Featured Author Week: Elizabeth Moon (Limits of Power) talks about having fun with the process

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press-elizabeth-moonEven in epic fantasy, there’s room for fun: for wit, for whimsy, for just playing around with stuff alongside the main road the big issues take.  Sometimes the big issue writing is also fun, of course–or I wouldn’t spend all those hours writing it–but equally at times some incident of the day strikes a mental spark and there it is, in the book.

After all, most of us have experienced the intrusion of a little silliness into a serious situation.  The other day I heard about a flower girl at a wedding who, flinging out handfuls of flowers with abandon, arrived at the front of the church with an empty basket.   She showed its emptiness to the attendees with the cheerful announcement “I’m all finished now.”   I remember giving a Guest of Honor speech–on which I’d worked hard, to make it worth the time of those listening–only to have our son pipe up from the back about two-thirds of the way through:  “Mommy is talking TOO LONG!”  Of course everyone roared; I burst out laughing myself.

So allowing these moments of glee or playfulness or just plain silliness into a big fat fantasy series full of epic serious issues is another way of making the setting and characters feel real.  From the writer’s end, writing a light-hearted scene is especially useful when it’s been a bleak week’s writing about the protagonist stuck in one miserable situation after another.  Writers need relief just as readers do.

Where, you might wonder, do the specific ideas for the silly bits come from?   Like any other ideas, they might come from something directly experienced, or something overheard or seen online, or they might pop out of the side of my brain that’s feeling mischievous this morning.  There’s a whopping big one coming up in the next book, but I can’t talk about that yet.  Sources will be twisted, in a story, so that the person who told about the day his zipper wasn’t zipped while giving an important speech will never recognize the story morphed into fantasy-world form.

Chicks_in_Chainmail Just like the serious situations and issues, the fun stuff has to do its job in the book, not be thrown on for mere decoration or writerly self-indulgence.  If it’s something a character does, it has to be in character–has to reinforce the reader’s understanding of that character.  The reactions of other characters must also be in character.  It has to have some plot function, though that plot function needn’t be immediately obvious.  The amount of fun has to fit within the whole story’s tone, not overwhelm it.  I let loose with my silly side in the stories for the Chicks in Chainmail anthologies…but that would not be appropriate in this series.

Children readily provide comic relief (our son sure did, and family stories make it plain that both my husband and I caused the grownups to laugh out loud more than once.)  Since they can also provide high suspense and poignant moments as well, their potential for comic relief allows for surprise (which helps the effect.)  Need someone to blurt out a show-stopping comment?  Small child, at your service.

Teenagers are a bit trickier, with the best potential coming from either the impulsive and active, or the wildly dramatic.  The impulsive active ones do things that are (in hindsight) both ill-considered and (again in hindsight, when all the blood’s been cleared up and no one’s badly hurt) funny.  The drama queens are ridiculous in themselves with their exaggerated views of their own suffering…and when they’re characters, it doesn’t hurt their feelings to be laughed at by readers.

Older characters also get themselves into situations that are fun to write and fun to read.  Churchill said “No man every increased his dignity by standing on it,” and dignified characters are due the occasional moment of collapse–whether it’s being bucked off a horse, slipping on a wet rock and landing in the mud, or any other pricking of their ego-balloon.

Limits of Power Three people in Limits of Power–two adults and one youth–are confronted with serious dilemmas that have comic possibilities.  When the sophisticated and smugly-cynical thief-enforcer Arvid realizes that he’s being spoken to by a patron saint he always considered boringly good, that Paks was right to say Gird might have plans for him, and that now he must become Girdish…his reactions are entirely in character.  And funny.  He is not the first person to discover that a deity may have a sense of humor.

The other two I’ll leave for readers to discover.  In line with the needs of the series overall, and the particular volume, what happened grew out of what had come before, the characters’ own traits and decisions and was plot-relevant before it emerged as fun.  But…fun.  Wicked fun to write…and I hope wicked fun to read.

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