Saturday, June 5, 2010

Heralds in Fantasy Literature

Heralds, in their original and simplest form, were messengers. In fantasy literature, a herald often brings the message or in some other way triggers the events, sets the events in motion.

In The Hobbit, for example, Gandalf is the herald, or the trigger, that sends Bilbo Baggins off on his grand adventure.

In my WATERSPELL trilogy, Carin is the herald. Her showing up on the property of the wizard named Verek sets the story action into motion. In effect, she will send Verek off on a quest—and she will participate fully with him on the quest, similar to how Gandalf sets Bilbo into motion and also plays his great role in the events of that story.

But behind Carin, there’s yet another herald—another character who is the one that set Carin into motion. So the events actually begin with the original herald, who is described in my Books One and Two as “the wisewoman.” We won’t know the wisewoman’s whole story until Book Three, which I'm about two-thirds of the way through writing.

But back to the beginning. When we first meet Carin in Book One Chapter 1, she’s not acting entirely of her own free will. The wisewoman has sent her to the wizard Verek.

One thing that has made Chapter 1 a bit hard for me to get right is that I need to at least hint that Carin isn’t really sure what her goal is, why she’s come north, or what she’s supposed to do when gets there. She only knows—or she feels, deep in her gut—that she has to be there.

In effect, she’s under a spell—a spell of compulsion. She thinks she’s acting of her own free will, but if she were pressed to explain her motives, she would be hard put to do it. This becomes clearer in Chapter 3, when Verek presses her about her reasons for trespassing on his property. Her explanations don’t satisfy him, and they will—I hope—deepen the sense of mystery that surrounds Carin.

But my problem with Chapter 1, as I’m discovering, is that many “mainstream” readers will expect the main character’s goals and motivations to be clearly laid out right at the start. That’s what they’ve been taught to expect.

Experienced readers of fantasy will understand that motives and circumstances are often quite murky as the story opens. In Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass, for instance, the main character, Lyra, has no problem whatsoever as the story opens. She’s having fun. She’s exploring a forbidden part of the college where she lives, and she’s enjoying herself. The big problem that she will face does not become clear for a very long time, as the trilogy unfolds.

So what I’m trying to accomplish with Chapter 1 of my fantasy is to present Carin as a strong, active, decisive character, but I also have to hint that she’s been set on this course, this particular path, by forces beyond her control, by circumstances that she didn’t create. She’s being used, quite frankly, but she’s not a pawn.

In a sense, she’s like King Arthur’s sword, Excalibur. He used the sword—only Arthur as the rightful king could wield it—but Excalibur had magical powers of its own. It allowed itself to be used only by the rightful king.

My girl, Carin, very definitely has a say in how she’s being used by the original herald, the wisewoman in the south, and by the wizard Verek once she follows the wisewoman’s instructions and finds him, up in the north.

I've been working on a Prologue to Book One that may help to clarify what's driving Carin, what her goal is, what problem she must overcome. I'm hoping that the agent I met in April will give me some feedback on it. In the meantime, I'm studying successful prologues, such as the lovely one that opens Ursula K. Le Guin's novel, The Tombs of Atuan.


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