Ed Greenwood is the bestselling author of The Falconfar trilogy. He created the Forgotten Realms campaign setting for Dungeons and Dragons, has written over twenty Forgotten Realms novels, and has also written the Novels of Niflheim series for Tor Books. Ed has written us a guest-blog for today, all about why he writes so prolifically in his favourite genre - fantasy!
WHY I WRITE FANTASY
When I was a kid, there was no such thing as 'fantasy' on bookstore shelves.
No, I'm not older than dirt. The world had television when I was a kid, just not colour television. We had phones, too; they came in black, and had rotary dials, and you used them to talk to people—just talk. There were multiple postal deliveries in a day. We walked uphill both ways, to and from schoo... Ahem. Or so it seemed.
It was 1966 when I started to write fantasy. My local booksellers back then had some fantasy tales to sell; they just didn’t call them fantasy. Stories with magic were 'fairy tales' and shelved with other childrens' books; older stories involving magic, such as King Arthur, were in the classics section; horror tales lurked in a few lurid-cover magazines; Conan buckled his swash on the shelves of the action-adventure thrillers (near James Bond) or with the lurid mags next to the, ah, 'men's' magazines; and The Lord of the Rings, which was to charge far and wide across bookselling, hosts of imitators galloping in its wake, and thereby found the modern fantasy genre (often shoved together on the store shelves with science fiction), was then deemed 'literature' or 'mainstream fiction' and shelved there, under 'T.'
So fantasy didn't live in the bookstores so much as it hid out there. Fantasy lived in the public library (similarly overlooked as in the book shops), and thrived in my father's den.
The den was a dim, cozy place crammed with books, where war novels and Churchill's History of the English-Speaking Peoples jostled with Tolkien and wartime pulp murder mysteries on the shelves. On some covers, men wearing fishbowls on their heads battled tentacled Martians with rayguns in one hand and scantily-clad women draped over them or wrapped around their feet. On others, dragons snarled into Conan's face as he snarled back (sword in hand, and yep, women who'd soon catch cold due to their textile-saving attire wrapped around him).
For reasons having to do with basic human nature, those colourful covers were what grabbed my attention.
Not exclusively, mind. I read everything. I mean EVERYTHING, including all of the radar physics theses and papers that were my father's professional books. Time and again I would rush to my father with my latest find and ask if there were sequels—and time and again he would tell me that the author of whatever I was waving excitedly was dead, and if I wanted to read any more about that iron-thewed hero or sultry seductress, I’d have to write it myself.
So I did. Some hundred and thirty-plus books later, I still am.
So that’s the short version of why I write fantasy.
(Even when I was five I didn’t buy the line “Then they lived happily ever after.” Reportedly I usually answered it, when my grandparents or aunts were reading me fairy tales, with, “Yes, but what happened NEXT?”
So that’s what I write about: what happens next.
YES, BUT WHY FANTASY?
Well, as it happens, I write all sorts of things, from Lovecraftian horror to pulp adventure to steampunk and space opera. With plenty of oddbeat mystery whodunits and modern urban horror and sf thrown in, for good measure.
Yet fantasy remains my first love. Partly for the sheer romance of crumbling castles, dragons diving out of the sky like great long-tailed bats with riders on their backs, knights in gleaming armor, and wizards... ah, yes: magic that works, instantly, in whizzbang spells that can topple keeps and blast those dragons to bones and ashes... or make those bones rise up again and reassemble into skeletons that obey the necromancer animating them.
To say nothing of swords that wait patiently, floating in midair in tombs for centuries, ancient curses that cause graves to open and long-imprisoned evil wizards to stalk the lands seeking revenge... all of that.
And partly for something else. Good fiction is about moral choices. Or rather, good stories almost always involve characters the reader cares about taking stands out of loyalty or bravery, and literally defending or fighting for principles or vengeance or a good and just cause. Fantasy allows a writer to strip away some of the frustrations and obstacles and gray areas in a civilized modern society and step into settings where the swing of a sword or the casting of a spell can have an instant, dramatic effect. Where gallantry—and villainy—can be clearly seen, where grim last stands can be highlighted for us all to experience.
Things shine or glow or gleam more brightly in a fantasy story. Something within me thrills to that.
There are other reasons, too. A fantasy writer can satirize real-life people, places, things, attitudes, politics, fashions, attitudes, faiths, and more without naming names and upsetting readers. As with science fiction, in a fantasy one can take a step back from real-life elements yet still ask “What if?” or warn “If this goes on—” about them. One has the breathing room to examine possible outcomes and perils without raising readers’ hackles with a too-direct criticism of something from real life.
I often enjoy using that room, even if only in the background, or in subplots that harmonize with the main storyline. (I love the feeling that there's a lot more going on in this fantasy setting than just my story.)
There’s also a trait of fantasy that appeals to my sense of justice. Established tropes of centuries of fantasy (moral lessons, poetic justice, and the like) let a fantasy reader revel in righting wrongs, smashing down evil, and leaving writer and reader alike feeling darned good about how things turn out. Escapism from the grit and dark moments of our lives, reassuring the reader that good can win, in the end, and life doesn’t always reward only the nastiest, greediest, most ruthless, or most handsome.
The aging non-athletic and less than beautiful strikingly nerd in me enjoys that.
Some readers may know me for my many books, both novels and game sourcebooks, set in the most famous fantasy world I created: the Forgotten Realms®.
A few readers may be familiar with other fictional settings I’ve invented, such as Aglirta or Castlemourn, or know that I happily participate in writing Arthurian tales, Sherlockians, and other forays into the fictional worlds of others.
Writing fantasy fiction that explores other worlds than our real one is what I do.
Which says nothing at all about this world, Falconfar, and this trilogy that looks over the shoulder of a befuddled non-hero (he’s not an anti-hero, he’s Everyman), Rod Everlar, as he gets caught up in a vaguely medieval, magic-happens fantasy world he thought he created.
So why Falconfar? Well, some readers have looked at the setup (fantasy writer sells world to large corporation, bad things happen) and decided I was writing about myself and the Realms. This trilogy was my poke at “evil” real-world conglomerates, as it were.
That’s not true at all. Really.
This is actually a story idea I’ve been kicking around since the mid 1970s—before most people knew anything about Dungeons & Dragons® and anyone but me had ever heard of the Realms.
I am not taking shots at any real person or company.
Rather, I was aiming at something that had bugged me about real-world-guy-steps-into-fantastic-setting stories from John Carter of Mars to that Connecticut Yankee who visited King Arthur’s Court: how is it that the real-world-guy always speaks or understands the language either right away or after a quick chapter of being taught (Lord Kalvan)?
And understand all about the world (or if he doesn’t, miraculously doesn’t offend anyone badly enough to get killed outright)? And is able to wow the natives with fountain pens and other everyday items and knowledge (such as when an eclipse is going to happen)?
And why do all these mild-mannered bumblers instantly become great heroes, or soon become the best swordsman on two planets?
So I wanted to explain away the first problem by having my protagonist be an expert on the fantasy world, yet not an infallible know-it-all (because he’s not the only “creator” influencing the world, so it can surprise him and hold danger for him and therefore be interesting for a reader), and at the same time look at someone who’s basically a good person, but is no hero and is never going to become one.
I also wanted to take a poke at two fantasy clichés from those old books: the super-powerful wizard (everyone thinks Rob is one, but he’s nothing of the kind, and we get to see that even the real mighty and dastardly wizards have feet of clay) and that scantily-clad lass clutching the feet of the hero: Rob right away encounters his own pleading lass, but she can mop the floor with him whenever she pleases; if any character’s going to clutch ankles and plead, it’s going to be Rob, not the other way around.
Why do I want to take these pokes and drop these notions and elements into a pot and give it a good stir?
Well, for the same reason I always want to write a book: to have fun. While telling a hopefully entertaining story, that surprises me at least a little when I’m writing it. In short, I want to get on a (literary rather than literal) horse, go for a ride, and see what happens.
So I did that.
With me? Let’s go for a ride, and see what happens...
SPOILING THE STORY
No, I’m not going to ruin Falconfar for you. I am going to chat a little about what side-trails I didn’t ride down, and what stories I’ve left untold.
Despite spending more than forty-five years detailing another fantasy setting, I happen to agree with Professor Tolkien (and many other writers) that a writer should leave a reader wanting more, or at least able to glimpse more of the world around the story. Bits of the world the narrative never visits, that we can see but never reach; a wider world beyond.
So I provided some glimpses, and wrote a little more about every place that got mentioned than appears in Falconfar and its predecessors, Dark Lord and Arch Wizard. So they fall feel real to me, alive and waiting for other stories to happen that I may never get around to telling. (If this world doesn’t seem real to me, how am I ever going to make it seem real to you?)
Part of that feeling of reality is also imparted by something else in the storytelling. I hate “too tidy” all–loose-ends-wrapped-up plots, where the bounds of credulity are strained by coincidences and the all-too-visible Mighty Hand of the author taking care of every last little conflict and mystery and injustice, so it can all end in a triumphant fanfare with villains slain or repentant, heroes victorious and marrying or being redeemed or ascending the throne or facing down the sand-in-face-kicking bullies of their childhood... ugh. Too cute. I don’t have to write those endings; Dame Barbara Cartland already wrote a lot of them. Very well, too.
So there are some loose ends here, some villains who get away, still very much active and villainous, to leave the reader wondering (and perhaps looking back over their shoulder a time or two; such prudence should always be encouraged...)
I will also deserve to be hag-cursed if I add one more novel to the groaning shelves of fantasies that take themselves too seriously, without any hint of humour in evidence anywhere between their covers. You don’t have to think my feeble attempts at being funny really are funny—but you do have to see that characters in Falconfar make jokes (some of them very bad), take pratfalls, and have no rust at all on their senses of irony. In Falconfar as in real life, people who take themselves too seriously are dangerous.
Which leads me to two down-at-heel rogues who are all too often buffoons, secondary characters throughout the Falconfar trilogy who are engaging and hopefully amusing and who obviously have more interesting days ahead, if someone doesn’t soon kill them, handing them fates richly deserved. I speak, of course, of Garfist Gulkoun and Iskarra Taeravund, a mismatched and rustic couple who roister through Falconfar and its prequels fulfilling the role that my father always assigned to my sisters and myself, when he sighingly referred to us as “the gravediggers to my Hamlet.” Long may they roister, scamp, and stroll, perhaps in other, later tales than this one.
Yet there is one thing that I want to convey above all others: readers, please be welcome in my world.
I made Falconfar for you.