I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog that I’m working on an urban fantasy novel. After much careful consideration, it’s becoming high fantasy. It was always intended to focus more and more on the secondary world as the story progressed, but I became increasingly dissatisfied with the relationship between my primary world protagonist and the secondary world. Many of my favourite books feature a world within our world, and I’m currently reading (and enjoying) Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, which begins as urban fantasy but becomes increasingly involved in a discrete secondary world. What all these stories have in common is that the character from the primary world has some sort of connection to the secondary world: Harry Potter is a wizard, Clary Fray is a Shadowhunter, Karou is a chimaera. These aren’t stories about ordinary real-world teenagers swooping in to save another world; they’re trying to save their homes, their families, their friends, and even themselves. More than that, some fundamental part of the story is about our world. I’ve always found it rather imperialistic how four ordinary English siblings are the long-awaited monarchs of a secondary world in The Chronicles of Narnia, and through successive iterations of my story, slowly my protagonist’s links to the secondary world were chipped away until she became more like the Pevensies than Clary or Harry.
Somehow, I knew I needed to give my protagonist a reason to be involved in the politics and the conflicts of the secondary world; I needed to make her belong there. There are ways I could have done that while still beginning her journey in the primary world, but the one I settled on, the one I’m most satisfied with, is to obliterate the primary world entirely and maker her a citizen of the secondary world.
Changing something so fundamental as the world in which the story is set creates some interesting challenges. On the whole, I think everything fits more gracefully together, but I’ve taken a world that was meant to slot neatly into our own and extracted it to stand alone. As a result, I’ve had to expand that world to an entire planet. Because this change happened due to my protagonist not being a part of the existing secondary world, I’ve also had to build a society for her to inhabit that fits together with a culture I had originally intended to be hidden in the real world. At times, it feels like I’m creating an entirely new story.
Even so, I mustn’t lose sight of the overall narrative, nor of the people who inhabit this world. I’ve had to change facts about my protagonist, her family and her friends, without losing their essence. For the most part, these people have been living in my head so long that I know the ins and outs of their personalities, but at the same time that means I sometimes can’t see the forest for the trees. I get so caught up in the minute details that I forget what those really say about the person and, consequently, how to translate them to a new setting, a new history for these people.
And sometimes, I feel a pang of regret for the universe my characters inhabited for so long. It’s been through many changes, but since I was a teenager one of the few constants has been that the protagonist was of our world. In a way, I feel like I’m abandoning the story that I’ve held in my heart for so long, even though it doesn’t at all resemble the story I initially crafted which, ironically, had the secondary world grafted on when I was twelve and fell in love with The Lord of the Rings.
More to the point, making such a large change makes me a little anxious. I wonder if this is truly the right decision for this story. I think it is, but the sentimental voice in my head still wants to find a way to make it work, and at times I question if that voice is more than just sentimentality. I’ve always believed that the sub-genres of fantasy are descriptive rather than prescriptive, and saw no reason why I shouldn’t write a story that melded urban and high fantasy. And so going straight-up high fantasy feels like I’m giving up, even though from a practical perspective this simply isn’t the story in which to do such a thing, and in large part I clung to the primary world aspects for far too long because I was making a point, if only to myself. Beyond that, however, I worry that I’ll never truly feel as though the story is finished, that I’ll always think it could be made better, and that this might be my Silmarillion, my never-ending opus. I think that’s really the point of this post – when you kill your darlings, as Stephen King puts it, how do you know you’ve made the right choice?