Musing on Some Elements that Work in Fantasy, Part Two: Iconic Imagery


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One of the most iconic images in all of fantasy literature: The One Ring from The Lord of the Rings.

If you read Part One of this series, you already know that some partners and I are starting a new publishing company, ePic Adventures, Inc. As I mentioned, we’ll be doing print books, both hardcover and paperback, but our emphasis is on eBooks designed to stretch the capabilities of smartphone and tablets and redefine what an eBook can be in the age of transmedia. Again, think of them as eBooks 2.0, or the Magician’s Book from Narnia, or the tablet/smartphone equivalent of a volume from the library at Hogwarts.

As we build the ePic Books brand, we’re focusing on a single genre (or range of subgenres, I guess), at least for the first year or two: fantasy. A part of our strategy involves looking for certain elements that the very best and most successful fantasies share in common. When I say “most successful,” I’m talking about the classics of the genre, the most beloved and enduring works that stand out, across years and even generations. These are the works that shine above the rest, when as works of equal, or arguably even greater, quality dim into obscurity.

One of those elements that most enduring and successful works seem to share, Iconic Imagery, is very closely related to the Iconic Locations detailed in Part One. If you haven’t read it, skip back. It’s okay. we’ll wait.

Back? Okay then.

Absolutely iconic.

Star Trek is a terrific source of iconic images: the famous badge, the bridge of the Enterprise (always recognizable, generation after generation), tribbles, and, of course, Spock’s ears and Vulcan salute. Bladerunner? Don’t even get me started.

Speaking of the bridge of the Enterprise, how is an iconic image different from an iconic location? I admit the line is thin. In fact, at least three of the examples I mentioned in Part One, the Lamppost in Narnia, the Starship Enterprise, and the Death Star from Star Wars, might better be called iconic images rather than locations. The lamppost especially … our first view of it includes two characters, Lucy and Mr. Tumnus with his umbrella and bundles; the characters are as much a part of that scene as the lamppost and the snow-covered trees. So whether you consider it a location or an image, the point remains; it’s iconic and unforgettable. You want images like that in your story … assuming that you are striving for one of those enduring, unforgettable classics. And if you aren’t, seriously, why the hell not?

I should also point out that iconic images, at least as I’m thinking of them, aren’t always exclusively visual (which makes me think I have likely picked the wrong word, but there you are). Consider the Lightsabers in Star Wars. Those glowing laser swords are unforgettable—and are even, I think, a part of why the first film was so astonishing successful. But as iconic as that image is, most of us, I am willing to wager, can recognize a lightsaber even without the visual. The sound, that unmistakable hum, is as much as part of the integral lightsaber-ness as the visual design. If someone plays you a clip of a light saber activating or deactivating, you’ll know it at once. Go head, give it a try.

Star Wars is another gold mine for iconic images: The Millennium Falcon, the X-wing, Yoda, Wookies, the creatures in the cantina, Princess Leia’s hair buns, R2 and 3PO…. In fact, that’s one of the differences between the original trilogy and the prequels. The original trilogy is chock full of iconic images. The prequels have far more incredible and imaginative designs. But how many stand out? How many are memorable? Of those, how many didn’t appear in the original trilogy first? Off hand, Darth Maul’s character design is about all I can come up with. Could you sketch him? Or even describe him in a sentence?

Tolkien’s ring is one of the most iconic images in all of fantasy. So are his hobbits, with their pipes, their small stature, and, of course, the furry feet. What would the Harry Potter books be without, say, the wands or the moving paintings? I can honestly say that I remember more about the visuals of The Wind in the Willows, from the characters to the locations, than I can about the story itself (which means it’s probably time to revisit it).

Captain Hook’s hook is an iconic image that helps define him as a character. without it, he’s a generic pirate.

Personally, I think the best and strongest iconic images are related closely to a character if only because they have the effect of making that character iconic almost by consequence, although of course the image alone won’t do that. But at a glance, they give the character a very specific look, and they tell us a little something about the character. More, the character just won’t be the same without it, like the Dread Pirate Roberts without his black shirt and mask.

Some examples? Remember how Darth Vader’s iconic black helmet and cape stands out from that sea of white-armored Stormtroopers the first time we see him in Star Wars. Think of Indiana Jones with his jacket, whip, and hat. He’s still Indy without them, of course. He’s wearing a white dinner jacket in the opening scenes of The Temple of Doom. But when I saw the film on opening night, the first real spontaneous round of applause from the audience came when Indy pulled on his familiar “uniform” on that little plane.

If you see a poster—or read a description—of a muscled man wearing a loincloth in the jungle, chances are you’ll assume it’s Tarzan. If you see a stern male figure smoking a large pipe and wearing a deerstalker, you’re probably not thinking Nero Wolfe or James Bond. When you see a man on a white horse wearing a white hat and a mask, you won’t have to ask, at least not with a straight face, who was that masked man? It’s the Lone Ranger.

Bob Kane’s original concept for The Batman, before Bill Finger suggested the dark knight we know today.

The colorful uniform made Superman stand out from his pulp-era forefathers like Doc Savage and The Shadow, themselves iconic. When Bob Kane created Batman, he originally envisioned a bright red body suit, bat wings, and a domino mask. Bill Finger contributed a different look … the brooding cape and cowl. Would Batman have worked either way? Maybe. But I doubt it.

Granted, iconic imagery is a pretty shallow way to define a character, and it takes far more than a distinctive look to make a character truly classic. The icons help us recognize a character at a glance (Harry Potter’s glasses and scar); they don’t make us care. It’s at best just one layer, the surface one, but it’s a good place to start.

Iconic images present a challenge to the writer. It easy to show an iconic image in, say, a film or a comic. On the page? Not so much. I include the screenplay page here, too. Strong visuals help a film sell. Regardless of the medium, iconic images have to be described in sufficient detail that we can see it, sure, but the best resonate through the other senses as well. When you’re reading or writing, think of sound (remember the lightsabers), smell, and weight. The icons have to be real. In this case, the written word has an advantage. You can’t smell a film, but a writer can make a scent real. For better or for worse. A film can show us a magic sword, but the written word can show us what it feels like to hold that power pulsing through the palms of your hands.

They present challenges, but they have advantages. They make your character (or prop, or location, or vehicle, or…) a part of the collective zeitgeist. Just about any man, woman, or child can recognize Superman or Mickey Mouse at a glance. Most of them can recognize Harry Potter, Spider-man, or a lightsaber. If you want to have your work adapted for the screen, or illustrated, iconic images give the interpreters a strong foundation from which to start.

And finally (this may sound a little crass), iconic images are merchandisable. You can make toys, t-shirts, costumes, posters, mugs, trashcans, and pretty much anything else you can think of. Just look at what Patrick Rothfuss has been able to do. That’s a way to keep people talking about, and promoting, your work. And it’s a pretty good way to make it attractive to studios and publishers. And it’s certainly something that’s on our checklist at ePic.

Any thoughts, writers and readers of the world?

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2 responses to “Musing on Some Elements that Work in Fantasy, Part Two: Iconic Imagery

  1. Your article prompted me to think of the “iconic images” of John Williams soundtracks to movies. I can play just a few bars of a recording and a classroom of children can identify which movie the music is from. Think of “Name That Tune”. Music from “Star Wars” is probably most iconic, but music from “Jaws” and “E. T.” is not far behind! Personally, for me as a music teacher, I respond to the music of “Close Encounters”! Remember the hand signals??? Those hand signals are commonly used in music education classes today.

    I am thankful that the images from all these books, movies, and the music associated with them still float around in my head!

  2. Don’t forget Superman! Wow, there is a whole blog to be written in scores. I’d do so if I thought I had anything fresh to add that you haven’t already mentioned. Beyond the master, can you image The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Godfather, Gone With the Wind, Mary Poppins, The Magnificent Seven, James Bond, or Star Trek: The Motion Picture without those scores? And yeah, I love the Close Encounters score. Ever notice the little nods to When You Wish Upon a Star in the score?

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