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Putting the Fun in Fantasy by Jennifer Williams

The Copper Promise (cover)With The Copper Promise I wanted to write a fun fantasy book. A sort of knockabout, adventure and peril and dastardly deeds type of book. The type of book that would take you down the pub and deliberately buy you all the weird drinks made from the contents of the sticky bottles at the very back of the bar, but then also quite thoughtfully pour you into a cab at the end of the evening. I wanted, in short, to write a book that might make people a bit happier while they were reading it. So what might go into a “fun” book?

Funny Bits: When I started writing The Copper Promise, there were a lot of very serious fantasy books on the shelves, often with well-used weaponry on the covers, splattered with blood and mud, perhaps, or being held by disembodied hands that still managed to look angry somehow. Or there might be a man on the cover, probably holding more weaponry and looking away from the reader, manfully contemplating the seriousness of his quest, which no doubt involved a lot of mud and blood. These were serious books, with politics and wars and serious violence with serious consequences. I love these books. I love a good battle and a spot of royal intrigue. I absolutely love back-stabbing and sudden betrayals. However, I knew I wasn’t up for writing a relentlessly serious book, and so maybe I should do something else. There’s room in fantasy for light-heartedness, right?

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 10.55.33See, my favourites of the “serious fantasy book” league are the ones that are secretly funny. A Song of Ice and Fire certainly contains a lot of very harrowing stuff (good lord, does it ever) and I treasure it as one of those reading experiences where you are dealt devastating shocks, one after another, until you are reeling with horror – but the reason those shocks are so painful is because we care about the characters involved. They feel human to us, and I would argue that one of the ways Martin gets us to care about them is through humour. Okay, so it might be the darkest, most agonizingly grim gallows humour, but it’s there. We love Tyrion because he’s clever, because he’s trying his best to be the good Lannister (not much competition there really) and because he’s witty:

“My sister has mistaken me for a mushroom. She keeps me in the dark and feeds me shit.”
A Storm of Swords

“Those are brave men,” he told Ser Balon in admiration. “Let’s go kill them.”
A Clash of Kings

Another author I think is great at using humour to sharpen the painful reality of war and tragedy is Joe Abercrombie. In The Heroes, a fantastic book about the realities of conflict, he peppers the story with dialogue that lets you know that these are real people about to tear each other to bits:

“Any man can do what he likes. Right, Splitfoot?’
‘Right, Chief.’
‘Just as long as it’s exactly what I fucking tell ’em to do.”
The Heroes

Or the time that Whirrun invented the sandwich:

“A whole new thing. A forging of the humble parts of bread and cheese into a greater whole. I call it…a cheese-trap.”
The Heroes

I’m not a comedy writer, but I believe that humour is human, and therefore brings your characters a step closer to being living, breathing people.


Dragons-of-Massive-Geek-dungeons-and-dragons-1004082_771_762Magic:
The Copper Promise was always a love letter to the golden age of pulp sword and sorcery, when heroes weren’t quite so heroic, and we saw fantasy with a tavern’s eye view rather than a king’s. I wanted to write about some of the stuff that has become slightly unfashionable in recent years, like dungeons and quests, dragons and monsters, and magic.

Sometimes, when serious fantasy is popular, it can feel like magic is regarded as mildly embarrassing. It gets hidden away, slipped underneath other things, even though it is the backbone of fantasy – it becomes the large supportive knickers of the genre. The Spanx of Speculative Fiction. With The Copper Promise I wanted to stick it at the forefront of the book; magic should be a jaunty hat, probably with feathers sticking out of it, rather than your Nan’s beige support pants (I’m so sorry, I just can’t get that image out of my head now). In the world of The Copper Promise, there are two types of magic: the sort that belongs to the mages, which is the sort of magic you can use to cheerily blast your enemies off a cliff, and another sort of magic that is part of the world itself – this magic is largely inert, but it does result in things like haunted dungeons, or demons boiling up out of the earth. One of the things you get with fantasy more than most other genres is spectacle, and magic gives you an amazing toolbox to create that – in a magical world, anything is possible.

Not, of course, that magic shouldn’t have rules. With no limitations to your magic at all you could be tempted to have it solve every problem that arises for your characters. Giant demon-infested warthog terrorizing your villagers? Throw him into the sun. Castle rife with ghosts of ancient minstrels? Transport entire castle to another continent. Character gets splinter from poorly maintained tavern table? Encase entire hand in Gauntlets of Unending Shininess and Protection. This might be highly amusing to write for a while, but it wrong-foots the reader and removes all tension from the book. Magic is fun, but magic needs limits.

Characters you root for: It’s not all fun and games of course. For all the banter and giant spiders, the world of The Copper Promise is genuinely in peril, and a lot of people are going to die if my heroes don’t get their finger out. In The Iron Ghost, the threat is just as dangerous and a lot more personal, and it takes Wydrin, Sebastian and Lord Frith to some very dark and painful places. Where is the fun now, you ask, as events spiral out of control and characters are left wounded and grieving? Where is the fun, Jen? Well, fun is all well and good, but there’s no adventure without peril, no learning experience without pain, and the lighter moments are all the more precious when set against a backdrop of struggle and danger. Indifference towards a character is the real danger for a writer – love a character or hate them so much you love them a bit, you’ll want to know what happens to them. Not feeling particularly bothered either way and… hey what’s this other book over here? I bet the spiders in this one are even bigger.

kennitIn Robin Hobb’s tremendous Liveship Trader trilogy, I love Wintrow Vestrit dearly. He’s sensitive, he cares deeply about the world, and he has an incredibly bad time (Hobb is truly the master of making her characters suffer). I want him to be okay, I want to sit him down with some soup and some good books and please let him be alright at the end of all this. Equally, I love to hate Captain Kennit. He is a spectacularly dreadful person, horribly broken and then mended in all the wrong ways, and I need to know what happens to him, and what his terrible choices ultimately cost. Would I enjoy these books quite as much if I didn’t care so deeply about the characters? (Even if I actually want to feed Kennit to a serpent?) No, of course not. Fantasy is about journeys, and the journey is more enjoyable if you’re with the characters every inch of the way.

Extravagantly named taverns: The Boiled Dog, The Hands of Fate, The Scurvy Lemon, The Music of the Gods, The Stolen Egg, The Assless Chaps… I just have a thing about them, okay? If there’s any genre in which you’re allowed to play around, where creating outlandish worlds, cities, characters and taverns is actively encouraged, then it’s fantasy. And that’s why I will always want to keep on writing it.

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Thank you so much to one of our favourite authors, Jennifer Williams for putting this post together. Jennifer is currently touring the blog community talking about fantasy ’cause she’s awesome, but also ’cause she has a book due out very, very soon: the follow up to The Copper Promise, The Iron Ghost. Here’s a bit about it:

The Iron Ghost (cover)Beware the dawning of a new mage…

Wydrin of Crosshaven, Sir Sebastian and Lord Aaron Frith are experienced in the perils of stirring up the old gods. They are also familiar with defeating them, and the heroes of Baneswatch are now enjoying the perks of suddenly being very much in demand for their services.

When a job comes up in the distant city of Skaldshollow, it looks like easy coin – retrieve a stolen item, admire the views, get paid. But in a place twisted and haunted by ancient magic, with the most infamous mage of them all, Joah Demonsworn, making a reappearance, our heroes soon find themselves threatened by enemies on all sides, old and new. And in the frozen mountains, the stones are walking…

And here’s the link you want to buy it through!

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3 Comments

  1. Declan says:

    What a great article! 🙂

  2. […] that’s not enough, here’s an interview with Jen with a focus on The Copper Promise and an article by Jen on keeping fantasy […]

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