Ken Follett: By the Book – NYTimes.com.
via Ken Follett: By the Book – NYTimes.com.
I love Ken Follett. I read Pillars of the Earth before I read Eye of the Needle, and Pillars of the Earth remains a milestone book for me. The depth of research and how that research was revealed–not through boring exposition but through character interaction–amazed me. I consider the book a true example of what Donald Maas would call a “breakout” novel.
In this interview, Follett expresses a lack of interest in the fantasy genre. He says, “I just can’t read whimsical fantasy. I’ve never got through a Tolkien. If there are no rules, and anything can happen, then where’s the suspense? I hate elves.”
OK, well, the elf hating thing is just wrong. I mean, why hate an entire species? Makes no sense to me.
More importantly, I take issue with the notion that there’s no suspense because “there are no rules.” In fact, this is something I’ve thought a lot about. If a magic-using character’s abilities change with the needs of the plot, and a wizard-type can pull a day-saving rabbit out of a hat as easily as a deus ex machina can descend to the stage, save the day, and send everyone home feeling dissatisfied, then Follett is right. Nothing’s worse than a plot turn based on a character suddenly revealing a power or ability not previously exhibited.
That having been said, as any former Game Master can tell you, magic can be codified and controlled, and a magic-using character with clearly defined limitations can easily be as suspenseful as a secret agent with tech to get them out of tight spots, or a young noble wondering about how her connections to a throne and other powerful families determines what she dare and dare not risk.
I enjoy the fantasy genre immensely and one of my main projects is a fantasy world and the stories set there. Learning about the world (created from scratch, usually), the abilities of the characters including their limitations, and then watching the quest begin is as exciting as it can be in any other genre. But fantasy, where individuals may have innate or learned powers and abilities that are far beyond the realm of everyday human capabilities is not outlandish at all. To me, casting magic spells is really no greater a power than the ability to charm thousands with a song or instrument, a poem, or an artfully coded app. If one is truly gifted in any of these areas, then one has a tremendous capacity to alter the future, and to change the world. Magic is just another talent a character may have, and watching a young elf figure out how far his archery skills may take him, or a young wizard wonder how much her magic can change the world, has always seemed to me exactly the same as wondering where my writing might take me, and what challenges I might face along the way–from those represented by the talented and successful masters (including Follett) to my peers hoping to find representation as I am, to those who would say writing ability is as useless for changing the direction of a country, or the fate of a world, as magical powers.
When done properly, magical powers and magical creatures are no more difficult to understand, relate to, and read about then gifted architects, stone masons, generals, and priests. Protagonists are by nature special, and magical abilities or a fantasy world to explore don’t make such characters any harder to connect with then the special gifts we find characters wielding in literature and other genres.
Follett uses plenty of magic and fantasy elements in his books. He just cleaves very close to the reality line. But when I look at his body of work, there’s no doubt in my mind that he is a story-telling wizard.
Follett should try some of the best fantasy out there, old and new. Perhaps one day he’ll take a foray into the fantasy genre, and write something with the same depth, characterization, and high stakes as his historical fictions. Along the way, he’d probably end up inventing his own rules for magic, and I’m sure the result would be something as intricate, profound, awe-inspiring, and grounded in reality as the most beautiful cathedral.