Most books have a “Big Idea” to them — but that doesn’t mean that idea makes itself obvious to the writer from the start. Sometimes the writer has to go exploring for it, trying different things with their writing until that idea reveals itself to her. Doubt it? I present to you Leah Cypess, whose debut novel Mistwood features a big idea that make Cypess going searching.
Destiny. Fate. Supernatural powers. That’s what high fantasy is traditionally all about. Very often, the main characters are Ordinary People who get caught up in magical events, or have magical powers; and usually, they’re not too happy about it. They don’t want to be the Chosen One. Their powers have ruined their lives. They just want to be Ordinary.
Take one example: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In between single-handedly destroying dozens of vampires at once and making snarky comments, Buffy spent a lot of time sighing about being the Slayer. She didn’t want to defeat evil and save the world during every sweeps month. She wanted to have an ordinary high school experience. She wanted to be an ordinary teenage girl. As an ordinary teenage girl myself, I sometimes felt like reaching through the screen, grabbing her by the shoulders, and yelling, “That might actually not be so great!” Except, of course, she would have killed me. (And I suppose there are a few other minor problems with that scenario.)
But what if it was the other way around? What if a supernatural creature found itself developing human traits, and wasn’t happy about the situation at all? What if she didn’t want to be ordinary? What if what she wanted was to have supernatural powers, and a Purpose, and a Destiny? What if her internal struggle was not about escaping her destiny, but about holding onto it?
Because if you have a destiny, then you know where you’re going. Your choices are about how to get there, not about where you want to go. And really, isn’t that easier? If you have choices, real choices, you might not make the right choice. Worse than that – there might not be a right choice.
The main character in Mistwood, Isabel, is an immortal shapeshifter bound by an ancient spell to protect the dynasty of the king who bound her. Because she’s powerful and ruthless and doesn’t care about anything else, she’s done her job superbly for centuries. But I start the book after something has gone dreadfully wrong, leaving her trapped in human form with no memory of how she got into that body and no idea how to get out of it. For the first time in her centuries-old existence, she will face confusion, doubt, and divided loyalties. For the first time, she doesn’t know what she is supposed to do.
And now I have to be upfront: I wasn’t thinking about any of this when I started this book. In fact, I didn’t know I was starting a book. I had an image in my mind of a supernatural creature being hunted in a magical woods; I remember thinking up the first line one evening, picking up a notebook, and sitting down to write. I didn’t even know if I was writing a short story or a novel.
But as I continued writing, and ideas and plots and characters began to come together, these questions kept coming up: about choices, about destiny, about being human. I began writing scenes out of order; I remember being on the subway on my way to work one morning, and suddenly being struck with an idea and penning a long internal monologue that would go through my main character’s mind when she faced an important choice – though I didn’t yet know what that choice would be (and needless to say, most of that monologue got edited out).
Piecing together all the action scenes and intrigues with Isabel’s internal struggles was quite an endeavor, and definitely not the most efficient way to go about writing a book. But I did it, and in the end Mistwood is exactly what I hoped it would be. It’s a fantasy novel with so many of the things I love about fantasy: ancient spells and high intrigue and surprise attacks and secrets buried in the past. And a Big Idea, woven through it, that I didn’t even know was going to be there when I started.