Before I get into my thoughts about these High Fantasy authors, let us get some terms straight. “Fantasy Fiction” is divided in to two groups: Low Fantasy and High Fantasy.
Low Fantasy is set in a realistic world with familiar setting, with the inclusion of some magical elements. Some examples of this type of Low Fantasy category would be “The Adventures of Pinocchio” by Italian Author Carlo Collodi published as a children’s novel around 1883, and “The Borrowers” by Mary Norton published in 1952.
High Fantasy is a complete departure from the real world and is separated into three sub-groups. A world that does not exist, a parallel world, which is accessed by some type portal from the real world, and a world within worlds as part and supported by the real world.
Now that we have that out of the way let us study a trio of High Fantasy authors: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and J.K. Rowling. Lewis and Tolkien were close friends and belonged to a group that called themselves “Inklings.” They no doubt influenced each other in exchanging thoughts and opinions during their long friendship. In turn, Rowling was influenced by both Lewis’ and Tolkien’s works.
J.R.R. Tolkien (Jan. 3, 1892- Sept. 22, 1973) was awarded the title, Commander of the Order of the British Empire, OBE, and is best remembered for the High Fantasy “The Lord of the Rings” published in three volumes in 1954.
C. S. Lewis (Nov. 29, 1898 – Nov. 22, 1963) is best remembered for the High Fantasy series “The Chronicles of Narnia,” published in seven volumes, between 1950 and 1956.
J. K. Rowling (July 31, 1965), another Order of the British Empire author, is best remembered for the High Fantasy “Harry Potter” anthology, published in seven volumes between 1997 thru 2007.
Most authors, especially of children’s fairy tales do not start out to become famous or even published authors at the outset. They write to entertain the children that surround them: sons, daughters, nieces, nephews and family friends.
Tolkien intended to do this when he wrote “The Hobbit” for his own children. The manuscript came to the attention of Susan Dagnall who was an employee of London publishing firm George Allen & Unwin in 1936. The publishing firm approached Tolkien and persuaded him to submit the work for publication. The effort paid off and “The Hobbit” became popular with not only children, but adults as well. Readers demanded to know more about this new world “Middle Earth.” Tolkien first published “The Hobbit” in 1937.
Creating a fantasy world is not an easy thing to do. It would be like a builder building a mansion then taking you on a tour of it, but this mansion also has characters that you run into, and the builder has to explain why they are there and what they are up to. To explain what the characters are up to, they must have some sort identity that justifies them being there in the mansion, and a reason for being in the first place. Now the whole world within this mansion must have motive, or the whole thing stagnates.
A writer creates and kept notes and back-stories on not only their fantasy worlds but the biographical histories of all their characters as well. Tolkien knew how important it was to know the history of a created world or the characters were, so he included notes on all this as footnotes and appendix notations. All of Tolkien's notes and back-story notations were published by his son Christopher Tolkien in “The Silmarillion,” published in 1977 after Tolkien passed away, and received the “Locus Award” in 1978 for best fantasy novel.
The challenge to writers is to give each of their characters their own literary voice, a voice that is immediately recognized by the reader as that particular character. Keeping notes on each character, and the world that the author creates for that character to come from, is a pivotal point and the world that is created is a character in itself and is the key to keeping the tale on track. Giving your character a life, a point of view and a personality -- this is all done by the dialog that the writer writes for their characters.
You might ask at this point how a place, like a forest, or a house, or landscape, can have a voice, have, or be a character. By creating a simple descriptive narrative (having actually been to a place helps) allows an author to embellish that real landscape and create a new imaginary world to set the story into. When you give this some thought, you will find that using a place that you have traveled to that left an impression on you in some way works best, even if you did not meet any of the local inhabitants. This is your backdrop and gives depth to a place and your living characters a home base as well.
One cannot help but wonder if Lewis became the Pevensie children as they walked into a cupboard and found themselves standing under a very English street lamp in the middle of a strange forest, and if Tolkien became Bilbo Baggins, and later Frodo, or even the wizard Gandalf as he wrote “The Lord of the Rings,” and Rowling became Harry Potter and friends, while writing their respective works. I for one think that they did, because writing is a form of acting, at best role playing, only with written words.
I have an answer to that, believe it or not. Tolkien and Lewis are long gone, but Rowling has given interviews on TV and on the “Special Features” section of some of the Potter movies on this very subject. The answer is that Rowling did become Harry Potter while writing her anthology and related to many of the other character as well, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley to name a few. Rowling admitted that each of the main characters had a bit of her own personality written into their characters.
This all comes back to the first rule of creative writing. Write what you know! Believe it or not, you can do this in fantasy; you just have to setup a matrix of rules, if you will, rules that fit and enhance your story, arco-types, but not too stereotypical, two dimensional, and have depth and a voice with a soul that gives character and identity of person, giving emotional drive, and motivation -- assigning individual mood reactions and responses to the situations that occurs to or around the character.
Beware of a lock-step predictable reaction. A vehicle that some authors use, but not Lewis, the out-of-character response of a protagonist or antagonist leaves the reader to wonder what will come next and in so doing breaks up the otherwise expected happening, that the reader might or might not be expecting. This will lend to the desired effect of now what is going to happen next. This was accomplished by having his characters discover that the world that they had stumbled into was populated by talking animals, animals that talked in puzzling riddles and open-ended statements.
A favorite tactic for building a plot is the withholding of key facts, from the reader and the characters. Also suspension of reality where something that is happening to a character but the character only gets parts and in so doing the act enters into the surreal, and the plot thickens as the character tries to find out the reality within the fantasy of what has happened within the reality of the story. Plots are only limited to the writer’s imagination. Tolkien and Rowling have this in common; Tolkien gives you an idea about what, Middle Earth is, and the danger that it faces little by little. Each character plays a part in furnishing facts and stories that fill in the puzzle. Rowling withheld key facts about Harry and his connection with the Dark Lord.
Tolkien started his story off with a history of the past 1,000 years of Middle Earth, and the power of the “One Ring” and the loss of that ring. Rowling started off her story with strange happenings in and around Little Winging and the finding of baby Harry, and Harry’s scar and survival. The puzzle is put together to form the story of discovery about the strength of a little Hobbit, Frodo, and Harry coming of age and being the last puzzle piece that destroys their “Dark Wizards”.
Puzzle pieces are the key to a good story if they are put together in the right order and not forming a complete picture, until the last few chapters. I have used this analogy before in some classes that I have instructed, but I use the back of the puzzle, the back that has no picture to illustrate how to revile plot points in a story, assigning numbers to the blank puzzle pieces is the only way to keep track of them. Now in a story the characters hold the puzzle pieces much like a hand of cards.
For a story to live in the reader’s mind the characters must become alive. The writer should sit down and create biographical back-stories for each character no matter how small their part in the story might be. This is what Tolkien and Rowling have in common; numerous notes and bios of their characters and the world that they live in. This makes writing the story itself easier and gives the writer directions to go with the story and the plot.
Life is in itself unpredictable, and art imitates life in a well-written story. Observe life around you become a student of action and reaction and use your own emotional life to draw from, and you will find that the world you escape to might just well be a new world that the reading world might be wanting to explore with you, and the real world around you will become the springboard that sends you and your readers into a new world of imagination.