Monday, April 1, 2013

Now I mouth off on fantasy novel tropes again


This blog post is a bit of a departure from my most recent postings, most of which have been not-so-shameless attempts to promote my own work that's come out (and is yet to come out) over the past year or so.  This time, I wanted to write a little bit about some of the more common story writting patterns I've seen in reading various books in the fantasy genre over the past few years.  As both a fan of fantasy novels, and a (sometimes) writer of books of the same ilk, this is not about me trashing the whole field or even any book or series in particular.  It's simply me venting my thoughts on some of the concepts or, dare-I-say, cliches that keep popping up in some of the fantasy novels I've read. 

I've written before about some of the more common writing tropes that bother me when I read them, particularly in fantasy novels.  I'll briefly reiterate my frustration with three of the most troublesome, yet commonly-found concepts.  First and foremost, the ubiquitous fantasy plot point, 'The Prophecy'.  Where we learn, usually very early in the story, that one or more of the characters are destined to do some great and/or important thing.  And sure enough, at the end of the story, they wind up doing the very thing they were prophecised to do.  Beyond being almost ridiculously common in fantasy novels, I am oftentimes frustrated at how these seem so often to be in-narrative spoilers built right into the book.  More importantly, it effectively takes the onus off of the characters to actually strive and endeavor to accomplish the things they were fated to do, as well as the impact of the event when it happens, since we've known all along that it was foreordained.

The other two I wanted to mention from the earlier post, are related to one another.  One was the constant inclusion in fantasy stories of the 'Chaotic-Evil Race', a.k.a. orcs, goblins, trollocs, wolfins, gremlins, dark-men, or whatever the fantasy story's standard-issue horde of bipedal baddies are called in their own particular idiom.  They could be small and spindly or huge and hulking.  They'll have varying degrees of intelligence, spanning from primitive and frenzied, to deviously cunning.  Some will even have elaborate languages, weapons and armor, and even social structures.  But one thing they all have in common is that they are all vicious killers of the innocent, and they are all irrideemably evil.  They can't be civilized, reasoned with, or trusted, and whatever this world happens to be called, said world would be better off without them.  The whole point of having the chaotic-evil race of man-creatures is so that the good guys have someone to fight - and kill - in the dozens or even the hundreds or thousands, without any pesky feelings of remorse or doubt that they might have if their combatants were barbaric, misguided, or coerced human warriors.  Human foes, even particularly nasty ones, still have this link to our common humanity; they were children once, many may well have families of their own waiting for them in some far-off land.  Often, the chaotic-evil races will not only not have women and children to feel sorry for, sometimes it's pointed out that they were never even children themselves - they might have been 'born' as a fully-formed adult killing machine with no childhood pathos or familial connections to suggest any sadness at their bloody demise. But since it's inhuman monsters our heroes are slaughtering by the scores, it makes it much easier to know who's the good guys and who's the bad guys.  Speaking of which ...

'Good vs. Evil' is a trope that is hardly limited to the fantasy genre, but there are few genres in all the realms of fiction which are more saturated with the concept of there being two clear, divergent, and morally distinct sides to any point of story conflict.  There's always an evil arch-villain, bent on destroying/ruling the world, and the outnumbered, outgunned, outmatched group of scrappy, often scruffy, but ultimately good heroes who are tasked with stopping them.  I haven't mentioned any specific fantasy franchises in regards to any of these tropes yet, but I want to single out one here, specificly for skillfully subverting this particular trope:  The Song of Ice and Fire Series (known to most people specifically by the name of its first book: 'Game of Thrones').  In this series, there are very few people who are what one could call out-and-out evil.  Even the most irredeemable, assholic antagonists in the story have something to say for their defense, if not some positive, redeeming qualities of their own.  Conversely, all of the innumerable 'protagonists' of the series sport their own character flaws, wherin one can't really define them unequivically as 'good'.  Indeed, I think most fans of the series can find themselves relating in some small way to Stark and Lannister alike.  Turns out, showing characters in shades of gray doesn't diminish the readability of a fantasy series after all. 

Among the other tropes I wanted to mention was the 'Chip-in-the-Water Hero' scenario.  This is something of an offshoot of the classic 'Hero's Journey' trope, wherein a young person is swept up in events and taken from an ordinary life into a story of danger, desperation, adventure, glory and all that good story stuff.  In and of its own, the hero's journey is a perfectly good (if a tad worn) trope to start off an epic adventure story.  But here's where it is in danger of digressing into a chip-in-the-water hero story:  when the young, wet-behind-the-ears would-be hero, spends the entire course of the adventure, getting swept up in events without actually influencing them.  Often, this happens when the 'Old Mentor' (who will invariably die at some point in the story), or the 'Motley Crew of Do-Gooders' team do most of the heavy lifting, adventure-wise, while the story's 'hero' spends most of his (or her) time as simply a slack-jawed, pie-eyed witness to events as they unfold.  Granted, at some point, they're supposed to be crucial to the course of events in the story (particularly if The Prophecy said so!), but if it's just some big moment at the very end, particularly if the 'big moment' could have happened with any other particular character in the hero's place, then was it really that much of a hero's journey?

Sometimes though, in that big moment, the hero (or 'Chosen One', as they might be called) might be face-to-face with the big bad guy at the climax of the story, and defeat them with some hidden, deep-down special power inside him (or her, but whatever) that he didn't know existed until that very moment, and used that power to overwhelm the shocked, disbelieving supervillain to win the day.  This is a prime example of the 'Magic Our Way Out of This!' trope, where a seemingly insurmountable problem is overcome by convenient magical, supernatural, or otherwise fantastical means, with minimal explaination or even previous mention of the existence of such means.  The non-fantasy, contemporary (or sci-fi) adventure equivalent to this would be something akin to the hero defeating the villain at the end of the story because he shot them.  It's probably for the best that the bad guy's dead, but really, it was the wonderful handgun that saved the day.  You just pulled the trigger - something almost anybody could've done in your place.  The hero should be the hero because he (or she ... whatever!) did what nobody else in the story could've done in his place. 

There are a few other time-honored fantasy tropes that annoy me as well, like 'Proper Noun Mad Libs', 'Real World Equivalency', and the 'Plot Development Treadmill', but I think those pretty much speak for themselves.  I also get irked when novels go on and on, poetically describing a summer glade, and then only use character dialogue for clunky exposition, but that's just this grumpy old man grousing to hear himself speak, I think.

To be sure, these thoughts about the preceding subjects are entirely of my own opinion, and I hope I haven't offended anyone who disagrees with my take on them.  But, heck, if it motivates you to post a comment with your own thoughts on the subject (0 comments yet recieved in 3 1/2 years of doing this blog!), then it was at least worth it to spark a discussion on the matter.  We all have different opinions, and just because these things stick in my literary craw, doesn't mean it has to be that way for everybody.  Maybe some positive, constructive discussion would make me see things differently?

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