Depending on who you talk to, the origins of the fantasy tale vary. Some argue that the oldest of old are fantasy, starting with the Epic of Gilgamesh. Others step forward a short while to The Iliad and Odyssey. And still others will defend Tolkien as the true father of the fantasy novel. Though, even Tolkien was influenced by the Volsunga Saga, which also inspired Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.
And none of these is wrong. But . . .
I could argue that in the modern era—which for our purposes I’ll roughly define as my lifetime—the most substantial influence on the fantasy genre and novel is Terry Brooks.
With full disclosure, I’m a fan of Terry’s work. Like many fantasy readers, The Sword of Shannara was my gateway novel to the genre. But these years later, having read a great many fantasy books, my opinion regarding Terry’s place in the field have only grown stronger.
Don’t misunderstand me. There are other giants of this “modern era.” And one can’t dismiss the influence of a little thing called Dungeons & Dragons, and all the tie-in fiction related to its many worlds.
But a simple straw poll of readers and writers will yield results that place Terry’s work high on the lists of entertainment and motivation (the latter for those, like myself, who decided to become writers).
What’s more, Terry’s been at this consistently for over thirty-five years. There are many “big names” in fantasy these days. And some have been at it for a fair amount of time. As genre enthusiasts, we hope they continue on as Terry has, with the same predictable quality. But we’ll have to wait to see if that proves out. Meantime, it’s remarkable to consider the body of work Terry has put together, again consistently and with such care in the storytelling.
So, what is it about Terry’s stories that resonate? It’s certainly not a fluke that the man has so many New York Times bestsellers spanning more than three decades. Such things don’t happen by accident.
The answer is most certainly multi-faceted. And no single article is going to distill a successful career like Terry’s into an afternoon read. But for my part, I’d like to focus on something that I admire about Terry’s writing. Something that I believe has contributed to his perennial success.
Now, before I talk about an element of craft, let me talk about the man. Not the writer. But Terry, the person. The fantasy genre has many fine practitioners. By which I don’t mean great storytellers. Yes, that too. However, I’m talking about decent people. Kind. Well-intentioned. But I’m here to tell you that even among such a good group, there are standouts. Those who are entirely genuine. Those who are concerned and caring.
At the risk of it sounding like a testimonial, I want to tell you that Terry is one of these “genuine articles” (as John Candy—the shower curtain ring guy—famously said in Trains, Planes, and Automobiles).
I mention it because I think it’s relevant. I think writers infuse something of themselves into the characters they write. Which is, in my opinion, one (of many) contributing factors to Terry’s success. Which is to say, high on my list—and the focus in this article—of Terry’s strengths as a writer is the characters he creates.
The beautiful thing about fiction is the personal reading experience each of us has with the story. We bring to it our own set of baggage, and take away a unique understanding and memories of the tale. Over the years, what I hear most often, when a reader relates a book he’s read, has to do with the characters of the story.
I’ve even heard it said by some writers and readers that plot and other elements of craft are distant seconds to character. Give me a fascinating character, they’ll say, and I don’t really care what they’re doing. I’m not sure I buy that, entirely. But it underscores my point.
And where writing characters is concerned, Terry is a master.
How do I know this? It’s not because I’m a writer, too. Or even because Terry’s had more bestselling books than any other fantasy writer I can name. I’ll tell you in one word: Ohmsford.
Starting with Shea and continuing with that family line, Terry has made me care. That’s the hallmark of great character writing: making the reader care. It’s what makes our hearts race when they’re in jeopardy, or cheer when they triumph, or mourn with them when they grieve.
What Terry does so damned well is character. He always has.
And it’s not just the Ohmsfords, of course. I mean, you have Allanon, and Garet Jax, and a host of others. They’re practically people to his readers. We can talk about them as fully realized individuals. We even identify with them, their plights, their victories, because we’ve become invested in their success.
From The Sword of Shannara, to Elfstones, to Wishsong, right on down to The Darkling Child, one through-line you can draw in Terry’s work is the quality of the character development. As readers, we’ve come to appreciate the warm familiarity of returning to a Terry Brooks story, because we know that we’ll find characters dwelling inside those pages that we’ll care and root for—and some we’ll despise with equal delight.
And this isn’t solely in Terry’s Shannara books. His Word & Void and Landover novels bear the same mark of quality. It’s one of the reasons, in my opinion, that Terry has enjoyed such staying power as a writer. He writes characters we want to read about. Simple as that.
Strip other things away—the trappings of genre, elements of craft, the winds of publishing—and at its core, storytelling is about character. And Terry gets it right.
So, then, with my own writing, one of the things I work hard at is: character. If I’ve learned anything from Terry, it’s the importance of this component to the tale.
I’m at the other end of the writing career spectrum from Terry. But with my new novel, Trial of Intentions, I’ve taken a lot of care in the development of the characters. I’ve written this book as an entry point to my series. So, folks who haven’t read any of my previous work, can jump in with Trial. And it’s where my characters really “come into their own,” as they say.
For example, I’ve built a music magic system. It’s used a little in prior work. But in Trial of Intentions, I go deep. And the woman who possesses the music magic ability in the book grows immensely during her days of training, as well as those moments where she uses that power to influence or defend or destroy. This has a lot to do with her own struggle to overcome emotional wounds that plague her, as well as her desire to help people being sold into a kind of slavery.
And her growth comes as she learns about something I call: Resonance. I had this notion that magic in my world would be based on principles, or what I’ve termed “governing dynamics.” Think of these like mechanical law in our world—gravity, magnetism. So, while different cultures in my series have what appear to be different magic systems, the reader can see how they all ladder-up to Resonance as a unifying principle.
This understanding of her ability and how it relates to the world around her deepens my character’s sense of purpose. But it also escalates the conflict between what she’s asked to do and what she believes she should do. Both good things. But irreconcilable. It puts emphasis on the fact that the central song of power is called Suffering.
Then, there’s another of my lead characters who appears in prior work as an orphan farm boy. Sound familiar? However, with a restored memory at the beginning of Trial of Intentions, we learn that things are rather far from what they seemed.
His growth in Trial is, perhaps, the most dramatic. He returns to a place of his youth, a place of science. Imagine an entire society that pivots around colleges of astronomy, physics, mathematics, philosophy, and cosmology. People trying to understand the earth and heavens. Then imagine trying to build further understanding to avert rather than escalate to apocalyptic war.
And beneath it all, my character and one of his good friends are dealing with the aftermath of other friends who’ve committed suicide. I, personally, had a friend make this choice recently. It wasn’t until I returned to Trial of Intentions to do edits that I could see how deeply this informed some of the writing.
Working through such a thing is hard. And it becomes a central motivation to see change in the world for a few of my characters.
Even one of my antagonists, who does some very dishonest and unscrupulous things to further his agenda of social reform, has some noble motivations. Once a kid living in a wharf-side slum, whose father was driven to make some painful choices to support them, he’s now in a position of power to try end the days of slums and porridge. We can sympathize with why he’d want to do so, while cringing at his methods. Not to mention that his agenda is in direct conflict with those trying to prepare for an unprecedented invasion.
There’s more, but I think you get the point. Characters do things for reasons. These often have to do with their past and their desire to change the future.
Of course, Trial of Intentions does have characters going to battle, and employing other kinds of magic, and solving mysteries. We even have a point-of-view character from the “bad guy” side. Lots of good fantasy stuffs.
But to the degree I’ve succeeded in writing compelling characters . . . those are the bits of which I’m most proud.
And I’ve learned no small part of that from a man of great character.
Trial of Intentions by Peter Orullian, the second book in the Vault of Heaven epic fantasy series, is in fine bookstores today!