My Ultimate Fantasy Questing Party

Last week, I promised to reveal my ultimate fantasy questing party. The rules of the exercise were covered in that post, but to summarize the rules for this exercise briefly, the party must consist of nine members (like the fellowship in Lord of the Rings), be selected from fantasy literature (books, including comics, not movies, tv, or other mediums), and consist of only one member from each book or series (no doubling, Gandalf and Samwise could not both be included, for example). The party would go on a hypothetical high-fantasy quest, involving magic (rather than technology). It was a more difficult task than I thought, and it taught me a lot about the types of characters to which I gravitate. (Apparently, I am a big fan of talking animals. Who knew?) It was a fun exercise, and I encourage those of you who have not yet tried it to do so, and to post your traveling parties in the comments.

A few notes before I reveal the members of my questing team:

–There were some difficult decisions, some of which I explain in the comments. When unsure of which character to include, I often considered the role the character would play within the group: hero, mentor, muscle, friend, foil, etc. My team would have a better chance to succeed if all of these traditional roles were covered.

–I also considered team chemistry. How would the members interact with each other? Who might like or work well with whom? Who would, potentially, not get along? Who would improve the party’s moral in the tough times, etc. Ultimately, these questions are subjective, but then again, so is this entire exercise.

–I only included characters in series that are completed. Therefore, though I love many characters in Marlon James’ Dark Star trilogy, the series is not yet complete, and therefore I have not included any characters from either of the first two books. I do not know what will happen to those characters, so I cannot yet include them. Same for George RR Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice (remember we are dealing with books exclusively, not the TV program).

–I also did not include any characters from series with which I, personally, have not yet finished reading. For example, I came late to NK Jemisin, and am in the middle of her Broken Earth series. I loved the first book. It was one of the most literary fantasy novels I’ve read in a good long while, but I have not finished it, and therefore I do not know the fate or development of the characters. The fault is mine, but, alas. Maybe my list will change in a few years.

–I strongly considered both Sherlock Holmes and Abraham Van Helsing. Each of these characters would be brilliant on a quest, however, neither really comes from a fantasy novel, even though Van Helsing does come from a speculative novel.

–The most difficult omission for me was Dune. Though there are many fantasy elements in Dune, ultimately it is more of a scifi universe than a fantasy one. Thus, no Paul, no Gurney, no Lady Jessica, no Stillgar, etc.

–My final cut, so to speak, was Sir Tristan. Le Morte de Arthur is the godfather of the genre, but I decided to stick to more modern titles.

–It goes with out saying that these choices are based on the original, literary depictions, not any of the versions from various adaptations.

Without further ado, here are my nine:

Iorek Byrnison (His Dark Materials): An armored polar bear is the ultimate enforcer for my traveling party. He is strong, principled, and though he does manifest a daemon, he has as much soul as anyone. He also has smithing skills, which will come in handy. Iorek is the ultimate protector for my hero, and even though it meant I couldn’t include Lyra, including him was an easy choice.

Lucy Pevensie (Narnia): She will be the young heroine of the quest. I’ve been reading the Narnia books with my 8 year old daughter at bedtime each night, and rereading the books as an adult, it is clear to me that Lucy is the best character in the series. She is brave, smart, and true. She is willing to stand up to and go against her older siblings when she knows that she’s right, and yet she’s humble and isn’t seeking power. She also possesses a magical healing potion, which will certainly come in handy on any quest.

Tenar (Earthsea): It takes a lot to give up power, to go against the conventions of society in the name on right, to abandon the only traditions and systems you have known–the very systems that have brought you power–to do what your conscience says is right. Tenar does all of these things. This was a tough one for me, as I really wanted to use Ged Sparrowhawk as my wizard, but there are many great wizards throughout fantasy literature. There is only one Tenar.

Samwise Gamgee (The Lord of the Rings): The ultimate friend. Sometimes the obvious choice is the right one.

Belgarath the Sorcerer (The Belgariad, etc.): Perhaps some of you can relate to this: There was a writer whose books were essential to my falling in love with fantasy. I read all of their books in high school, mostly as they were being published. It was just the second fantasy series I read. It fanned the flames of my nascent ideas about wanting to be a writer. Later, as an adult, I found out some very disturbing things about the author. I try to separate my nostalgia for the books from my opinion of the person who wrote them. No, it’s not the one who immediately springs to mind for most of you. It’s David Eddings. Anyway, Belgarath is just as powerful as any other classic wizard. He has the same types of powers, and generally fits the archetype, but he’s more down to earth and fun. You’d rather have a beer with him than with Gandalf, for example.

The Fox (The Little Prince): “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” ‘Nuff said.

Lu Tze, The Sweeper (Discworld): There are many fine choices across Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Sam Vimes would probably be the most popular with his blend of street smarts and combat experience, but Angua the Werewolf, DEATH, Granny Weatherwax, or even Rincewind (sometimes running is the best option) would make fine choices as well. Ultimately, Lu Tze is my choice. He is a 6000 year old Time Monk who does not hold rank in the hierarchy of the order. He just sweeps floors (hence The Sweeper). Yet those who know, know his kung fu–snafu to be precise–is better than anyone else’s. He is irreverent as well and would make a fine mentor and foil for Belgarath. Anyone who disagrees should remember rule number one.

Inigo Montoya (The Princess Bride): Book Inigo is much like the movie version, except there is way more background about his father in the book (which is at least as hilarious and awesome as the movie). A skilled sword master should balance out the fighting skills in the party. With Iorek as the brute strength, The Sweeper as the unarmed combat specialist, and Inigo as the skilled swordsman, all phases of battle are covered. Also, much like Samwise, Lucy, Tenar, etc, Inigo is principled as well.

Door (Neverwhere): The last choice is always the hardest. I had planned on including a character from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. I’ve been doing a reread since the show came out, and it is reminding me of how much I love that particular fantasy framework. The question is, who to pick. Dream is right out. He would get bored and leave. He prefers to quest alone. Death has other responsibilities. My favorite character in the series is Hob Gadling, but while he does bring a wealth of experience, I don’t think he quite fits. I would have loved to include Barnabas, Destruction’s sarcastic talking dog, but that seems like overkill the way my party is currently constructed. We already have two other talking animals. Destruction himself is really interesting. He has abandoned his position in the Endless, and is living as a mortal, almost. He writes poetry, paints, and cooks. He seems like a good guy, and everyone seems to get along with him. The problem is that as the embodiment of destruction, destruction follows him around. People die. Things get destroyed. We don’t need that hanging over the quest. Therefore, I decided to pivot to another Gaiman work, Neverhwere. Door has the ability to open and create doors. That is a skill that will no doubt come in useful on a quest.

So, how did I do? Let me know in the comments.

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Free Stories You Can Read While Socially Distancing

With everyone home on quarantine or practicing “social distancing,” now is a great time to get some reading done. As such, I decided to share some of my stories that are available for free at online. I’ve written a short description with the each link to help you pick which you’d like to read. Enjoy, and please stay safe out–or in–there:

Here is the story I shared in my last week’s blog. It is in the mode of Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams. If you haven’t read it yet, please check it out: Darkness My Old Friend.

I have a short flash piece in the current issue of Mythic Picnic Tweet Story. It features the unlikely combination of Lovecraftian monsters and humor: The Kale of Cthulhu.

You can read an older comedic fantasy style story of mine, featuring a sphinx complaining about dragons in Pif magazine: The Sphinx’s Lament.

If you are in the mood for something more traditionally literary, more touching and emotional, check out this piece I wrote for The Hopper Review: In Good Hands.

If poetry is more your speed, Local Gems Press has made eight Ebooks free to read during this period of quarantine. One of them, Rhyme and PUNishment, features my poem, “In Good Hands.” My poem is on page 50.

Last year, I had 6 micro-flash pieces in issue 4 of Drabblez magazine. “The Kale of Cthulhu” was first published there, but check out the other 5 pieces as well. My stories start on page 30.

If you are missing sports, here is a story I wrote about a playground basketball player in New York City. I originally wrote it in college for an assignment to write in the voice of a character who is very different from you (a great writing exercise, which I will cover in a future blog). The story was published in Scriveners Pen, which no longer exists, but I’ve posted it on my deviant art page. While your there, check out the comics samples I’ve posted there and some other short stories as well: Sweetness.

I hope you enjoy these stories. I hope you enjoy them. Depending on how long this situation lasts, I may post more in the coming weeks.

Stay safe.

Be sure to check out the links page to read some of my published writing, and to follow me on twitter and facebook.

The Perfect Figure

There is, perhaps, nothing that draws attention like a striking figure. It’s true: If you want to get more eyes on your writing (what, you thought we were talking about something else?), working on your comparisons is one of the best ways to do it. Many critics contend that there is nothing that reveals an author’s talent and style more than her or his use of figurative language. So, whether you want your readers to smile at your similes or marvel at your metaphors, read on.

Many writers try to chase the perfect figure, but the metaphor, to borrow a phrase from Pope, must seem an echo to the sense of the work as a whole to be effective.

Consider the following similes:

A bass note sounds. It is a deep, vibrating chord that hints that the brass section may break in at any moment with a fanfare for the cosmos, because the scene is the blackness of deep space with a few stars glittering like the dandruff on the shoulders of God—Terry Pratchett, Equal Rights

It was a limpid black night, hung as in a basket from a single dull star—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night

While the content of each comparison is similar—both feature a star or stars against a black sky—the mood and tone couldn’t be more different from each other. The first is expansive, the second confined; the first comes from satirical novel, the second from a serious one.

When I first read each of these similes, I had to pause. I could not go on reading even the next sentence right away. Each caused me to stop and think about the comparison. Each made such a great impression on me that I can recall it verbatim, and could record it here without having to look it up (I did look each one up just to make sure, and I am proud to report that each is written exactly as I remember it). But—and here is the important thing, each simile is appropriate to the text in which it appears. While they are both perfect exactly as they appear, imagining them in each other’s place is absurd to the point of impossibility. It is not enough to write the perfect simile (or metaphor, personification, etc.) one must write the perfect simile for the book, the chapter, yea, even the scene, which one finds oneself writing.

Nothing will make your readers skim faster than cliched figures, and, conversely, nothing will make them dwell on your writing like well-crafted ones.

Writing strong figures in isolation, however, is only one aspect of utilizing figurative language to its greatest effect. The real trick is to group your figures to bring unity of theme and message to your piece, be it a poem, short story, chapter, or, indeed, an entire novel.

In chapter 6 of A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens introduces Dr. Manette, a recently freed bastille prisoner who has been in jail for the past 17 years. In describing the doctor’s voice, Dickens layers multiple similes.

“The faintness of the voice was pitiable and dreadful. It was not the faintness of physical weakness, though confinement and hard fare no doubt had their part in it. Its deplorable peculiarity was, that it was the faintness of solitude and disuse. It was like the last feeble echo of a sound made long and long ago. So entirely had it lost the life and resonance of the human voice, that it affected the senses like a once beautiful colour faded away into a poor weak stain. So sunken and suppressed it was, that it was like a voice underground. So expressive it was, of a hopeless and lost creature, that a famished traveller, wearied out by lonely wandering in a wilderness, would have remembered home and friends in such a tone before lying down to die.”

Each figure—the echo, the faded color, the voice underground, the memory of home—has to do with something that was once strong, but which has become weak over time, like the doctor’s voice (and by extension, his personality); each also increases in emotional value as the feelings of the lonely traveler bear exponentially more weight than the echo. Thus, by layering his similes, Dickens paints a complete picture of his subject, reflecting both Dr. Manette’s character and the effect that his imprisonment had on him.

Moreover, Dr. Manette, symbolizes the entire bourgeoisie class. His imprisonment at the hands of arbitrary and vindictive aristocrats mirrors the oppression that his class has suffered at the hands of the aristocracy. The figures employed by Dickens here work double duty: Not only do they give insight into the Doctor’s character, but they indicate how the author feels about the coming revolution at this point in the story. Seen in this light, the preponderance of similes in this one paragraph, which might seem excessive at first, actually serves the narrative brilliantly by showing the way that the effects of oppression develop over time.

Another interesting example of figures building on each other to speak to a them can be found in the first part of Maya Angelou’s famous poem, “Still I Rise.”

Consider the following verses:

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

At the end of each stanza, the speaker uses a simile that compares herself to something of value: oil wells, gold mines, diamonds. Each of these valuable things is hidden so that its value may not be readily apparent before it’s mined; each is also found underground, and therefore, has to rise to reveal its value, thus connecting it to the refrain and the theme.

While no single simile is as stunning as the Fitzgerald or Pratchett similes with which I started this article, the consistent grouping of the figures is, perhaps, even more effective. Both of the smiles from the novels make the reader stop and think, thereby taking them out of the text, but Angelou’s blend seamlessly with the rest of the poem, which relies heavily on metrical and syntactical devices. A simile that stopped the reader would be inappropriate in this piece, as it would work against the unity of effect found in the rest of the poem. The genius of the poem lies—at least partially—in the consistency of the figure-groupings and the way they complement the rest of the poem.

Achieving the kind of consistency in the imagery one chooses for one’s metaphors is an oft overlooked, but important skill for a writer. While, like all writers, I strive to write surprising and beautiful figures, if I could choose one skill over the other, I would pick the ability to consistently layer my metaphors and similes the way that Dickens and Angelou do. Not only does this skill give a writer consistency, shape, and meaning, it is something that helps move the writing forward in the process, as it gives direction and an underlying prompt, rather than causing the writer to stop and try to hard to create the perfect phrase. Thus, grouping figures not only helps the reader move through a piece, but it helps the writer avoid writers block and stay focused as well.

Look for more tips about using figurative language in your writing in the coming weeks.

Be sure to check out the links page to read some of my published writing, and to follow me on twitter and facebook.