One of the biggest challenges in any piece of writing is avoiding cliché. Another is getting readers to suspend disbelief and invest themselves emotionally in the characters they’re reading about. These challenges are even tougher in a genre that involves the creation of another world. It’s so easy to confuse complexity in world-building for complexity in character-building, even though they aren’t necessarily the same thing.
For example, I recall drafting a fantasy series in which I spent countless hours crafting the religious and political idiosyncrasies of a new, imaginary world, only to find at the end that I was staring at a cast of characters that had no more dimension than pieces on a game board. That really affected my decision to reverse things and start with the characters themselves. Heroes and villains can’t be two dimensional because that’s just so unlike what we, as complex beings, expect to find even in an imaginary setting.
Put another way, we’re surrounded by complexity all the time. If the characters we’re writing about don’t reflect that same complexity, it’s very difficult for readers to become invested in those fictional characters’ fate. With that in mind, here’s a general rule: give the good guy a vein of wickedness and the bad guy a hint of compassion. Shift this often. Keep the reader guessing. Maybe keep yourself guessing, too.
Consider some of the most memorable characters in fantasy: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Smeagol, J.K. Rowling’s Snape, George R. R. Martin’s Jaime Lannister. It would be tough to pigeonhole any of these characters into the “good” or “bad” category; often, like Roy Batty at the end of the Blade Runner film, these characters surprise us.
Even the “good guys” (like George R. R. Martin’s Tyrion Lannister) must have deep and heart-wrenching flaws; they must make mistakes, yet remain just endearing enough to the reader that, if anything, we’ll sometimes feel bad for cheering them on (as we might for cheering on Tony Soprano), which in turn makes us more invested in the story’s conclusion.
Another thing: just a Superman story has to contain kryptonite, be careful not to make your hero too strong, too powerful, too wise. And don’t call them a “hero,” either; let the reader decide for themselves who he/she wants to root for. Overuse of adjectives (powerful, beautiful, handsome, fearless, etc) gets some quick points but it also has very limited effectiveness. Remember, readers have their own imaginations. They want to be shown, not told.
We also have to avoid predictability in terms of our stories’ conflicts. For instance, I grew up loving a certain epic fantasy writer, but after a while, I noticed that most of his books (especially the early ones) follow a nearly identical pattern: 1) an ancient and unforeseen evil awakens, 2) a bumbling and unprepared everyman full of self-doubt must go off on a quest, more or less alone, while 3) more traditionally brave characters fight an action-packed, ill-fated holding action to slow the enemy down.
Book One: The Dragonkin Trilogy
In a land haunted by the legacy of dead dragons, Rowen Locke has been many things: orphan, gravedigger, mercenary. All he ever wanted was to become a Knight of Crane and wield a kingsteel sword against the kind of grown horrors his childhood knows all too well.
But that dream crumbled—replaced by a new nightmare.
War is overrunning the realms, an unprecedented duel of desire and revenge, steel and sorcery. And for one disgraced man who would be a knight, in a world where no one is blameless, the time has come to decide which side he’s on.
Fadarah turned his tattooed face toward the granite walls of Syros, greatest of the Free Cities of the Simurgh Plains. He held the reins of his horse in one fist as he settled back in the saddle and took in the sight. Mid-morning light crested the city’s crenellated battlements, shone through its white banners sewn with crossed longbows, and cast long, taut shadows over a forest made not from trees but from the raised arms of trebuchets. The sun burned in Fadarah’s eyes, but he did not blink. He was, after all, a Shel’ai. What was the sun, if not fire?
But the soldiers arrayed in vast columns behind him were Human, and they winced as the sun climbed higher into the clear, cloudless sky, blazing in their faces. Those men knew what all good fighters had known since the dawn of time—to fight with the sun in your face was madness. Courage and armor meant nothing if you could not see.
Still, when Fadarah ordered them forward, the Throng obeyed without question. They had nothing to fear from Syros’s archers and murder-holes, her broad battlements and stout, sealed gates. No, the Nightmare would take care of those.
Fadarah removed his gauntlets with deliberate slowness. Then he raised one fist and loosened his fingers. Tendrils of wytchfire burst to life above his open palm. The violet flames coursed the length of his arm. He felt a familiar, roiling heat. Though it titillated his senses, it left him unharmed. Those soldiers closest to him were merely Human, though. They blanched and
drew away, already perspiring from heat as much as fear.
Concealing a smirk, Fadarah shouted, “Send forth my Nightmare!”
Fadarah rose, standing in the saddle of his huge, oxblood-colored horse. Even without his armor and the wytchfire coursing from his fingers, men might have fled at the sight of him. He stood at least seven feet tall, broad shouldered and muscled like an Olg, with intricate blue tattoos covering his arms and shaven head.
As his order took effect, his men reacted uneasily. Twenty thousand strong, bristling with spears and drawn blades, and clad in armor, they still feared magic. They feared Fadarah. But more than him, they feared the Nightmare.
Fadarah could not blame them. He feared it, too.
He closed his fist, extinguishing the wytchfire, then seized the reins of his horse so his soldiers would not see his hands shake when the Nightmare came forward. Even after so much time, even knowing that the Nightmare had once been a man—a friend—Fadarah could not entirely quench his fear. He clenched the reins of his horse until his knuckles turned white as the
pupils of his eyes. Despite the bloodmare’s training, the horse would have panicked had Fadarah not sent a paralyzing jolt of magic into the beast’s mind.
Pity no one can do that for me. The Nightmare drew closer.
Fadarah heard shouting, even weeping, and sensed a wave of terror rolling through the ranks of his usually well-disciplined army. The men of the Throng had all seen the Nightmare at least once; many of them were conscripts from cities it had conquered. Even the most hardened soul could not stave off the panic for long. Fadarah imagined that some were already running
while others fell to their knees, covering their eyes and ears. Fadarah wished he could follow suit.
Instead, he took a deep breath and turned in the saddle. He forced himself to look. Through a great gap in the ranks slouched the Nightmare: a man-shaped thing twice as tall as he, but stooping on strong, twisted limbs. Black and burgundy scales covered its body, between which fire leaked like blood from open wounds. The eyes—yellow and dagger-thin—roiled with crazed malevolence.
Fadarah wanted to yank his mount to one side but resisted. The men of the Throng must not see him afraid of his own creation. With supreme effort, he gently tugged the reins, twitched his spurs, and urged his bloodmare sideways, farther and farther, until he was out of the Nightmare’s path. The red horse balked and tried to move faster, but Fadarah gave no ground, maintaining a stoic demeanor as he repositioned himself in front of the northern half of his army.
Twelve Shel’ai flanked the Nightmare, all on foot, all wearing bone-white cloaks extravagantly sewn with crimson greatwolves. Fadarah made no motion to the twelve as they passed, nor they to him. To do so would have been disastrous. Controlling the Nightmare required their keenest concentration. If the twelve lost their focus, the Nightmare would free itself. It would incinerate not just Syros but the army in front of it, including the Shel’ai who had
once been its friends. Fadarah tried to gaze upon the monstrosity shambling forward at the center of the twelve’s broad circle but quickly wrenched his eyes away, sickened. Iventine chose this. No one forced him, least of all me.
As the Nightmare continued toward Syros, yoked by its Shel’ai handlers, Fadarah thought of the others: brave souls who, like Iventine, had voluntarily subjected themselves to the awful power hidden in the vaults of Cadavash, letting it mingle with the abilities they already had, turning them into Dragonkin. All slumbered in a separate camp, overseen by more Shel’ai whose
job was not so much to guard the initiates but to make sure they did not wake in a delirium and turn everything in the vicinity to ash.
Fadarah shuddered. He prayed the other initiates—potential Nightmares in their own right—would never be needed. Then he wrested his attention back to the matters at hand. To prevent widespread panic and desertions, the rest of the Shel’ai commanded individual battalions throughout the host. The sight of the imposing sorcerers in bone-white cloaks usually squelched any rebellion before it started.
Still, only so much could be done about the horses. Thanks to Fadarah’s magic, his bloodmare anxiously pawed the ground but did not bolt. Others were not so lucky. Steel spurs vainly raked the flanks of countless rounceys, drawing blood to no avail. Within moments, five broad, orderly rows of armored horsemen wavered like wheat in a harvest wind. Horses reared, casting scores of men to the ground. Other horses galloped off, hauling their hapless riders with
Fadarah glanced at Syros. Were the city’s defenders emboldened by the sight of such upheaval? Probably not, since Syros is the Nightmare’s target.
“Hold the line!” He drew his sword—an impressive two-hander, big enough for an Olg—and waved it high for emphasis. “Captains, stand by your battalions! Prepare to attack!” Then, shaking, he turned his full attention to the Nightmare.
The circle of Shel’ai had drawn their monstrosity to a halt, just beyond the range of Syros’s famous archers. Those Shel’ai in front of the Nightmare withdrew, and the twelve formed a single row behind it. The Nightmare’s ragged, wheezing breath filled the air, scalding it with heat as from a blacksmith’s bellows. The beast faced the sunlit city. The harsh breathing
grew louder, resounding with some awful sense of anticipation, like an attack dog anxious to slip its leash. For a long time, nothing moved. Then, Fadarah gave the order. The Shel’ai released their mental control. The leash came off.
Cries of panic spread across the high stone walls of Syros. Some of the city’s defenders fled and dropped their weapons, abandoning their posts. Others found their courage and leapt into action. The Nightmare closed to within bow-range. Along the granite walls, hundreds of bowstrings shuddered. A broad, dark cloud rose against the sun.
The cloud bristled with enough arrows to shred an entire battalion of horsemen. Yet not one of them hit its mark. Hundreds of wooden shafts burst to cinders just before they might have struck, ignited by the intense heat rising in waves off the Nightmare’s body.
Barreling through a blizzard of ash, the Nightmare continued its charge.
Syros’s archers admirably managed three more volleys, but even their final, closest volley burst to cinders. Then, they did something even Fadarah had not anticipated. All along the walls, men tipped great, sloshing cauldrons over the battlements. Water fell in fast, clear braids, flooding the plains at the base of the walls, transforming the earth into a swamp.
Fadarah smiled. “Clever,” he admitted grudgingly.
The Nightmare hurtled forward. Its burning body met water, and steam rose in thick, gray clouds. For a moment, fog swallowed the high walls of Syros. Even the flaming Nightmare momentarily vanished in the hissing mist.
Fadarah heard cries of alarm, different from what he had heard before, and tensed. He used his magic to heighten his senses and extended his mind into the ranks behind him. He saw the problem right away. None of the conquered cities had ever tried this tactic before. The soldiers of the Throng feared it might work. With the Nightmare gone, they might have to fight with the sun in their eyes after all. Then they heard the sounds. They echoed across the Simurgh Plains. Screams. The crack of ancient granite. The great shudder caused by tons of stone tumbling to earth. Then more screams.
Gods forgive us. Although the fog blocked Fadarah’s sight, he could guess what was happening. He thrust his two-handed sword toward the sky. Sunrise flashed down its steely face like blood.
“The walls are breached! Syros has fallen!” He pointed his blade at the city. “Follow me!”
Raw exhilaration flooded his body. He led the charge himself. The army hesitated only a moment then roared to life and streamed after him. Cavalry, pikemen, archers. Shel’ai. All followed the Sorcerer-General as he rode toward the fog-shrouded city. Then the mist parted.
Syros’s entire central wall was gone. Broken, blasted stones littered the plains. The gates had been reduced to puddles of wet ash. Dead men scattered the earth: archers, men-at-arms, Syros’s reserves. Horns blared frantic declarations of surrender from the sections of wall left intact. No one had the heart to fight. Left with no option, armed men threw down their swords
and surrendered, half expecting the Throng to cut them down anyway.
With the Nightmare gone—vanished—and the walls breached, Fadarah’s soldiers greeted the survivors with pity. Throng captains sheathed their weapons and coordinated efforts to aid the injured, to prevent widespread rape and murder. They did not do this out of some rare inclination toward compassion; they were simply following Fadarah’s orders.
Fadarah himself took no part in this. Instead, he watched as the twelve Shel’ai emerged, exhausted, from the ruins and fog. Dust and blood stained their bone-white cloaks, but their hoods were still drawn closed. It would not do for Humans to see the expression on their faces.
But the men of the Throng were too busy looting or tending to injured, shocked prisoners to pay much attention to the twelve Shel’ai. So no Human saw what Fadarah saw: a thirteenth cloaked figure slumped amid the others, supported on each arm by one of the twelve. Iventine...
“Take him back to the camp. Hide him. Let me know if his condition worsens.”
The other Shel’ai nodded, too tired to speak. As they passed, Fadarah caught a brief glimpse of Iventine’s face. Ghastly, sunken cheeks. Wild, blood-shot eyes. He turned away. By the time the Sorcerer-General retired to his tent, the sun was setting. He had sheathed his greatsword, for he no longer had the strength to hold it, but he took care to stand upright and breathe easily before his Human servants. He calmly accepted a goblet of cool wine then dispassionately ordered them away. When they were gone, he slumped into a chair. The ominous armor that made him look so imposing weighed him down incredibly, much too heavy for a Sylv.
But I am not a Sylv. They made that clear. He touched the tapered points of his ears. Then he attacked the complicated lattice of straps and buckles holding his armor in place, casting it piece by piece to the ground. This morning, he had watched in the mirror as his servants helped him don his plate mail: breast and backplates, pauldrons, gauntlets, greaves, and other pieces he could not name. The mirror had been left in place. Fadarah used it and removed the armor by himself. Doing so took a long time, but with each piece that fell, relief flooded his limbs. Half done, Fadarah flexed his fingers and massaged one sore shoulder. Then he studied his reflection.
The Sorcerer-General’s expression turned bitter.
The same blue tattoos that covered Fadarah’s face and hands also covered the rest of his body, which was thickly muscled, as his father’s must have been.
My father. Fadarah grinned sardonically.
His mother had been Wyldkin, one of those few renegade Sylv who lived beyond the majestic forests surrounding the World Tree—not because they were forced to, like those born with the dragonmist, but because they wanted to. She and her husband made their home
somewhere between Sylvos and the land of the Olgrym. What exactly happened next, Fadarah did not know. But he could guess.
Wyldkin often ran from Olgrym, but sometimes they were caught anyway. The Olgrym must have slaughtered his mother’s husband. Fadarah imagined them torturing him before devouring him raw. But that was nothing compared to what they did to his mother.
Fadarah shuddered. The Sylvs still told stories of female Wyldkin who kept small knives sheathed on the inside of a thigh—not for fighting but for slitting their own throats if the only other option was being taken prisoner by Olgrym. Fadarah did not know if his mother had carried such a knife, but he often thought that if she had, she should have used it.
True, he barely remembered her, but his mother must have been strong. She’d survived the Olgrym, hadn’t she? She even escaped and returned to the Sylvs. There she gave birth—not to the child of her husband, the Sylvan baby she must have prayed was growing inside her—but to a brute. A half-Olg. Worse, he had the dragonmist in his eyes!
An abomination on two fronts.
Fadarah shook his head. His mother might have killed him to spare her own disgrace; she didn’t. They lived in Sylvos instead, alongside the Sylvs. But even as a child, Fadarah sensed their suspicion. Their hatred. He sensed how it all must end.
Fadarah winced. He shook himself and then drew his sword. A fine length of exquisite kingsteel, fixed to a handle wrought of dragonbone. Many times, Fadarah had considered falling on it, just to end his torment. But that time, he quickly cast the sword aside. He knew he could not do that. His people needed him. Not the Sylvs, not the Olgrym, but the Shel’ai.
Fadarah laughed. He laughed for a long time. Then he wept. He pressed one hand to his mouth, not wanting anyone to hear. Still, his tattooed body jerked as though he were being stabbed.
Michael Meyerhofer grew up in Iowa where he learned to cope with the unbridled excitement of the Midwest by reading books and not getting his hopes up, Probably due to his father’s influence, he developed a fondness for Star Trek, weight lifting, and collecting medieval weapons. He is also addicted to caffeine and the History Channel.
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