Writing Lessons From Reading Piers Anthony

February 9, 2010 at 5:33 am (Uncategorized, writing lessons) (, , , , , , , )

Okay, if you’ve never read a Xanth novel than you probably should, though only if you are really into fantasy.

When people think about humour in fantasy and really rich and interesting worlds and characters they usually look at Pratchett, for good reason. Pratchett is a master of weaving the absurd into his stories and still making this amazing, insightful tale. Yet I find Piers Anthony to have created an equally rich and vibrant world of magic and zany characters though the writing style can feel a little dry at times (probably because the books were published before I was born).

Xanth is a world of magic. Every person (though I use the term person loosely) and everything must have magic or they are exiled from the land. The main character is Bink and we first meet Bink when he is facing exile because he cannot exhibit a magic power. It turns out he does have magic and extremely powerful magic but if I tell you anything else about that it will ruin the very first Xanth novel so you’ll just have to find out for yourself.  The setting in these books is alive. The trees each have a magical function. This one grows shoes, that one will grow blanket, and the next one will eat you, etc, etc. The wildlife is intelligent and deadly and you really do have to pay attention to where you step in Xanth.

I really loved reading these books.

What did I learn about writing from reading these books?

  1. Even if your main character seems weaker than the others, they don’t have to be tearful and pathetic. So many protagonists in fantasy novels start out simpering and useless. Bink may start out weak and he may never rival some of the other characters for strength, but at least he always has strength of character. At no stage do you want something to eat him just so he’ll stop complaining.
  2. There does not need to be a big, dark, evil in a fantasy novel. There are all manner of conflicts your characters can face. Bink goes up against the rules of his society when he faces exile. Nobody is evil but there is a problem that has to be overcome. In one of the later books the characters choose to seek the source of Xanth’s magic and go on a quest. There is no evil stopping them but it is still a quest filled with danger and excitement.
  3. Said was not always the dialogue tag of choice. I can – and did – open ‘The Source of Magic’ to any number of pages with lots of dialogue and I found that said was used once. What was used was ‘cried’, ‘exclaimed’, ‘retorted’, ‘urged’, ‘murmured’ and so on. Yes, the current convention is to not use dialogue tags or to limit it to said. I am hoping that the trend changes because I enjoy people exclaiming and shrieking and all those other things that they used to do in books.
  4. Keeping your characters (and your readers) in the dark makes for a really interesting story as nobody really suspects where things are going to go and yet the story still makes sense.


  1. sdennard said,

    Your #3 is such a good point. I was re-reading Lloyd Alexander the other day, et voilà! Lots of non-said tags. I don’t find that non-said tags pop out of the pages or interfere with my reading, you know? Thanks for bringing that up!

    BTW, I love Xanth!!! I started reading that series when I was 14, and I still love it. My favorite was always Isle of View.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Still, modern day conventions keep insisting that we stick to said or don’t have a dialogue tag at all.

  2. Helen Ginger said,

    It’s nice to find a great book that breaks the rules (even if it’s breaking the rules before the rules were enforced).

    Straight From Hel

  3. Carol Kilgore said,

    A friend who was really into fantasy loved Piers Anthony books, It’s not my genre of choice, but I imagine he could teach writers a lot just by reading him.

  4. writtensilent said,

    I read these a couple years ago, and really enjoyed them. I’ve been meaning to reread them again at some point. I’m not sure I ever finished all of them though because after awhile I grew bored with it and I was never sure why. It was such an incredible fantasy world Anthony creates, and there was so much detail, but I think I got lost in all of it. But what I liked most about it was his writing was just comfortable. Not sure how else to describe it, but it was an easy comfortable read, and yet so amazingly interesting.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Comfortable is a good way to describe the writing. It just kind of flows along.

    • MINKI said,

      I to have enjoyed reading the Xanth books but I stopped when the story ‘s contained the comic strip )pun after pun, no respite) and Ida’s moons.
      Recently I have re-read Golem in the Gears and Roc and a Hard Place and enjoyed them very much and am now considering restarting the books again.

  5. Linda Ballou said,

    I’m always in the mood for magical experiences. I will check out your work.

  6. barbaraannwright said,

    I stopped reading Xanth when it seemed like the female characters were getting really weak. I enjoyed the first few, though.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Yeah, there is the issue of it being dated and the women having very minor roles and getting progressively less important to the story as the books went on.

  7. Sola said,

    Nice thorough reflection with good take home points.

  8. AlexJ said,

    Good tips from Piers! Been a while since I read any of his books. And I do use dialogue tags in my book. I find reading books without any really difficult and awkward.

  9. bethtrissel said,

    Thanks for an interesting and informative post on fantasy novels.

  10. Tooty Nolan said,

    No big, bad, evil eh? That”s good: I don’t do big, bad, evil. As regards the use of the word ‘said’: It was just about the only thing that I learnt from reading science fiction for thirty years. That’s not actually true – but it was the first. i sometimes use it just for a change.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Big, bad evils always seem so melodramatic, really.

      • Tooty Nolan said,

        Actually I’ve just recalled a brief big bad evil in one of my tales – The Overmind Threat. It was an A.I intent upon world domination. Bbut when the going got tough, he went all gay and took up an interest in interior design.

  11. writers on writing – Piers Anthony « creative barbwire (or the many lives of a creator) said,

    […] } Again I must thank Cassandra for mentioning Piers Antony. I admit my ignorance, I had never heard of him. As his Xanth serie seems quite long, though, I […]

  12. Therese said,

    Haven’t been by in a while and am just catching up a bit on your blog. You just made me want to re-read the Xanth books really bad – I used to love them!

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