Sunday, November 18, 2012

Lighting in Fantasy Writing.

Cool title, huh?

Yes, it even rhymes!

Thank you.  I thought of it all by myself.

I'm very impressed.

So what's this about lighting?

Well, I was writing a description of a room as I do quite often in my books.  I got to the part about how the room was lit.  It's in a temple of the Goddess of Sunshine.  So the room is lit by globes of divine light.  Then I wondered how the globes stayed lit and realized I had no clue.  So instead of making up a technique, I had one of my characters muse about it.  This is what I wrote.  It's told from the viewpoint of Frath and it's in 'Pelya', the third book of the Dralin Trilogy.

Frath stared at one of the globes, wondering whether how the Goddess Reanna kept them glowing all the time or if Archpriestess Appana had some servant that secretly went around filling them with some sort of magical fluid.

That's a very good line.

Thank you.

You're welcome.

. . . Yeah, nothing comes after you're welcome, so you need to ask the next question.

Oh!  Sorry.

It's alright.

So, did this get you to thinking about lighting in writing?

Yes, yes it did.  Very insightful of you.

Thank you.

You're welcome.

So what about lighting in writing?

Well, I came to the realization that I have to know how every scene is lit.  It occured to me to wonder if other authors are the same way, or if it's just me.  In any case, I decided to list some of the ways I use to light areas.

That's very thoughtful of you.

I know, right?

Don't get cocky.

My bad.

Yes, yes it is.  So what are some of the ways you light areas?

I primarily write fantasy, so I like to come up with unusual, and often magical, ways for lighting.

What sort of ways?

Okay, now you're starting to interrupt with too many questions.


No problem.

Anyway . . . Shall we discuss natural lighting first?


Outside during the day, it's pretty easy.  There's a sun shining (providing your world has a sun, which mine does.  However, I often adjust that light with clouds, fog, dawn, dusk, rain, snow and various other weather affects.  The climate and vegetation affect it as well.  Trees provide shade, sunlight is harsh in the desert, winter sunlight is less effective at keeping a person warm.  Those things can affect the mood of the daylight and alter the impressions of your readers.

Sun-dappled forest.

Nighttime has a lot of options for adjusting light.  My world has two moons, Siahray is blue-green and Piohray is red.  When both of them are full, they cast a lavender light upon the night.  I can adjust the mood of a scene by having one full or not there at all to create a specific mood.

Starlight when the moons aren't out is another good option for nighttime.  Patchy clouds covering one of the moons can make a spooky scene while covering them with clouds can make it very dark indeed.

How about artificial lighting like the mystical globes in the temple?

Well, the most common artificial in a fantasy setting is going to be fire.  A campfire in the wilderness or a fire in the hearth at home are very common.  The source of fuel, such as wood in the forest or cow patties in the steppes needs to be considered as well.  Fire will be less common in the desert where there is little easy fuel.

In cities, a torch, essentially rags on a stick dipped in pitch, is going to be the easiest light.  However, it doesn't last all that long and isn't very bright.  It's great for adding to mystery though.  The guttering flames (torches always have guttering flames) cast lots of shadows and allow for things to come out of the murk. (murk is the darkness beyond torchlight.  Icky things hide there)

Those flames are guttering

Another option is candles.  They are very dim and can be held for hope, always slim when you only have a candle.  They can be all colors and more of them will more light.  You can also add candleholders, which are a nice addition to decorating a room.  Candles flicker as opposed to the guttering of torches.

It's a candle. True story.

Lanterns and kerosene lamps are a more advance option of man-made light.  They use liquid fuel with a wick and can hold a light for hours. On lampposts in a city, they can give the impression of technological advancement or wealth. You can always put a candle in a lantern for a different sort of effect.  The glass of the lantern can help protect the candle from wind.  Oriental lanterns are often made of paper with designs on them if you'd like to add an Eastern theme to your story.

Kinda useless in the daytime.

In truth, these natural lights were rare in historical times in our world.  Candles and torches require materials and work to make.  Not all people had those materials or even had time to do the work involved.  When the sun went down, it was very dark.  The lack of light can be especially useful in creating fear.  I've found that I almost always give my characters light.

In modern times, we have electricity and many more options, but I don't have it in the world of Ryallon, so I'm going to skip it.

What about magical light?

Ahh, now that's the fun part.  Ryallon is a high-magic world, so I can create technology-equivalent lighting.  The civilizations in my world range from barbaric to near-Victorian.

I use magical or fantasy elements to generate different types of light.  I also have underground caverns that contain luminescent plants.  I'll list some excerpts from my books to show the different ways light is provided in Ryallon.

Liselle's flame, from "Rojuun":

He followed them into the vacant building, ducking along the wall after entering the doorway.  A small blue flame appeared from Liselle’s hand.  She lifted it into the air and let it float above them as they looked around the room. 

Bioluminescent plants, from "Anilyia":

The temperature became cooler as the party traveled deeper into the ground.  Soon plants began to appear on the walls and ceiling.  The plants were rich with oxygen, which made it possible to breathe the air.
Bioluminescent fluids creeped through the plants, creating light.  It was similar to the glowflies in the forest, but much more powerful.  They were different from plants on the surface.  Their powerful roots dug deep into the rock, but at the same time secured the stone so that ribs and braces were no longer needed to keep the tunnel secure.

Nectar Globes, from "Anilyia":

This is from a Druidic city in the forest.  One of my favorites.

Round globe lights hung from various trees to light the city at night.  He had asked one of the Druids how they were lit.  The Druid told him that a specific type of nectar, which attracted glowflies, was placed inside.  More of that nectar was added every evening and the glowflies would spend the entire night on their feast, lighting the city in the process.  Between the thickness of the forest and the clouds above, it was dim enough for some of the globes to give off a soft light while they waited for lunch.

Ship lanterns and bell on Aermoirre, from "Kethril":

Aermoirre is one my favorite characters.  I could feel this scene while writing it.

Two lanterns shone with a magical glow on the main deck and one on the aft deck to go with the gentle illumination of the bell.  The mild creaking of wood and flap of sails was soothing.  Tathan could see ocean below and the lights of a port village a short distance ahead through the light snow.

Distra's purple flamed candles, from "Dralin":

“The candles are lit.”  She pointed at iron candleholders lined along the wall and at tables with stepped shelves to either side of the statue.  They all had candles with violet flames that flickered dimly, making the shadows dance slowly.
         “No.  Those are always lit.  Distra’s divine power keeps them aflame.” 

Pink torches in the tower of a wizardess, from "Ebudae"

A mat was on the floor inside and he wiped his feet off to reduce the chance of bootprints.  Magical torches flickering with bright pink flames lined a long hallway.  Frath did not want to sneak around in a wizard’s house, but the shadows beckoned.  He observed that they always seemed more substantial when cast by magical light.

Ebudae's magical lighting of all the candles in Pallon Estate, from "Ebudae"

Ebudae stood and concentrated on a four-pillar candleholder above the fireplace.  Pelya recognized a spell was going to be cast and gave the wizardess space.  The spell was simple, barely rustling her silken locks, but choosing what candles to light took focus.  Ebudae whispered the words of a spell and made precise gestures with her outstretched hands.
Yellow-green flames came to life.  At the same time, candles throughout the manor lit with the same flames.  She left the bedrooms and storage rooms dark, but lit all the common areas.  Lady Pallon normally had servants light the lanterns to make it bright, but Ebudae loved the mysterious and eerie light filling the room and hallway beyond.  “There, now it’s not dark.”  She smiled triumphantly as she turned back to her guests.


Those are just some of the ways I use lighting in my stories.  Nearly every scene in my books use light to adjust the reader's opinion of what's happening.  I like variety in color and types.  Each wizard has their own preferred color as well.  Liselle is blue and Ebudae is yellow-green for example.

To my readers,  I hope this gives you a little insight as to how I do things.  To other writers, I hope you found this to be intriguing and possible even helpful.

All my best,

John H. Carroll


Al Fetherlin said...

I always learn something new when I read your posts, John.

Thank you.

Your stories are very descriptive and I guess I always took your keen attention to the lighting for granted. Which means, I've been taking lighting for granted in my stories. :(


Anonymous said...

Hi Amy. :)

You are very welcome.

I never realized how much attention I pay to it until yesterday actually. You probably do more than you think. There's just so many things to pay attention to when writing. I think we all learn an amazing amount as we go. :)

Anonymous said...

It's not just you, John. I always try to have a clear view of lighting before I write a scene. Sometimes I draw maps and doodle pictures with light sources and shadows. I don't always describe the lighting in the final prose, but I've come to the conclusion that if I can't then I'm not yet immersed enough in my scene to write it.
Thanks for a great post.

John H. Carroll said...

Hi Tim,

I don't have the view of lighting before the scene, nor is it particularly scientific, but I have to know that it's there. :) I like coming up with creative ways to create it.

Thank you for stopping by. :)