Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Don't Write Fantasy


Recently there have been many debates about historical accuracy in Fantasy. Debates range between how progressive a character’s politics can plausibly get to whether your agrarian folks could bale hay. Beneath it all is the belief that when you adopt too much from one culture, readers will judge the internal believability of your story based on how it matches their perceptions of that real culture. When it comes to taking a real culture and only tweaking a few things, I have simple advice:

Don’t.

Put more elaborately: please, for the love of God, don’t write another redundant piece of pseudo-history, especially not another sword-and-sorcery monomyth in an imagined England.

This is deviant advice and makes us stray from the debates. If you truly love some strands of history such that they determine your fiction, then me saying not to follow them doesn’t matter. You’ll do it anyway, and you should, and I’ll just pray you reflect critically enough to make the work fresh.

But if you’re not fascinated with it, if castles and rolling hills are simply all you’ve seen lately, if you’ve watched the Lord of the Rings flicks and want to make your own – then don’t write another Medieval Fantasy. Fantasy ought to be a non-denominational cathedral to the imagination, where any idea, no matter how impossible in reality, can flourish and enliven us. It’s not about new sub-genres, but about use of your pages. China Mieville ought to be one colorful brick in a mosaic of new materials. Yet in conversations about the New Weird and prospects of Fantasy, he’s often treated as the only brick.

Mieville’s breakout Perdido Street Station isn’t insanely original. It’s some H.P. Lovecraft, and some Industrial Era elbow-grease, a dash of String Theory, and a Steampunk gun. There’s some Pacific folklore populating some Gothic sensibilities, and some Star Trek multiculturalism grown up enough to have a liquor license. You can identify most of the moving parts, but it feels revelatory because the parts are different from what most writers are using and their creator is madly in love with them. He’s not following a convention too far, and he certainly doesn’t have to answer to an insipid authority about whether so-and-sos were treated this way in such-and-such similar culture, because he wrote something that belonged to him, not to a text book. It is fiction rich enough that it answers to itself.

You don’t have to be the next China Mieville or a practitioner of the New Weird. But look, you don’t need Yee Old Dialogue to write about dragons. We’ve got Urban Fantasy that puts elves barbecuing in the backyard and witches necking on the subway. John Scalzi just got nominated for a Hugo basically for making fun of people for adhering too much to old writing tropes; the community knows a lot of this tired stuff. 

When it comes to crafting Secondary World Fiction, there is only one reason that it should resemble a notion of Medieval Europe, or the U.S. Revolution, or the Arab Spring: because it’ll allow you to write interesting things. There is far too much stuffy, boring Epic Fantasy that suffers because its authors are living up to Dungeons & Dragons. And Hell, we already have official Dungeons & Dragons novels. We’ve got World of Warcraft novels. Is that really what you want to write? There isn’t anything you’d change if you were in charge? Because you are in charge.

What do you love? If you love the Dark Ages, I somehow doubt it’s because you love oppressing women. Thusly, that doesn’t have to be a linchpin of your culture, though you should explore it if it interests you.

Before what buttons you think you can push, though, you need to identify what moves you. If it turns out you only like horseback riding and foofy dresses, and everything else from period pieces seems wimpy compared to androids, well then you can write about android dress-designers and horseback-riders. Why not create a scenario entirely out of the stuff you like instead of just partially? Fantasy is quite vast. A lot can fit in it.

An immortal god that craves nothing but suicide as he watches his pet civilization of ant-people crumble. He just doesn’t have the strength to help another one start. He begins pursuing his own meta-religion in search of guidance in his eternal failure.

Or, a prissy bridge-club of gryphons must wheel and deal to keep low-class naga from overrunning their borough. It’s a comedy of errors when one of their daughters falls in love with one of the flightless paupers.

Or, a war-tragedy anthropomorphizing blood cells fighting vainly to stave off a vampiric infection. We know doomsday is coming, but damn it, they will not slip quietly into that dark night. They will fight them in the knee cap, and they will fight them in the brain stem, and in a huge twist, they will fight them in the tail when it turns out they’re actually in a dog.

What is it that gets to you? Why doesn’t that stuff make up the entire world you’re writing? Because werewolves are hot on the market this year? If so, I’m sorry to report that by the time you finish your book you’ll probably be screwed.

Secondary World Fantasy means you can construct a world that contains anything, including foofy-dress-wearing androids that always win the equestrian event at the Olympics. If you love princesses and castles, then great. If you don’t love it then you are squandering both your time and mine. Your time on this planet and your time at the keyboard, and my time when I go to read it.

If you want, play with periods in history. Remix the real world and made-up ones. Make sure their systems can bear weight internally, not externally, and most of all, make it distinct and worthwhile. There are very few worthwhile books that came out of soulless copying.

In our self-pub dominated world there’s a good chance that you’ll fail no matter what you do, but surveying those who succeeded, you’re very unlikely to join them if you don’t love it. It’s not worth being intimidated by realism if it costs you experimentation.

Fantasy ought to be enormous. Whatever you make it, yours can fit. Make it.

28 comments:

  1. One of the debates I've been having with myself recently is over whether to send my sequel to the publishers, for many of these reasons. Because it's a sequel, it feels like the world and many of the things that are happening aren't happening purely to fit the story, but simply to play with an existing world.

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    1. That's an interesting dilemma, Stu. Do the characters within your world no longer appeal to you or do particularly interesting things? Is it possible that flipping to some new characters within the world might invigorate it? Or is it possible that the ways you've tinkered with the existing world would satisfy your readers?

      It's particularly an interesting problem as I look at my next novel. It's almost certainly going to be set in the world I've invented. There's a deal more to explore, and I have three sets of characters that have a deal of development to exhaust. I find both items enticing. Were they both heavy in your previous book?

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  2. I love it when Mr. John Wiswell jumps up on his soapbox! *applauding madly from the crowd*

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    1. Just applauding me being argumentative, or did I get you to agree with me?

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  3. A dragon who craves Merle Norman skin and loves French cuisine, grows his own cooking herbs (tee-hee) and plows through real-estate ads for Scottish castles?

    Lol! This is great advice. Just finished my novel and I truly love my story and tried without thinking about your advice to stay off the well-trodden WoW path.

    Thanks

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    1. That sounds potentially charming! Good luck with the novel, Mary. Do you have a publishing method lined up?

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  4. Such a very real soap box you were on. And such a very real and right message to shout to the crowds below. Thank you. And, as a reader rather than a writer, thank you again.

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    1. Hey, it's what I want as a reader as well as a writer. Are there any works of Secondary World Fantasy you've been enjoying recently?

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  5. I would also ask authors to not make up a language I have to learn in order to enjoy the storyline.

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    1. There are readers who love that linguistic experience, but I admit that post-Tolkien, I'm not one of them. What do you like in your Fantasy?

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  6. If more writers took advice like this, I could stop saying "I hate fantasy."

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    1. Do you read much of it, Kim, hating as you go along, or are you a retired Fantasy reader?

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    2. The first, lately - only because my husband loves the Shannara series and has been encouraging me to read it - and I'm one of those types who has to finish a book once I've started it. So the first four books in the series took me about two years to read. :S

      OTOH, I have realized that I do love children's fantasy (Oz, Harry Potter), and urban/modern fantasy. It's that whole LOTR and Shannara-type epic that you discuss that bores me to tears.

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    3. MG and YA are popular among adults, as is Fantasy generally set in modern settings. I can see all of that. But if you dislike both Lord of the Rings and Sword of Shannara, is it faux-Medieval worlds you dislike, or any big Fantasy worlds that are unlike your own?

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    4. Good question. I did really enjoy the Dubric Bryerly books by Tamara Siler Jones which have a similar setting, but were more mystery than sword and sorcery.

      Come to think of it, maybe it's the "sword" part that bothers me. I don't find big, long battle scenes interesting in any way. Well, that, and I do get tired of reading phrases like "their simple meal of bread and cheese..." It comes up more often than you'd think! :)

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    5. So in Jones's case you didn't mind the setting because the plot appealed? I can enjoy long battle scenes so long as they're interesting, usually something unusual, rather than two hordes of horse riders ramming into each other.

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  7. You clarified several things about the novel I'm working on - thanks!

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  8. I enjoyed this piece. It's a challenge to write something new, isn't it? But when you put it in terms of finding what we're passionate about as writers, that helps to clarify where you're coming from. The novel I'm working on now is a twist on King Arthur because I love the legend but don't want to do a historical period piece.

    Now, if I had to pick a fantasy writer whose work is historically based but done brilliantly, I'd go with Kate Elliott. She does a ton of research and then adds her own twists that seem so natural that I can believe her worlds exist. I admire her ability to do it so well. Ever read her work? What do you think of her?

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    1. I haven't read Kate Elliott's work, though a few friends adore her Cold Fire trilogy. What twists attract you to her otherwise historically conventional fiction?

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  9. As I said on LinkedIn, I love this rant! It's something I've often thought, and you put it better than I would have. I've now posted a short excerpt and a link to it on my worldbuilding blog; thanks for giving me permission to share.

    http://worldbuildingrules.wordpress.com/2012/05/06/a-writers-rant-on-overdone-medieval-fantasy/

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    1. I'm glad the piece meant so much to you, and thank you for the spotlight! I was happy to spread this little message.

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  10. Thank-you so much for voicing what I feel. And while we're at it, can we come up with something besides damsels being rescued or damsels who act like macho men doing the rescuing? No more evil whatevers taking over the world just for the hell of it and how does one get a job as a henchman or minion anyway? I've been playing with fairy tale and horror classics intentionally and twisting them around. Androids built by Wallstone Crafts. Female bats that suck the blood from their mates instead of humans. A Cinderella who avoids going to the ball by pretending she's a nut case. It's been fun.

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    1. I can handle a macho savior if he/she/they is/are written well. I try not to exclude any content entirely on the chance that someone else has a fresh angle on it, or simply knows how to nail the execution. Otherwise, though, I prefer my characters to have a little more agency or involvement than only being rescued.

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  11. You have put into words the very heart of the kind of book I am writing: Something that encompasses the many things that I love and conveys that love unto those who read it in a way that no-one else has done before in quite the same way. Thank you.

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  12. Thanks, John: I've been stewing because I wrote a whole trilogy in an invented world I love and adore and now can't seem to figure out what genre it is in in order to seek an agent and traditional publisher. There you go - it's my invented world, not somebody else's. Or, as dear old Billy Blake Used to say, "I must invent a system, and not be enslaved by somebody else's; I must not reason and compare, my business is to create."

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