Friday, January 22, 2010

7 Overused Fantasy Novel Conceits

A few months back, I read a very good blog about fantasy novels. It captured my interest because it was a description of seven concepts that the writer felt had become overused to the point of becoming cliches in the genre. I thought it was a very good essay, and I agreed with each of the writer's points. Unfortunatly, I've changed computers since then, and I'm unable to cite them for their work here, as I can't remember where I read it. If by chance, the writer happens upon this blog, let me know, and I will gladly reference your excellent description. In the meantime, I felt like paraphrasing it, or at least my own interpretation of it.

* Endless Sequels - There's nothing wrong with taking more than one book to tell a single story. It might take 3 or 5 or 10 or more books to create a grand canvas to describe the events of a fantasy world. The problem arises when sequels are produced for the sake of having sequels. It is wearisome when a fantasy series becomes episodic, where nothing really changes for the characters or the world from book to book. Even if things do constantly change, there isn't always a flow to it, like the story is just aimlessly meandering from one plot point to another. Naturally this gripe is strictly a matter of taste, but I feel like a fantasy series really ought to have a natural cycle to it, which means that eventually, it must end.

* Historical Equivalency - Basically, this is when there are clear and decisive parallels between fantasy elements and real life ones, such as the elves clearly representing the Greeks or the Such-and-Such Empire being analagous to the Soviet Union. It's not just races and cultures either, such as if magic draws a clear parallel to, say industrialism, or if an artifact is a clear representation of a nuclear weapon. This is not to say that fantasy story elements cannot have any kind of relevance or relation to our own world. How we paint the picture in our minds is based on our own understanding of our worlds. There is simply a danger of making the comparisons too overt, and its bluntness can dull the intended effect. The trick here is to be a little subtle when dealing with real-life analogy.

* European Medieval Times - In a related note, it seems quite common for fantasy worlds to closely resemble Medieval Bavaria, Rome or England or such. Even when they don't look like Europe in the Dark Ages, they tend to take on another Earth era's charactaristics, like Arabia or China or Japan. Again, I think this has much to do with having these pre-conceived civilizations, with their cultures and architecture as a template, allows for a basis with which to set up a foundation for a narrative. Starting completely from scratch in creating a fantasy world is a daunting prospect, but if it's vivid and truly unique, I think it can be worth the effort.

* Monarchies - Almost every fantasy civilization, good or bad, seems to be a monarchy of some sort. Furthermore, just about every story seems to require at least one prince or princess as a primary character. Perhaps this naturally comes from the fantasy novel's inherent European origins. I'm not suggesting that they should all be democratic republics, but mixing it up in regards to governmental systems can really spark some life into a story. There are oligarchies and military dictatorships as well, and even monarchies can be the dominant governing structure in a fantasy world, but there is so often a sense of politics or structural hiarchy that makes a society run in some of these stories, it can be difficult to figure out how a kingdom really operates. Also, this might be my parocheal American ideals talking, but making a character a prince or a princess doesn't elevate them in my eyes.

* The Chaotic Evil Race - The last three I particularly agree with. The first one is that there always seems to be a non-human race, commonly orcs or goblins (or the equivalent), who posess a degree of intelligence, but are bestial, vicious, and irredeemably evil. This allows our good guys to be able to fight and kill them in large numbers without ever suffering the guilt of taking a life. We have no qualms about the valiant heroes after they slaughter 50 murderous orcs at the castle gates, rather than if they were 50 human conscript soldiers sent on their mission by the evil lord. War and death can be a very messy, soul-testing ordeal for characters, even if their cause is right and their intentions pure. It's much more convienent to keep from seeing their enemy as inhuman monsters than to deal with the consequences of taking another mortal life. Honestly, there's lots of character development to be mined there, but it so rarely is utilized.

* Good vs. Evil - It is a concept that is familiar to even the youngest child, and is understandable to all, but in reality, it is almost never the case that there is a side of truly good and of truly evil. My take is that no character who is unabashedly evil is ever realistic. Real characters can do evil, but they will always convince themselves that they are actually doing good, be it self-serving good or for "the greater good" of society. I always wonder why villains want to rule the world? What purpose does it serve to be in charge of everything? Defeat your enemies certainly, acquire treasure and dominate your surroundings to be sure, but the practical act of controlling everyone and everything would simply be an endless, tedious, buerocratic nightmare. As for the good guys, they were always fine with the status quo before, but they always seem to play a reactive game against their adversaries. The heros are always responding to the actions of the villains, and never seem to be the cause of the events that move the world forward into conflict. Besides which, good guys could never really be without sin themselves. Duality is a part of human nature. There's always a little good in the worst of us, and a little evil in the best. But most everyone is somewhere in the middle.

* The Prophecy - One of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite movies is: "Nothing is written." It's a philisophical concept that is not often taken to heart in fantasy stories. Contextually, it means that there is no preset destiny, and that events are all linked in a long chain as altered by the characters and the constantly evolving situation. Yet so many fantasy stories seem to be based almost entirely on some sort of Prophecy. This Character WILL Do This, And After Much Struggle and Danger, This WILL Happen. To me, this is at best, the narrative equivalent to a spoiler. If the hero is destined to succeed all along, then why should I bother reading how he or she gets there? Is it, in that case, any more than seven books filled with busywork? Moreover, it is a spiritual concept that fate is the master of free will, and one that I think a lot of people would have trouble with if they were forced to consider it. When life, real life, is pre-scripted, what really is the point of living it? We would be just going through the motions until whatever was destined to happens happens. Obviously, in fiction stories, our defaut assumption is that the hero prevails and that good will inevidably triumph over evil. Whether we're comfortable with anything short of this is really up to the personal tastes of the reader. But the outcome is already decided before it even begins, then the journey itself loses it's meaning. When I pick up a book, I'm reading it for more than just the last chapter, and I want all of those pages between the cover to count for something.

Obviously, I resort to hyperbole at times here, saying things like "all novels" and "always" or "never". When I do, I speak for the general standard of the genre, at least from my own modest perspective. Indeed, most fantasy novels I've read will avoid some if not many of these conceits I've listed (I humbly believe that my own novel avoids them all), and I've avoided referencing anything by name, because it is of course, all a matter of personal opinoin and taste. I don't know if you would agree with all or any of these that I've listed, or if you think there are other things about the fantasy genre to add that ought to be avoided. If you do, I hope you'll let me know!

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