How to Write a Good Fantasy Ensemble, with Victoria Aveyard

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Writing compelling characters can be one of the most difficult parts of the craft, especially when it comes to ensemble stories, which focus on groups of characters and their relationships with one another. In an ensemble story, each character needs their own desires and roots, their own challenges and voice. At their best, reading a good ensemble story can feel like hanging out with a clever, loving, bickering group of friends. It’s one of the reasons we love The Lord of the Rings or Six of Crows or The Expanse. It’s also one of the reasons why fantasy author Victoria Aveyard wanted to write her new book, Realm Breaker. Inspired by her childhood love for The Lord of the Rings, Aveyard wanted to write a proper high fantasy adventure that had a place for her in the ensemble.

“It’s no secret Realm Breaker was written to comfort my 14-year-old self, who wanted so desperately to be part of the Fellowship,” Aveyard tells Den of Geek ahead of Realm Breaker‘s May 4th release. “But I’m not a straight white guy, so the Fellowship didn’t have room for me. I tried to keep that in mind, and remember how badly it felt to be excluded by something I cared about so much. With Realm Breaker, I hoped to give a little more space and possibility to the concept of a classic fantasy hero, and an adventurous quest.”

Aveyard is best known known for her Red Queen YA fantasy series, which won the 2015 Goodreads Choice Award for Debut Goodreads Author. Her newest fantasy novel, Realm Breaker, introduces a world of ancient lineages and immortal warriors. In as much as there is a main character, we have Corayne, a pirate’s daughter eager to leave her shore-bound existence. With a magical army set to ravage her world, she finds herself on a quest to make things right. 

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As the protagonist around which the ensemble revolves, Corayne was the center of the story, but Aveyard always imagined it as an ensemble piece. Aveyard also says she wanted Corayne to be different from the protagonists of the stories she loved when she was young. “I went into Realm Breaker absolutely knowing that my main character and leader would be this teenage girl, the bastard daughter of a hero who wants no part of him,” she says in our email interview. “So Corayne’s parameters were in my head early on, but I also absolutely knew she would be part of an ensemble team of deadly misfits. Obviously, Corayne is the core and emotional anchor.”

Of course, the field of fantasy has changed a lot since The Lord of the Rings was published in 1954, or even since its latest pop culture renaissance brought on by the movie trilogy in the early naughts. N.K. Jemisin, Kameron Hurley, A.K. Larkwood and many others have set out to do the same thing—to represent people like themselves in fantasy fiction—and succeeded. In the introduction to Realm Breaker, Aveyard expands on this somewhat, saying:  “I struggled to find my own self in their pages and imagery. And if someone like me, a straight white girl, is struggling, how must others feel? I remember turning to fanfiction to feed the hunger for more, for myself.” 

And in that classic fanfiction way, Realm Breaker doesn’t just take the tenets of its source material as gospel. “I also wanted to run in the other direction a little,” Aveyard says. “The Fellowship are, for the most part, all morally pointed in the same direction. Only Boromir really delves into any emotional complexity and failure, and we lose him early on. I wanted people who were very much flawed and real, who make mistakes or live morally gray lives, who do not believe themselves to be heroes or want to be heroes, but must become them anyways. As for the villain, I like to think of him as an Evil Aragorn, which was a joy to write.”

In Realm Breaker, that complexity means heroes who have already failed, an assassin who finds herself wondering whether the quest is worth fighting for more than money, and more. “I did my best to make each character stand on their own as a person,” Aveyard says, “and therefore act as a person in their situation, with their particular background, would. I stayed as true to their established characters as possible, which makes for a lot of great conflict between very different people set towards the same goal. And I didn’t want to sanitize or force development. It’s a very organic process, growing these people together and making sure they feel real.”

Different chapters have different point-of-view characters, allowing the reader to have knowledge not all the characters share. “The challenge in any story with multiple points of view is making sure each voice sounds different and distinct,” Aveyard says. “Luckily, these characters have such different personalities, that wasn’t as difficult as I anticipated. What helped most was internalizing as much as I could about these characters and their internal compasses, so I didn’t have to be so conscious of their characters while writing their POVs. It’s easier to flow when you don’t have to constantly think NOW WHAT WOULD THEY DO HERE, because you’ve absorbed them and their way of thinking. You already know how they’d react.” 

The finale, when all the work she put into those characters comes together into an ensemble battle, was one of the most fun aspects of writing a large group, Aveyard says. “I had a blast with the set pieces, particularly the climax at an oasis village. It felt like a real payoff of all the set up and development. I can let all these people out of their cages and let them really fight. Not to mention, there’s a moment where Corayne essentially gets passed between all the warriors like some football, to get her safely to her destination. It was a delight for me to visualize the whole sequence, and get it down on paper.” 

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Some points of view reveal the lineages of the immortal Elders, for example, or the court of a queen determined to hold on to her power while forced to marry for politics. Aveyard says she enjoyed creating the world from the ground up, especially “fleshing out the edges.” 

“Making those sharply drawn out pieces blend together. And everything builds on something else, creating a framework that is really solid and makes this fictional world feel all the more real, at least to me. I really adore mapmaking, and have since I was a kid, and I would argue a map is one of the most important things in creating a fantasy world that feels real and functional. Geography is probably the most influential thing on a society, so you need that as a foundation.”

Now that she’s writing a novel, that predilection comes in handy in the writerly equivalent, as well. Different novelists have many different methods for organizing their world-building, from personal wikis to sticky notes.

“I draft in Scrivener,” Aveyard says, “which makes it really easy to keep all my research and worldbuilding information in the same window as my draft. But I use lots of lists and charts, along with some excel sheets, to keep all my characters and information organized. I do try to internalize as much as possible, so I’m not constantly referencing. That way I don’t have to break stride in story.”

So, how do you write a good fantasy ensemble? Aveyard shows how keeping organized, writing what you want to read, knowing your own characters well, and setting one character as an emotional anchor for the rest are part of her process. See how the result fares in Realm Breaker.

Realm Breaker hits the selves on May 4th. It is now available for pre-order.

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