Stranger than fantasy
In its way, becoming a new parent is more tiring than an epic journey, more challenging than a battle with the Dark Lord and more wonderful than magic. So, since Baby Smith is now a month old, this week I'm taking a break from fantasy to share my hard-won wisdom with you: ten things they don't tell you about becoming a parent.*
1. They say sleep when the baby sleeps. What they don't add is that there will be days when the baby doesn't sleep for longer than twenty minutes at a stretch. All day. And the only thing worse than getting no sleep is dropping off for a single glorious moment, only to be woken up again by the familiar sound of wailing.
2. Your 'spare time' will be reduced to five minutes furtively scoffing down chocolate in a remote corner of the house while your partner deals with the squirming bundle of arms and legs that's invaded your household.
3. The only time 1 and 2 won't hold true is when you have visitors. On such days the baby will sleep peacefully in his cot and submit to being passed around a multitude of eager hands without a whimper. The guests will go away thinking what an angel you've been blessed with, while you return to battling with the demon-spawn.
4. You'll wear the same clothes for days on end. On a good day, you'll manage to have a shower before bedtime.
5. You'll become intimately acquainted with the daytime TV schedules. Because although you swore you'd never waste your life watching mindless programmes about feuding neighbours and botched DIY, your mind will be too frazzled and your arms too full of baby to do anything else.
6. You'll suddenly take an inordinate amount of interest in faeces, urine, vomit and other bodily emissions. You'll find yourself poring over a dirty nappy as if it's a treasure map, wondering if it's normal.
7. You'll develop the ability to be amazed by the slightest thing. (Oh look! He blinked! Isn't he clever!)
8. Instead of spending your online time searching for new authors, publishing news and interesting facts to use in your next novel, you'll obsessively Google newborn sleep patterns and what the contents of a dirty nappy should look like. (See 6.)
9. You'll sometimes think nostalgically of that distant time when you could leave the house on a whim or while away a morning reading in bed, and wonder why on earth you thought it would be a good idea to put yourself through this ordeal.
10. Despite all the above, it won't be very long before you can't imagine your life without what has become the most important thing in it.
* Or rather, they probably do tell you, only at the time you just nod and smile while secretly thinking it won't be like that for me. If only you knew …
Fantasy clichés #3: The Quest
I am ashamed to say that in the first fantasy book I ever wrote, I actually used the word 'quest' to describe what the main group of characters were doing. I may even have referred to said characters as 'questors'. In my defence, I was probably about twelve and had no idea what was a cliché and what wasn't. And at least I was being honest – because the Quest, in varying degrees of disguise, is alive and well in fantasy today.
The classic example is, of course, Frodo's mission to destroy the One Ring. And then there are the various quests to find a magical item that will enable the defeat of the Dark Lord – the search for the Horcruxes/Hallows in Harry Potter 7 being the most famous recent example. This kind of thing has perhaps become what many people think of when they think of fantasy. So has it been done to death, or is there still room for a quest or two?
The thing about this cliché is that authors use it for a reason: it gives them a clear (dare I say easy?) structure to work with. The plot essentially becomes that of a computer game – reach these milestones and collect these tokens to win. In theory, this leaves the author free to concentrate on other things: complex subplots, perhaps, or incisive characterisation. For that reason, the best quests are barely recognisable as such – the quest simply forms the invisible core around which the real story is wound, like the stick at the heart of a big cloud of candyfloss. On the other hand, for the lazy or novice author the quest may be the be all and end all, and therein lies the danger. Because reading a simple quest story is very much like watching someone play the aforementioned computer game: it may be briefly entertaining and even visually flashy, but it's repetitive, shallow and involves no emotional engagement whatsoever.
Despite this obvious pitfall, I don't dislike the Quest cliché nearly as much as perhaps I should. And I think the reason for this is that at heart, almost every plot is a quest. Because a quest is really nothing more than the desire to achieve something – and without that, you wouldn't have much of a story. In that sense, the search for a magical object and the search for an end to conflict and the search for love are all the same thing. It's the details that determine whether or not the quest feels old and tired, or transforms itself into something new.
After a two-week baby break, I've managed to scratch out a bit of time for blogging again. (I wrote this one in a notebook while the baby slept on my lap and I gradually lost all feeling in my left arm.) So I thought I'd continue my series of posts on fantasy clichés with one of my favourites: the gratuitously uneven fight.
All fantasy fans enjoy a good battle, whether between individuals, groups or armies. And we also like seeing our heroes overcome the odds. There's no tension in a duel if the protagonist is by far the better trained and better armed. The Lord of the Rings wouldn't have been the same if the mighty hordes of Gondor had been facing Sauron's tiny ragtag army. We all appreciate a good underdog. Trouble is, it's easy to take this desire to weigh the scales against our characters too far.
An author's thought process might go like this. Say we have a swordsman being set upon by a bunch of thugs in an alley and fighting them off single-handed. Obviously there has to be more than one thug to give the scene its edge – let's make it three. But then, even your half-decent swordsman can defeat three antagonists without breaking a sweat (or so some fantasy would have us believe), so make it five. No, ten. And it would be more impressive if the hero was incapacitated in some way, so let's give him a wound. And take away his sword so he has to fight with a knife. And hell, why not blindfold him as well?
At some point, this stops being impressive and becomes ridiculous – first, because it's completely unrealistic, and second, because if the protagonist is so damn good that he can fight off ten men wounded, weaponless and blindfolded, then he's no longer the underdog. He's pretty much invincible. And invincible is boring.
I'm not advocating getting rid of the unequal fight. They're fun to write and fun to read. But authors have to tread a fine line when constructing them. It has to be physically possible for the hero to triumph, while still being an extreme enough situation that the reader gets that sense of awesomeness when he does – and, of course, the outcome has to be close enough to the wire that next time a similar problem arises, there's still tension in it. This may all seem obvious, but achieving that delicate balance between dull and laughable is easier said than done.