As part of the process of writing The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction, I interviewed a few key players in the SF/fantasy community. Their wisdom and generosity is liberally sprinkled throughout the book, but I couldn’t use every word—and wanted to do some follow-ups. What follows is an expanded interview with best-selling science fiction and fantasy author Kevin J. Anderson.
According to his own web site, Wisconsin native Kevin J. Anderson is the author of over a hundred novels. His prolific career spans the genre spectrum from hard science fiction to fantasy and horror. He’s the creator of original worlds, and has also taken up residence in shared worlds from Star Wars to DC Comics. His collaborations with Frank Herbert’s son on a series of Dune novels has brought his career to new heights, landing him time and again on a number of best seller lists. He’s also shared co-author credit with the likes of Dean Koontz, and his wife, veteran SF/fantasy author Rebecca Moesta.
Philip Athans: Please define “fantasy” in twenty-five words or less.
Kevin J. Anderson: Fantasy is the genre where reality is only the starting point, and the imagination takes over from there.
Athans: Please define “science fiction” in twenty-five words or less.
Anderson: Start with a seed of science and extrapolate the universe from there.
Athans: What advice can you give an aspiring fantasy author on how to approach action scenes?
Anderson: Have you ever read a lengthy action-packed scene, a fight, a chase, and even though it’s full of Sturm und Drang, you’re not very excited about it? Probably because the action feels like filler, “insert adventure here.”
An action scene needs to emerge from the overall story. If readers sense that this is just a placeholder (the pacing was slowing down, so the author just threw in a random encounter with a monster, they fight, they get away, the plot moves on), they don’t feel it’s important. You also have to know and care about the characters involved so you care who is being chased or threatened.
Athans: How do you approach the creation of intelligent races? When do you know you’ve created something worthy of exploring in greater detail, and when do you fall back on archetypes (elves, dwarves, and so on)?
Anderson: I try not to fall back on elves or dwarves . . . they tend to carry pointy things.
In my Saga of Seven Suns I created the Ildirans, which are (on the surface) fairly human but have dramatic cultural differences as you get to know them. Over the course of seven volumes in the series, I explored and enriched that race, unfolding one more detail after another. A race has to have a certain shared basis with humanity, or they will be too distant for the reader to relate to.
A good trick for a reader is to study human cultures and history, learn the differences in our own sociology, and draw from those ingredients, exaggerate them, mix and match, and create something with a few familiar components and a few surprising ones.
Athans: How do you approach the creation of new languages, or variations on existing languages so your worlds have their own idiom, colloquialisms, etc.?
Anderson: I will sprinkle strange alien words or expletives, new terms that convey the alienness of a concept, but as a writer—the teller of the tale—I am translating the dialog into the written word. In English.
It always reads clumsy to me when characters speak in stilted, overly foreign words. They’re speaking their own language and it should sound as normal to the reader as it sounds to the character. It’s part of the suspension of disbelief.
Athans: What is the most important element to a richly-realized fantasy or SF religion? How do you approach the creation of religious practices, dogma, and rituals?
Anderson: One of the best examples, to me, is what Frank Herbert created in Dune with the Fremen and their belief in Shai-Hulud. On the surface, it might seem a typical “primitive people worshiping a giant monster” as you see in so many clichéd fantasies. But the Fremen have an entire accompanying philosophy, that the sandworms aren’t really the god but a manifestation of the power of the desert; they have water rituals (which stem directly from the harsh desert landscape in which they live); they have a culture surrounding their religion: prayers, common sayings, all the details that show how pervasive those beliefs are.
In my Terra Incognita trilogy, the story is driven by a clash between two opposing religions—Aidenists and Urecari—based on Medieval Christianity and Medieval Islam. I studied both of those base religions and the historical context, then adapted them, created my own symbols, the different priesthoods, the rituals, then extrapolated them into the society. For a religion to be believable, it has to extend outside the bounds of the church or temple and into the daily lives of the people.
Athans: As you did with the religions of Terra Incognita, do you look to history for inspiration in creating future or fantasy political systems, nations, or leaders? Are there other sources of inspiration for SF or fantasy political structures?
Anderson: Absolutely—and study histories other than America or England. Japan, ancient China, Maori, Russian . . . they are rich in legends, events, rulers, scandals, tragedies, heroic battles, wars. All of those things can provide inspiration, even a template, for a new story.
Athans: How much effort and research goes in, before you actually start writing, to establishing the geography of a new setting? Do you draw maps? Do you study geography?
Anderson: Doing the research and worldbuilding is the first step in developing the plot and characters. As I create the society, the history, the political structure, the geography . . . all those things lead to ideas for the story. I might develop part of a religion, which makes me think of a character, who becomes an integral part of a story.
My Terra Incognita books are heavily driven by geography; the major conflicts flow from the locations of countries, of trade routes, of mines, deserts, ocean passages—I draw maps in detail and refer to them as I choreograph the plotlines.
Athans: How do you approach research and note-taking? Do you establish a set of “rules” for your setting?
Anderson: My most important step in creating a new world for a series is to develop and write the bible. I write entries on the major cities (or worlds), the races, the history, the politics, the religion, the society, the economy, and other specific things to the book. As I write the biographies of the characters, I learn how they interconnect. As I develop the history, I get ideas for legends, conflicts, and then I need more characters to flesh that out, to pick up interesting professions I have created in earlier versions of the bible. The creative process spirals out from there, and I keep asking questions. Along the way, I will do the specific research I need, which might also lead to additional ideas, to be included in the next iteration of the expanding bible.
Athans: You’ve written more than one tie-in/shared world novel—what is the most difficult part of playing in someone else’s playground, and what’s the most rewarding part of that process?
Anderson: The advantages and disadvantages both stem from the same thing: You are handed a familiar universe with familiar characters. I have a running start, in that the readers already know the property; they already love the characters and the situation (otherwise they wouldn’t be buying the book). As a fan myself, I get a thrill out of working in and expanding a universe that has meant a great deal to me—Dune, Star Wars, Star Trek. I can build upon something that is already great.
But because it is someone else’s playground, and because the rules are already established, I don’t have the same amount of creative freedom I would have in my own original creation. Sometimes, a story decision that seems obvious and necessary to me is not possible to include because the licensor has other priorities (an action figure design contradicts it, for example). And I don’t have the copyright or later control if the licensor wants to build upon what I’ve added.
But it sure is a lot of fun.
Athans: If it’s possible that anyone reading this hasn’t yet read any of your work, where should they start?
Anderson: That does cover a lot of territory, but I suppose I should narrow it down. I think the most indicative of my best work would be Hidden Empire in science fiction (the first book in my Saga of Seven Suns) or The Edge of the World in fantasy (the first book in Terra Incognita).
And may there be many more—thank you!