Form and the Fantastic
(WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS!)
This is the critical afterword that I wrote about ELANTRIS for my grad program. It’s essentially a scholarly analysis of my own work, written by me. It was a very interesting thing to do—as an English major, you get used to analyzing other people’s novels. This was the first time I did something similar for mine, however! Please forgive the stuffy, academic nature of the piece. That’s just how these things are.
Form and the Fantastic
Afterword to Elantris
Part One: On Form
Fiction, especially fantasy, is an exercise in submersion. Some call this escapism, though I find that term reductive. I prefer to look at it as writing as the creation of reality—as the poet George P. Elliott (known for his view of prose as an organic creation) noted, “Fiction is dreaming mixed with storytelling, where both become one so that the dream is created while the story is being told, then [the reader] may not only look at your fantasy but imagine it as well” (13).
When an author creates a story, he or she develops their Form. Every work has its own Form, an internal logic and consistency that creates a motif for the novel, providing a subconscious context for the reader. In works of fiction, one can often divide Form into three general aspects: Form of Characterization, Form of Thematics, and Form of Prose. It is vital that the author avoid breaking form in any of these three areas.
One of the most powerful ways an author creates Form is through characterization. By crafting a set of characters who have ideals, opinions, and motivations relating to each other and the world around them, an author can quickly establish setting and theme for a work. Indeed, characterization is one of the most important writing elements a storyteller must learn, for the Form of a work can quickly be shattered if characters act outside of their motivations. Once a book’s Form has been created in a reader’s mind, the author should take care not to work outside this framework. Plot can surprise, but characters should not.
Neither, as a matter of point, should theme. Theme must develop according to the Form of the book. Characters will have opinions, and other characters will oppose them. Moreover, in most fantasy books, the world becomes a character unto itself. It too must have passions, quirks, and—most importantly—progression. Themes develop when the characters interact with each other or their setting.
An author who seeks to embed a lopsided agenda into their fiction undermines their work’s own reality. Characters may have agendas, but authors must not. When theme is working well within a book, it is part of the internal logic—a function of the world and setting, vitally related to the passions and motivations of the characters and societies. A book focusing on kings and wars, for instance, would do well to thematically consider the burdens of leadership and the virtue of conquering a people to give them a better life.
Theme must remain internally focused. Anything that hints to the reader that their experience is anything less than real—that these characters do not breathe, that this rain is not cold, and that this dog does not whimper—destroys the creation. Suddenly, what was created becomes simply words. In reality, when the reader ‘Awakens’ to the fabrication, all they are really doing is noticing a flaw that breaks the Form of the book. If the author tries to place themes by intention, he will fail. Allowed to mature on their own, however, the themes will become real and definable aspects of the work.
Now, I don’t pretend to subscribe to the group I’d call ‘writing spiritualists.’ I see the prose of a work as a part of Form itself. Authors sometimes regard writing as an mystical experience—as if they were antediluvian shamans squatting in their huts before the cast entrails of their prose, waiting for them to spawn a masterpiece. To such writers, characters do ‘surprising’ things—as if the author were not in control, but instead some psychic channeling the spirit of literary tradition. This is ridiculous. A novel is a work of the mind who created it, and that author always has control over his or her creation. Characters do not magically come to life, they develop through the author’s skill and intention, coming to simulate living beings. Writing is an action, not an emotion. In order to craft the Form of a work, an author must be in control of their pose.
Yet, we are organic beings, and so our art—even that which is confined to static pages—is organic as well. A novel will develop as it is written, for new connections will be made, and new insights will occur to the writer. Through practice, the author will foster in his or herself a skill both conscious and subconscious, one that recognizes what belongs in a particular novel and that which does not. This is the Form of Prose—the ability to judge and place words in a way that points the reader toward theme and character.
Working with these three elements together—characterization, thematics, and prose—the author can create a story with a true voice and purpose. Instead of themes that are contrived, the work will convey ideas and characters that are the soul of the piece itself. These themes are not advocations of one choice over another, they simply are. A well-written piece will convey its own Platonic ideal. If it breaks from that internal form, readers will recognize the diversion. External parasites—such as author agendas, forced constructions of plot, and convenient character ‘revelations’— will contrast with the book so starkly that they will be rejected by any discerning reader.
Part Two: Form and Fantasy
The fantastic has a special relationship with Form. Critics of the genre, in their ignorance, would call the fantastic formless. I have often heard the phrase ‘It’s just not real,’ spoken as a reproach of fantasy. More biting is the comment that ‘the conflict isn’t real because it can just be resolved magically.’ This criticism can indeed be justified, though only for a poorly-written book.
Like any work of fiction, a fantasy book creates its own Form. In fact, the creation of a fantastical Form can be easier, since there are fewer impediments upon its creation. Any work of fiction (indeed, most works of nonfiction as well) creates the world in which its characters will act. There are laws and logic to that world—as we have discussed, these are the substance of Form.
These laws might include thematic ideals—such as ‘a hard-working orphan will always be rewarded in the end.’ They might be character-related, such as ‘the clever detective can make amazing deductive leaps.’ The laws might imitate those of the real world—including such things as the unpredictability and danger of warfare—or they might depart completely from the real world, and include such things as rings that can dominate and control one’s will.
Many readers don’t realize that all of these laws are fabrications. Just because a work is deemed ‘realistic’ does not mean that the author didn’t contrive the situations, characters, and internal logic of the book. A well-written realistic book pays very close attention to its Form, and is careful not to deviate. The real difference between fantasy and realism is that fantasy brings with it fewer conventional limits on its original Form. (Though, once that Form is created, it must pay just as close attention to maintenance as the realistic work.)
The fantasist must pay vital attention to the Form of his or her work. Even though it is possible to provide magical solutions to problems, those solutions will fail unless they fit the established laws of the book. The appellation of ‘fantasy’ does not give a writer liberal ability to do anything he or she wishes. It allows the author to craft a more diverse Form for the book, but the ideas created therein are still binding upon both author and characters.
In fact, I think that fantasy and realism share more than either sect would like to admit. Henry James—universally accepted as a realist—once noted that fiction is successful when it “has a constant motive behind it. That motive is simply experience. As people feel life, so they will feel the art that is most closely related to it” (397). I would suggest to Mr. James that ‘life’ as he terms it has nothing at all to do with the physical attributes of the world, and everything to do with the common experiences we all share. As human beings, we know human beings, and we will recognize characters who act like human beings. This is just as important to fantasy as it is to realism. Form can only be recognized by readers who share a common bond of experience.
And so, fantasy cannot ignore its own Form. In Lord of the Rings, the resolution of the major conflict takes place when the One Ring is cast into the fires of Mt. Doom. This is, indeed, a magical solution available only in a fantastic setting. However, it also fits the Form of the work. What would have happened if Frodo had discovered another way to destroy the ring? Such a solution would have felt inappropriate. Gandalf had already explained that there was only one way to end the ring’s power.
In addition, finding another solution would have gone against the Form in an even more powerful way. Lord of the Rings is the story of travel into danger, both mentally and physically. Without the climax of Frodo succumbing to the ring—and the ring’s subsequent pseudo-accidental destruction by Golum—the Form of the book would have been frustrated. The efforts of the fellowship members—including Borimer’s death, Gandalf’s sacrifice, and the efforts of so many—would have been betrayed. The questing nature of The Lord of the Rings demanded that Frodo discover the solution at Mt. Doom, the place he had struggled so valiantly to reach. The subconscious Form of the book—the theme of the small hobbit vs. the mighty Dark Lord—demanded that Frodo confront evil at its source.
Science fiction novelist Orson Scott Card explains that there is really only one unbreakable law for fantasy magic systems—that of being consistent. As he puts it, “With magic, you must be very clear about the rules. . . You don’t want your readers to think that anything can happen” (47). Magic must not contradict itself in the reader’s mind. This is really just a simple way of saying “Don’t betray the Form of your work.”
Ironically, the term ‘fantasy’ has come to create its own external Form in our current market. Market research has shown that books the words ‘dragon’ or ‘star’ in their titles tend to sell better than those which do not. In many people’s minds, ‘fantasy’ refers to a book with wizards and dragons (I will explore the effect of stereotype and archetype upon the genre a little bit later.) This is, however, as much a problem with the authors as the marketplace. I would point out, however, that the success of less-stereotypical fantasies—including parallel histories, such as Guns of the South, and more indefinable books, such as the works of Guy Gavrinal Kay—shows that there is plenty of room in fantasy for works that fit no stereotype.
Part Three: Form and Elantris
In this work, Elantris, Form itself is a stronger theme than in any book I have written. This motif manifests itself most overtly in the physical shape of the novel. Even the casual reader will notice thatElantris follows a very careful sequence. There are three point-of-view characters, and while the book is broken into chapters, it is actually organized in chapter-triads. Each triad begins with a chapter from Raoden’s point-of-view. Then, the following chapter shows the same span of time from Sarene’s viewpoint. Finally, the third chapter repeats the time-frame from Hrathen’s viewpoint.
This progression of chapter-triads is not independent of the characters they include. The three characters are, in a way, metaphors of Form themselves. Raoden, the once-prince who is transformed by the magical Shaod, finds himself cast into a the dead city of Elantris. Here, his previous class and authority has no meaning. In fact, standard assumptions of life no longer apply—the mores of his existence have changed as dramatically as the Shaod transformed his body. He no longer needs to eat, and his body cannot die, yet at the same time he is confined by a rigid set of physical and emotional boundaries—most notably the continual build-up of pain that often brings madness.
Raoden represents the useful manipulation of Form. He accepts his place, then seeks to better it. To him, the laws of Form do not bind but give context to creation. Just as a craftsman cannot work without tools, so must Raoden have limits to exploit. He doesn’t seek to break laws, but fulfill them. (Or, as Scott Card might put it, the rules don’t limit him, they open up possibilities (45).)
This attitude is expressed in Raoden’s accomplishments. It takes him barely one chapter to begin his conquest of Elantris. Raoden works with the city’s three gangs, channeling them toward to his own purposes. This is a vital part of Raoden’s personality. With respect to Raoden’s abilities, Sarene points out, “It sounds like the prince had a talent for using the King’s own laws against him.” Raoden uses this trait to save Elantris, manipulating his constraints, restoring the lost city to its former grandeur. He discovers the secret of his people’s fallen magic, then fixes it—by, notably, repairing the shattered form of the Aons.
Hrathen represents a similar, yet contrasting, means of representing Form. Structure and organization are integral parts of Hrathen’s personality, especially in regards to the religion of Shu-Dereth, in which he is a High Priest. The narration explains:
Hrathen had always been a calculating man. He was organized, careful, and let few things pass his attention. That was what first attracted him to the Derethi priesthood—its standardized, orderly method of governing along with its logical philosophy. He had never doubted the church—something so perfectly organized couldn’t help but be right.
To Hrathen, Form is not a tool, but a yoke. Yet, it is a yoke he accepts gladly, for it provides shape and direction. He needs structure to guide him, for Hrathen—as he himself points out—is not a passionate man. Hrathen’s motivation must be provided by an outside organization. Within the bounds of that organization, he can do great things, but only in as much as he has instruction.
Unlike Raoden, Hrathen does not seek to exploit Form; he seeks to serve it. This attitude, however, induces a breakdown of his personality when Form begins to betray him. Throughout the book, there are hints that Hrathen knows the actions of his church are immoral, yet his logic rejects those hints. He struggles quietly, trying to fulfill the demands of Form, yet at the same time seeking for an escape. He believes that if he can just serve Shu-Dereth perfectly, he can find a way to save the people of Arelon without causing a massacre.
In the end, Hrathen cannot serve both ends—in fact, he doesn’t satisfy either one. The massacre he wished to avoid comes anyway, and the people of Arelon are not converted to the Derethi Religion. Hrathen realizes he never really understood the religion he served, and is unable to adjust to this reconceptualization of Form. Fortunately, there is some hope for him presented by our third character.
Sarene is the force of unpredictability in Elantris. Within any consideration of Form, there must be an acknowledgement of those who seek to break it. Though it is not immediately obvious in the narration, Sarene represents chaos. She does not try to work within the bounds of structure, and neither does she allow it to confine her. She reacts against Form, often doing the opposite of that it expects of her.
Very early in the book, Sarene takes control of the political faction that is working against King Idadon. She defies conventions of female propriety, digging into the politics of Arelon and forcing the rebels to accept her as their leader. At first, she continues Raoden’s work against his father, but her intentions are to destroy the system—and build a new one in its place—rather than simply repair it.
Hrathen and Raoden never speak to each other. Their storylines are not independent—their actions have broad effects on each other. However, despite the fact that they are only a short distance apart, there isn’t a single line of dialogue exchanged between them. Sarene, defying conventions of Form, mixes with both other storylines, as if not content to bring chaos only to her own plot. She intrudes upon Raoden and Hrathen’s lives—and she brings with her one of the most destructive and chaotic forces known to man: love.
Sarene’s entrance into the city of Elantris brings the first deviation from the viewpoint-triad system. When she meets Raoden for the first time, the viewpoints become jumbled, and—for the first time in the book—we see from two different perspectives in the same chapter. This subconscious confusion of Form continues until she leaves. She also brings chaos to Hrathen’s plans, foiling him on several occasions. Her presence disorients Hrathen’s understanding of the world. His emotions for her do not fit into his perception of Form and organization, and his conversion practices in Arelon are frustrated. With regards to Hrathen, nothing Sarene did was ever as effective as who she was.
Destructive as it can be, Sarene’s chaos is a necessary piece of the book. It may seem at first that her character is a betrayal of Form, but in truth she is part of it. Her ability to bring turmoil is established subconsciously from the very beginning of the book, and while she reacts against conventions, her actions contribute to the overall Form of the novel. There cannot be organization without chaos to provide contrast.
The representation of Sarene’s contribution to Form can be found near the end of the book, as she unknowingly provides solutions to both of the other storylines. While her own plot ends in turmoil (she accidentally topples King Iadon from his throne, throwing the land into peril) she is the one who gives Raoden the clue he needs to restore Elantris. For Hrathen, it is unacknowledged love for Sarene that finally causes him to abandon the false Form of the Derethi priesthood and seek for the better good he has always known but never acknowledged.
Part Four: Form, Archetype, and Contemporary Fantasy
I would like to finish my discussion of Form with what may appear a tangent. This topic, however, is of vital importance to fantasy and its writers. And, at its root, is a problem of misunderstood Form.
Near the end of March, I had a very interesting phone conversation about Elantris with Moshe Feder, an editor with Tor Books in New York. In relation to the plot of the book, Moshe said he was impressed with the novel because of its originality. “There is no journey,” he noted. “It isn’t like other fantasy books.”
I don’t think Moshe realizes it, but he made reference to greatest challenge facing contemporary fantasy. I shall call it the Campbell Syndrome.
Joseph Campbell released The Hero with a Thousand Faces in 1949. Chances are, if you’re a fantasy writer, you’ve at least heard of the book—in fact, you’ve probably read it. Over the last fifty years, Campbell’s works have been adopted by the fantasy and science fiction community. It is a natural pairing. Speculative fiction follows the tradition of the great classical epics such as those by Homer and the Beowulf Poet. Fantasy’s authors deviate from writers of realistic fiction in that they often have to devise not only plots, but histories, settings, religions, and—most importantly to this discussion—mythologies to provide context for their characters.
This idea, in itself, is not a problem. Fantasy authors want to bring mythological and archetypal weight to their stories. Unfortunately, I believe they are going about it in the wrong way.
In 1975, a young filmmaker named George Lucas discovered The Hero with a Thousand Faces. At that time he was working on the story for his movie Star Wars. Later, at an awards ceremony in 1985, he claimed that if he had not discovered Campbell, he might not have ever finished writing Star Wars. Hero had become a vital part of his concept of the movie, and the progression it described became the plot of Star Wars.
I can only assume this story is well-known by the fantasy community, for I see so many of them (including, I’m ashamed to say, myself at a younger age) spending hours deciphering Campbell and trying to divine its secrets. I first heard of the Lucas-Campbell connection in High School, back when I was as fledgling as an author can get. Since that time I have noticed that archetype—and Campbell—has been an integral theme at most fantasy writers’ conventions I have attended. It is as if we assume Hero were a guidebook to creating a fantasy story.
It is not. Campbell was a scholar, and he sought to find connections and archetypes within completed stories. He continued the work of Jung, Lord Raglan, and many other mythographers—all of whom sought to understand the human psyche through the art it creates. They are descriptivists, not prescriptivists.
The fantasy community has this backward. Mythological symbols, such as the ones Campbell studied, come from an expression of the creativity within us. When one writes a book, one cannot help but include these symbols. However, they cannot be placed with predetermination if one wishes them to be truly mythic archetypes. As Ursula K. LeGuin once noted: “A symbol is not a sign of something known, but an indicator of something not known and not expressible otherwise than symbolically” (76).
Symbols are part of us. You can judge the soul of a work by the investment the writer put into it, and by how true he or she is to the creation. Perhaps one of the biggest problems with the Campbell syndrome is the attempt on the part of the writer to be something other than he or she is. The closer the writing style and subject matter is to the abilities and passions of the author, the more ‘mythic’ the creation will be.
Using these symbols as a guidebook not only maligns them, but betrays one’s own creative impulses. I am, fortunately, not the first one to think this. LeGuin pointed out that “The presence of mythic material in a story does not mean that the mythmaking faculty is being used” (75). Instead of allowing meaningful discovery and creation, fantasy authors import the dry husks of overused stereotypes. Fantasy, which should be the most creative of genres, becomes repetitive and stagnant.
This is why Moshe was surprised to find no journey in Elantris. Many contemporary writers—some of them very good—have confined themselves to the assumed standard of fantasy. They write stories about young heroes who are called to a mysterious quest, seek out power, and come of age as they overcome tribulation. They follow the Campbell Syndrome step by step, making certain that they don’t leave anything out.
The movement has gained such momentum (in part because of Tolkien, whose work displays the Hero Myth but does not follow it) that it has become synonymous with fantasy. And, because of this, the genre is threatened with stagnation.
That, of course, leaves a conundrum. Fantasy is still a genre in its adolescence—the contemporary movement didn’t begin until the 70’s. Stories that display the hero myth continue to sell well—in fact, they sell better now than they ever have. So, why change?
I answer that we must change because adolescence is passing, and fantasy’s readership has aged. Its fans are getting tired. Many of my acquaintances, once rabid fantasy readers, have stopped reading the genre because of the redundancy. What used to inspire wonder now feels old and overused. I see serious problems for the future if we don’t recognize the Campbell Syndrome and address it.
Knowing Campbell’s work isn’t inherently disastrous. For instance, despite Moshe’s claims of originality, I can see Campbellian archetypes in Elantris. Raoden’s tale can be reduced to nothing more than the archetypal hero’s journey into the underworld, followed by his return to his people with newfound knowledge.
The difference between Elantris and a story sick with the Campbell Syndrome comes back to the idea of Form. Elantris developed its own Form, through creation. If I had used Campbell’s work as a guidebook, I would have betrayed Form just as powerfully as if I had squeezed the themes of the book to make them fit an external political agenda. For instance, if I made Raoden the son of a virgin birth simply because Campbell pointed that out as a common theme in the hero’s myth, I would have made an unnecessary and distractionary addition to the book. It would ruin Raoden’s relationships, and betray the Form of the novel.
Do I claim to be a better author than those who have come before, those who have incorporated the fantasy stereotypes into their fiction? No. Many of them, despite the Campbellian crutch, have created vibrant characters and worlds. My purpose is the eternal call of all true criticism: We can do better. We can do what Tolkien did, not just copy what Tolkien wrote. Fantasy is a genre of great potential. Let us be as Raoden, and use its Form for inspiration.
If we are not careful, however, we will be as Hrathen—and we will let the false understanding of Form crush the life from our writing.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with at Thousand Faces. Princeton: Bollingen, 1972.
Card, Orson Scott. How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest, 1990.
Elliott, George P. “A Defense of Fiction.” Hudson Review 16 1963): 9-48.
James, Henry. “The Art of Fiction” Partial Portraits. London: Macmillan, 1888, 1905. 375-408.
LeGuin, Ursula K. “Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction.” The Language of the Night. New York: Putnam, 1979. 73-81.