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June 1, 2011

Helen Stringer: THE RULES OF THE GAME

Posted by jordana
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Helen Stringer is the author of SPELLBINDER and THE MIDNIGHT GATE. Here, she talks with Teenreads about the rules of fantasy. What does that even mean? Well, every fantasy book has it's own set of rules for the world -- and Helen shares with us when you get to break the rules past authors have created, and how that can make your story all the better. 

PS: There's a giveaway too! If you scroll down, you'll see all the info on how you can enter. 

The other day I led a writing workshop for kids at a local book store and the issue of what certain paranormal characters can and cannot do came up. One of the would-be writers had a zombie as a character and said that this character’s best friend breathed fire (there was a robot chicken in the mix somewhere too – you kind of had to be there). An older and wiser young scrivener from the other side of the table pointed out that fire killed zombies so there was no way a zombie would have a fire-breather for a friend. Naturally, this raised the whole issue of rules.
 
The first thing about rules for fantasy characters, is that there aren’t any. Not in the sense that there are rules for characters in stories set in the real world. The people and creatures that we are creating or using in our tales don’t actually exist, so even though John Polidori may have had one set of rules for vampires in Vampyre, Bram Stoker another set in Dracula, and Stephanie Meyer yet another in Twilight, so long as the stories they created adhered to the rules created by the author, the reader happily went along with it.
 
Of course, the vampire is a special case because ever since Polidori’s book, which was published in 1819, there has been a real fascination with them. By the time Hammer started making their vampire movies in the 1960s the rules were pretty defined and straightforward: vampires drink blood to survive, they cannot go out in daylight but must sleep in a coffin on the earth of their homeland, they can only be killed by a stake to the heart, beheading, fire and sunlight. (The list had got longer as time progressed and effective storytelling required more than one way of offing the creatures.) By the time Buffy arrived on the scene the rules had pretty much stayed the same for around thirty years. The whole thing about them having to avoid daylight was a bit of a pain, though. So now we have rafts of books, movie and TV series in which they can go out during the day, though they may not like it. There’s also the concept that rather than being merely undead, they are a whole separate life form. So even for creatures that seem to have definable rules, there is enormous flexibility available to the writer.
 
In SPELLBINDER and MIDNIGHT GATE, I deal with ghosts, but not in the way they have been treated in recent years. The whole idea of ghosts being unhappy spirits who need some kind of resolution so that they can “pass over” to a better place, is a relatively new concept that really only arrived on the scene in the mid-twentieth century (except for the occasional vengeful shade such as Hamlet’s father). Before that, ghosts either just were or they were people being punished. Many ghosts were seen at crossing places, bridges, rivers, stiles. They were frequently white ladies or animals (particularly white rabbits, for some reason) but rarely had any back-story. It was the Victorians who started to romanticize them as the spirits of those who had been wronged in life or had committed some evil that needed to be made right. The ghosts in my books are just what happens when you die – they move freely between this world and the Land of the Dead. Their only limitation is that they have to choose one place to haunt and cannot travel beyond that, so Belladonna’s parents are in their house but cannot leave it in the real world. In the Land of the Dead, of course, they can go anywhere they like.
 
This caused some confusion with my editors while I was working on SPELLBINDER. “How can Elsie be in the school and in the Land of the Dead?” was a question that came up more than once. In my books, the only difference between the living and the ghosts is that they are sure we exist. Being dead is just another stage of life. There is no “walk towards the light” stuff, or misty-eyed good-byes, just a matter-of-fact new place to live.
 
Of course, having set up my rules, I now have to stick to them. So when I realized that Elsie needed to leave the school and travel with Belladonna and Steve to the ruined abbey in Midnight Gate, I had to come up with something that allowed her to do that without breaking the rules. Making her in some way “special,” so that the rules might not apply was a non-starter – things like that are just a sneaky way of breaking your own rules, and that is what is known as “cheating” and readers don’t like it.
 
So, if the boy in the workshop wants his zombie to have a fire-breathing best friend, he is free to do so. It’s his story and he can set the rules…so long as he doesn’t break them later on. And, of course, having a character who is the main character’s best friend yet has the ability to destroy him or her at a stroke is far from silly – it’s been a staple of drama since the world began.
 
--- Helen Stringer
 
*** CONTEST INFO***
Spellbinder series giveaway! Three lucky winners will receive one copy each of THE MIDNIGHT GATE and SPELLBINDER along with some bookmarks! To enter, send an e-mail to SpellbinderSeries@gmail.com.
 

In the body of the e-mail, include your name, mailing address, and e-mail address (if you're under 13, submit a parent's name and e-mail address). One entry per person and prizes will only be shipped to US or Canadian addresses. Entries must be received by midnight (PDT) on 6/17/11. Winners will be selected in a random drawing on 6/18/11 and notified via email.
 
For excerpts, games, links, and more, visit Helen's website at: http://www.helenstringer.net/