Sunday, April 6, 2014

Dissecting Fantasy: Objects, Part 2

Objects, Magical and Mundane

Part 2

How selective use of objects can enhance a fantasy (or non-fantasy) novel

Last time: We discussed the importance of choosing wisely which objects your characters should have access to and what sort of practical items can help in your character's survival

Sources: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins,  the Harry Potter novels by J.K. Rowling, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Snow Queen" by Hans Christian Andersen

Objects in Identity

"For the opening ceremony, you're supposed to wear something that suggests your district's principal industry.  [...]  This means that coming from District 12, Peeta and I will be in some kind of coal miner's get-up.  Since the baggy miner's jumpsuits are not particularly becoming, our tributes usually end up in skimpy outfits with hats and headlamps.   One year, our tributes were stark naked and covered in black powder to represent coal dust.  It's always dreadful [...]."

--Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games

I'm going to say three objects and you're going to tell me when and where the story takes place. Ready?

Spurs.  Revolver.  Star-shaped badge.

Obvious, right?  American West, circa 1880s.  The setting of many cowboy movies.
How about three more:

Katana sword.  Green powdered tea.  Silk kimono.

Feudal Japan.  Not hard at all.

But it shows the power of objects and cultural identity.  Say toga and we're in ancient Rome.  Nesting dolls sticks us in Russia.  Heck, even magical objects have cultural implications.  Flying carpets and magic lamps evoke pre-Islamic Saudi Arabia, while 7-league boots and deadly spindles plants us squarely in pre-industrial Europe.

These associations can help or hurt your story.  If you want to set your fantasy story in a specific time and the mention of even a few of these items will immediately paint a picture in the reader's minds.  Food, art, and technology, in particular, show the culture of a society.  Dried deer jerky versus cream puffs, marble statues versus ink scrolls, chariots versus steam trains--each thing very succinctly paints a picture of a time, a place, and a people.

On the other hand, if you want to create your own unique world without any cultural associations, objects can be a problem. How do you show readers that the world is different? There are three main strategies:

1. Mix-and-Match Objects

Let's see the reader try to place a character wearing a kimono, toting a six shooter, and standing near a marble statue.  That will teach the reader to form associations.  Unfortunately, it may also confuse her.

2. Create-Your-Own Objects

The splutok is a clay-based water holder with a rope handle and patterns of pre-Groteal artwork covering the surface.  By creating your own objects, you show the reader that the culture is not of this world.  Unfortunately, not only do you have to spend the time to invent this new object, you now have to slow down the story to explain it to the readers.

3. Intentionally Vague Objects

The girl sits on the comfortable sitting object, holds the writing object, and writes on a flat writing surface.  The less specific the object, the greater the chance of it being universal and thus not tied to a particular time and place.  But if your objects are too vague, the reader loses a lot of the imagery and thus the joy in the story.

Now, I realize my examples are all exaggerated and sort of ridiculous.  Hey, I like to have fun, too.  But I don't want you to think that these strategies don't work.  They do.  They just need to be employed with a deft and subtle hand.

For example, when you mix and match cultures, take into account the setting.  Fans make more sense in hot, muggy environments than in arctic ones.  A few strange, magical, and important objects show you're in a different world.  If the splutok is used in an important religious ceremony that will play a crucial role in the plot, the reader may be more inclined to read a long description.  Otherwise, opt for general objects: dress, chair, pen, soup, wine.  Oh sure, you can embellish them with adjectives.  The Artrukian silk dress, the famed plum wine of Chial.  As long as the readers can visualize the noun, you should be okay.

* * *

Thus far, I've been discussing objects in relation to cultural identity.  But it can also apply to the individual.

Now, I'm going to play the same "three object" game, but with people instead.  I want you to guess the name of the person based on some objects.  Tell me who has:

Glasses.  A magic wand.  An invisibility cloak.

Too easy?  How about:

A magic ring.  A glowing sword.  A (distinct lack of) pocket handkerchief.

Okay, so Harry Potter and Bilbo Baggins are famous, iconic fantasy figures.  Even so, you were able to guess them based on three objects, weren't you?

Why do we want to chose our own clothes?  Why do we want to decorate our house in the way we want?  Why do we take a glance at a person's clothes or nose through their house and draw certain conclusions about them?  Objects have power to reflect a person's identity.  Even objects chosen on a whim.  Wear dragonfly earring everyday and people will associate those earrings with you.

What does this mean for you?

It means that a few well-chosen objects can act as a shortcut to the character's identity.  A main character, of course, will have loads and loads of objects.  But a minor character with a single memorable object will also stick in people's minds.

* * *

Writing Prompt

Your hero roots through the corpses of his enemy for supplies.  All the enemy look the same--similar faces, similar clothing, similar supplies.  Then, suddenly, your hero opens an enemy's pack and finds a single object that makes him stop dead in his tracks.  When he sees this object, he realizes that his enemy was a real person, not some faceless monster.

What is this object?  Why does it affect your hero so much?

* * *

Magical Objects

"One day [a hobgoblin] was in a high state of delight because he had invented a mirror with this peculiarity, that every good and pretty thing reflected in it shrank away to almost nothing.  On the other hand, every bad and good-for-nothing thing stood out and looked its worst. [...] All the scholars in the demon's school [...] reported that [...] now for the first time it had become possible to see what the world and mankind were really like."

--Hans Christian Andersen, "The Snow Queen"

Admit it.  This was the part you were really interested in.

I hardly need to explain why magic is awesome.  It just is.  On the one hand, it can bring your every desire to life.  Things you can regain what you lost, you can do they impossible, you can master skills in a flash.

Things We Desire
  • Power over Nature (water, fire, wind, lightning, earth)
  • Power over People (having them like you, protection against harm or disloyalty)
  • Power over the Supernatural (bringing the dead to life, speaking to ghosts, visions of the future)
  • Mastery of a Particular Skill
  • Wealth
  • Transformation (controlled shapeshifting)
  • Communication (telepathy, speaking to animals, speaking different languages)
  • Youth and Rejuvenation
  • Flying
  • Invisibility
  • Healing
  • Knowledge
  • Love
But on the other hand, magic can represent everything we fear, especially the things which are not necessarily solid or material.  It can manifest horrible losses, it can mar the soul, it can turn us into what we most hate.

Things We Fear
  • Power (used against us)
  • Loss of Loved Ones
  • Loss of Identity
  • Loss of Soul
  • Loss of Freedom
  • Loss of Respect
  • Pain
  • Poverty
  • Sickness
  • Deception
  • Transformation (uncontrolled, monstrous)
  • Ugliness/ Disability/ Age 
  • Death
All this awesome power comes packed inside an ordinary, everyday item, usually something small enough to pick up.  Though the object can be anything, it usually comes fraught with some sort of symbolic power.  Things that bind, things that reflect, things that speak in some unconscious way to our soul.

Ordinary Objects
  • Mirror
  • Paper (books, scrolls)
  • Clothes and Shoes (cape, belt, slippers, boots)
  • Jewelry (rings, amulets, necklace, gemstones)
  • Plants (dried herbs, nuts, mushrooms)
  • Masks
  • Cups, Bowls, Spoons
  • Dolls 
  • Game Pieces (dice, chess pieces, cards)
  • Musical Instruments (pipe, drum, bell)
  • Keys
  • Weapons and Armor (sword, bow, shield, helmet)
  • Candles and Lamps
Put the dread and desire of magic into one of these unassuming objects and you have the beginning of a story.

Just the beginning, of course.  Though the object may be fascinating in and of itself, what people really want to see is how the character uses the object, or, if he doesn't use it at all, why not?  The relationship between the character and the magical object may prove significant.  In order to develop it, ask yourself some of these question.

1. To begin with, how did your character get a hold of it?

Created it
Found it
Bought it
Earned it
Stole it
Traded for it

2. Does he actually know what the object does?

No, not at all
Thinks he does but is wrong
Knows some aspects of the magic but not the whole thing

3. Does it take any skill to master it?


4. Can only certain kinds of people use it?  (Pure-hearted, wizards, members of a certain bloodline, etc.)


5. Does the object have a limitation?

Yes--can only be used during certain times (full moon, before midnight)
Yes--limited quantity (only three wishes)
Yes--needs magic words/ rituals (must blow three kisses)
Yes--delicate/ can be broken
Yes--dependent on the physical/ mental/ spiritual state of person using it

6. Is there a cost to using it?

Yes--stated up front

7.  Is the object good or evil?


As you answer these questions, you should start to think of what kind of dilemma this object can cause the character.  Rarely is it satisfying for a magical item to swoop in and solve the character's problems.  There should be a conflict.

* * *

Now up until now, I've been treating the magical object as though it has a deep connection to the heart of the story.  But sometimes magical objects just pop up for convenient's sake.  Magic is like technology.  Sometimes we get airplanes and atomic bombs.  Other times we get velcro and flashlights.

Remember back in the survival section how I said you could use magic to cheat.  Well, here we are.

If you don't want your character lugging around 50 pounds of equipment and if you've created a world where magic is fairly common, you can use select magical objects to make the trip easier for him.  For example, a cloak that keeps your character dry no matter the weather.  A quiver that never runs out of arrows.  A piece of paper that automatically draws perfect maps.

The possibilities are endless.

Favorite Cheat Magical Objects
  • Tables that always fill with food
  • Purses that never run out of money
  • Bread that fills your stomach with a single bite
  • Boots that take you seven leagues with a single step
  • Walnut shells that store ball gowns
The danger of cheat objects is that it creates what I like to call the RV paradox.  Sure, you can bring an RV into the woods, complete with T.V. and all the comforts of home, but at what point do we start to miss the point of going camping?  Magic can be a nice short cut every once in a while, but too many shortcuts and you suck out all the risk, struggle, and danger.

So when do you use magical cheats?  When the characters actually need them.

Look at The Hobbit versus The Lord of the Rings.  Bilbo didn't get magical lembas bread that filled his stomach with a single bite, because going on an adventure--being uncomfortable and hungry--was the whole point of the book.  Frodo, on the other hand, had to carry a magical ring that was corrupting his soul through an enemy war zone while being hunted by flying ghosts with poisonous swords.  Not starving to death along the way was the least they could do for him.

* * *

Writing Prompt

It's a dragon scale, or so your friend claims.  Blue and bold, with serrated edges, and large as your head.  After the knight killed the beast, your friend blunted three knives to pry it off.  On the dragon, the scale had been green, but once plucked, it turned a mystical blue.

"Proof," your friend says, "Of magic."

"All right," you reply, handing the scale back.  "It's magic. But what does it do?"

What does it do?  Finish the story.

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