What makes a fantasy series successful isn’t the number of dragons its author jams into it. Given the grand scale of fantasy, both readers and writers can sometimes forget that stories don’t necessarily come from big stakes, but from small moments. Although the genre deviates from reality, the center of any story is an emotional one: an exploration, however abstract, of the things that make us human. (Or, at least, what makes elves human enough that we bother reading on.)
Clearly, Tomi Adeyemi has done something right—more than one thing, by the looks of it. At only twenty-three years old, Adeyemi scored a shockingly lucrative book deal for Children of Blood and Bone, a YA fantasy trilogy inspired by Nigerian culture & mythology. One Entertainment Weekly article entitled “Is Tomi Adeyemi the next J.K. Rowling?” emphasizes Adeyemi’s cultural feat: “it’s not every day that an unknown-23-year-old sells the movie rights to an unpublished fantasy trilogy for seven figures.” In a rare move, Fox 2000 bypassed the optioning phase entirely and purchased the rights directly. Adeyemi credits her Nigerian immigrant parents with much of her success, claiming that they instilled a hard work ethic into her from an early age. But perhaps some of her success has come from the weight of her mission: “Write a story that’s so good and so black that everyone’s going to have to read it—even if they’re racist.”
Image Via Teen Vogue
Many think that writers primarily sort themselves into one of two categories: plot writers and character writers. In reality, there are at least four. There are good plot & character writers—and there are the others.
Adeyemi self-identifies as a writer to whom plot comes more naturally, but that doesn’t mean she neglects her characters. After writing the plot, she told attendees at her 2019 BookCon panel, she spends “every draft” figuring out the ways in which the plot changes her characters. “Fantasy has to be human,” she emphasized. “Fantasy needs to be especially human.” Authors can get caught up in the gravitas of their own worlds, often forgetting that our own reality holds the same high stakes. The world tends to be ending, not as a prophecy but as a general statement of fact. That tends not to be our main motivation on any given day. Even if you are an activist whose primary focus is societal responsibility, there are friends and events and moments that matter to us outside of that objective. Adeyemi discussed the ways in which some high fantasy can draw a low level of engagement:
There are a lot of popular fantasy series that are the fantasy series of our day, and I just don’t care about those people. I don’t care if they get killed by a dragon. I don’t care if it happens – I’m hoping for it to happen. I know I cracked a character when I fall in love with something about that character. The most epic moments in our lives… for you it’s epic, but for someone else, it’s nothing. Reality is something different to every single person.
As for good and evil, the binary of most works of fantasy, Adeyemi believes it’s all a bit more complicated than that. “I have to believe what my characters believe,” she admitted, but at the same time, “I have to acknowledge what is right and wrong about those beliefs. Everybody is a little bit right, and that’s why they keep coming against each other.” In order to create engaging characters, we have to acknowledge that evil is a buzzword, not a motivation. “I’m not letting people off the hook,” she emphasized, “but I find the percentage of people being bad for bad reasons is incredibly small.”
So… is Adeyemi the next J.K. Rowling? Probably not—it’s a different fantasy world that inspired her from an early age.
Image Via Fine Art America
Avatar: The Last Airbender inspired Adeyemi’s worldbuilding and changed her perception of the role culture could play in a story. She recalled one Twitter user recommending A:TLA to cure their Children of Blood and Bone book hangover:
I was so honored because that’s the world I want to live in. Even when it wasn’t my dream to be a writer, it was my dream to create a world that people get lost in. A lot of people were so inspired by Harry Potter, but for me it’s Avatar. Culture is more than what people wear, what they eat. It’s the way they interact with each other in the world. So it was a joy to do that with my own heritage.
Of course, Adeyemi wasn’t always as successful in her world building. Improvement is just as much practice as it is understanding the mechanics of storytelling—arguably, you can’t understand those mechanics until you practice! “All my fantasy worlds before were like, ‘ok, now they can do lightning!’ They didn’t have depth,” Adeyemi explained, “but now, I can build a world with heart and meaning.”
Featured Image Via Shondaland.com.