Skip to contents
SunLit

SunLit Interview: Todd Fahnestock explains how his simple intentions turned totally complex

The award-winning sci-fi/fantasy author explains the college-days origin of his personal philosophy and how it evolved into a novel about "found family." And a lot more.

Todd Fahnestock is a writer of fantasy for all ages and winner of the New York Public Library’s Books for the Teen Age Award. “Threadweavers” and “The Whisper Prince Trilogy” are two of his bestselling epic fantasy series. He is a 2021 finalist for the Colorado Book Award and winner of the Colorado Authors League Award for Writing Excellence for “Tower of the Four: The Champions Academy.” When he’s not writing, he teaches Taekwondo, enjoys family life with his wife, son and daughter, and plays vigorously with Galahad the Weimaraner. Visit him at www.toddfahnestock.com.


Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?

“Tower of the Four” is one of my favorite projects. I have such love for these characters because they surprise me at almost every turn.

This book began as an attempt at simplicity. I wanted to go back to the basics of what I loved as a teenage reader and hit all the fantasy tropes. Nothing fancy, just a straight-up fantasy romp.

But I have a tendency to overcomplicate things, both in my mind and in my writing. In stories, I often elaborate when I should simplify. And if you like complicated, try these two novels from my body of work: “Fairmist” (epic fantasy) and “Charlie Fiction” (time-travel sci-fi). You’ll get your dose. 

So even as I tried to make “Tower of the Four” simple, it grew too big for its britches before I could stop it.

The magic system for “Tower of the Four” was supposed to be basic, centered on the number four. Simple, right? And of course magic’s iconic shape would be a square (four sides and all, dontcha know). How could anything be more staid and uncomplicated than a square? It’s the most basic shape. Squares are everywhere.

Things got out of hand from there. 

The magic system mushroomed from a simple concept of four magic paths—emotional, mental, physical and spiritual—into an interconnected system that required four people, each choosing a separate path of magic, and bonding together to make the magic work. Beyond that, I split each path into four aspects—internal, external, constructive and destructive—and then powered everything with four little magic generators carved from a person’s soul, called Soulblocks. Simple, right? 

Okay, maybe not.

So yeah, “Tower of the Four” was supposed to be a “basic fantasy novel.” But it didn’t stay that way for long.

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?

I decided to share Chapter 1 because it starts with Brom. Though there are four primary characters, Brom is the reader’s “window to the world” because he’s the most easy to identify with. Brom is the equivalent—in this medieval society—of an upper middle class boy. His father is a prominent craftsman in a small town, so they have some money, but they aren’t rich by any stretch of the imagination, and they certainly aren’t nobility. 

The three other main characters that become part of Brom’s “Quad” at The Champions Academy are far more extreme: a penniless street urchin who was days away from starvation when she was brought to The Champions Academy, an arrogant princess of one of the two warring kingdoms, and a freedom fighter from the opposing kingdom. Those three quickly find reasons to hate each other, and Brom finds himself drifting away from all of them.

But, of course, the key to The Champions Academy—and to learning magic—is to bond with one’s Quad mates, so their first challenge is to build bridges to each other.

The first chapter illustrates Brom as a young man, dreaming of becoming a hero. He thinks this will happen if he can just get the right opportunity. His dreams are grandiose and naïve, but by the end of the book, he’ll understand the sacrifice required of a real hero. 

Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write the book? 

The primary influence for this book comes from decades ago. In college, my best friend and I spent many late nights bouncing our young adult philosophy off each other. We came up with theories about why people did the things they did, what would make a better world, which girls might like us, and what would make a totally boss D&D role-playing campaign the next time we played. (All the important things, you know…)

During the more philosophical aspects of our conversations, we cobbled together the basic components of a person, four different bodies: emotional, mental, physical and spiritual. In retrospect, I’m certain we were not the first to come up with this idea. But we thought ourselves highly original and quite clever. It became a cornerstone of how we defined other people.

“Oh, that guy has a total mastery of his physical body. 9-of-10, but he rates about a 2-out-of-10 in his emotional body.” 

Stuff like that. We liked assessing and categorizing people and things. I sometimes think college is mostly about that very thing.

Though the years have flown by since those heady days, I never forgot the concept of emotional/mental/physical/spiritual. It seems to fit even now, so when I started thinking about “Tower of the Four,” this college philosophy jumped into my head as a possible magic system: Motus (emotional), Mentis (mental), Impetu (physical), and Anima (spiritual).

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?

Absolutely. The entire 300+ page story of “The Champions Academy” was supposed to be a three-chapter flashback.

My original story idea began with Brom (the main character) drinking in a tavern years after being expelled from The Champions Academy. He’s sour and jaded, and we get the impression he was once the best and brightest of the academy, but something went wrong. The story gets moving when two of his old school mates—whom he hates—come looking for him. They need his help to contain a great evil: their fourth Quad mate, who has apparently gone insane and become this world’s Maleficent (the Vale character I mentioned earlier). Brom and Vale were in love before he got expelled, so the friends think he can reach her, talk some kind of sense into her. The quest begins.

During the quest, I planned to have a flashback to the friends’ time at the academy. 

Well, I started writing that flashback, and two chapters turned into four. Four turned into eight (see how the “fours” motif worked its way into my subconscious?) When I was on the verge of twelve chapters of flashback, I leaned back in my chair and said to myself, “Well, obviously the story does not begin at the tavern.” At that point, I worked backward and realized that the story began in Brom’s hometown of Kyn, with his desire to be a Quadron— this world’s version of a magician/superhero—and how he got the opportunity to become one.

That’s how this volume became “Tower of the Four: The Champions Academy.” The Maleficent character—Vale—does go on to do some horrible things in later episodes. And yes, there is a quest to reach her, but that happens much later. 

As an aside, I also went back and wrote the origin stories of the other three characters in the Quad. They can be found in e-book format on Amazon: “Urchin” [Vale’s story], “Princess” [Oriana’s story], and “Royal” [Royal’s story].

To answer the second part of the question: I love narratives that develop a life of their own. 

My writer friends and I use the terms “plotter” and “pantser” a lot to describe two major approaches to the process of writing. For those who don’t know what that means, a “plotter” lays out the story ahead of time, then follows their outline. A “pantser” dives in and follows whatever inspirations arise as they tap away on the keyboard. John Grisham is a famous plotter, meticulously laying out his stories before he writes them. Stephen King is a famous pantser, feeling that the heart of a story cannot be reached unless it is teased from the subconscious moment by moment.

I fall on the pantser side of the spectrum. In fact, every book I ever wrote was a pantser book before I started writing with Giles Carwyn in 2004 (he’s a plotter).

I believe in being well-rounded, so I did a few experiments with different levels of plotting, and “Tower of the Four” was one of those experiments. I started the story out by plotting as many of its beats as I could before actually writing…

…and then I proceeded to break out of my structure left and right.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

There is something indescribable—and a freshness impossible to replicate—about a story that grabs me and drives me down its own road. Unpredictable ideas crop up. And if an idea surprises me, I know it’s going to surprise the reader. I love that.

If these unexpected ideas completely wreck my premeditated plot, then it becomes my job to twist the story into a believable fit for those unexpected curves. That’s where I really have to push my brain. It’s not easy most of the time, but it’s worth it. Tying together impossibilities such that they make sense to the reader elevates the story. And it’s pure ambrosia for me when I actually manage it. 

I’ve heard that writers should write themselves into a corner, and then do whatever it takes to write themselves out. That has worked for me many times.

What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?

This one actually went fairly smoothly. It flowed from the keyboard like the characters wanted to be born, to be out in the world. The magic system seemed to come together on its own. I mentioned how it was supposed to be extremely simple, then evolved into something more complicated. It did that on its own. So the downside is that I lost my desired simplicity, but the upside was that I never lacked for new ideas. I think the biggest hitch in my giddy-up while writing “Tower of the Four” was thinking that I was writing the later story—years after The Champions Academy—and then realizing it needed to begin at the academy. I had to back up and reassess, then start from the beginning again.

Oh, and the name for the series was also tough to nail down. Finding a fantasy-genre title that has even a sliver of originality is not easy to do these days, but with the help of Chris Mandeville (who is my go-to friend when tossing around story ideas), we came up with “Tower of the Four,” and it worked. That was an uphill battle. I remember sitting in a café with Chris in Colorado Springs right before I was due to give a writing talk at a local elementary school. We must have hashed through dozens of possible names before settling on “Tower of the Four.”

Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?

The strongest reaction I’ve had about “Tower of the Four” is the delight at how deeply it dives into character. Each character has a strong arc and a fleshed-out origin story that leads them to the academy. So if that’s your cup of tea, this is your kind of book. 

Conversely, if a reader hates character-driven stories, all I can say is you may want to pass on this one. But, y’know, give it a try first…  

Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write? 

I usually write in my office. 

I mean, perhaps 10% of the time I’ll write in the car on a road trip, at a friend’s house, or at a conference, but my powerhouse writing space is my office. When my kids grew old enough to move out of the “nursery” (an extra bedroom right off the master bedroom in our 120-year-old house), I moved in. The room still has Waldorf-School-inspired colors from its days as a kids’ room—deep blue, light blue, pink and white melting into a yellow-orange sunset over the window. I never saw any reason to change them, so I haven’t. 

Also, one of the walls is painted with “blackboard paint.” Originally made for the kids to throw their chalk art up on the wall, my blackboard now comes in handy when I want to write out a thought or inspiration.

Currently, my little chalkboard wall has this written on it:

NO FEAR. NO DOUBT. DO THE WORK.

As well as:

It’s not about being “good enough.” It’s about being me. 

And:

People don’t like complicated. Keep it simple. Let your imagination fly.

These are reminders to myself, focused on the places I typically get stuck. So every time I look up there, I get a helpful reminder. 

I work on an old iMac desktop computer, and I love it. I have a Persian rug that used to be my grandmother’s under my feet, slanted walls that come to a point over my head, drawings from fans framed on the shelves to my left, a half-dozen copies of each of my books on a shelf in front of me (for selling at comic cons) and drawings I made of fantasy heroes in college to my right. 

In the center of this space is where I crank out the words.

My daily writing routine looks like this: I get up, let the dog out, feed him, make coffee for my wife and Bengal Spice tea for me (it’s the only tea I drink), and put away the dishes. After delivering the coffee, I get to writing (unless I’m feeling particularly philosophical, in which case I will ply my wife with my latest existential crisis while she rises to the surface of consciousness and does her best not to throw a shoe at me for being a morning person).

Then somewhere between 6:30 and 7:00 a.m., I’ll force myself to start typing something, anything. If I’m lucky, the muse will visit me and I’ll get into the flow. If that happens, I can crank out a thousand words in forty-five minutes. If the muse plays hide ‘n seek, the writing goes slower. I try to hit my 2,000 words before 9:00 a.m., when Galahad the Weimaraner will come to my chair and whine. If I ignore him, he will nudge his nose under my mouse-hand and keep me from using the mouse. If I continue to ignore him, he will take my forearm in his jaws—gently—and pull me out of my chair.

That means it’s time to go to the dog park. If I have words yet to be written, they’re going to have to wait until the afternoon.

I write every day. I envision a day when perhaps I can skip weekends, but I feel like I got serious about writing a little late in my life. Every day I feel like I’m making up for lost time. Gotta write all those novels now I should have been writing in my 20s and 30s.

When I was younger, I was an inspiration-writer only. That is to say, I didn’t write unless I felt inspired. When I started writing full time in 2017, I felt I no longer had that luxury. I forced myself to sit down and write, inspired or not. Interestingly, inspiration almost always visits me within the first 30 minutes. That was a good lesson to learn.

Experience has also shown me that my writing skills get steadily better as long as I keep putting words into the computer. So that is my blind mantra. No matter what else happens, I’ve got to put in the words.

But my emotions about my work do not steadily get more positive. Seems unfair to me, but that’s the way of it. My feelings about my work spike and crater at random. It’s a crap shoot whether I’ll think a given paragraph/page/novel is any good or not. This lack of perspective continually frustrates me. Most of the time, I feel like I’m sailing into a storm with no hope of finding land. And that’s where I live. Every day is a leap of faith, trusting that I’m going somewhere good, and that I’ll eventually get there.

My cycle is this: I get excited about an idea. I rush to put words down on the page. Somewhere in the middle of the novel, I languish and question everything I’m doing. When I get 90% of the way through, I’m giddy again. I can see the end and it is sweet. I want to brag to everyone about how AWESOME this book is. Often, I will send out chapters to close friends and superfans because I’m so proud of those pages. Then I finish the book. I slump back in pure, exhausted joy. I celebrate, dance around my room, babble at my wife about how awesome being a writer is. The next day, I fall into what I’ve dubbed “writerly post partum depression.” The book sucks. What was I thinking? It’s total crap. I reach out to everyone who got advance chapters and tell them to delete them. I’m changing them. I question why I ever thought writing this book was a good idea in the first place.

That happens every time.

But life has shown me that those emotions are just a by-product of what I do. They can’t be ignored, but they can be endured. Writers play with deep stuff. It’s our job to elicit emotion on the page, and that can stir up all kinds of things inside. I realize I’ll always be sailing into a storm. I’ll never know for sure if I’m pointed in the right direction, but it will always be my job to keep the sails full of wind and push through as best I can.

What is at the heart of this story? If there is a theme, what is the theme?

It’s about found family, about the unlikely union of people from vastly different walks of life.

Personally, I’ve been upset for a long time about the divisions I’ve seen growing in the world, in the U.S. itself. It seems like the general trend has been: find your people, put up fences all around them, and call those on the other side bad.

I hate that. I hate it with everything that I am. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all about “finding your people.” I’ve spent most of my life doing just that, but when the fences shoot up and the vilifying starts, I’m out. If I could imagine a utopia, it would have people having compassion for those who aren’t like them, trying to understand why others do as they do even if—especially if—it’s different from what they themselves do. The way I see it, a better future comes from finding ways to work together, rather than finding ways to segment, divide and obstruct each other.

“Tower of the Four” is about found family. The four characters who meet at The Champions Academy are positioned to be at each other’s throats from the start: A penniless urchin on the verge of starvation who craves a life without want, a powerful princess from the northern kingdom who is losing her loved ones to a disease that targets nobility, a rebel from the southern kingdom who wants enough power to throw off the oppression of the northern kingdom, and a builder’s boy who wants to escape the confines of his peasant life and become a hero.

In order to gain the magic that each of them so desperately wants, they have to bond. The rebel has to find a way to love his mortal enemy, the princess of the country that is killing his people. The princess has to open her steel doors and be vulnerable to her Quad mates. The builder’s boy has to commit to helping others instead of helping himself. And the urchin has to overcome her hatred of all of them for being the “shiny white horses” who get whatever they want and then complain about it.

At its heart, that’s what the “Tower of the Four” is about. And even if I can’t get people out in the world to follow the example of Brom, Oriana, Royal and Vale, I can at least write about it.

Tell us about your next project.

My next project is a non-fiction book called “Ordinary Magic: A Father-Son Journey on the Colorado Trail,” and it is the first non-fiction book I’ve ever written. In the summer of COVID-19, my 14-year-old son and I abandoned the COVID craziness in the city for a five-week backpacking trek over the Rocky Mountains, Denver to Durango. And after, at the urging of a good friend, I wrote the account into a story.

“Ordinary Magic” is an honest, coming-of-age tale about a 14-year-old kid and, as it turned out, the coming-of-age tale of a 50-year-old author as well. It may be the best thing I’ve ever written.

Here’s what one reader said about the story:

“Todd describes the simple beauty of human, plant and creature contact in the wilderness. There are mishaps, hilarious moments, and true terror. The theme throughout this 486-mile journey evolves beautifully as danger and ordinary magic emerges at every turn. Kudos to Todd for turning a coming-of-age journey into a stunning page turner!”

If you’re a parent, a teenager, or if you love Colorado, camping, and the outdoors, you’ll love “Ordinary Magic.”


We believe vital information needs to be seen by the people impacted, whether it’s a public health crisis, investigative reporting or keeping lawmakers accountable. This reporting depends on support from readers like you.