We all love a memorable villain – they can elevate a story and challenge a hero to the utmost of their limits. Think about the unforgettable impact of characters such as Voldemort and Darth Vader; their deeds repel us, but we find them fascinating. The very best villains allow us to thrillingly explore those aspects of our personality we normally hide!
So, if you are writing fantasy fiction, how can you create a villain that will excite and grip your readers? I know from writing The Tree of Life trilogy and This Sacred Isle, it can be a fun and demanding challenge.
In this post I’ll look at three ways you can develop a worthy adversary for your hero.
Make your villain three-dimensional.
Never forget that your antagonist is a character, not just a convenient plot device. You must understand their motives and perspective. Everybody is the hero of their own story – however cruel and selfish our behaviour, we are all capable of holding an internal narrative that depicts our actions as noble and justified. If you make your villain evil for evil’s sake, they can come across as flat, one-note characters. Instead, strive to show what motivates their actions, what quirks of personality and experiences have driven their behaviour.
A fine example of this is from Tad Williams’s majestic series Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. The chief protagonist is the Storm King, who although in many ways represents the typical ‘Dark Lord’ actually transcends this trope. The Storm King does not act out of simple-minded evil, for his dark sorcery is a reaction to the suffering and near annihilation of his people (the Sithi) at the hands of the humans.
In my novel, This Sacred Isle, the main antagonist is Merlin – he is far removed from the wise, benevolent mentor of King Arthur. The slaughter of the Dark Ages and the suffering endured by his people has left him bitter and vengeful. Worn down by the cruelty of Man, he seeks to cleanse Britain of those he sees as usurpers. Yes, Merlin’s plan is merciless, but he believes, truly believes, he has no choice.
A well-written villain should explore the darker sides of our nature, sides we all possess; they should ask an implicit question of the reader: “If I had their power, how would I act?”
Make your villain a worthy foe
You must make sure your antagonist is as least as strong as your hero. They should possess the very real ability and intent to ruin the hero’s life, for it is through meeting this challenge that the hero will prove worthy. If your hero can easily overwhelm the villain, where is the tension? In the traditional story arc, the hero should through the course of the story develop the skills, allies and strength required to face and defeat the villain.
And villainy might not just be a simple test of physical strength or magical power. One of the ways an antagonist can threaten a hero is to try to exploit their weaknesses by tempting them to follow an evil path and betray their cause – the idea of a hero being corrupted is in some ways more chilling than any threat to their life. Think how close Luke Skywalker strayed towards the dark side. Consider how the One Ring all but consumed Frodo Baggins. The fact that such heroes were tempted by evil does not diminish their heroism – it humanises them, makes them relatable and actually elevates the bravery of their defiance. A villain should push the hero to the extreme, to the point where they question everything they have learned, everything they have believed. And it is at this moment, that true heroism is revealed.
Keep your hero and villain in contact
For the purposes of your story, your hero and villain need each other, are often defined by each other. If they are in close proximity during the tale, then it is obviously easier for them to interact. However, do not despair if your story dictates they should rarely meet. This is where you can make use of proxies. The best way to do this is to employ effective proxies, not just mindless henchmen or henchwomen – use characters who have been twisted by the antagonist. A strong example of this comes in the Lord of the Rings; Sauron never meets Frodo, but he exerts his power through, among others, the Ringwraiths and Saruman, who have all been corrupted by the Dark Lord and thus demonstrate his strength and evil intent. Such proxies test a hero’s strength, resolve and abilities, and help to develop a sense of escalating danger as the story moves to the climatic moments.
Who are your favourite villains? What makes them some memorable? Add a comment and join the conversation!
If you are interested in my fiction, you can download the first novel in the Tree of Life series, The Map of the Known World, for FREE from Amazon, iBooks, Barnes and Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.
In my last blog post I mentioned the amount of online help available to authors and indie publishers. Over time I’ve grown to appreciate the importance of such websites and they have been a source of advice and inspiration. When I wrote my first novel, The Map of the Known World, it felt a somewhat lonely venture – now with a wide, varied online writing community it is much easier to find advice and get connected to other authors.
I’d like to outline five of the best websites out there for writers:
The Creative Penn
This site is run by thriller author JF Penn and is a mine of information and inspiration. The blog is regularly updated with new, relevant articles, keeping readers up-to-date with the latest (and future) trends in the world of indie publishing. There are also extensive archives of articles on all facets of writing and publishing – whatever stage you have reached on your writing journey, The Creative Penn can help you!
I’ve only recently discovered this site, which is run by professional editor Ellen Brock. The site has a wide range of articles and advice on the technical skills of writing – in addition Ellen has a host of videos (which can either be viewed via the website or on YouTube) on writing, publishing and editing, all of which are well worth watching. If you have a query on any aspect of the craft of writing, you are highly likely to find the answer on this website!
This is the website of best-selling author and self-publishing guru Mark Dawson, and it is chocked full of content, with an excellent range of podcasts that are both fun and highly informative.
Alliance of independent authors
You could spend many, many hours going through the content on this site and it would be time very well spent! There are articles on every aspect of self-publishing you could possibly imagine (from writing, editing, production, marketing and many more). The site also has a regularly updated blog, jam-packed with useful information and inspiring stories from other authors. As with The Creative Penn, I find this site a good way of keeping up-to-date with trends in the writing and publishing world.
Publishing expert Jane Friedman’s blog covers both traditional and self-publishing topics, including interviews with successful authors and industry figures. Highly professional, thought-provoking articles are the norm here.
I would also like to mention a couple of online communities I use. The first is SFF Chronicles – this is aimed primarily at fans of SF and Fantasy, and if you write in either of those genres, then joining this forum is an absolute must. This is a really fun, supportive and helpful community – highly recommended. The second is KBoards, which is a good way of connecting with fellow authors publishing via KDP (it is not limited to authors on the KDP Select programme).
This is really only the tip of a very large iceberg, but all these sites, in my humble opinion, give thoughtful, trustworthy advice and can help to inspire and improve your writing skills.
The fact that there is so much advice and support (and much of it free) out there means there really hasn't been a better time to be an author. More and more authors are sharing their content, their experiences and discoveries, and passing these onto others.
I could never hope to offer advice that matches the quality and depth given by the websites I've mentioned, but I have tried to share my writing experiences - for example, after writing This Sacred Isle, I posted a series of articles looking at different aspects of the journey of creating that book (if you're interested, the first post is here). I really wanted to tap into the supportive and collaborative attitude I have often discovered online, an attitude which can make the lonely job of writing just a little less lonely!
Which websites do you use for writing advice? Add a comment and join the conversation.
In this post I am going to talk a little about the early stages of my writing journey, and pass on five key tips to help anyone starting to write their first book.
I always wanted to write, always wanted to tell stories. However, when, in my very early twenties, I started to devote some serious time and effort to writing, I could not have imagined how long the process would take.
My first effort was a thriller novel set in a future Britain that has become part of a United European State (hmm, I didn’t foresee Brexit) – despite a promising start I soon realised my efforts fell far short of my original vision, and certainly were nowhere near professional standard. I threw in the towel after about five chapters. I thought about giving up completely; finishing a book, properly finishing it, seemed an impossible task.
But despite this chastening experience, I had caught the writing bug. I wanted to keep trying, so I switched my efforts to a SF novel called Colony. Learning some key lessons from my abandoned first effort (and from reading a number of books on the craft of writing) I made better progress and actually completed a first draft. But on a read-through I realised the story was deeply, irrevocably flawed and my writing was still substandard. I decided not to proceed any further and so Colony became another abandoned project. However, I had at least proved to myself that I had the stamina to create a full draft of a novel.
After two attempts at writing a novel, I focused for a couple of years on writing short stories. The quality was variable, ranging from frankly appalling to passable – a couple of my stories were even published in an indie SF magazine, and I also had some encouraging rejections from prominent genre publications.
These early efforts were clumsy (and some of the stories were terrible) – I hated my stodgy, cliché-infected prose and lifeless dialogue. But as I continued to write, something weird happened: I created the odd decent line, not great literature but serviceable prose. Slowly such lines became more frequent. I wrote decent paragraphs, decent sections and decent chapters. Slowly, I was getting better. The two novels had failed, as had most of the short stories, but I had written hundreds of thousands of words in the process, strengthening my authorial muscles.
And after years of effort, of often painful practising, of learning, I felt ready to attempt a novel again, and this time I was determined to complete it. I had a plan (I had a trilogy sketched out), so launched into The Map of the Known World. It took years to craft this book and the subsequent instalments in the series, but I applied the valuable lessons I’d already learned, and learned many new ones! And since completing the Tree of Life trilogy, I have written another novel (This Sacred Isle) and am now working on a new story (a SF novel called Second Sun).
What tips would I give someone in the very early stages of their writing journey? Here are five things I believe are essential, five things I wish I had known when I first put pen to paper:
IT TAKES TIME
You will be disappointed by your early writing efforts but try not to be discouraged. Don’t be too hard on yourself and don’t give up - instead allow yourself the time and space to improve. Keep learning about the craft – there are many good books that can help you (please see my blog post on this subject). Think about the novels / short stories you read, what you like or dislike about them. And embrace your early failures – they can be frustrating of course, but they give you valuable lessons. Like most writers, I have my incomplete novels, abandoned stories, but I view them now as experiments, not as worthless failures.
Developing your writing skills can be a slow process, but if you keep working, if you keep learning, you’ll improve.
Writing can feel lonely, very lonely, but don’t despair, there’s lots of help out there – you’re not alone! This is especially true in our digital world. When I started writing, the internet was in its infancy (remember dial-up?) but now there are many websites giving support and sound advice (among the best I would point you to The Creative Penn, Self Publishing Formula and the website of editor Ellen Brock). In addition, there are some fantastic online communities (LinkedIn groups can be valuable, and I also enjoy being part of SFF Chronicles) where you can connect with other authors / creators and share knowledge. If you encounter a problem with your writing, don’t suffer in silence - reach out and I guarantee you’ll find help. And if you can get constructive criticism of your work (many forums allow you to post samples of your work for a critique), even better - some early honest feedback can keep you on track and keep you motivated.
KICK PERFECTION INTO TOUCH
You’ve probably already realised this, but in case you haven’t, I’ll say it out loud: perfection is not possible. Yes, by all reasonable means strive to make your writing as good as possible – a professional editor is a must – and demand high standards of yourself, but never EVER expect perfection. You have to learn to let go, otherwise you’ll never finish, you’ll never move on. Get your work out there, whether you send it to an agent / publishing house or indie publish it doesn’t matter – share your work with the world.
This can be a difficult obstacle to overcome (I certainly have perfectionist tendencies) but a necessary one if you want to get your work out there. It is your determination that is the key to success, not an obsession with perfection.
We all have a myriad of pressures on our time, but it is important, no essential, to write regularly, to develop a writing habit. It doesn’t matter if it’s only twenty / thirty minutes a day – keep to a consistent, regular pattern and you’ll be surprised how much work you can accomplish. Of course, there’ll be times when you feel tired or demotivated but if you can manage to write at those moments then you’ll really be making progress. Some of my best writing and strongest ideas have come when I was writing despite not at all being in the mood!
This last tip moves beyond the actual craft of writing but it is still important if you want your work to reach any kind of audience: you must have a web presence. Get your content out there, blog and tweet – try to make meaningful connections. Don’t wait to finish your novel or collection of short stories / poems first – post about your progress, try to find people with similar interests, other authors, or readers who like the kind of book you are writing. I failed to do this early on and it was a big mistake I made. I hesitated, dithered, took too long before having a website and venturing onto social media, and it is tricky to play catch-up!
It can be daunting to put yourself forward like this. Trust me, I know! I’m not a natural self-promoter (far, far from it, to be honest) but I’ve come to realise it is not promotion, it is not marketing, it is connecting, which is much more valuable and interesting.
I hope these tips are helpful for you as you start your writing journey. If you have further tips or observations you'd like to add, please leave a comment below.
If you're interested in reading some of my work, you can download the ebook version of my first novel, The Map of the Known World, for FREE from all major ebook retailers.
Are you searching for an epic fantasy read? Longing to explore a complex, dangerous world full of rich characters, mysterious cultures and terrible monsters? Then The Tree of Life trilogy is exactly what you are looking for! And even better, you can now own the blistering first novel in the series, The Map of the Known World, for free.
The free ebook is available from the following providers:
Barnes and Noble
So download your free copy and join Elowen in her dangerous and thrilling quest...
Fantasy novels deal with momentous events, and war is often prominent. As well as being exciting set pieces, battles allow authors to put pressure on their characters, to test them, to see how they react before, during and after the fighting.
In all my fantasy novels I have written about battles – from the muskets and cannons used in The Tree of Life trilogy, to the warfare of the Dark Ages in This Sacred Isle. So in this post I am going to explore the key things you need to consider when writing a fantasy battle – to illustrate certain points I’ll use example from books and films (please note there are mild spoilers).
Rules of engagement
Before beginning to write your fantasy battle you must know the rules by which it will take place. By this I mean you must have established the level of military technology and any magical aspects. Yes, be as imaginative as you like: for example, legions of flying dragons are fine as long as they are consistent to the internal logic of your story. Do not allow your characters to suddenly gain miraculous access to weapons or skills hitherto unmentioned in the book. Establish your rules and stick to them.
And of course you must know and articulate why the battle is taking place, and what the combatants are hoping to achieve. These reasons must be consistent with the themes of your novel – do not add a battle to your story just because you think it will be dramatic and exciting. The battle must come from the politics, history and environment of your world, and be sparked into life by the choices the characters within the story make.
Know your world
However fantastical your battle, you are likely to have some aspects that need to be portrayed realistically. Few of us have experienced combat directly, so researching weapons and tactics will give more authenticity to your writing.
For example, the world in which I set my The Tree of Life series had a level of technology comparable with seventeenth century Europe. I researched weapons such as muskets, pikes and cannon – I tried to understand how these tools of war worked and how they were commonly deployed on the battlefield.
Of course, not every scrap of research found its way into the book, but this information allowed me to better shape the rhythms of the battles I described.
Scout the battlefield
Terrain and weather all impact upon a battle, so it is important you know your battlefield. It should determine how the combatants fight and will influence who is victorious.
Describe the different elements of the landscape – this will make the battle more cohesive and allow your reader to better understand what is happening and where.
Weather details are important for atmosphere, mood and tone, but make sure their impact on the fighting is clear.
What happens before the battle is just as important as the fighting itself. You must not march swiftly to war! Show your characters’ nerves, their gut-wrenching fear. In the climactic battle of This Sacred Isle, I tried to show how different characters reacted to pre-battle tension. Morcar, for example, is nervous, fearing for his life and fearful he will fail those around him. By contrast, some of the Anglo Saxon warriors are boisterous and exultant; yes, they are lovers of war but I believe such displays are a direct reaction to fear, as though by acting unafraid they hope their fear will vanish.
Make sure your readers feel these reactions. Think of some of the most effective cinematic portrayals of battle. In movies such as Zulu (the battle of Rourke’s Drift) and The Two Towers (Helm’s Deep) there is a long build-up, focused on the characters, in which we feel the growing terror and oppressive weight of the struggle to come. In such films time is taken to outline what is at stake, we know what the main characters are fighting for, what they are trying to defend – this gives greater meaning to the battle.
In terms of building tension, think about sound. Again, think about examples from the cinema. In Zulu, the sound of the warriors singing and pounding their spears against their shields ratchets up the fear among the isolated, outnumbered British soldiers. And in the climactic battle of Saving Private Ryan, you hear the approaching panzers (a demonic, mechanical sound) long before you see them. The audience is gripped, imagining the horrors and danger to come. In This Sacred Isle, I used the sound of the carnyx (trumpet like instruments used by Celtic tribes) to unsettle both the Anglo Saxons and (I hope!) the reader.
So, do not rush into the fighting. Do not rush this moment. It is the long breath, the calm before the storm breaks.
Unleashing hell – the tension breaks
The tension has built. The battle is close. Your reader can hardly draw breath. Now is the time to break the tension. You don’t necessarily need a huge moment of high drama, but you do need a beat that says that now the battle is starting. It could be a challenge, it could be a bold charge, whatever sparks the combat into life, but leave the reader in no doubt: there’s no turning back now, the fighting has begun.
Keep your focus
Your reader needs to understand the broad scope and direction of the battle, but don’t stray from your main characters for too long or too often. Show the battle through their eyes and you’ll better express the danger, horror and excitement of the fighting. Brush too broadly and the reader will feel disconnected from the story.
Consider the battle of the Hornburg in Tolkien’s The Two Towers. It is a huge battle with Orcs, Uruk-Hai, half-Orcs, Dunlendings fighting against the human Rohirrim – a vast canvas, with thousands of warriors. But Tolkien is careful to tell the struggle through the eyes of the main characters (such as Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli). Their story is the battle’s story.
Throw your reader into the battle
When describing a battle, you need to get in close and dirty. Don’t just say the fighting is fierce. Show the cuts and bruises on people’s faces; hear cries of pain, the clanging of swords, the roar of cannon, and smell the stink of sweat and blood. Use all the senses to immerse your reader. And do not neglect to show the emotions of the characters during the fighting. In such chaos and danger, their emotions will be jumping around; at different times they’ll feel fear, excitement, disgust, pride and shame. The characters will tire, or suffer wounds, during the battle and this will affect the way they behave. Show this range of emotions and responses, and show how it influences the decisions made by the characters.
Don’t make such passages interminable – your reader can suffer from battle fatigue too – but make sure you dive into a deep description of the battle on enough occasions to clearly express the horror of the struggle.
Keep raising the stakes
You must keep raising the drama of your battle as it progresses.
A simple way of demonstrating this is the Death Star battle at the end of Star Wars – A New Hope. See how the battle escalates beat by beat:
You can see that at each stage, the danger to our heroes increases – their chances of success diminish, reaching a point when they surely cannot win.
Of course, you might be writing about a battle in which your heroes lose, but even so you should still look to keep raising the drama.
Have a meaningful end
If your heroes do win, don’t make it easy for them, and make sure the battle turns at least in part on their choices, their courage and cunning. If they are victorious, their victory must be earned. And show the aftermath of battle – remember Wellington’s famous words after the Battle of Waterloo:
“Nothing except a battle lost can be half as melancholy as a battle won.”
Show the cost of the battle: the wounds, physical and mental wounds, which may never heal. Above all, the experience of battle should change the characters, and impact on their subsequent choices and behaviour.
Written properly, a battle scene can be a stirring, immersive part of your story. But as I've explained in this post, your literary battle needs to be carefully planned and executed. Combat is perhaps the greatest test you can put your characters through - if you get these scenes right, if they feel authentic and true to the themes you have developed, they can elevate your book and form a strong emotional connection with readers.
Which battle in fantasy literature do you find the most powerful? Add a comment and join the conversation.
Writing This Sacred Isle required a huge amount of research about Britain in the Sixth Century – from everyday elements such as food, clothes and weapons, to more abstract details such as mythology, social structure and religion. I needed to study Anglo-Saxon and Celtic cultures, as well as considering the marks left on the landscape and society by Roman rule.
To carry out this research I visited key sites of interest such as West Stow and Sutton Hoo, as well as a host of museums, for example the British Museum and the Fitzwilliam Museum. Of course, the internet was also helpful in checking some specific points. However, in terms of research, nothing was more important, valuable or inspiring as the time I spent researching in my local library. It helped bring home to me why libraries matter to me, and why I believe they matter to the whole community.
We live in a time when (certainly in the UK) many libraries are under threat of closure. They are an easy target when it comes to local authority budget cuts and many argue that they are just an anachronism, meaningless in today’s digital world, superseded by the benefits of the internet. I believe this is a mistake, and if we lose libraries, it will be to the great detriment of our community and cultural life.
At every stage of my life, I have received help from a library: exams, job interviews etc. And when it comes to book research, I have found my local library invaluable. Put simply, I could not have written any of my books (The Tree of Life trilogy also required considerable resource) without the use of a library.
I could not have afforded to buy all the books I needed to consult for This Sacred Isle – this would have left gaps in my research and cut off vital sources of inspiration. However, thanks to my local library, I was able to spend hours poring over works such as the Anglo Saxon Chronicle and, Early Anglo-Saxon Burial sites and Blackwell’s encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England. I found wonderful books about Pictish history, about Celtic mythology, and about the physical landscape of East Anglia, the setting for my story.
Libraries give you that freedom: they allow you to experiment with your reading, try different things, investigate – it doesn’t cost you any money. It gives anyone a chance to learn, to discover, and to create. You can find your own path, rather than being guided by corporate motives. Many times I have stumbled across books within the library, books that have given me fresh inspiration and impetus. I remember whilst writing The Tree of Life trilogy finding an old, tattered book based on a medieval bestiary – the fantastical creatures and lurid tales I encountered within sparked off many ideas that helped me develop my plot. Such happy accidents can happen via internet research, but to me they’d be less organic, less meaningful.
A good library gives you a quiet (sometime silent) place to think, an antidote to the immediacy and noise of much of our society. It is a neutral space; you are not being sold a product or service. I found an hour in a reference library really gets the creative juices going, and I wonder if it’s a combination of being in a contemplative place, with other people around (connecting me to the rhythm of society) and being surrounded by centuries of learning collected in hundreds, thousands of books.
In my view research within a library moves an author away from a world of soundbites and disposable, wafer thin knowledge. Don’t mistake me – the internet is a wonderful tool, a gift for authors and our lives would be far more difficult without it. But on screen you are under the constant threat of disruption or interruption, be it emails, security updates, or the burning, nagging need to update twitter or clicking on YouTube to watch the latest trailer for a new movie (guilty as charged on this one).
I like to think libraries are often full of people hoping, dreaming. How many of them have found knowledge, inspiration, entertainment or even solace within their local library? How many people, otherwise isolated, otherwise cut off from other people and a cultural life, can find some measure of fulfilment within the library? Yes, budgets are always tight and yes there are many worthy services that require investment, but I believe libraries are much more than just a place where people loan books; I believe they are a crucial part of our communities. Within the county I live in, I have seen libraries become hubs for local charities, social enterprises, and even start-up businesses, giving people a chance to connect, to learn new skills, to find new career paths.
Authors, readers, indeed anyone who believes in the importance of community and culture should stand up for libraries - signing petitions, supporting online campaigns, fundraising etc. Libraries can change of course, must change sometimes, but I would argue it is essential they are preserved. A place of learning, a place to think, a refuge – the library are all these and much more. Let us not lose this gift of civilisation – our communities and our lives will be the poorer if we do.
Why are libraries important to you? Add a comment and join the conversation.
After finishing my most recent novel, This Sacred Isle, I am working on my next book, a dystopian novel called Second Sun. Over two blog posts, I am looking at my favourite dystopian novels, and why they are important to me.
In my first post, I looked at three classic works: We, Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four. In this post, I am discussing two of my favourite reads: V for Vendetta and The Tripods. All these books - and others - are key inspirations for Second Sun.
The Tripods - John Christopher
Yes, this is an odd and possibly controversial choice, but I will explain myself!
My introduction to The Tripods trilogy was via the BBC TV adaptation (sadly and hurriedly truncated after two series) but I soon dived into the books and what a rich experience they proved to be - not only a wonderful read but one of my inspirations for wanting to write novels. It was certainly an influence on my Tree of Life fantasy series.
Strictly speaking, The Tripods is a post-apocalyptic SF novel rather than a dystopian one, but I think there are a number of key elements and themes that bring it within the dystopian realm.
The story is set in the future, where the Earth has been conquered and humanity enslaved by the alien Masters who bestride the world in the Tripods, enormous three-legged walking machines. Human society has returned to a pastoral, pre-industrial level, with few towns – all monitored carefully by the watchful Tripods.
Obedience to the alien conquerors is established through Caps, implants forced on every human at the age of fourteen. Once the Cap is implanted, humans lose curiosity and (most importantly to their rulers) any sense of rebelliousness. For a few, the Cap fails and they are turned into ‘Vagrants’, who are considered mad and wander from village to village, shunned by the populace. This is not a dystopia that uses consumer or sensual pleasures to lull and distract the people (like for example Brave New World), but the Tripods impose an orthodoxy, where people ‘know their place’, and to challenge this stability is to risk punishment or death.
The hero of the book is thirteen year-old Will, an English boy, who is suspicious and fearful of the Tripods. With his ‘Capping Day’ approaching, Will flees with his cousin, Henry, to the ‘White Mountains’ in Switzerland. During their dangerous journey across France, they meet up with Jean-Paul, known to them as Beanpole. Beanpole is intelligent and inventive, and fears that Capping will steal his curiosity, and so he joins Will and Henry on their quest for freedom. During their subsequent adventures, they face danger not only from the Tripods (and the mysterious Masters who control the machines) but from adults who have been Capped.
Capped humans never challenge or question the Tripods, who they believe only wish to protect them and stop them slipping into horrors of the past like disease, famine and war – they believe they live in a better world, not a dystopia. And I think this is a crucial point: the distinction between utopia and dystopia is sometimes found only in the eye of the beholder. The world as ruled by the Tripods is peaceful and humans live simple lives, and there are moments, certainly in the first instalment The White Mountains, where our rebellious heroes are tempted by the safe, easy life of the Capped.
But the gifts of the Tripods come at a price: freedom. Humanity is imprisoned, with the Cap removing all capacity for challenging thought and creativity. Yes, this protects people from some of the worst excesses of our history, but in doing so it eliminates our innate curiosity, our imagination. The politics of our time is often shaped by a desire to return to simpler times, for a retreat from the complexity of the modern world – we have seen these in many of the arguments put forward in support of Brexit, Donald Trump and Marie Le Pen. In The Tripods, such a worldview is made literal; it is a society in stasis, with no desire or hope of progress. Of course, in the story the Cap is a crucial tool of control, but I wonder if the author hints at times that people actually prefer this life, and are happy to trade freedom for the safety and protection offered by their tyrannical rulers.
Even if the Tripods had a genuine desire to protect and support humanity, this is still a dystopian society, and without giving the whole story away, it becomes evident that the alien conquerors have plans for Earth that are not entirely benevolent…
The Tripods might be considered a minor work compared with the great dystopian novels, but as a young reader it started me thinking about questions of freedom and of the importance of challenging authority, even when (especially when) it conflicts with the entrenched views of those around you. This is made clear early in The White Mountains when Will thinks fearfully about his impending Capping Day:
“Only lately, as one could begin to count the months remaining, had there been any doubts in my mind; and the doubts had been ill-formed and difficult to sustain the weight of adult assurance.”
To escape the imprisonment of the Cap, Will must defy his family, friends, teachers and village elders – it is his courage in opposing all the people he has grown up with that marks him as a hero in the making. The society ruled by the Tripods is one of total obedience and Will cannot, even among friends and family, safely voice his concerns. And this for me is one of the fundamental lessons of any dystopian novel: a worthwhile society should expect, accept and absorb criticism, and any society that crushes dissenting voices is well on the road to tyranny.
The Tripods is undoubtedly an exciting story for young adults, with adventure and action aplenty. But its messages about freedom, and the need to find the courage to oppose orthodoxy, still resonate. I would argue freedom, questioning authority and the desire to travel are all human rights, and in this book all are denied by the alien rulers. We must be careful not to allow our own rulers to fool us into trading these precious rights for a feeling of safety from outsiders.
And, without giving away the ending, the trilogy finishes on something of a melancholy note, one that has always stayed with me. Suffice to say, humanity does not need aliens to cause strife and division in this world…
V for Vendetta - Alan Moore / David Lloyd
I came relatively late to the world of comics / graphic novels, and through reading works such as Maus and Persepolis, I swiftly realised I had been missing out! And one book that stood out for me was V for Vendetta – a powerful, savage indictment of right-wing power, inspired by the Thatcherite government in Britain.
The story depicts a near-future history version of the United Kingdom in the 1990s. A nuclear war has destroyed much of the rest of the world, and although the UK avoids being bombed (the government of the day having removed American missiles) it suffers from the environmental and economic chaos resulting from the conflict.
As a broken and heavily flooded UK starts to fall apart, the Norsefire party (consisting of fascist groups and the few remaining corporations) seize control and promise to restore order, which they do by exterminating opponents and implementing a police state.
The protagonist, V, an anarchist dressed in a Guy Fawkes mask, begins a campaign to both kill his former captors and bring down the brutal Norsefire regime. His actions ultimately inspire Evey Hammond, a young woman he saves in the opening scene of the story, to become his protégé. Evey begins the story as a victim at the hands of ‘The Finger’, the secret police, but soon finds her strength and realises the importance of V’s campaign.
As well as being a compelling story with rich, complex characters, V for Vendetta challenges the reader to consider the causes and effects of poor government, and our own weak record in selecting our leaders. As V rallies against Norsefire, he highlights the culpability of the wider population:
“We’ve had a string of embezzlers, frauds, liars and lunatics making a string of catastrophic decisions. This is plain fact. But who elected them? It was you! You who appointed these people! You who gave them the power to make your decisions for you!”
V is highlighting how our collective apathy, our willingness to pass on responsibility to others (however unsuitable) leads us slowly but inexorably to tyranny. We can be the makers of our own dystopia. The Norsefire government gained control because they made enough people feel safe in a chaotic time, and for this safety the people were prepared to give up their freedom and to turn a blind eye to the suffering of minorities, who were made scapegoats for problems facing the country. Tyranny rules because the population stepped back from responsibility, and to bring back any sense of justice, the citizens of the story must stand up against Norsefire. As Evey Hammond proclaims near the end of the story:
“You must choose what comes next. Lives of our own, or a return to chains.”
Reading V for Vendetta again recently, in the context of recent political developments, it still feels horribly relevant. The rise of right-wing governments, the demonization of minorities, the bombardment of ‘news’ – sometimes it almost feels as if a real-life Norsefire are just waiting in the wings, ready for the right moment to seize power. In the opening panes of the story we see surveillance cameras – there FOR YOUR PROTECTION of course. We are being watched.
Dystopian novels dare to imagine where the worst of our natures and weaknesses could take us – they show the traps that wait to snare us. I believe all five stories I have discussed in these posts help us to go forward with our eyes open and not sleepwalk into horrors of our own making.
Which dystopian books do you find most powerful? Add a comment and join the conversation.
During the writing of This Sacred Isle, I realised it is in some ways a post-apocalyptic novel, as well as being an historical fantasy. The world of 6th century Britain existed within the bones of a fallen civilisation - Roman Britannia. This allowed me to explore within the book themes of identity and freedom, themes I will continue into my next novel, a dystopian SF novel called Second Sun.
I have long been fascinated by dystopian novels and – with recent world events in mind - such books are very much in focus. I believe dystopian novels, certainly the best ones, hold a mirror up to our own world, allowing us to see dangers we can easily ignore; sometimes those dangers will be amplified within fictional words, but this only serves to make the warnings they possess more stark and pressing.
Across two posts I am going to look at my favourite dystopian novels, and why they are important to me.
This first post will look at three classic dystopian novels: We, Brave New World and 1984.
We - Yevgeny Zamyatin
We, by Russian novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin, in many ways set the template for the modern political dystopia.
Set in the twenty-sixth century AD, We is narrated by D-503, a spacecraft engineer, who dwells in OneState, a city state where the programmed society is organised by strict logic and mathematical formulas. The story occurs long after the Two Hundred Years’ War – an enormously destructive conflict that wiped out the vast majority of humanity. OneState is surrounded by the Green Wall, which separates the citizens from the untamed nature beyond. The natural world is viewed with horror (OneState’s people eat food made from petroleum) and D-503 considers it ugly when compared to the manufactured environment in which he lives.
In this world of glass buildings, there is little or no privacy (blinds only come down during the discreetly named Personal Hour) – it is a life lived on show, in public view. Peace and happiness are achieved at the price of a private life. Happiness comes through lives being controlled – freewill and choice are deemed dangerous and root causes of human misery. Indeed, at the start of the book D-503 is happy, he believes in the system. Opponents of OneState are even called ‘enemies of happiness’.
I find OneState’s obsession with happiness a deeply resonant theme. In our society much emphasis is placed on the search for happiness, to the point where feeling unhappy (aside from conditions such as depression and anxiety) is almost seen as wrong, abnormal. But what, in our modern world, do we really mean when we talk of happiness – is it a feeling of deep contentment and satisfaction or does it mean empty pleasures offering an easy escape from reality and hardships? The citizens of OneState are lulled by comfort and ease – they choose not to see the tyranny around them or at least believe the oppression is worth the loss of freedom. This is an uncomfortable theme, for it is only through a sense of discontent, of wanting to change aspects of society that we challenge and overcome injustice.
The citizens of OneState, who have numbers not names, are not individuals – just replaceable, forgettable cogs in the machine. With their lives ruled by ‘The Table’, human relationships and interactions are reduced to scheduled moments (such as the aforementioned Personal Hour) and spontaneity effectively outlawed. As a result, there is an entrenched absence of feelings – for example, consider the lack of pity, as D-503 recounts when some unfortunate colleagues are incinerated in a work accident:
“I’m proud to note down here that this did not cause a second’s hitch in the rhythm of our work, no one flinched.”
These cold, dispassionate words must be a warning to us, a warning that we must see our fellow human beings as individuals, with worth and rights, for if we do not, we risk further embedding misery and injustice within our own society.
We is not an easy read and the tortured, turbulent mind of D-503 can be a confusing place – and I suspect there are levels of symbolic, philosophical and religious imagery and themes within the novel that would require multiple readings to begin to comprehend. But the book is worth the effort and We unquestionably laid key narrative and thematic foundations for many dystopian novels to follow.
Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
Brave New World is often heralded as one of the most influential and prophetical books of the twentieth century. Set in the far future, the World Controllers of the story have created a perfect world, using genetic science - every individual receives pre-natal / post-natal conditioning so as to accept his or her position in society, from the Alpha-Plus ruling class to the Epsilon-Minus Semi-Morons who are bred to perform menial tasks.
This society is perfectly ordered, and control is strengthened through the habitual, state-endorsed, use of the drug soma, and other distractions such as ‘feelies’, a kind of proto Virtual Reality. In many senses, the people of the novel are controlled by pleasure and enjoyable distractions (a thematic link to We); when life is so good and so easy, why even think to challenge the status quo, what would be the purpose? This is not a tyranny of brutal physical oppression but a tyranny in which the citizens are imprisoned in a gilded-cage of amusement and ease.
The World Controllers of Brave New World have perfected a society where the genetically bred humans have their basic needs of comfort, sex, food and pleasure met in abundance – in this state opposition, freethinking becomes irrelevant, or worse a danger to the blissful lives of the citizens. Bernard Marx is unhappy for he desires solitude and is disgusted by the endless pleasures of his society – he struggles to understand his discontent with the world, a feeling I think many of us would recognise. Bernard is a misfit – he is smaller than the other Alphas and his individualism places him in danger of exile. He does not meet the norms imposed by his society and thus is viewed with suspicion.
When I first read Brave New World many years ago I was impressed by its brilliant invention and wit, but as time passes, I view the book with wonder at the continuing relevance of many of the concerns Huxley explored in his novel. Considering the rapid advances in technology in our own world, Brave New World simply becomes more relevant. It is increasingly possible to live a life in the virtual world, where you can in effect become another person, whoever you choose to be – submerged in such a pleasurable and stress-free life would you even care or notice that you are living in a dystopian world?
Nineteen Eighty-Four - George Orwell
When I first read Nineteen Eighty-Four I felt as though I had stepped inside a nightmare. Airstrip-One is a crucible of relentless pressure – I could scarcely comprehend the horror of the constant surveillance, the crushing conformity, the lingering danger of arrest and the sheer misery: horrible food, the bitter cold and the dilapidated living conditions. It is a wretched world, mutilated by an endless three-sided war – anger and sexual frustration are channelled into hatred towards enemies of the state real and imaginary. The most memorable display of this is the Two Minute Hate, where the Party Members are whipped into a frenzy of hatred.
“The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledgehammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic.”
So much of the language of Nineteen Eighty-Four has become part of our everyday idiom: Room 101, Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime, Newspeak to use just a few examples. In some ways, such common use (often in trivial contexts) has diluted the power of these concepts; only when read as part of the actual book is their true power, and horror, revealed.
For although this is a book with profound comments on politics and society, it is above all a book with a very human focus. We see Winston Smith’s suffering not just in existential terms, but in everyday terms: his blunt razors, the crumbling cigarettes, his coughing fits and varicose ulcers. Such a human perspective makes the horrors of Airstrip-One even more striking; we see how the oppression and privations take their toll on the citizens. We witness the misery and loneliness of an individual crushed and dehumanized by the tools of political terror.
So what does Nineteen Eighty-Four say to us about our own world? While Big Brother style totalitarian states still exist, I would argue that the form of political control postulated by We and Brave New World – control through distraction – is closer to how Western society has developed. However, such methods are also evident in Nineteen Eighty-Four, especially in relation to the downtrodden proles, who are distracted from political involvement by mass entertainment, a dubious National Lottery and sport (and, where necessary, the iron fist of state security).
The phenomenon of a constant bombardment of dubious ‘news’ is one we are increasingly familiar with and although we do not have telescreens watching our every move, we have CCTV monitors aplenty and the potent for tracking through phones and other devices. We may not be in Airstrip-One, but some of the parallels are a little uncomfortable.
And it is difficult to read Winston Smith’s diary entry about his visit to the cinema, as he describes a film in which ships full of refugees are bombed in the Mediterranean – the audience laugh at the suffering of the refugees as they are bombed and drown. It seems horrific, unimaginable to be entertained by such images, but in affluent Western Europe do we not turn aside with indifference as refugees, children and adult alike, drown in the very same sea Orwell described, and show little compassion or concern, our emotions blunted by saturation on TV and the internet? Others may disagree – and they have the right to do so – but for me this is just one example where Orwell shows us the callousness of which people, all people, are capable, and we would be wise to take heed and consider our own responses.
I cannot overstate the importance Nineteen Eighty-Four has for me. Reading it first as a teenager, it changed how I thought about books, society and politics. Even now, the book still burns with fury and although it cannot accurately be called a prophecy, Orwell’s book is a warning, one I believe will endure through the ages.
In conclusion, all these books rally against orthodoxy and comfortable, unquestioning conformity. They challenge us – they hold up a mirror and when we look, if we choose to look, we see our worst side staring back. These books say we have to think better, we have to act better to avoid slipping into the nightmares they so chillingly describe.
In the next post, I will look at two more, very different, dystopian books.
Which dystopian books do you find most powerful? Add a comment and join the conversation.
You’ve put your heart and soul into your trilogy; you’ve forged worlds, invented characters and shaped a compelling narrative. Over three novels you’ve built intrigue and suspense – you’ve hooked the reader but how do you make sure your story finishes strongly?
In this final post of my three-part blog series covering lessons I learned from writing The Tree of Life, I am going to discuss how to bring your trilogy to a satisfying conclusion. I will risk a few borderline spoilers about my books, but certainly won’t give away the actual ending! The lessons I learned helped not only my trilogy but also my most recent novel, This Sacred Isle, and I hope these posts offer some helpful and applicable advice to anyone undertaking the task of writing a three-book series.
Of course, a successful ending is important in any book, but the significance is magnified within a trilogy. In my experience planning is crucial, both to sustain the narrative drive and avoid inconsistency – (check out my first post in this series, which covers planning in detail). By the third book, you will have a mass of characters, events, settings and backstory; to control this you must plan ahead to make sure you don’t leave plot threads dangling.
But beyond planning, I believe there are three significant danger areas when ending a trilogy, three traps you should strive to avoid:
Don’t slow your third book down with too much back story
You will have already covered a lot of material in books one and two, so much so that it’s tempting to rerun over some of that back story just to make sure your reader can be fully orientated within the story. But you must tread carefully. The third book needs to have strong momentum, moving towards a denouement. Of course you will still need exposition, but do not bog down your third instalment covering ground already established in the first two books.
Your reader cannot be expected to remember all relevant details from books one and two, but neither will they have forgotten everything and they will not appreciate reading about elements they have already covered. When writing The Last Days, I worried constantly about how much I should refer to past events within the story as prompts and ‘reminders’ for readers – however, I soon discovered these bogged down the book’s pace, right at the time when I wanted the story’s excitement to be building to the highest pitch. As I continued to edit the book, I resolved to include as little back story as possible, especially in the final stretches of the novel - this allowed the story to breathe and (I hope) helped to make the book a more absorbing and thrilling read.
So, my advice is to keep back story to a minimum and keep progressing towards the end.
Know when to stop – do not keep going on, and on, and on…
I worked on The Tree of Life trilogy over the course of twelve years, and the characters of Elowen, Bo, Black Francis and many others became so familiar to me, it was a little difficult to finish the story and say farewell to them! But this is dangerous territory. . .
When you have created so many characters and such a detailed narrative, it is tempting in the latter, climatic stages of the third book to keep extending the story, to keep exploring new facets and add fascinating new details. This is a temptation that must be resisted! You must not allow your trilogy to overstay its welcome; don’t allow your story just to fizzle out. Finish on a high note by all means, but make sure you do finish – leave your reader wanting more, not hoping for the end to come.
Do not pluck a convenient ending out of thin air
As I worked on The Last Days, I found that fiction fatigue set in – although I had already worked out the climax of the story, actually achieving this (i.e. making sure the characters acted and reacted in ways true to their inner and outer journeys, and that the resolution worked in emotional and narrative terms) felt like a heavy burden. At this point, it is easy to look for convenient ways to simplify your ending but this is potentially a huge mistake.
You’ve established the context of your story, the rules, the personalities, all the ingredients and momentum for a successful ending. Take your ending from your characters and the conflicts described to that point; it must reflect the way the key characters have developed and the lessons they have learned about themselves – their choices must shape the conclusion. The climax of your trilogy could be happy or sad (or somewhere in between) but it must solve the central problem or question of your story, and it must be solved by your central character or characters. Ideally, the way the story is resolved must have some resonance, with the choices made by the characters reflecting the themes of the trilogy – there is no need to be heavy handed or preachy, but the reader should be left with a sense of a universal truth having been expressed.
For The Last Days, I knew it was important for Elowen and Bo to understand what was at stake, and to understand that for good to prevail, sacrifice was needed. They are both tested, both offered power – it is how they react to this and the decisions they make, that is important and that drives the story to its conclusion. Remember: the protagonist of the story must be protagonist of the ending, i.e. what he or she does determines the ending.
An ending can be unexpected – a shock even – but it must arise legitimately from the story itself. Throwing in something random at the end will shatter the rules of the world you have created and infuriate your reader.
And one last point: when you have finished your trilogy, take a moment to savour the feeling. It is an achievement, so allow yourself to recognise and enjoy this! I wish you the very best with your epic fantasy trilogy and I hope readers enjoy reading about the worlds you create.
Takeaway tip: the conclusion of your trilogy must be a reasonable and logical development from the story and characters you have written. Do not shortchange your readers with a random, incoherent ending.
Check out of the other posts in this blog series:
Part 1 looks at planning
Part 2 looks at world building and research
The Tree of Life trilogy is now available as an ebook boxset for just £1.99 / $2.40 (each of the volumes is also available individually in both paperback and ebook format):
See preview below:
Are you working on a trilogy or series? How did you write the ending - and what have been the major challenges you've faced? Add a comment and join the conversation.
In this second part of my three part blog series, I will be looking at what I learned about worldbuilding from writing my epic fantasy series - The Tree of Life.
In common with many epic fantasy trilogies, The Tree of Life is set within a secondary world. ‘Worldbuilding’ is often a key element of fantasy literature and a daunting challenge when about to embark upon a trilogy. Some authors create their secondary world in great detail (Tolkien obviously being the most famous example), inventing languages and histories, devising complex genealogies and drawing maps. There are stories where this is absolutely a valid approach, provided this background information does not swamp the actual book; it should only be added in small amounts to support the story.
And the other great danger is this: world-building is fun, great fun – you are playing god – but it should not be done at the expense of actually writing your book. It is easy to fall into this trap; when I began work on my trilogy I turned immediately to worldbuilding. This did not extend to the creation of new languages etc. though I certainly did compile maps to help orientate myself within the story, plotted the main cultures (with information on their worldview, customs, beliefs and technology) and I worked out an historical timeline listing major events and turning points. I enjoyed this process immensely and it is easy to absorb oneself within the joy of what Tolkien memorably called sub-creation. However, as I filled notebooks with ideas and notes, the realisation dawned that I had done little to actually progress the story – I was staying within the gilded cage of world-building, and although this work was necessary, I could not delay writing the book. I needed to get on with planning and writing my trilogy.
Building a consistent setting
Your fantastical setting can be as bold, imaginative and wild as you can possibly make it but it must possess an internal logic, it must be consistent. You are free to set whatever internal rules you like within your secondary world, but you must then adhere to them, otherwise your creation will seem random, fragmented. And the settings you create must impact on your characters (and on occasions, vice versa) – we are influenced by our environments and this must be reflected by your fictional cast in their attitudes and behaviour.
So, how to achieve this? Well, there are as many techniques as there writers, but for me, I always wanted my fictional world to echo our world, and decided early on that all the lands within the book should resonant with certain times and places in our history. As I think there are links and shared symbols between cultures in our world – however distant – I felt that drawing on real time periods and civilisations would give my setting stronger foundations, hinting at connections between the different realms and peoples. This helps create the sense that there is consistency in the world, that the various cultures have been shaped, for both good and ill, by contact with others.
For example, Helagan, where the hero of the trilogy, Elowen Aubyn, lives and much of the action of The Map of the Known World takes place, is heavily influenced by early 17th century England, with a comparable level of technology and social structure. Why did I choose this period? I wanted the story to take place in a world on the cusp of modernity, with the first shoots of industrialisation appearing and the power of magic, of the Eldar races, beginning to fade – this would underpin much of the conflict and tension within the story.
And one last point in achieving a consistent setting: I would leave areas of your invented world unvisited and unexplored. However big and sprawling your trilogy, is it really plausible that your narrative will venture into every corner of the world? Much better to leave whole regions to the imagination of the reader – make reference to those unexplored lands (for example, in The Map of the Known World I made mentioned to the Firelands, a mining, proto-industrial part of Helagan, but did not bring the characters there), but consider them as the sort of references we make every day of our lives to places we know about but are highly unlikely to visit. This somehow feels more real, suggesting that the world you have created exists beyond the limits of your specific story.
Know your world - research
If you want your world-building to be convincing, then you have to know your world, and in my case, to know my world meant I had to research.
To use again the example of Elowen’s homeland of Helagan, I researched early modern England in great detail and used this information to establish features such as clothes, food and weapons – I believe this gives the world a more authentic feel. Where possible, I visited locations analogous to those I was creating in the book, such as St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall and Wastwater in Cumbria, and this allowed me to bring a greater sense of place to my descriptions of the settings. I continued this approach when I wrote my latest novel, This Sacred Isle, a book in which a sense of place was of fundamental importance.
I developed other cultures within the trilogy in a similar manner, using, for example, researching in detail elements of medieval Russian, Mongol, Japanese, Ancient Greek and Assyrian history. I read books on these and other subjects, and visited many museums and galleries to immerse myself in the art and artefacts of these people and time periods. Adding specific details gives more authenticity to the secondary world and strengthens the credibility of the cultures being described, as it hints at their history in artistic, religious and technological terms.
Of course, I was writing a fantasy novel, not an historical novel, so I allowed myself significant latitude to twist my invented cultures into different directions, but I always used my research as the sound bedrock on which to build. And as much as I enjoyed researching the books (I love visiting museums and reading interesting non-fiction!), I was careful not allow research to eat all of my available writing time. For all the research in the world means nothing if the story itself remains unwritten…
Make the setting personal
One last thing to remember: the world you create is your world. Of course, you should bring into that world a host of factual information drawn from your research, but for your creation to really resonant, it has to be meaningful to you. Think about the great secondary worlds created in fantasy literature - such as J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth, Stephen Donaldson's The Land and J.K. Rowling's Wizarding World; these worlds reflect the passions and concerns of their authors in profound ways.
For my Tree of Life trilogy, I wanted to explore issues relating to prejudice, abuse of power and the destruction of the natural world – these issues shaped my secondary world as well as the plot and the characters. Think about the themes and issues that inspire you, and allow these to drive how you design your world.
Takeaway tip: Worldbuilding is important but do not concentrate on this at the expense of getting your books written. And make sure your invented world is consistent and feels authentic – where possible research real world cultures etc. that echo your creation.
The first part of this blog series can be read here.
Look out for the third part of the series, coming soon.
The Tree of Life trilogy is now available as an ebook boxset for just £1.99 / $2.40 (each of the volumes is also available individually in both paperback and ebook format). See links and a preview below:
Are you working on a trilogy or series? How are you building your secondary world? Add a comment and join the conversation.