Thursday, July 5, 2012

Choosing a Cast Member for the Fantasy Ensemble

We are very pleased to present today's guest author, Stephen Zimmer. Follow the links below to check out the newest release in his Fires in Eden series, Spirit of Fire.

Choosing a Cast Member for the Ensemble
By Stephen Zimmer

One of the strengths of the epic fantasy genre is its ability to host an ensemble cast. A Song of Ice and Fire, The Wheel of Time, and so many great epic fantasy series present readers with a range of significant characters who have important parts to play in the story.

My own style is well-suited to the ensemble cast, as I use character threads to tell the stories featured in my two epic-scale series, The Fires in Eden Series (epic fantasy) and The Rising Dawn Saga (urban fantasy). I often use a movie-making analogy when describing this, as when I go between different character threads it is like changing camera angles in terms of viewing the greater story.

Deciding upon the threads that will end up in the series, and which characters the story will be told through, involves some of the most important decisions I make when writing these series. Today, I would like to discuss one character I chose to be one of the main ensemble featured in The Fires in Eden Series.

The Fires in Eden Series, in the first book Crown of Vengeance, introduces a group of modern-day characters that get taken back into a fantastical world called Ave. The story is viewed entirely through the eyes of these characters for the first part of the book, but as the novel progresses and the reader begins to meet the inhabitants of Ave, there is a real need to begin to see the story through the eyes of Ave’s residents.

One of the lands introduced early in the story is the Kingdom of Saxany, which is on the verge of an invasion spurred by the desire of an enigmatic, powerful figure called The Unifier. I wanted to portray the imminence of the war to illustrate the peril that the modern-day characters are facing beyond the fact that they have gone into a world that is not their own. I also wanted to connect the reader swiftly to the Saxan realm.

To do this, I found a character who holds some authority in the Saxan world but is also an individual that readers of all backgrounds can relate to. The Anglo-Saxon inspirations and roots for the Kingdom of Saxany are quickly conveyed to the reader through the choice of this individual as well. As such, this character contributes to both world-building and plot development aspects of the series, in addition to being a relatable character that I hope readers will embrace.

Aethelstan is a thane, a land-holding warrior of higher rank who dwells in a burh by the name of Bergton, which is largely a combination of a fortress, market-town, and royal mint. Bergton is located in the Saxan territory of Wessachia.

When we first meet Aethelstan, a large force constructed from a general levy of most able-bodied men in the region has gathered at Bergton, and is about to march forth to meet a tendril of the invasion force that is working its way towards Wessachia. In this scene, Aethelstan is shown saying goodbye to his wife Gisela, sons Wystan and Wyglaf, and daughter Wynflaed (which also shows the naming patterns reflecting an Anglo-Saxon style culture). In this intimate moment, and reflected within the character’s thoughts on the verge of setting forth, the scene of the great force marshaling for war carries a very somber, sober tone, rather than anything of pomp and spirited ceremony.

This choice instantly demonstrates the imminence of the war and personalizes the character of Aethelstan in a way that any military family, or relative/friend of a military person, can relate to. The reader knows immediately who Aethelstan is fighting for, and what is at stake for him, as he shares a few last moments with his family. Uncertainty weighs heavily for those going forth, and those left behind.

The scene also shows some distinctions in the Saxan world, in that the force marching out to war reflects an entire community in terms of participation, and does not involve just those who are warriors at all times. Brothers, fathers and sons, neighbors, and friends who normally are tending to crops, practicing their faith, or working as artisans are being called to war out of absolute necessity. The fight is one that is quite existential in nature, with a dark finality looming if the war is lost.

We have examples of other kinds of leaders in the Fires of Eden Series, but I wanted Aethelstan to be the kind of leader who truly has the people he leads at heart. He is not an authoritarian, and this is shown in the early scenes as he reflects deeply upon the men that he is leading to war. This is further reinforced in some early scenes involving some dangerous reconnaissance, in which Aethelstan undertakes it himself rather than sending others to do his bidding. It is made abundantly clear that Aethelstan does not make any distinctions between thanes and villagers in terms of their worth and value as fellow human beings.

He understands that each one of the general levy men are just like him in that they have families themselves, ones that are no less important to them than Aethelstan’s is to him. Further, he is the kind of leader that fully shares in the risks that he asks of his men, fighting alongside them in a way that is very, very different from those in today’s world who regularly send young men and women into harm’s way. Aethelstan leads from the front, with a sword in hand.

Aethelstan’s own thoughts and the presence of village priests going along with the force establishes the role that faith has in the Saxan world, a mindset that is very hard for many in today’s world to understand. Aethelstan’s faith is part of who he is, at all times, and it flows into his thoughts and actions. This is an important reflection of Saxan culture as a whole, and to shy away from this aspect because religion no longer holds the same kind of position in modern western culture would be a disingenuous portrayal of a mindset that was very much the norm throughout the medieval world.

Aethelstan is also a character well-positioned for other threads within the story, and the actions and decisions that he is involved with quickly intertwine with them . His brother, Aethelhere, commands the Saxan fleet that is patrolling the northern coastline of the kingdom. He is also a friend of Gunther, known to the Saxans as The Woodsman, which has implications involving some of the modern day characters as the story develops. There is also his best friend Edmund, a man who Aethelstan grew up with since they were both children. All of these give Aethelstan further dimension, as beyond being a father and husband, he is also a brother and friend.

As you can see, the choice of having Aethelstan in the ensemble cast serves many important purposes for the story. It gives the story an example of a healthier type of leadership that contrasts strongly with other examples portrayed within the story. It also gives the readers a bigger perspective on the developing war. As a powerful thane, Aethelstan is in a position to learn what is happening to Saxany, and understand what he is facing, all of which is conveyed to the reader.

He gives the story a character that a reader can care about, with his lifelong friendship with Edmund, his relationship to his wife and children, his concern over the son of his brother that he had been fostering, his relationship to his brother Aethelhere, and the always-present concern and affection that he holds for the men he is responsible for as a leader.

Is he perfect? Will he always make the right choices? No, of course not, but he is a character whose development rests more upon his strengths than his flaws. Choosing the characters for an ensemble involving a story of this scale is not an easy task, but when you have a character like Aethelstan that can offer so much, on so many levels, with strong contributions ranging from character, to plot, to world-building, you would be amiss not to include him in the final cast!

Born in Denver, Colorado, Stephen Zimmer is an award-winning fantasy author and filmmaker based out of Lexington, Kentucky. Stephen has two series being published through Seventh Star Press.

One is the epic fantasy Fires in Eden Series (which includes Crown of Vengeance, the winner of a 2010 Pluto Award for Best Novel). The series stands at three titles.

The other is an epic-scale urban fantasy series, The Rising Dawn Saga. This series stands at three titles, with the fourth scheduled for release in winter of 2012/2013. Book Three, The Seventh Throne, polled fourth for Best Novel in the 2011 Reader's Choice Awards.

Both series are now affiliated with two growing collections of eBook short stories. The Chronicles of Ave short stories are set in the world revealed in the Fires in Eden Series, while the Annals of the Rising Dawn short stories are set in the world of the Rising Dawn Saga.

His other published short fiction includes the short stories “In the Mountain Skies” and “An Island Sojourn” in the Dreams of Steam I and II steampunk anthologies (edited by Kimberly Richardson), from Kerlak Publishing.

As a filmmaker, Stephen has credits in fantasy and horror, including the supernatural thriller Shadows Light (feature), The Sirens (horror short film), and Swordbearer (fantasy short film featuring a special appearance by former WWE wrestler Al Snow, and based upon the H. David Blalock novel Ascendant.)

Updates and information about Stephen can always be obtained at the following:






S.A. Hunter said...

Hi Stephan
I very much enjoyed your post and will look forward to reading "Fire in Eden" we look forward to an alternate earth-based on an Anglo-Saxan style culture? When you write your characters and society with "medieval" mindset and standards, do you find most of your readers open to this?G.R.R. Martin faced this dilemman when, for television, he had to change
Daenery's age from 13 to 18 yrs...

sgzimmer said...

Hi S.A.!

Thanks for reading the post. The world that the series is set in is incredibly diverse. I just used the Saxan realm as an example, but I have realms in it based upon everything from the Iroquois to medieval Japan, with a number of completely inventive/original cultures (not based on anything in our world). on this tour I did a full post about the three types of cultures I have populating the world of Ave (common ones, like the Anglo-Saxons, uncommon, like medieval Russia, and inventive, like my Trogens or Unguhur).

I know what you are talking about regarding what Martin had to adjust to for TV, and I am not going to shy away from medieval culture in my series, but there are good ways to handle things that won't raise everyone's ire.

thank you again for reading. Please do connect with me on FB as I would be glad to answer any questions you have and I also have 2 groups there for each of my series.

ediFanoB said...

Another great chapter for the Fires in Eden compendium.

Thank you for the insight.

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