generic thinking

As I’ve noted before, I have difficulties reading and writing fantasy fiction for a variety of reasons. Yet, there are a couple of stories brewing in my head that insist on the genre. So be it.

In a quest for inspiration on how to write good fantasy I turned to the master: Fritz Leiber. Luckily, I was able to snag the two volumes of collected Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser tales, so I’m currently embroiled in adventures across the dangerous smog-drenched streets of Lankhmar.

Leiber, along with his peer, Robert E. Howard, trailblazed the modern notion of heroic fantasy. These chaps were churning out tales of adventurers abroad in strange lands while Tolkien was labouring over his vast back-story for his trilogy (Leiber’s first Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser story, “Two Sought Adventure” was published by Unknown in 1936, and Conan the Barbarian made his first appearance in 1932 in Weird Tales; The Fellowship of the Ring was first published in 1954). It was Leiber, for instance, who coined the term sword and sorcery in 1961. For this research I revisited some of Howard’s Conan stories, as well as dipping into a couple of Jack Vance‘s Dying Earth tales. I remember loving these stories as a teenager. Much to my relief their work continues to entertain and delight.

In my opinion Leiber has the edge over Howard as a storyteller and craftsman. His stories have wit, panache, and characters that grab you by the hand and propel you into their world with great force. Better still, his female characters are savvy and intelligent, who can throw a knife and cast a spell as well as any male sneak. Yet, they’re all flawed people.

It’s Leiber who summarises his creations the best:

Fafhrd and the Mouser are rogues through and through, though each has in him a lot of humanity and at least a diamond chip of the spirit of true adventure. They drink, they feast, they wench, they brawl, they steal, they gamble, and surely they hire out their swords to powers that are only a shade better, if that, than the villains. It strikes me (and something might be made of this) that Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are almost at the opposite extreme from the heroes of Tolkien. My stuff is at least equally as fantastic as his, but it’s an earthier sort of fantasy with a strong seasoning of ‘black fantasy’ – or of black humour, to use the current phrase for something that was once called gallows’ humour and goes back a long, long way. Though with their vitality, appetites, warm sympathies, and imagination, Fafhrd and the Mouser are anything but ‘sick’ heroes.” (“Author’s Note”, The Second book of Lankhmar, Gollancz, 2001)

Despite their scrapes and cynicism, Fafhrd and the Mouser are affected by their violent and enchanted encounters. They don’t pierce villains in the belly, or escape monsters with a lucky tuck and roll and walk away laughing. They love thievery and escapades, but they don’t take life lightly. In “Ill Met in Lakhmar”, after bluffing their way in and out of The Thieves’ Guild, they have a short conversation:

Fafhrd retorted, a little hotly, “Killing in fight isn’t murder.”

Again the Mouser shrugged. “Killing is murder, no matter what nice names you give. Just as eating is devouring, and drinking guzzling.”

After that little piece of philosophy the pair’s thoughts turn to food and sleep. Such discussions are never allowed to interrupt the flow of action. Leiber makes his point and doesn’t belabour it. He’s not afraid to put his characters into mortal danger, or show the fearful and awful consequences of an adventuring life. Despite the fantastical elements, Leiber’s stories possess a gritty realism.

His language is vibrant, evocative, and energetic. It’s quite wonderful to examine Leiber’s prose, and watch how quickly he establishes the settings and characters. He has a penchant for long, dense sentences packed with description and action. It’s the engine of his stories, and it powers the plot at a furious rate. Here’s the opening paragraph of “The Unholy Grail”, where the Grey Mouser (known as Mouse at this point in his life) make his first appearance:

“Three things warned the wizard’s apprentice that something was wrong: first the deep-trodden prints of iron-shod hooves along the forest path – he sensed them through his boots before stooping to feel them out in the dark; next the eerie drone of a bee unnaturally abroad by night; and finally, a faint aromatic odor of burning. Mouse raced ahead, dodging treetrunks and skipping over twisted roots by memory and by a bat’s feeling for rebounding whispers of sound. Gray leggings, tunic, peaked hood and streaming cloak made the slight youth, skinny with asceticism, seem like a rushing shadow.”

This is a narrative style that many fantasy writers have attempted to emulate, but often without the humour or eye for detail that Leiber exhibits in his writing.

What I admire most is its confidence. Leiber doesn’t indulge in self-reflexive posturing, or apologetic clauses. There are elements of Leiber’s writing that occasionally veer towards the prosaic, by modern standards, but the sheer joy and enthusiasm of his stories carries you past those purple patches.

He writes adventure stories, first and foremost, and considers that a point of honour, not a hindrance or a source of shame.

So, thinking about Leiber’s approach to fantasy I’ve envisioned three guidelines for writing enjoyable heroic fantasy:

1. Adventures!
Action; fights; swindles; romance; and more action. Fun!

2. Great Characters
Important in any genre, but the crows will be pecking out your eyeballs if your characters don’t pop with vitality, and ooze a certain twisty charm. Goody two-shoes need not apply (or if they do, you better double them up with a more jaded pair of shoes to act as a foil).

3. Meaty Language
The goal: strong, evocative writing with verve and passion for the genre.

This is the hardest trick to achieve, and in my case, is going to take a lot of work.

You’ve got to aim high, after all.


  • brendan

    Great post Maura, really enjoyed reading (again) about my 2 favourite swordsmen. Don’t know if you’ve seen the comic adaptation of a couple of F & tGM stories by Mike Mignola (creator of Hellboy) but they’re well worth checking out.

%d bloggers like this: