If you’re looking for more Unified Writing Field Theory posts, here’s a treat for all of us: I have one on the ever-insightful Janice Hardy’s blog Fiction University. It’s my approach for picking and maximizing the quieter moments in a story, called Your Scene Needs a Problem.
Meanwhile, right here we have:
Interviewing Ciara Ballintyne
What drives a writer, and what drives a story?
I’ve been interviewing Ciara Ballintyne—
How do I describe Ciara? She’s the creator of three different fantasy worlds and counting (Seven Circles of Hell, Vows of Blood, and Symphony of Magic), and the two of us have been bouncing her nuggets of writing advice all over the Twitterverse. She likes to tell how she “sings American country music with an Australian accent,” and she’s a financial lawyer who can ride a horse and tell you how to remove an arrow from your arm.
No, scratch all that. She’s a writer.
And someone with a passion like Ciara’s always makes me wonder, just how does she see storytelling, and what do her findings mean for the rest of us?
You say you’d settled on your love of epic fantasy when you were ten, with authors like Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind. So why epics, what draws you to that kind of story?
Ciara: It’s the battle between good and evil. It’s heroes doing what’s right and what needs to be done, even when it’s not fair. It’s great love and great sacrifice. It’s totally about the good guys always winning.
We see so much misery and pain and suffering and evil in the news it’s downright depressing. I’ve stopped watching or reading as much as I can, because there never seems to be anything I need to know or want to know. Just terrible reminders of how depraved humanity can be. And then I start thinking dark and terrible thoughts indeed – like how hard would it really be to take over the world?
So the villains in epic fantasy are less interesting to me than the heroes. The world is full of villains, and probably heroes too, but the heroes are less visible. So villains are really just a necessary foil for the hero.
The fact that people read and write epic fantasy gives me hope that maybe humanity as a whole isn’t as much a waste of space as the majority of the news might lead you to believe.
I have no time, on the other hand, for so-called ‘gritty fantasy’.
And for your own writing? What kind of feeling or themes do you see in other writers (or maybe missing from them) that you’re driven to capture in your own stories?
Ciara: Heroines with real women’s issues. I don’t mean angsty romance, I’m more alluding to the fact that often women in fantasy are one of two things – useless, or if written strong, they often read like a man in a woman’s skin. So I try to capture a strong woman, who still has all the vulnerabilities of her gender. These are the vast majority of the women I personally know, so the other kinds don’t resonate with me. Also, there are no chain mail bikinis.
Personal villains. Epic fantasy is so often the clash of great good against great evil that it’s a little faceless or its motivations don’t ring true. Evil for evil’s sake and trying to destroy the world…. For what? What does the bad guy do after a triumph that makes everything cease to exist? What’s in it for him? I’ve seen this complaint in a lot of reader forums, too. I think you can still have conflict on a global scale that threatens to ruin everything for everyone while still making it personal to the hero and having villains with genuine motivations. Terry Goodkind did this well, I think. Jagang had global ambitions, but oh man did you hate him on a very visceral level, and the things he did to Richard made it all so very personal.
The last theme is embodied in my tagline – that all of us can be evil or do evil if placed under enough pressure. So when we suffer, our soul cracks, and the more damaged our soul, the more likely we are to lose our way and do bad things. I have a lot of anti-heroes because of this theme – people who have suffered and crossed the line and who are now trying to find their way back, but who are prone to relapse. There are many elements of tragedy in my books because of this theme.
You’ve got a marvelous motto, “The cracks in our souls bleed darkness,” and your works are full of both demons or undead that people can call up and human traitors ready to call them. How do you go about setting up a story where someone stirs up that much trouble?
Ciara: For me it all comes from the characters. A story usually starts from a seed. What would happen if a man fell head over heels in love with a woman sworn to the goddess of death? A line like ‘The tentacles hardly ruin it at all’ (that was Confronting the Demon). What happens when you save the world but everyone still blames you for everything that went wrong? That seed usually comes with a main character, perhaps a love interest, and a villain.
Upping the stakes to create all the trouble you’ve mentioned is done in the nitty gritty. I outline and I use GMC charts (goal, motivation, conflict) to find where all the various characters intersect in their goals, because those are points of conflict. As I write, I add in any inspiration I have along the way. But above all, I live by this rule – make things as hard for the protagonist as you possibly can, and then make them a little harder again.
One question every writer wonders: when you have a vision of storytelling like that, how does it help you get the story written?
Ciara: My tagline embodies the kinds of stories I like to read, and therefore write. My best and most favourite stories are always those most true to that idea. Not sure why it fascinates me so much – maybe because my personality type, INTJs, are said to be susceptible to the lure of becoming an evil mastermind. Though I’d call myself ‘chaotic good’, I can see the potential to go bad bad bad in the right circumstances. A friend even gave me a card once that read ‘She had not yet decided whether to use her power for good or evil’. Circumstance dictates so much for us all.
I have one story idea that at the moment doesn’t tie in strongly to this notion, but the story concept itself, the world and the magic, is novel – but until I find a main conflict that resonates, I suspect it will sit there languishing. It has time though, I have plenty of other ideas to go on with.
Once that overarching idea beds down into a plot outline, though, it’s full steam ahead. The more detailed the outline, the less likely I am to go astray and wander off into story porridge.
Ultimately, it’s being in love with the story that gets it written.
If there’s one thing you simply have to put in a story, what would it be?
Ciara: I’d like to say dragons, but it’s not – as you know, there are no dragons in Confronting the Demon, although I did obliquely add them as part of the world-building in the sequel. It’s not tentacles either – they’re only in The Seven Circles of Hell.
Probably it’s magic. I can’t think of a story I’ve written off-hand with no magic. I regard magic as a very integral part of the epic fantasy genre, which is part of why Game of Thrones is fun but not one of my all-time favourites – not enough magic. I like to give my villains magic because destroying the world or taking it over with purely mundane armies is so boring and tedious – and so is writing that many battles. Magic is fun and opens unexpected doors and plot possibilities, so long as you put limits on it, otherwise it sucks the conflict out of your story. I also like to give my heroes magic, but usually it’s something they never wanted and need to learn to control, so it acts as a major disruptor and source of conflict in their lives.
Magic makes so many opportunities for plot twists and emotionally torturing your characters.
Do you ever think of experimenting with that, trying that out in a different kind of story and seeing how they mix?
Ciara: I’ll be honest and say I’ve never wanted to write anything but epic fantasy and I wouldn’t know how. So far, the only stories in me are epic fantasy. You can see from what we’ve been talking about that my story preferences, my passions, all put me squarely inside that genre. One of my reviews says that I tried too hard to sound ‘epic fantasy’ in Confronting the Demon, but the honest truth is that I’ve been reading almost nothing but epic fantasy for 23 years, I’ve been writing nothing but epic fantasy for almost as long, and on top of that I’m a lawyer with an expansive vocabulary. I don’t try to write that way – I would have to try very hard to not write that way. And no other genre really has that same sound. I would sound pompous in any other genre.
But if you put magic in another genre, that’s paranormal isn’t it? I’ve been called paranormal, by readers in that genre who are apparently unfamiliar with epic fantasy. While I’m thrilled they enjoy the book, it’s definitely not paranormal by my definitions.
All that aside, I do have a potential joint project on the side where I’m co-authoring a kind of sci-fi thriller. It’s paranormal in the sense that it involves werewolf-type elements, but they are not magic-derived, so that’s why I say sci-fi thriller. I’ll be relying on my co-author to keep my pompous wordiness in check, while he’s relying on me to add some vivid imagery to the story.
So now, what’s the next thing you have for us, and how does it show some of that in action?
Ciara: In the Company of the Dead is the next project I expect to release. It is not another instalment in The Seven Circles of Hell series, although there will be more coming in the future. This is an entirely new fantasy in an entirely new world and currently clocks in around 100,000 words. It’s got magic (and dragons), gods, and battles, and politics, and love. There’s a brave hero drowning in grief, and a tragically lonely heroine, set apart by her power over death and feared by everyone. An insecure prince makes trouble for the hero, and an ambitious duke makes trouble for them both, while in the background the black priest of an evil god is manipulating everyone like chess pieces on a board. There are quite a few people who all want different things, so that creates loads of opportunities for conflict. While the evil god could be regarded as the villain, it’s really the prince and the priest, both of whom have very personal motivations. Both the heroine and the hero have flaws and issues in their lives that push them down darker paths.
Sounds definitely dark – and with dragons too, finally!
Thank you again for sharing a little of your vision, Ciara. Knowing you, your hero and heroine will show us all how they’ll have to earn that victory. Can’t wait!
Want to hear more? Let me know!