In a certain sense, all writing is fantasy, although we like to break it into genres. Whatever your writing process—whether you make intricate notes, carry your plot in your head, or catch winds of inspiration—you face, in common with others of your ilk, the task of creating something from nothing. You must scratch from the dry clay a skeleton, clothe it with flesh, and ressucitate it with the breath of life.
This act of creation is harder for some than others by dint of personality but also by choice of genre. At least those who write contemporary fiction have something tangible to go on. Even if they don’t visit a location in person, they can do so online or consult maps of an area. Although the past has passed, historical records may exist, and writers of historical fiction can often visit or view pictures of ruins and relics.
Those of us who write within the fantasy genre have no such resources. It is our peculiar challenge and joy to draw our own maps and create our own relics. Toward that end, fantasy writers employ specific tools—the picks and shovels, if you will, of lyricism.
- Simile: a figure of speech which compares two unlike things and is often introduced by like or as. Here’s an example from DawnSinger, book one of my Tales of Faeraven trilogy: “Thunder boomed like a timpani, too near.” I could have simply described thunder as booming, but such a description is clichéd to the point we become defeaned, as it were, by its overuse. Likening thunder to the sound of a drum helps us “hear” it. Use of a timpani, a medieval drum with a deep-bodied sound, communicates both the timbre of the instrument and the medieval flavor of my world.
- Metaphor: a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy. Here’s an example from DawnSinger: “The stars burned into his eyes, so near it seemed he could pluck one as a jewel from the velvet bodice of the sky.” This sentence contains both simile and metaphor. Stars are likened in simile to jewels which can be plucked “from the velvet bodice of the sky.” This metaphor suggests a soft, dark backdrop for bright, hard-edged stars, thus providing contrast. Jewelers often display gemstones against velvet, so I can connect to something a reader already knows to evoke a feeling. In this scene my hero, Spreil, explores his feelings about his relationship with his mother. A bodice, of course, covers breasts, which in this case, represent a child’s attachment to his mother as a source of nurture.
- Allegory: the use of symbolism to present a truth. We can take my example of a metaphor, above, further to see that the act of plucking a star (representing a child) from the bodice (representing nurture) of its mother tells in allegory what has already happened in Spreil’s life and that he has come to take away my heroine, Nalyn, another of her children.
- Musicality: a sense of tempo (pace), rhythm (timing), melody (sentence structure), and phrasing (flow) are essential to the creation of lyrical descriptions. Here’s an example from DawnSinger: “Lightning flared. A crosswind caught winged horse and rider. The wingabeast shrilled and tilted, flight feathers singing.” Try speaking these sentences and exaggerating their rhythms and you’ll notice the beginning of each sentence has the same pattern. Repeating this pattern helps maintain a quick tempo until the rhythm shifts to land on “flight feathers singing.” This serves to emphasize the sound of those flight feathers. The first sentence is simple, the second a little more involved, and the third complex. We move from a staccato (choppy) rhythm in the first two sentences to a legato (smooth) phrasing in the third, which helps us slow down and appreciate its complexity.
- Personification: giving human attributes to an inanimate object. Personification can be couched in simile or metaphor. In the following sentences, taken from DawnSinger, I use simile. “A pall hung over this place, as if the mists shrouded a corpse and not a village. Sorrow lay heavy over all, and Nalyn would not have been surprised if the walls ran with tears and the stones themselves wept.”
- Animalification: ascribing animal characteristics to an inanimate object. I use metaphor for this effect in this example from DawnSinger: “The stronghold of Rivenn perched below them on an arm of rock that thrust into the swirling waters of Weild Aenar, its bulk rising from the mist like some noble bird of prey. Sand-pink wings fanned backward to water’s edge, and white plumage fluttered from atop its many towers.” Because this castle is in the mountains, I liken it to a bird to lend a feeling of freedom, beauty and grace. Those qualities are important with reference to the stronghold of Rivenn, which as High Hold of Faeraven is a center of learning and culture. The reference to the arm of rock gives an image of a bird perched on a human arm, poised for flight.
Whether you write fantasy in its broader sense or within the fantasy genre itself, these tools will help you unearth lyrical descriptions to create beautiful landscapes of your own.