It’s also best if the heroine has a terrible past that she must learn to deal with and that will eventually explain much of what she needs to know later in the novel. Check. Cauri’s father made a deal with the devils that resulted in his, and her mother’s deaths, and Cauri’s relocation to a safer town. Cauri, of course, knows nothing of the conflict in her past and slowly gets the details as she progresses through the novel.
They say that every novel should have a hero to play off the heroine and maybe provide a bit of that infamous forbidden-love that packs the shelves so well. Check. Meet Kael Ledin, the green-eyed, golden-leather clad (he’s a grandmaster), tenacious, somewhat violent, highly protective, courageous man who struggles to protect those he loves while fighting to protect himself from his own inner demons.
And every novel needs a good “old man” mentor. Check. Meet Brogan Ledin, father to Kael and head grandmaster of the Light Guild. Brogan is resourceful, methodical, charismatic, and finds that even his best intentions have not so desirable consequences. He, of course, must learn to control his meddling and become more patient with the people he loves.
A novel wouldn’t be complete if the heroine didn’t live in an interesting town. Check. Welcome to Aiden, the magic capitol of the lands, located on the southern tip of the continent of Solace. Aiden has a council of grandmasters that rule and punish and is peppered with concubines, warriors, witches, and wizards, and an obstinate black dragon that keeps everyone in check.
More than that, the heroine and hero will need to leave that great setting (the ordinary world) and adventure out into other lands (the extraordinary world) to keep the story moving. Check. Cauri and Kael will travel from Aiden to Cauri’s homeland of the Corywyn Empire, and later to the town of Derasi in the underworld to find answers to Cauri’s past, fulfill her own personal quest, and help save people along the way.
The heroine wouldn’t have anything to fight for if there wasn’t a great antagonist. Check. Meet Mistress Angeline, the violet-eyed (sound familiar?), strategic, intuitive, persuasive, commander of the underworld who strives toward only one goal: eliminating the protagonist, our dear, beloved Cauri. Since all antagonists need “helpers” to thwart the heroine along the way, Angeline has an army of devils, hellhounds, and skeleton warriors to get the job done.
A novel just wouldn’t be complete without conflict to drive the plot. Check. Cauri is faced with three challenges (not administered in over five hundred years) that will test her abilities; or more specifically, her ability to battle powerful beasts (to test her strength in magic), her ability to battle for another (where her heart will be tested), and the battle with herself (to test the boundaries of her soul). Every step along the way, Cauri struggles to control her magic and understand the limits to what she can accomplish. Of course, she will be tested to such a degree that she falls into despair and “almost” gives up, but will finally face her fears and triumph. This is the mark of a true heroine: her ability to face despair and conquer it.
And don’t forget those sounds, smells, and background animals that make the universe “more real.” Check. Aiden uses the leather hides of the multi-colored gorgons for clothing (creating an entire social structure with three very specific colors), and they use the animals themselves for beasts of burden. There are even designated hides-breeders that care for the gorgons out on Gorgon Row. Often throughout the novel, the leather uniforms are creaking, boots are thunking, and bones are snapping. More often than that, the characters are munching on succulent melons or roasted mushrooms and can be found drinking beer in raucous taverns.
So do the conventions work? Before shrieking at the simple nature of the beast, let me explain. I bought and read just about every book on writing that I could find. Of those, Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, the Writer’s Digest Writer’s Complete Fantasy Reference, and Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages changed the way that I think about writing altogether. And to be honest, Lukeman’s novel actually gave true meaning to the difference between “showing versus telling.” Writers say this all of the time, but Lukeman is able to “show” a newbie (or veteran) writer how to accomplish such an enigmatic device.
Most of the books that I voraciously clutched to had much the same things to say, but never really explained why the conventions work, or how to make them work without the reader saying, “that’s so cliché.”
A reader would never come to love Cauri and trust her as a heroine if I didn’t first introduce them to her world, her ambitions, and her conflicts. A reader won’t even believe in Aiden as a city if I didn’t build in practical structures such as Scarlett’s Inn, the guilds where everyone lives, the general store, and the Temple of Healing.
In a very profound way, I’ve realized that the conventions work extremely well, especially when the reader is presented with a sensibly “realistic” world. Real heroes have troubled pasts and can overcome great obstacles, and they usually have someone wise to guide them, or hamper them, along the way. A real hero wouldn’t be a hero if he didn’t have an antagonist of some sort to piss him off and send him on the path that will bring him over that profound obstacle. Actually, the antagonist doesn’t even have to be a person, in the real world, it could be a disease such as cancer, or the simple yet complex need to succeed in academics. And without conflict, well, not many people would bother to get off of their couches.
I’ve found that using the conventions blatantly served to help form the story itself. I never would have created Brogan without that old man mentor adage, and he’s become a venerated staple in my novel. I never would have given Cauri challenges to test her, and they’ve proven to be a very real driving force in her choices and success. And, I never would have thought to add a creature such as the mighty gorgon, and their hides have provided an entire social structure, complete with experts, masters, and grandmasters, for the town of Aiden.
If used correctly, and this will sound surprisingly “conventional,” the characters will / can / are able to take off on paths of their own that I definitely never would have expected. And they do so because of the very conventions that I created them from. Without the conventions, many of my characters never would have existed, my theme would have been a fuzzy blur (if that), and I probably would never have fleshed out a story that I could be proud of.
So, yes. The conventions work. Use them, abuse them. But above all, a writer must know them, if only to work around them and make them dance.