I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Terry Ervin, a longstanding member of writingforums.org. He's one of the first members I came to know who had been published and I was delighted to get his insights on the world of Fantasy.
WF: What's your take on the conversation concerning what is and isn't Fantasy, High Fantasy, Low Fantasy, etc.?
Terry: I don’t put much stock in the exact ‘labeling’ of a novel or series as very few novels published today fall 100% into one category or another—depending on how each type of fantasy is defined.
That said, labeling or categorizing has value. It helps readers find something similar to what they’ve already enjoyed.
WF: What's your take on how large, sweeping Fantasy stories like LotR and ASoIaF have affected the general view of Fantasy?
Terry: I’ve read The Lord of the Rings trilogy and enjoyed it, but I haven’t read A Song of Ice and Fire. Maybe that will make some writers scratch their head, as ASoIaF is quite popular and often discussed. It’s just that there is so much out there, meaning an author (or reader) can’t read everything.
One thing I’ve noticed is that fans of the LotR movies often don’t enjoy the novels quite as much. They’re different—the novels contain areas with extensive description and detail, and they have a far different pacing than the movies.
Tolkien’s classics were written and published when television wasn’t as prominent. The internet didn’t exist. Readers experienced places they’d never seen or even imagined through printed words. TV, movies and the internet have changed all of that. Mountains or forest trails or monolithic statues don’t need to be described in such detail, at least many modern readers don’t feel it necessary. I think this affects the content and pacing of successful sweeping fantasy novels published today.
WF: I find the same to be true with Science Fiction. When you read classics like DUNE, the exhaustive detail in description is evident, and quite different from what one finds today. Do you think this has changed the tone of Fantasy novels as well? If there's less emphasis in detailing a world with rich ornamentation, what other tools does the Fantasy writer rely on to bring the reader into the world he or she is creating?
Terry: I’m not sure if it’s changed the tone too much. For example, many current epic fantasy novels still echo The Lord of the Rings or Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword (one of my favorites). The goal remains for the author to engage the reader’s imagination. No combination of words or descriptions can match the images conjured within a reader’s mind.
My preferred method, one that I’ve observed over the past couple decades, is to provide just enough information—description/details—giving the reader what’s needed, and within the context of the story whenever possible. For example, instead of simply a paragraph of description, insert bits through character observation, and/or interspersed within dialogue, and/or incorporated with character actions.
WF: What is your take on the role of female characters in fantasy stories? How they are/should be/could be portrayed?
Terry: I think it depends on the world the author has created, the story to be told, and the intended audience.
For me and my First Civilization’s Legacy Series, a female character can be a powerful, intimidating enchantress, or an adored leader. Other times a woman is more along the lines of a worrying wife or a lowly maid. But that’s the world I created, where an individual’s initial social status, opportunities, and choices have impacted what she is or becomes.
Every reader has different views based upon life experiences. When a reader opens a novel those experiences influence how he or she interprets characters, including their status, their actions and motivations. That’s not something I attempt iron-hand control or influence over. It’s not my place as a storyteller to direct or force readers to see my characters in a certain way—like it’d work anyway. My primary purpose isn’t social commentary. It’s to entertain.
I do find it interesting what readers think of my characters (male and female), what ones they like and don’t like, respect and don’t respect, and more. They’ve read the same words, but come away with widely varying opinions.
For example, one reader described Supreme Enchantress Thulease as authoritative and ruthless. Another found her accomplished and powerful, yet lovingly driven, with cracks of vulnerability.
In the end, characters are tools used to relay a story to readers. And if I create and use them properly, the readers enjoy reading and learning about characters, discovering who they are within the context of the story while being entertained.
WF: With that said, where is your leaning as regards a story being driven by characters vs. characters being shaped by the needs of the story?
Terry: It really depends on the story to be told. My protagonists aren’t powerful individuals—not master swordsmen or highly trained Colonial Marines. They’re not renown spellcasters or unparalleled nuclear physicists. They’re regular folks that find themselves in challenging circumstances. They don’t always have the big picture, with events and choices often beyond their immediate control.
Their responses, learning, relationships, successes and failures, and sometimes a little luck are what pulls them through. Here’s a quote with respect to the protagonist of Relic Tech which should clarify what I’m getting at: "The tech level premise is fascinating, but what really makes the novel special is the spirit of Krakista Keesay. Kra is a hero to root for—often underestimated, adept with brass knuckles, bayonet, shotgun, and all sorts of old style weaponry. He proves that, while technology matters, so do courage, intelligence, and daring."
—Tony Daniel, Hugo-finalist, author of Metaplanetary and Guardian of Night
It’s the balance between plot driven and character driven storytelling where, in my works, neither dominates.
WF: That's high praise from a Hugo-finalist! One last question: Knowing that there are many forum members who are both avid readers and writers of Fantasy, if there were one thing, one piece of advice you could give them concerning success in their writing careers, what would it be?
Terry: Thanks. I am quite honored to have received Tony Daniel’s positive words.Thank you, Terry, and best of luck in all your future endeavors.
My advice would be to finish your projects.
Many people talk about writing, and some even start, but very few do what it takes to finish. Hammer out that first draft. Revise and edit, research, and repeat, learning along the way. Get input and weigh it. Go at it again, improving the story through a third and fourth draft, and more. Writing a novel can be fun and interesting, but it’s also hard work and takes a long term commitment in time and energy and a willingness to learn, knowing that, in the end, there is no guarantee of success—however one might measure it. But if you don’t finish that story or novel, there’s absolutely zero chance of success.
Oh, and after you finish that first piece, proceed with crafting a second.
Finally, thank you for your questions and this opportunity to speak to the members here at Writing Forums.