As I’ve been hinting at over the past weeks, I have once again turned to trying my hand at writing fantasy. I am still very early in the process and just started working on a first outline, but so far a pretty solid concept has already formed. To a large extend it’s an updated version of my ideas I had two years ago, which ended up going nowhere because I was never able to transform my ideas for characters and setting into plot. But a while back I figured out that you actually can write action adventure tales that are character driven instead of plot driven, and that opened up a whole new space of ideas to me that really has me want to get something down to paper.
Oldschool Sword & Sorcery
To probably nobody’s surprise, the style I want to write in is Sword & Sorcery in the style of Conan, Elric, Kane, and Hyperborea. Modern Sword & Sorcery is generally thrown together with Dark Fantasy or the completely unironic and akwardly oblivious Grimdark. But while Kane does match the stereotype of the dour cold-hearted killer, the style as a whole is probably best described in the opening ofThe Phoenix on the Sword, which became the work that led to it’s establishment as a distinctive type of fantasy:
“Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.”
In my view, Sword & Sorcery is all about tales of encounters with the supernatural. About remarkable individuals who have brushes with vast realms that lie beyond the world of ordinary existance and behold things not meant for mortal minds. And they are also tales of great emotions and passions with great senses of wonder and exhilaration. It is very much a style that has grown out of the tradition of Romanticism. Yet passion and wonder are things that I find missing in most works that I see released as Sword & Sorcery in the 21st century. A niche that has been seriously lacking attention for a good while now, even with hushed wispers of a Sword & Sorcery revival making their rounds for close to a decade now. But by now we have to realize that we won’t be having such stories unless we write them.
My take on it
Sword & Sorcery is a style of stories that lends itself really much more to shorter self contained tales rather that big multi-volume doorstoppers. Yet there is barely any market for short length stories outside of obscure magazines that nobody seems to read, and none at all for stories of medium length. And I can very much see why there is little interest in short stand-alone one-shots where the world and characters are over barely after they have been introduced. But all the big classics of Sword & Sorcery – Conan, Fafhrd & Gray Mouser, Elric, Kane – are not like that at all. When we read them today we get collections of many stories often spanning multiple volumes. They were not written like that back then, but it seems to me the perfect approach to write them now. Instead of one story in three books, we can write three stories in one book. (And of course expand to nine stories in three books.) All set in the same world and sharing the same cast of characters. Very much like TV shows were being made in the 90s. This way you can write stories using the well established and tried structure of Sword & Sorcery while providing the requirements of the contemporary market.
As the saying always goes, “write what you would want to read”. And there are so many things in contemporary fantasy that I think have great potential for so much more than is being done with it, as well as a lot of fascinating themes and elements that I never see covered in fantasy anywhere. The one thing that motivates me most to write is the types of heroes that are common in the action and adventure genres. They are heroes without fear, who are undisturbed by violence and death, and who never question the whole business of constantly fighting hordes of enemies. And they are also almost always more than capable of dealing with seemingly overwhelming opposition because they are just that great and special. You could easily say that I have a great fascination with violence, but it’s far from the heroic glorification of action movies and games. Depictions of violence tend to greatly tone it down to make it entertaining fun, but I am much more interested in treatments of violence as horror in itself.
A major influence in this regard to me is Solid Snake from the Metal Gear Solid series. Snake is an extraordinarily dangerous fighter and skilled master of stealth, but he is also a pawn who keeps getting used by others who outsmart him, and while he always wins in the end, he usually is left with regrets about having been tricked into furthering another villain’s goal. Snake represents a very unconventional form of heroism that is much more about being of honorable character and regarding violence as a means of last resort that holds no glory. Perhaps an even greater influence on my idea of heroism is Indiana Jones, who is constantly being beaten and outsmarted and doesn’t really have any superhuman strength and power. But his heroic nature lies in his determination and courage, which makes him come back and try again until in the end he comes out on top. A third character I love is Geralt from The Witcher, who like Snake is a superhuman warrior with a very unique insight into violence and a very critical view of himself and his work. As we have a rather unique outlook on militarism and heroism in German culture, Snake, Indy, and Geralt are heroes that resonate with me much more than the average action hero who enjoys his violent deeds. I am with Yoda when it comes to “great warriors”.
Another topic that greatly fascinates me is failure and defeat. Mainstream American media do not accept failure as the final outcome. “Failure is not an option.” But my own take on existentialist philosophy (influenced by Buddhism) is that failure is always an option. “Never give up” is possibly one of the worst advice that I’ve ever heard. I love stories in which the protagonist eventually grows to be more by dropping the commitment to a goal that no longer seems to be worth pursuing. Finding peace always seems more important to me than winning or being right, which is something that I find very much missing in current and recent adventure movies in general and also fantasy books specifically. Giving up and running away can be a form of personal greatness that can be a satisfying conclusion to a story, which is something I really want to write about. There is obviously a strong Noir influence in everything.
The third thing I want o feature heavily in these stories is a strong mystical element. The treatment of religion in fantasy is often superficial at best and the supernatural reduced to an alternative form of physics. I’ve been taking classes on existentialism, spirituality, mysticism, and Asian and African religions for four years in university and there are huge psychological and social elements to them that have incredible storytelling potential. I see the Encounter with the Supernatural as a core element of Sword & Sorcery and want to make it the center of my own stories. And not simply encounters with fictional beasts and wizards who can throw fire, but by making the adventures spiritual journeys to a higher reality. There are some really incredible lines in Mass Effect, that sadly the series did not really follow up on, but which quite well describe the sense of wonder I want to pursue:
“Rudimentary creatures of flesh and bone. You touch my mind, fumbling in ignorance, incapable of understanding. There is a realm of existance so far beyond your own you can not even imagine it. You can not even grasp the nature of our existance. We have no beginning, we have no end. We are infinite. You exist because we allow it, and you will end because we demand it.”
I admit that all of this is very ambitious to say the least. Especially for a first serious attempt at writing. But if you have something fresh and different to say, I think it does not matter that much how polished and refined it is. I am very exited to see how this will work out for me. I think there’s real potential for it to be great.
I intend Kaendor to be a series that covers the adventures of several different heroes. But for the beginning I want to focus on one character in particular, who has been constantly on my mind for years, even though I have not decided on a final name yet.
The Wanderer came into being as a reaction to typical fantasy heroes who regularly tend to be or become the most extraordinary people of their world. Individuals of remarkable talent and potential who end up with unmatched skills and perform the most amazing deeds that become the stuff of legend. Over the years I have developed a great love for the smaller stories. Of characters who are not the best at what they do and who don’t have the skill and power to fight enemies that greatly outnumber them, and who are not assured victory because they are the hero of the story. The Wanderer is a woman without great skills or special powers, who doesn’t have great fame or any significant influence. Nor is she on any mission or quests. What drives her is her curiosity and the search for answers to questions she can’t specify herself. She travels the lands as a seeker of enlightenment, similar to how Conan was wandering the world to gain greatness. In a world full of strange wonders and mysteries, she often joins groups of treasure hunters and mercenaries or travels on her own, with a temporary companion or alone. As she is often on her own and no master of combat, fighting is usually not an option and so her adventures into strange places are more about wits and bravery.
The Lands of Kaendor
Kaendor is a world very similar to my past work for RPGs and is made up of many of the same building blocks, including peoples, creatures, and landscapes. They are my favorite cool things that I have scavenged from other fantasy worlds for years. But below the aesthetic surface it’s a quite different world that is’t tailored to the specific needs of campaigns or build around game mechanics. Instead it’s a world that is mostly about culture, society, and elaborate manifestations of the supernatural and the mysteries of the cosmos.
Kaendor is a forest world covered almost entirely in trees or water. The known lands consist of a long stretch of coast and nearby islands that reach from the arctic to the tropics but still make up only a small fraction of the full size of the world. The sky is dominated by a huge moon covered in changing bands of blue and beige clouds, which causes regular eclipses lasting for hours every spring and fall. The forests are dominated by conifers and ferns and home to many great beasts, including giant reptiles and insects.
The cultures of Kaendor are consist of various nonhuman peoples and are based on a wide range of civilizations from the Bronze Age, a time period that is surprisingly underused as a source for fantasy. There are a small number of city states ruled by regional kings, but most people are living in small clan holds deep in a vast wilderness. Armor consists of simple cuirasses of bronze scales and the weaponry of heroes consists of spears, shields, bows, axes, and small swords. I have a very clear and distinct aesthetic in mind for this world, which is very strongly influenced by The Empire Strikes Back and Morrowind, following my idea of Baroque Fantasy.
Finally there’s the strong supernatural element. The world as a whole really consists of two mirroring realms. The mortal world and the Spiritworld, which are always in close contact with each other and result in a strong presence of spirits in all places. Spirits are strange beings that normally exist outside of mortal perception, existing outside the familiar passing of time. Witches and shamans don’t really have magical powers of their own but possess great knowledge about the spirits and the ways to communicate with and manipulate them. By having access to the knowledge and abilities of spirits they become able to gain insight into the present, past, and also future and have some degree of control over the fortunes of people and settlements.
All in all, I feel like I have a lot of great ideas that are quite different from most fantasy that is out there today while also drawing heavily on classic Sword & Sorcery from the past that many people are wishing to see more of. While it’s somewhat daunting, I see a real chance to do something great with this.