According to Rhetorics of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn (a must read for any fantasy writer in this one’s humble opinion) a ‘portal’ fantasy is one in which the world must be entered from another and although an individual may be able to travel to and from it, the magic cannot.
These types of story, where a ‘normal’ person is swept away into a magical land, have always been my favourite. I was brought up on Alice in Wonderland and The Chronicles of Narnia where children just like me found themselves somewhere strange and wonderful. As an adult films like Tron and video games like Myst allowed me to indulge in this idea again. It’s an easy form of escapism where the reader, audience or player can be gently lead through an unknown place and, if done right – come to care about it and characters that live there.
These stories are often linear and involve a quest of some sort. Most often the quest is the journey which must be taken in order to return home. We become the protagonist in these cases, seeing and hearing and learning what they do. The connection that we make to these worlds through the main character needs to be strong. Which is why the history and rules of these strange worlds are so important. With fantasy stories we allow ourselves to suspend disbelief a little more than usual but that will only go so far. If the world is seen to contradict itself, we may begin to lose faith and interest in the story.
In a previous post I admitted that I often have problems forming my characters early on. The characters I have most problems with tend to be the main ones because in my early drafts they are merely a surrogate for the reader or audience. I write my worlds first.
In the novel I’m working on now, the history of one particular place plays an important part in influencing what’s happening in the story. And the history of this place is what I’m having the most fun writing. Below is an early draft of a tale one character tells another.
“The tower was guarded fiercely once. Not standing as it does now, a relic broken and overgrown. This village was but one of many sprawling in all directions, bustling with ordinary folk. There are legends still spoken of what took place here and this tower looms over many a hero on their journey into history.
The monk that found you is one of the last in a line that was paid great respect once. They were tasked by the Fallen Kings to keep watch over the power contained in that place. In silence they stood vigil, recording the days and the patterns of the light that shone deep within the stone. It was their nod that guided the wandering tribes of the Riverfields. And their hand that kept the Kings at peace, or at war. Under their gaze this region flourished, trade and industry moving us forward towards a future bathed in light.
But this reliance on a power that no one outside their quiet order understood couldn’t last. Although the monks fought to keep the balance between the Kings equal, one eventually rose up above the rest. Karlien of the South River was a formidable man, and one not so easily swayed by a pulsing light hidden under layers of rock. To him power was meant to be controlled by those born to the blood, not guided by hushed words spoken beneath a cloak. His armies marched on the tower.
As peaceful as they lived, the monks did not part from their place as easily as Karlien imagined. They held the tower for days, keeping the soldiers back with traps and fires placed in the lower halls. When his men finally forced them into submission at the summit, the monks final act before surrender was to collapse the Light Chamber. The explosion was felt as far as Timari and the tower fell, taking hundreds of lives with it.That strange light that had guided our people through the last age was snuffed out. Karlien’s army took control of most of the southern region and the monks who had survived the tower were left to exile and ridicule.
For a time the broken tower stood as a monument to what Karlien liked to call the Dark Ages, and people swarmed the rubble hoping for something of value to take. But as the stone cracked and the weeds grew up, this place was left. One last tall reminder of a different life, of Time Before.
And so it lies now mostly forgotten, silent and dark. Until last night that is, until you stumbled through…”
My love of portal quests doesn’t often just lie with the characters, it’s the fantastic places I grow fond of. They allow my imagination to come up with other tales that may happen there – not just the one an author has presented me with. Even the smallest glimpse into the history of these mysterious new places can trigger hours more enjoyment.
I guess this would be why I love Tolkien so much.
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