Saturday, 30 April 2011

Wizards

There are as many types of wizards as there are fantasy universes, at least in theory. In practice, most tend to fall into one of a few distinct archetypes:

1- The traditional. Beard. Pointy hat. Staff. Immense power in theory, but in general tends not to do too much on screen, on the basis that it unbalances the story.
2- The natural. Most wizards pore over dusty tomes, but this one has an inborn talent instead. Glosses over that whole knowledge is power angle, but raises some interesting nature v nurture questions.
3- The puppet of things beyond. Power from sources that probably want repaying at some serious interest rates. Tends to be distinctly unpleasant, but can be fun when you want to lend some edge to a good character.
4- The schemer. Wizards are clever. Because they are clever, they hardly ever bother with trying to use magic to do things directly. Instead, this one sits in the shadows, manipulating people for good or bad.
5- The mad scientist. Sometimes, magic in fantasy is just knowing one or two extra facts about science. Usually by doing dangerous experiments to find them out.
So what about your fantasy? What sort of wizards do you use? Do you use them at all?

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Swordplay: Preparations

In films, swordfighters are forever doing fancy things with the blade, from beating it to wrapping it up in complex circly things that send it flying. Preparations on the blade (or pris de fer, for those who think that all swordplay should occur in French) are a big part of any swordsman’s arsenal, so here are just a few to think about using in your next sword scene:

The beat- where you knock against the opponent’s blade crisply in an effort to smash it aside, leaving an opening for you to attack through. Most people parry the moment you beat though, so it can be fun to beat and then pause, waiting for them to go past and only then attacking.

The bind- There is a complex description of exactly what constitutes one of these in most good fencing books (anyone looking to go deep into understanding the art should probably read Crosnier’s work). For the rest of us, it’s that vaguely circling thing that picks up the opponent’s blade along the way, allowing you to hit and move the blade aside in one big spiral.

Attacking en graze- Sliding down the opponent’s sword with your own, while exerting just enough pressure that it slips to the side while yours stays on target. Otherwise known as the one foil move I can perform correctly.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Original Fantasy

Fantasy has elves and goblins, strange kingdoms and wizards saying spells, horses and swords and warriors, right? Except, why does it? That's one question I've been asking myself recently, and it ties into some broader consideration about genre. Genres have what are generally considered to be genre staples, whether it's the above list for fantasy, all the vampire and werewolf mythos for UF, or something else. Yet how many times can we really go through the same elements before things become stale? More importantly, how many times can we take in stock elements before our stories are not really something of us?

One thing with fantasy is that it offers the scope to do things differently. You don't have to talk about magic in the traditional sense, even as you have it there. Or you create new creatures that reflect a specific point you're trying to make rather than just relying on people's knowledge of generic fantasy monster types. Or you make fun of the whole thing as you go along. With one of the novels I'm working on at the moment, although I'm working with some very traditional fantasy themes, I'm trying very hard to present something that avoids stock ideas. I'm trying to sit down at every point and think about what I want to happen in detail, and yes, occasionally that comes out close to the standard stuff (there's a wizard, for example) but even then, it does it in slightly different ways.

So, the next time you're writing fantasy, think before you put those elves in. Or at least before you call them elves. Yes, it can be fun to retread some of Tolkein's core elements, but surely it's even more fun to dredge up things from within yourself that one day other people will be talking about in the same sort of way? Think in those terms, and you'll soon have something original.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

A Publication

A quick plug for my silly fantasy poem 'I'm Sorry But...' which is up in the new issue of Aphelion.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

It's a...

Being mildly obsessed with parodying a certain traditional sort of fantasy, I find myself thinking about its traditional elements quite a lot. As another little thing to blog about towards the start of the week, I'm planning on picking apart a few of those elements to explore some things writers need to consider. Oh, and probably write some lists in the process. This first thought is all about traps.

Let's face it, no dungeon, villainous home, or heavily defended castle would be complete without the odd deadfall or big rolling boulder. Writing about them can be fun, too, providing a different sort of challenge even in genres where huge dungeon complexes don't show up (urban fantasy might feature all sorts of nasty quasi-military stuff, from cars rigged to explode to electrified door handles).

There are a couple of big things to think about with this stuff, though. First, where does the villain get it? Mine mostly buy them wholesale from P. Edgeborough and co, obviously, but not everyone can do that. If you've written an embezzling accountant, then a house full of claymore mines is probably out unless you particularly want to show them with military connections. If your fantasy villain isn't rich, meanwhile, then labour intensive options such as entire hallways of doom are probably out. Whereas a tripwire connected to a crossbow...

Second, you have to think about how they live with this stuff (and there's probably a short story in that). If your hallway is lined with pits leading down to the Thing pit, then doesn't that make coming in slightly tipsy on a Friday night a bit dangerous?

Thirdly, there's the question of the character's personality to consider. Is a trap appropriate for them? Is this particular trap appropriate? That particularly stupid villain is unlikely to have a complex, multi stage death trap designed to outwit the heroes, for example. Those mischevious pixies might be more into bucket of water over a door territory than bit pits with spikes in. Though there's nothing to say the water can't have something nasty in it.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Swordplay: Over-movement

Back to hitting people with swords. Now, your hero no doubt leaps about, bounding and spinning and throwing themselves through the air as they cut people down. Should they, though? There is a case for it, and a case against.

The case for it comes from things like Bagua (and from the looks of it, Russian Systema works the same sort of way) where you keep moving so that you won't be hit, changing direction and using the power of that constant movement as a way to fight. It's very specialised, though as a fencer who relies on distance as a defence, I'm hardly in a position to complain. It's the sort of thing we covered in earlier pieces.

What you find in most older weapon arts, though, is that the emphasis is on not moving very much. Or at least not moving your arms and weapons too much. If you keep them reasonably central, it's fairly straightforward to protect yourself, but if you get drawn into large movements for attack or defence, you're in trouble. Particularly with a shield, you want to be a tight, compact target. Think of the Romans, hunched up behind theirs, stabbing out without ever losing their protection.

On a more recent note, think of a lot of the best rapier types, who used a very still and extended sword position, keeping it fixed on the target so that the opponent couldn't rush them without being an instant kebab. They would sometimes advance with it, drawing their opponent into larger and larger preparations on the blade, only attacking when they had moved themselves totally out of position.

So the game for your hero is to make the enemy move. To force them into mistakes that overcommit them. Only then will they get through safely.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Castles

Have you ever noticed that the vast majority of castles in fantasy are basically the same castle? They all seem to have towers and spires poking up for no apparent reason. They all have a moat. They all have a single surrounding wall. They are, in short, all that annoying wannabe castle the Disney Corporation has as a logo.

The thing is, there are so many more options when it comes to castles. Here are just a few, ranging from the vaguely real to the completely made up.

A few real options:
  1. A traditional motte and bailey arrangement, with two separate bits, one of them on a hill.
  2. A concentric set up with multiple rings of walls. Though for fantasy, this might be a bit like a neat bullseye for a passing dragon to hit.
  3. Something consisting of just a keep, the way many Scottish castles do.
  4. Something with multiple interlocking courtyards, like cells of a beehive, so that you have to invade them one at a time.
  5. A country house with castle-y bits on, for the look of the thing.
Some made up ones:

  1. A castle made of some odd substance (I'm currently thinking sand)
  2. A castle that is actually the abandoned shell of a giant hermit crab
  3. A castle with no apparent walls or windows, that you can only walk through the walls of with the right key.
  4. A 'castle' made of fragments of lots of other people's, spread throughout time and space.
  5. A castle that started to get National Trust style renovations, but had so many that only the scaffolding remains in a vague castle shape.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Swordplay: Attack and Defence

Right, so your hero has a sword, is holding it properly, and has moved about a bit. Now, he or she is happily trading parries and strikes with the villain, going back and forth, correct?

Well, no. Probably not. The thing is, the business of parrying and then riposting is very much something to do with modern western fencing. It only really works when the distance is right, when the weapon is light enough, and when the rules more or less force you into that mindset anyway.

Certainly, very few sword masters, or indeed experts in other areas of martial arts, have recommended a ‘parry first and then come back at them’ approach. They know that when you wait around for something to happen, or when you make a parry with no attacking component, it merely invites the other person to attack again and again.

So what should your hero be doing? Option one comes when they have a second weapon or a shield, or simply some way of parrying unarmed without losing a finger. They parry with the off hand, and strike with the main weapon in the same movement. It’s simple, fast and effective, though you do have to keep track of far more angles.

Option two is to move to a safe spot while making an attack. That could mean stepping back out of range while making a stop cut to the arm. It could mean moving inside the strike while counter attacking. It could simply mean ducking and sticking a sword out (and the number of times I’ve run onto that…) Whatever it is, it requires good reflexes, plus usually considerable telegraphing on the part of the opponent.

The final option is the attack in opposition. That comes when someone takes the opponent’s attacking blade, not as a separate parry, but simply as a part of their own attack. It could be a circular bind of the oncoming attack as part of a thrust, or shoving it out of the way with the guard on the way to a cut, or even just making a cut into a cut, while adjusting the angles so that you hit and your opponent cannot. That last one is very big in longsword circles.

So the next time your hero fights, remember, back and forth is not the way. Attack is.