Game of Kings

Here’s a post from Marie Brennan at Writing Epic Fantasy the Historical Fiction Way: Lessons from Dorothy Dunnett’s The Game of Kings

Well, I just love Dunnett’s fabulous series, so that certainly caught my eye. Brennan says, quite correctly:

Dorothy Dunnett is one of those authors you hear about through word of mouth. She didn’t write fantasy—unless you count taking sixteenth-century belief in astrology as true from the perspective of her characters—but ask around, and you’ll find that a surprising number of SF/F authors have been influenced by her work. The Lymond Chronicles and the House of Niccolò, her two best-known series, are sweeping masterpieces of historical fiction; one even might call them epic. And indeed, writers of epic fantasy could learn a great many lessons from Lady Dunnett. Here are but five, all illustrated with examples from the first book of the Lymond Chronicles, The Game of Kings.

Then she lays out the five lessons she finds particular takeaways from Dunnett’s series:

Omniscient narration
Dynamic politics
Fight scenes
How to write a good Gary Stu character
How to include women

Discussions of all those at the link. These are all interesting, especially point four, which I didn’t see coming at all. I was all set to jump on the bit about omniscient narration and say, “Yes, but look! She never gives us Lymond’s point of view! Isn’t that great? Look at how well that works!” But now I don’t need to because here in point four is where Brennan focuses on that choice.

However, what I took away from Dunnett’s brilliant choice to elide Lymond’s personal point of view — reading the series as a writer — was not so much how to write a Gary Stu character, but how to separate the protagonist who is driving the action from the main character who is providing the point-of-view. I was much struck by this. And when Brennan says:

I wouldn’t recommend trying this nowadays; your editor would probably think you’ve lost your mind.

I hope she is wrong, because I tackled this exact storytelling technique in a long fantasy novel, which is as yet unpublished but is, imo, one of the best things I have ever written, if not the best. And I did it because I was so impressed by the technique when Dunnett used it.

Incidentally, although uncommon, it is precisely this technique which makes The Hunt for Red October such a great movie. (Well, this and casting Sean Connery as Ramius).
By reserving the truth about the Soviet captain’s motivation — by essentially eliding his internal mental thoughts and feelings and intentions and using Jack Ryan as the point-of-view character — the movie does a wonderful job ramping up suspense.

If you have a moment, click through and read Brennan’s whole post. If you’re already a Dunnett fan, you’ll probably enjoy it; and if you haven’t yet discovered Dunnett, then I have to agree with Brennan that you have a treat in store. She closes thus:

I won’t claim it’s easy to get into; she has a tendency to leave things for the reader to infer from surrounding clues (which has famously resulted in many first-time readers of The Game of Kings wailing “BUT WHY IS THE PIG DRUNK???”). She also likes to quote things in foreign languages without translating them. But once you get the hang of her style, there is so much to admire; I envy anyone who is about to discover her work.


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