arm in the previous book (Sinner) (and that arm-blowing-off scene had been the big scene of that particular book). Not only had he grown his arm back – but he’s taken up weaving as a craft!

I had numerous, and somewhat anxious, inquiries from readers wondering how he’d regrown his left arm. Needless to say, the arm has now been re-blown off in the reprint (can you imagine, in that room where all my characters wait out there turns for scenes, drinking endless cups of tea, there’s one poor chap who had been immensely cheerful because abruptly he’d got his arm back he’d been able to both drink his tea and eat his date cake all at the same time, and now he’s lost it again). I just have to be more careful about keeping track of characters, and it means that on my big charts of who is where and when, I am now also going to have to add things like, ‘left arm blown off one book ago,’ ‘one eye gone’, ‘minus two arms, a leg and a nose’ etc. It quite takes all the fun away!

Another of the great lows of writing endless series of books is being tied by what has gone on in previous books. It can be something as small as wondering what colour someone’s eyes were (and then trying to skim back through 4,000 pages trying to find the single line where I’d ascribed his or her eyes a particular shade), to trying to explain convincingly how so and so, killed in book 1, has now made a reappearance in book 4. None of my characters ever stay dead.

Nevertheless, whatever my mistakes, readers always seem to forgive me, so long as they feel they’ve got something precious from the books: a moment of hope, a chance to experience the grand romance and the mysterious and dangerous quest themselves. There’s one way that has really forced on me the realisation that my books do affect people … and that’s the number of babies about that have been named after some of my characters … and some amazing names. I was amazed to learn that some months ago a couple had decided to give their newborn son the name DragonStar … at least it was as his middlename and not as his first!

©2000 Sara Douglass Enterprises