One of the authors whose books I read often (James Rollins) asked on FB today if he should start doing book trailers for his action-adventure novels. The answer skewed heavily “no”, with only a couple of “yes” takers. But one person said something that made me want to kiss a stranger straight through the internet.
He suggested that instead of a trailer the author commission sketches of various characters.
Ever since I’ve started reading fantasy again I’ve realised that I have a real failing as a reader. I cannot visualise fantastic creatures.
Now of course I can picture a dragon or a gryphon. Those are both fairly standard fellows for the most part, and encountering them in a fantasy novel is like coming across a chihuahua or a mouse. You just know what they look like.
But other creatures? Authorial attempts to invent a new mythology almost always fall flat in my mind. Because I can read descriptions that are really good and still not visualise a blessed thing.
The worst of the offenders in recent memory is Daniel Abraham’s otherwise-excellent The Dagger And The Coin series. One of his central conceits is that there are 12 distinct races in his world; races created by dragons in the distant past to do certain functions. The dragons are long gone when the series opens, but the races coexist frostily in the world they left behind. It’s a great hook…that falls flat on its face in places because you simply can’t keep them all straight in the first place (“wait? Are these the ones with bug carapaces or the ones who look like pennies?”). Add to that my complete inability to visualise the whole person and it makes for an awkward reading experience.*
Now of course, Abraham’s books are an extreme example. Other extreme examples include David Brin’s Uplift Saga. But the Uplift Saga does exactly what I think so many other speculative fiction writers need to do.
It has an actual encyclopedia with visual representations of the fictional aliens. That’s the dream for a person like me. Because you can wade through good descriptions (and bad: Brin repeatedly calls one character “a walking stalk of brocolli”) but there is no substitute for a picture. Even for literate folk, visualising the unknown is sometimes an impossible task.
Now I know most authors can’t afford to commission an encyclopedia a la Brin. But pretty much every author has a website now. And I’d say if you’ve got some ducats to throw around on video trailers maybe instead you’ll find a good sketch artist who will draw your critters for your website. Or even for your book.**
*I read the first volume, The Dragon’s Path last year. I’ve got the second volume, The King’s Blood chilling on my Kindle for when I’m in the right mood. Would I recommend them? I’d say so far they’re B/B- fantasy. If the races were handled better I’d maybe bump that up to a B+. I applaud him for trying to do something different. But the execution of that difference left a lot to be desired.