Culture and Conflict in Fantasy Fiction – Stephen Deas – Guest Post


Today I’m pleased to welcome Stephen Deas to the blog. Stephen is a prolific author, writing Fantasy novels as Stephen Deas and Nathan Hawke, Historical Fiction as Stephen Deas and under the pseudonym S. J. Deas  and co-writes Science Fiction with Gavin Smith as Gavin Deas.

Today he talks about culture and conflict in Fantasy. At least that’s what I think it’s about. That or giving all the characters weapons….

The Crimson Shield was my first fantasy novel aimed squarely at being more sword-and-sorcery than epic. The two sequels duly followed in subsequent months. It did well enough, but I’m not here to try and sell it to you (buy it, buy it now!), rather to share a couple of lessons I learned from the writing of it.

The Crimson Shield centres around Gallow, essentially an angry white dude with an axe. He’s a bit more three-dimensional than that, but for the purposes of this, angry white dude with an axe will do. He makes a friend (sarcastic white dude with an axe) some allies and some enemies (more white dudes with various edged weapons and in various states of mental stability). Entertaining mayhem ensues. I think I do a decent enough job both of angry white dudes with axes and of entertaining mayhem, if that’s what you want, but for the second volume it seemed a good idea to mix things up a bit, so I threw in an angry white lass with a bow and a pacifist alchemist with a satchel of interesting powders. In part I hope I was driven by a writer’s instinct for variety and to keep exploring new spaces. In part I know I brought them in to honour the call for diversity in fantasy, and in way that was shameful, bringing in the token “minority” characters in order to have some token minority characters. Generally speaking I try not to be anything that ends in -ist, but underneath that trying there’s clearly still a middle-class white dude with a bunch of middle-class white dude attitudes lurking in corners that haven’t been cleaned out yet. Sorry about that. Work in progress.

Fortunately a story-maker is blind to most -isms. My token sidekick characters quickly made it clear that they had no interest whatsoever in being bland-assed henchmen and set off on their own trajectories, ignoring the arcs of plot I had planned for them and making up their own. My angry white dude was left without any sidekicks at all, and you know what? His story was the better for it. Team Former-Sidekicks went off and had their own major plot. The second volume in that series was better (I think it’s the best of the three, which is perhaps unusual for the second volume of a trilogy, although Elizabeth Moon did much the same to me as a reader once with the Deed of Pakksenarrion). So that was a good thing, but why did it work out that way? I’ve given that a lot of thought since, and here’s how all that thinking ended up, brought to you now so you don’t have to.

Drama is driven by conflict. Obvious, yes? And different types of conflict are more or less dramatically interesting. Also obvious, I hope. Start with the easiest: Angry Dude wants to be king because reasons. Other Angry Dude also wants to be king, because (different) reasons. This a conflict quite capable of sustaining a novel (or indeed a Shakespeare play). It’s as simple as conflict gets, really, with an external antagonist and a black-or-white resolution that involves a fight to the death. Yes, you can do lots of things to make it more complicated, but why would you . . . oh, right, to make it interesting, because without some sort of nuance, the only drama here is which angry dude will win. Now I can work very hard to make you care about that outcome, and maybe I’ll succeed, but if that’s all I have to offer then frankly I’m being lazy.

What makes this sort of drama engaging (or not) are the obstacles that Angry Dude has to face and how he overcomes them. What makes it much more interesting is how he deals with the dilemmas he faces; typically Angry Dude has some sort of code of honour: he must stand up for those less able to defend themselves. Included in this are the sick, the poor, the crippled, the weak, family and any friends who aren’t other angry dudes. It’s a basic trick of drama (and a good one too) to strongly establish two of those moral traits, push Angry Dude into a corner where those two traits are directly in conflict with one another and then force him to make a choice. This sort of internal conflict tends to be more rewarding because it doesn’t have a “right” answer, and the way Angry Dude deals with it reveals more about him and evolves him and so makes him more interesting. The drama is no longer about which angry dude with an axe gets to sit on the throne at the end, but how

far our protagonist is prepared to go to get what he wants, what moral compromises he makes, the delicious dilemmas we manage to skewer him with and how he resolves them. The question isn’t just will he win any more, but also and if he does, will I still like him? and what sort of person will he have become? Much better.

(I use the word skewer and dilemma together with good reason. If the dilemmas you set up don’t leave your characters feeling eviscerated, you’re not trying hard enough).

For added fun you can do the same with the antagonist. Give both of them moral codes and skewer them with equally hard dilemmas. Maybe the assumption that we should all root for the “hero” goes out the window entirely. We have a different story. This can work fantastically well, but there are two big drawbacks with doing this to the antagonist: the first is that you have to spend a deal of page-time with him/her in order to fully realise them as a character and make the whole thing work. The second is that there isn’t a clear black and white any more. There’s no obvious side to root for; and maybe that’s not the story you wanted to write.

A diversity of cultures can be a shortcut to setting conflict without throwing away the black and white and without distracting from the central protagonist. Give your protagonist a small cast of supporting characters who broadly share the same objectives, but whose moral priorities are different. So one of Angry Dude’s allies is an alchemist who’s a pacifist, but the alchemist is in love with the archer, who will do almost anything to defend her people. What does the pacifist do when his love is threatened? A few chapters later both the alchemist and Angry Dude agree that the approaching army must be stopped, but each finds the others’ methods abhorrent. And then after the battle Angry Dude wants to burn the bodies of his fallen friends and press his advantage but the archer has an obligation to take the necklaces of the dead back to her tribal homeland – for one this is a distraction from their objectives that might threaten their overall goal, but for the other it is an absolute priority. These sort of conflicts help to define the central character through how he or she resolves them; yet the Big Bad is still the Big Bad – everyone can still agree on that – and the drama remains firmly centred on the protagonist because the conflicts are all are his/hers to resolve. These are more satisfying to explore because every resolution shapes and defines and the characters involved – we see them more deeply for what they are, and we see them evolve (or not) with each compromise (or lack of).

Obviously using diverse cultural backgrounds isn’t strictly necessary to achieve this end – you can have another angry dude with an axe who happens to be a pacifist if you want – but they provide a shortcut. We immediately expect two characters from different cultures or with different religions to have different beliefs (and if you put this in and then don’t explore them, then why did you put them in in the first place?) while we expect characters from the same cultural background to broadly believe in the same thing, and thus, if that’s not the case, page-time must be devoted to their back-story to explain why they’re different, and that’s page-time not being spent on the central character, plot, and drama.

One other thing I’ve found: it’s all very well having characters who are the best swordsman/archer/ huntress/wizard/whatever for miles around – and yes, in fantasy, sometimes you need to go that way for at least a few characters because they’re the ones with the ability to make a difference – but these skills run the danger of being a crutch and a means to define a character instead of defining them by their beliefs. Sometimes the most interesting characters turn out to be the ones who can’t rely on brute force or raw power. Just beware though or you may find, as I have found, that secondary characters in whom you invest time and thought turn out to start having a will of their own . . . And stories too.

Mrs Gallow’s specialist skills, for example, largely seem to consist of bloody-minded stubbornness and scathing sarcasm. Her novelette, The Anvil, is available as an e-book from 26th February. Damn but she was fun.

The Fateguard Trilogy featuring Gallow are available now.

The Crimson Shield


“Fantasy needs a new hero. Meet Gallow – Truesword, Griefbringer and trouble for anyone who crosses him.

I have been Truesword to my friends, Griefbringer to my enemies. To most of you I am just another Northlander bastard here to take your women and drink your mead, but to those who know me, my name is Gallow. I fought for my king for seven long years. I have served lords and held my shield beside common men. I have fled in defeat and I have tasted victory and I will tell you which is sweeter. Despise me then, for I have slain more of your kin than I can count, though I remember every single face.

For my king I will travel to the end of the world. I will find the fabled Crimson Shield so that his legions may carry it to battle, and when Sword and Shield must finally clash, there you will find me. I will not make pacts with devils or bargains with demons for I do not believe in such things, and yet I will see them all around me, in men and in their deeds. Remember me then, for I will not suffer such monsters to live.

Even if they are the ones I serve.”

Cold Redemption


“Fantasy needs a new hero. Meet Gallow – Truesword, Griefbringer and trouble for anyone who crosses him.

I fought against your people, and I have fought for them. I have killed, and I have murdered. I betrayed my kin and crippled my king. I led countless warriors to their deaths and fought to save one worthless life. I have stood against monsters and men and I cannot always tell the difference.

Fate carried me away from your lands, from the woman and the family I love. Three hellish years but now, finally, I may return. I hope I will find them waiting for me. I hope they will remember me while all others forget. Let my own people believe me dead, lest they hunt me down. Let me return in the dark and in the shadows so no one will know.

But hope is rare and fate is cruel. And if I have to, I will fight.”

The Last Bastion


“Fantasy needs a new hero. Meet Gallow – Truesword, Griefbringer and trouble for anyone who crosses him.

The last battle for the fate of your country is coming. My kin are out for blood and revenge. Another empire sees a chance to come in and pick up the pieces of our war. Most of your warriors are stuck hiding in the swamps, always aware that they do not have enough numbers to win a straight fight.

And from over the seas, my people bring their most deadly weapons, the Fateguard. Living suits of armour, imbued with mystical and deadly power. The end times have come for your land. I have fought alongside you, I have bled for you, I have made myself a traitor to all I believe in for you. And yet you still do not trust me.

But you have no option.

This will be our last battle, and there is only one place that it can be fought. We must defend our stronghold, no matter how many lives it may cost, no matter how hard it is. For if we do not, there will be no mercy and no relief from the terrors to come.

Good thing I’m on your side.”

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