Most fantasy stories need a wizard, mage, necromancer, bloke down the tavern who can provide the largely asexual wisdom glue that fills in the cracks in the hero’s conscience, not to mention the plot. Both require plenty of space for running around in pointless circles in order to pad out the book’s length and the reader needs to be distracted from the stupidity of this by a grandfatherly figure in a long white beard and large hat that points anywhere but in the direction of the bleedin’ obvious.

The last thing a writer needs is a character who can think for himself. If that was the case, Frodo might have come up with the idea that the eagles could have flown him and the ring to Mount Doom, not just from it, and thereby save himself a whole load of tramping through bogs and putting up with Sam going on about how what we need is a few good taters. (Incidentally, there are some wonderfully inventive explanations for why the eagles didn’t operate return flights on the internet, a phenomenon that I’ll cover in a later chapter called, ‘Always Let Your Fans Explain Away Your Plot Faults’.) But Gandalf is the wise direction-pointer and if he doesn’t mention the eagles then they simply aren’t an option.

But you have to be careful not to make your mage too clever. If you do that then you’re in danger of him pointing out the boneheaded stupidity required by your main characters in order to keep the story moving along (very, very slowly).

Hence, Gandalf needs to say: ‘Hobbits really are amazing creatures, as I have said before. You can learn all that there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet after a hundred years they can still surprise you at a pinch.’

This sounds good, if not somewhat patronising, but when you look a little closer it’s actually damning hobbits with faint praise – the perfect kind of wisdom you need from your head mage because this is what will prevent the reader from thinking ‘WTF!’ when tiny, non-violent creatures with absolutely no military training are sent to fight against vicious creatures built solely to kill. ‘You can learn all there is know about their ways in a month’ – is not saying much for their intelligence and spirit of innovation (then again, such would be disastrous on most fantasy quests). And the next phrase is a perfect insult dressed as compliment: they can still surprise you (but probably won’t); however, you’ll have to wait a hundred years to find out.

What you don’t want Gandalf to say is what Carl Jung once said: ‘The most intense conflicts, if overcome, leave behind a sense of security and calm that is not easily disturbed. It is just these intense conflicts and their conflagration which are needed to produce valuable and lasting results.’ Apart from this making the reader think, which as said is the last thing you want to do, it also pretty much nails the fact that because the hobbit life is such a cosy one, without any intense conflict, there is absolutely nothing valuable or useful about their culture. Which not only blows out the notion that they should be carrying the weight of the quest to save the free world in the first place, it also raises the intelligence of the writer-mage-reader fulcrum and that means the writer is going to have to spend the next 3,000 pages actually thinking about his story, rather than letting it run around on its own for a while before the eagles save the day.

In other words, the mage must not have more intelligence than the reader, because the reader of course secretly thinks he is the mage, or at least can understand and direct the characters just as well as Gandalf can.

In this respect, here are some ideal sayings by fictional mages:

Dumbledore: ‘It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live’. This sounds very profound, as long as you don’t look too closely; if you do you might notice that – as with most fantasy wisdoms – you can reverse it and it still sounds good: ‘It does not do to live and never dwell on dreams.’

Another from Dumbledore: ‘Time is making fools of us again.’ This can be reversed thusly (a word by the way that is seldom heard outside fantasy novels): ‘A fool is he who doth not take account of what time is making him to be.’

Or Yoda: ‘Already know you that which you need’ (yes, I know Yoda is technically a Science Fiction not a Fantasy mage but he appeals to the same audience) sounds just as deep as: ‘Need you that which you already you know.’ Which of course is not very.

Yoda again: ‘Always pass on what you have learned.’ Or: ‘Learn you must what you have always passed on.’

These are actually pretty similar to:

Del Trotter: ‘He who dares Rodney, he who dares.’

Dick Dastardly: ‘I’ll win this race fair and square, even if I have to cheat to do it!’

And really they serve the same purpose. Del, like Gandalf, is directing the reader’s attention away from his latest stupid idea and Dick Dastardly is giving us a laugh by actually stating the bleedin’ obvious.

Just as the point to David Beckham is not football, so the wisdom of the mage is nothing to do with intelligence. The point of the mage is to justify the enormous length of your fantasy novel by implying that there’s more going on in the story than the reader can ever dream of. In fact, your story can probably be summed up in a sentence (and might well be better off as one): good guy has something the bad guy wants and must destroy it to save the world. Or, the bad guy has something he will destroy the world with and the good guy must get it off him before it’s too late.

I’ll finish with a quote by someone who would have made the perfect mage in Game of Thrones – Alan Partridge: ‘Let me tell you something about the Titanic, people forget, people forget that on the Titanic’s maiden voyage there were over 1000 miles of uneventful, very pleasurable cruising before it hit the iceberg!’



There aren’t a lot of laughs in fantasy fiction. There’s quite a bit of description of characters we are told are funny, often large men with large beards who smite their fellows on the back and liken their visages to those of a horse with a hangover, or drink much ale from pewter tankards, light up long pipes and recite merry verses that have the clients of the Saucy Sailor in fits of laughter but leave the reader wondering if he’s accidentally wandered into a Christian summer camp where all the jokes are meaningful and curse-free.

The author may or may not consciously realise his fantasy comedy characters are about as effective as alcohol-free beer but the effect is often the same: he overcompensates by bulking up other aspects of them to intimate humour. Stupid is quite common. Hence, Hagrid is shown to be a bit on the thick side but underneath all that beard-interwoven-with-shirt beats a profoundly loyal heart. He also knows stuff which is of course handy for the author’s required plot shifts. So, all in all, while Hagrid never actually makes the reader laugh, he is the epitome of fantasy character inadequacy overcompensation syndrome, being large, bearded and oddly gentle, which means the reader will give him the benefit of the doubt and declare him to be a really funny character. Anyone wandering into the Harry Potter world for the first time may, however, need to be tipped-off on the joke, or non-joke, or joke about a joke, or the suspension of jokefulness necessary to join the gang.

Fantasy perhaps more than any other genre suffers from CIOS. This is because the author is responsible for making up the entire world of his story, including all the countries and towns, the folklore, the peoples, religions, types of beer – sorry, ale – even the animals (although horses for some reason seem to be ubiquitous in fantasy literature, possibly because without them novels would be even longer since all the questors would have to move around on foot or on the back of something similar to a horse – a forse, perhaps – but that would just confuse and irritate the reader (yeah, like that will), so you might as well just stick with horses; actually, you might just as well stick with medieval Europe but that’s another story, literally). Hence, while fantasy readers are keen to enter strange new worlds, the reach of those worlds is always restricted by the author’s character blank spots.

All in all, unless you the writer are Tolkien and have years of sponsored study into European folklore and history behind you, writing a fantasy novel for you is a bit like walking into the bar on the first night at your new college. It’s a world you don’t understand but very much want to join. Now, the right way to do that would be get around the room and adopt whatever role is required for each situation you find yourself in until you’re able to build your own character within it. But that’s the hard way. Much easier to invent a generic get-by character – maybe a ‘humorous’ one who slaps people on the back, metaphorically only these days of course – and hope that it will compensate for your general lack of insight into the new world you’ve entered. Or created, if you’re the author.

The end result of all this overcompensation is that very often all the characters in a fantasy novel are actually the same. They just wear things that separate them from the rest, like red pantaloons, or have a stu–stu–stu–TER! that appears throughout all their dialogue to hugely irritate the reader but at least make the book longer. In short, the author has to use every compensatory trick in the book (trilogy, never-ending series) – class, race, age, gender – to intimate character where little actually exists.

So, how does the author avoid CIOS? Perhaps he needs to challenge his world more. Of course, he may have invented his world in the first place in order to avoid the challenges of the real world. Like the guy who builds a model railway in his attic, complete with houses and grass and trees and people he’s made himself, with him in control. Having said that, anyone who is invited to view his railway world would, just like a reader, no doubt enjoy it more if a meteorite fell though the roof and smashed Littletown Halt to powdered fibreglass. But that’s not the kind of challenge we’re talking about, I don’t think.

In the Thomas Covenant books by Stephen Donaldson, Covenant literally challenges the fantasy world he finds himself in – challenges its very existence. But this kind of challenge is probably a bit too crude for our purposes, even if it can be effective.

Maybe we’re talking creative challenge. For example, the obvious way to challenge the creation of, say, a stereotypical medieval Europe-ish submissive, child-bearing, stew-cooking, beard de-lousing woman is to turn her into a bloke with boobs instead. One who can beat up men and therefore out-man them. A better challenge is to go sideways and produce a female character who is neither of these extremes. The trouble with that direction is that it’s leading out of fantasy into creative reality.

Hmmm . . . this problem is beginning to look similar to the view expressed by fantasy editors to aspiring writers: that they should make their books different but the same.

And with that closing of the syndrome circle, I’m signing off episode one in order to go run around the woods a bit more, trying to distract anyone reading this from the absence of any plot movement behind this series.


There’s an understanding I’ve been trying to get to for some years now. I seem to talk around it a lot when teaching and I think a lot of my writing is in pursuit of it. Yet I’ve never quite pinned down what it is. Maybe it’s a little like the Questing Beast that you build your life around finding but never do, yet it’s the journey that’s important and all that, blah blah. No, not that. Questing after something you’re never going to find is just escapism.

On the other hand, it’s quite possible its exact nature is not ever meant to be pinned down. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or that it’s actually more real than stuff that you can.

Let’s start with a dichotomy that turns up in various forms but might as well be called clever and stupid. There are stupid books, it’s said, like conveyor belt romance, fantasy, crime and the such. Then there are clever books, like the ones which win the Booker prize or were produced by writers officially designated clever by university professors, literary critics and so on.

The problem is that stupid books are often written and read by clever people. And clever books aren’t always quite as clever as they seem. If you removed the warring tribes that tend to congregate around extremes of opinion, the differences between clever and stupid aren’t so clear cut. You look at a stupid book and find that it has odd moments of beauty and wisdom; while clever books can contain incredibly dumb passages.

Ah but! say the tribes. That may be true but a stupid book has many more stupid passages than a clever book and vice versa.

Maybe. But while the war’s raging, I think a much more interesting, if not elusive, question is being avoided.

The problem with genre, including literary, and the commercial/fan pressure to make a book mostly stupid or mostly clever, and the over-powering myriad reasons for producing more of the same, is that it all pulls you away from – well, that elusive something.

It has elements of the transcendent, I know that, not in a religious sense necessarily, more in terms of intelligent insight, and revealing awareness, and being able to intimate in the spaces between plot points, and characters’ movements, and dialogue, and sentences, truths that can stun the mind and heart even if the brain can’t quite work out why.

If as a writer you want to capture this kind of transcendence you face two major obstacles. First, you have to live and breathe the quest in your own life. And, oddly, that’s a quest that can take you away from writing. Because writing is always going to be secondary to experience, even if its brilliant execution can recapture the experience for other people.

If you have an insight into say the collective mind of a row of trees, hinted at in the rustle of leaves in a light wind, and the eyeless and steady stare of their enduring purpose to join the sky and the earth, then the last thing you want to do is try to write about it.

But if you do, then you are starting at a great disadvantage to the writer who simply wants to create a stupid or a clever book. For he only needs to mine what already exists in the field and shake it about a bit until it looks different enough to attract an editor then a bunch of readers.

For the writer who wants to capture an indefinable truth or first hand connection, however, where the hell does he start? He has to tell a story but he’s not particularly interested in going from beginning to end with try/fail dramas for his main character along the way.
He just wants to capture that moment. He can almost see and smell it, and he knows where it’s going to take place. It’ll say appear in the morning-after-the-party conversation, about half-way through the story, between his heroine and her flat mate. Both are hung-over; the heroine is actually an ancient spirit which used to embody a dragon that has been stolen by the security forces and will probably destroy the world if she can’t stop it. Her flat mate is an ordinary girl who knows nothing of the her friend’s true destiny. But ordinary people possess a deep-rooted if not conscious sense of the miraculous. And so it is that although the two are talking about boys and booze and the next party, the universe is dancing gently on their words.

The rest of the story has to be constructed around this moment. Yet he knows that will inevitably produce weaknesses – not important to anyone else who is also seeking those transcendent moments. But his experience is that even editors often approach a story mechanically, looking for proper structure and steady characters, kidding themselves that a derivative one-liner by the main character also lends the story originality. And because his writer’s heart is inevitably spending time with the magic moment to come, his writer’s brain is not always quite as attentive to the accepted basics as it probably should be.

So, eventually, he concedes that he has to try to do both. To write a solid story which will please the majority of editors and readers, that contains the required ‘conflict’, and the just-enough-but-not-too-much difference to the norm, and characters that may appear to be wiser than the reader (e.g. wizards) but who should never actually make anyone think too much, and absolutely no philosophising – although it’s allowable to write spiritual redundancy as interesting vagueness if it’s literary fiction.

Good luck with that, he says to himself.

I was once having a conversation with a top-selling commercial author. At that time, he had five novels coming out in as many months. He was very critical of literary authors who don’t actually write very much. He, on the other hand, sat down and wrote for eight hours a day, every day. For some reason, I mentioned William Kotzwinkle who for me in his heyday was one of those writers who just went for the magic. He was brilliant enough, and perhaps lucky also to have started out in writing when publishing wasn’t quite so mechanised, to get away with quite a few wonderful but totally varied novels slipping into the mainstream. Passages of his writing are transcendent – they induce emotions in the reader by a kind of conspiracy of shared feeling, rather than by him having to tell you what to feel.

The writer I was talking to blinked at the mention of Kotzwinkle then went on to tell me a story about his last holiday, and how he’d just written all the time during it.