Writing Styles and Themes

So far I have mostly written fantasy, but I have tried my hand at poetry, and a few science fiction short stories and a grim futuristic piece. Like many writers, my stories exhibit common themes and styles. Quite apart from variations from story to story, fixing a sub-genre to the fantasy is difficult because:

  • “MICE” Orson Scott Card categorized the aspects of story with the acronym MICE (Milieu, Idea, Character, Event). Fantasy tends to have the emphasis of Milieu, Event, Character, Idea (MECI). Milieu is the most important in most of my stories, but after that it’s usually Idea or Character, and Event is usually last. The trilogy is MCIE. The first of Tower series is MEIC but by the third it is MCIE. My short stories are usually higher in the Event aspect, but not all of them. When You Are Going Through Hell, in particular, is CIEM (or CIME – the M and E are almost equally unimportant, and that would make it more like Literary Fantasy).
  • High Fantasy My worlds are highly detailed, yes including maps. Non-human intelligent races exist. The environment tends to be medieval in style, with some notable exceptions. Yet, the stories aren’t epic because the scale of consequence is not that large. The world is not at stake, and rarely even the kingdom. No epic battles of good vs. evil.
  • Science Fantasy Some of my stories, yes. Others, no. However, many of my fantasy stories have a science “feel” to them (see below), while my science fiction stories, like much “soft” science fiction isn’t just the improbable made possible, but the technologically wildly improbable made possible (colonization space ships, FTL travel, image rooms, pocket universe computers, etc).
  • Magic Realism It isn’t this, even though the magical systems exhibit many of the features this sub-genre demands. The literary style does not match.
  • Fantasy Romance Possibly. To quote John Snead, “[They] begin their journey by escaping an abusive or oppressive environment, but their goal is not to become free from all social ties. Instead, most characters are looking for a new community or social group where they truly belong. Being part of a supportive social group is considered far superior to being even the most independent and competent loner.” Many of my characters are escaping an environment that doesn’t suite them. It could be oppressive, brutal even, but could just be boring or uninspiring. In most cases the environment isn’t black but grey, even if it is at odds with the characters. Moreover, romance doesn’t drive most of my plots/characters. Relationships, of all kinds, fill the worlds.

Some characteristics of my fantasy environments and characters:

  • The characters are fallible and vulnerable. For example, unless a character has training or special abilities, even a fifteen foot fall onto a hard surface will injure, and might kill.
  • Magic is tricky to perform and has side-effects. Moreover, it follows reliable patterns, so can be studied using scientific principles. It is an inexhaustible natural part of the world with no intrinsic “good” or “evil” implications, even if some inhabitants may think otherwise.
  • A cooperating group of people is stronger than any one member of the group. Friendships and team-work are important to success. While individuals can make significant contributions, no single person can outfight, outwit or outmaneuver a reasonably skilled group of opponents.
  • The enemy legions of terror can indeed hit the broadside of a barn, and even a human target reasonably often and even the most skilled of marksmen (even among the hero’s friends) will often miss a difficult target (otherwise it wouldn’t be difficult). In the same vein, there is no wonderful sword or bow (not even katanas and longbows. Not even David’s sword.) that will make an absolute novice into an expert, nor be the best weapon in every situation.
  • Knowledge and surprise are game-changers (even given the previous point).
  • Those that live by the sword, die by the sword. Characters that are wounded will heal only slowly (unless medical aid is given) and will, in most cases, carry scars forever. PTSD and other life-long disabilities can’t be shrugged off. Also, wounds that should usually kill (such as the TV/movie trope: the penetrating shoulder wound) do kill, unless immediate medical expertise is on hand.
  • If an event is likely, or well understood to happen often, it will happen unless something explicit acts to prevent it. So if the protagonist is presented with ten struggles and he/she has only a 10% chance to succeed at each, he/she will fail most of them. Strange coincidences may get my characters into trouble but rarely the reverse. On the other hand, if someone behind the scenes is manipulating the situation or the science officer has seriously gotten his math wrong, then the odds might be in the protagonist’s favour.