Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Why write speculative fiction for young adults? At the heart of every young adult story I have ever read there’s essentially a coming of age story – a bildungsroman. In this kind of story the central character is transformed forever by external events and internal conflict. They leave their childhood behind and grow into maturity.  This comes at a price – and the individual is often at odds with their society or their place in society, if only temporarily. Very frequently the central character suffers some kind of emotional loss which catapults them into the next phase of their life.

Add to this theme danger, adventure, and magic and you have the recipe for solid young adult writing which has the possibility of taking the reader out of their familiar world with all is familiar problems and into different worlds and times. Once you’ve built a world – historical,  dystopian, fantastical or futuristic – you’ve also opened up possibilities for your characters to find themselves in extreme circumstances, testing their bravery, loyalty and endurance in environments that support and, indeed, enforce such extremes.

If this is the kind of writing that excites you, there are some important things to learn. At Continuum 8, Michael Pryor said on a panel on fantasy writing, that if you wanted to find a good fantasy plot all you had to do was immerse yourself in history – and that’s certainly not the first time I’ve heard that from writers of fantasy! History offers the fantasy writer a wealth of incredible material from actual events, people and political machinations, to folk lore, tradition and rituals. Then, Michael said, add magic and you have fantasy.

Of course, it isn’t quite that easy – you have to create complex and believable characters, a richly imagined and solid world and your rules of magic have to be consistent. So much of what makes speculative fiction work is the ninety percent of the iceberg the reader doesn’t really see, but experiences through the story. You must create this – you are the god of your universe.

I heard Robin Hobb talk about her world building process once. She said she first examines the intimate world of her central character and works outwards – what does the family do? If the character’s family farms, where is the farm – what borders it? Do they sell their produce and to whom? Where is the nearest market? Where is the nearest town? Finally, after asking all these questions, a kingdom has been created – usually containing elements of landscapes Hobb is familiar with.

There’s a great set of world buildingquestions here – if you’re interested in writing fantasy check these out! A good reference book to get is Diana Wynne Jones’s The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. This is a witty look at the clichés of fantasy – and a great introduction to some standard tropes if you’re a new fantasy writer. 

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