Writing Lessons From Reading Katharine Kerr

December 28, 2009 at 5:20 am (fantasy, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , )

So far I have covered writing lessons from reading Terry Pratchett, Ann Bishop and Terry Brooks.  Today I am going to look at Katharine Kerr though I think my next author will have to be a non-fantasy one, just to break things up a little.

Katharine Kerr is another amazing fantasy author and one I enjoyed greatly through high-school.  I am going to focus on her Deverry Series as far as what I have learned, which is very much a swords and sorcery fantasy with nobles and horses and elves and dwarves and if you read on to the Westlands Cycle (the follow on series) you even get a dragon.

I’m actually going to start with a few things I don’t like about the Deverry Series.

To start with there are two pages of maps with place marked with dozens of places and towns (that do not exist) with names you cannot hope to pronounce.  Later on these become useful as the characters trek over the continent and you want a reference point but it is a daunting way to start the book and quite off putting.  It is not helped by following the maps with three pages worth of a pronunciation guide so that you can pronounce the names of places and people in the story.  Again, off putting.  Useful, because three pages into the story you are already wondering how on earth you could pronounce some of the names, but not the way one usually wants to start reading.  We then launch into a prologue that maddeningly talks about a girl being reborn and being reminded that she has something to do, but not being given a name or description.  Admittedly, this becomes important and necessary later on but as far as starting the story it is not particularly enticing.

And then the story begins.

Any complaints disappear.  The story is incredible.  The characters, in whatever incarnation they happen to be in at the time, have depth and they feel real.  The world is well constructed and you could see it being a working society, not a particularly good one to live in, but it would function.  The story manages to hold you captivated despite the fact that it keeps interrupting the ‘modern day’ story to tell you about the lives the characters lived previously and these previous stories are also engaging and well told and even though they disrupt the flow of the story you want to read they don’t feel intrusive.

Writing lessons learned from reading Katharine Kerr?

  1. If you have a character that defies the expectations of the society they will be an outcast, even if they are an admired one.  Jill, our protagonist (of sorts) spends her life on the road with her father learning to be a mercenary.  She does not fit with any of the ideals for women in the society.  Her father is despised enough for being a mercenary, her choice to become one as well means she isn’t going to fit in.  Individuals within the society may admire her and like her but the society is going to shun her.
  2. People sometimes do horrible things and so characters sometimes have to make bad choices.  At the heart of the Deverry series is the idea that there are always consequences for actions, even if those actions happened in previous lives.  As we go back and visit the characters previous lives we see why certain things are happening to them in their current life.  The interesting thing is that even the ‘good’ character have done some really horrible things for a variety of reasons.  Survival, revenge, and love have had them betraying and backstabbing each other through life after life and those choices all come with heavy consequences either in the immediate situation or in their next life.
  3. Death is not necessarily motivation enough for a character to act.  The idea that a character must do x,y and z or they will die is usually motivation enough to ensure that the character does go through the motions.  Katharine Kerr seems to go out of her way to create fatalistic characters who seem bent on rushing to their own demise.  There are very few characters in the story who wouldn’t die for their honour or their name or wealth or pretty much anything that would make a good story.  This actually makes for more interesting characters because their motivations become quite complex at times and you have to really get inside their head to understand why they are doing certain things.
  4. The mentor character does not necessarily have to be annoying.  I blame Yoda for the number of small, wrinkled mentors running around fantasy books berating the characters and guiding through annoyance.  Not that I didn’t like Star Wars and Yoda but I think the number of cheap imitations out there has gotten a little beyond a joke.  The mentor is a standard character in a sword and sorcery fantasy but I really enjoyed Nevyn.  He is old but still very active and his influence is minimal until later in the series as he choose to stay on the sidelines and waits for the other characters to make their own choices.  What I really like about him is that he makes mistakes.  It is his initial mistake that sets most of the later events in motion.  He may have gained some wisdom but he is human and his emotions and own desires frequently get in the way.


  1. Anita Marie said,

    What great advice- I’ve been looking for some new perspectives into writing and I’m glad to have found your blog!
    anita marie

  2. Carol Kilgorec said,

    I like that sometimes characters have to make bad choices. The trick is to make sure the bad choice fits the character and the story. It can be a bad choice without being a dumb choice.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Definitely a good point. The characters don’t need to make dumb choices even when they make bad ones. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Carol Kilgore said,

    Oops. Typo on my own name. Must be Monday.

  4. Elizabeth Spann Craig said,

    Great tips, Cassandra. Nice insights from an author I’m not familiar with.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Katherine Kerr is almost never listed when people talk about the great fantasy authors but she really should be. Deverry particularly is a really well constructed world and her characters are amazing.

  5. Michelle said,

    I LOVED Nevyn. I also loved her curses– “by the Lord of Hell’s hairy balls” was my favorite, I think. I read all the Deverry books in one go one year, and I started using her curses in my every day conversations, much to the consternation of my partner and friends.

    Also, I seem to remember all the cows in Deverry having rusty red ears. Why would I remember that detail?

    • Michelle said,

      And by “her” curses, I meant Kerr’s curses. Because obviously Nevyn’s curses would be “his”.

      Commenting before breakfast = bad idea.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      I loved the curses as well. Though Jill had a few good ones as well. Thanks for the comment.

  6. drizl said,

    I really enjoy reading your blog ~ great writing tips and I’m always looking for new books to read.

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