The Big Idea: Sharon Shinn
We sometimes say that someone with a talent has been “blessed,” but what happens when blessings are more real and concrete than just a note of admiration for skills? Sharon Shinn has been thinking about blessing for the world in which her new novel Whispering Wood exists, and is here now to share her thoughts.
In real life, I tend to be a skeptic. While I’ll occasionally read my horoscope or search for a four-leaf clover, I don’t really believe in astrology, crystals, soulmates, reincarnation, ghosts, or wishing on a star.
But in fiction, I love portents, prophecies, past lives, and predestination. In my own books, I’ve devised implants that light up when soulmates meet for the first time, invented a portal that takes the chosen one to another dimension, and designed solstice rites that make dreams come true.
In my newest book, Whispering Wood, I’ve created a world where the dominant ritual is based on blessings. There are 43 of them, stamped on metal coins and available at every temple. Eight each are aligned with one of the five elements of wood, water, air, earth, and fire, and three are extraordinary blessings that transcend the elements. At birth, everyone is gifted with three random blessings that in some way mold them for the rest of their lives, but they can go to a temple at any time and pull additional coins whenever they need guidance for some risky venture or troubling situation.
As an author, I love the blessings because they give me so many opportunities to illustrate a character’s personality (surely he’s going to live up to his blessing of loyalty before the book is out) or foreshadow events (there must be a reason she carries the glyph for power).
But all types of prophecies and portents are equally useful for a writer. They can set up expectations for a character arc. (Will he be sorry he scoffed at the notion of true love?) They can lay the groundwork for an upcoming plot twist. (Why is a blonde woman showing up in the cards laid out by the fortune-teller?) They can create a sense of dread. (This girl has been murdered in every former life, so how soon is she going to be facing a crazed killer?)
And they can force characters to decide what actions to take next. Do they court disaster by defying the will of the gods? Do they teach themselves to lie when they have been fated to only tell the truth? Do they try to circumvent the prophecy, outrun the curse, arm themselves with protective magic? Maybe it sounds counterintuitive, but when both the readers and the characters know what the future holds—or what it’s supposed to hold—everything gets a lot more interesting.
Another reason I like to add metaphysical components to my stories is that they illustrate something about the worlds that I’ve created. Human societies are rich with rituals both silly and solemn, and I want to add some of that richness to my novels. In real life, we might knock on wood, blow the seeds off a dandelion, consult tarot cards, plan weddings, attend funerals, or follow precise and complex ceremonies to choose a new pope or crown a new monarch. These traditions are the bejeweled and golden threads that weave through the tapestries of our lives.
Similarly, when I have my characters pray to a god or honor a superstition, I hope to make them seem more real, more relatable. I also hope to give readers a way to slide into the story—to make them feel that this imaginary place is just on the other side of a very thin veil.
The blessings have afforded me an easy way to do that. Whispering Wood is the fifth in a series that launched in 2010. For the past few years, I’ve drawn blessings every Monday morning, posted them on my Facebook page, and invited my readers to share the coins they’ve pulled for themselves. It’s a made-up ritual, sure, but there’s a sort of comfort in it. It creates a small community that bridges both the actual and the invented worlds. It gives us all a few touchstones we can use as we try to navigate the coming week.
But I suppose there’s another reason I find fantasy rituals so appealing. Humans are drawn to fiction because it imposes a rational narrative on a random and often bewildering existence. So often, life simply doesn’t make sense. As with any good story, there’s a beginning, middle, and end, but the throughline isn’t clear. How did this love affair go awry? Why did this person die so young? What was the point of this meandering detour into a career that didn’t work out? There are no obvious markers for the trails we should be following, and there are no clear lessons to be drawn from our disjointed lives. While many people believe that “everything happens for a reason,” I tend to think that, sometimes, things just happen.
That’s why stories have such power. Because they do make sense. They do create order. They take the broken, scattered stones of human experience and turn them an exquisite mosaic.
Our real-life rituals help us carve patterns from the haphazard nature of ordinary existence. Our fictional rituals do the same. They offer guidance. They provide structure. They make us believe that—even if we can’t see it—the design is there. All we have to do is make it through the rest of the story.