Friday, February 25, 2011

To Fantasy Writers: Why I Don't Like Fantasy

I always have to qualify this statement. "I don't like fantasy...except for Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings and Mr. Schwabauer's Runt books."

Considering how much I love all of those, especially Narnia, my ludicrous statement of fantasy un-like because less convincing. So, the real title of this post should be Why I Don't Actively Read Fantasy.

Warning: For a bit here I may seem to be bashing you--the fantasy writer. I'm a 12th century historical fiction writer soured by three years of amateur fantasy, and I've become highly sarcastic. Please don't take me wrong. I hold you in the highest respect. You're a writer, after all! You work just as hard as I do. Here's a post for me to vent and ask for something very simple to understand, lots harder to apply--but really, it's something all writers should do.

My main objection can be summed up in one word - Gimmicks.

Novels of the fantasy genre tend to get caught up in the "cool" aspect of their genre. The gimmicks. For example, it's popular among many amateur writers I know to use Tolkien-esque elves of some kind. Then, of course, you probably end up with dwarves of some kind, shapeshifters, vampires, fairies (oh, pardon me, faeries), and the insanely cool gigantic reptiles (aka dragons). Then of course there are the ever-present hybrids of two of these different amazingly cool races.

Yes, I'm being sarcastic. Hang with me for a minute. The problem is when a writer gets caught up in what she or he (and most of the rest of the world) thinks is "cool" he or she loses the group of people like me--who are reading a book for story and characters. If the main character is a 2-D half-elf half-dragon I'm not going to be impressed. Just because your races are cool and original (though I've never really seen a truly "original" fantasy race) and your world is developed doesn't mean that I'll want to keep reading.

Another aspect of these "gimmicks" is the use of magic. I don't have magicphobia, but magic annoys me. It's the cure-all. "We're dead! Oh wait, no we're not--we have magic healing potion! Hurrah!" I admit that all books don't do this, but the ones that do scare me away from reading fantasy. I almost always feel cheated when something magic comes into play.

Connected to both of those, there's also the strategy of characters who all have special powers. The power over fire, over air, over water...these also fall into the "cool" of the writer's mind. They fall flat to me. I have a hard time relating to an ever-living being (the elf-dragon, remember?) who can manipulate water. These mighty races put me off. Think about LotR. Which is the most important race? Personally, I'd say the hobbits--those short, fat, hairy-footed but hard to corrupt beings. The men know how to fight but got us in this mess in the first place. The elves are leaving. The dwarves are selfish.

There are of course exceptions to all these rules. Remember, I like LotR and Narnia just as much or more then lots of people I know.

But, as I said in Ordinary, it's the ordinary people who grab my heart and stick in my mind. Rather like those hobbits.

By no means is this post supposed to be: STOP WRITING FANTASY! Sure, I get tired of it, but if it's what you love, then go for it. I'll write historical fiction and be insanely happy and you write about dragons and be insanely happy. Deal?

Just...don't get caught up in the gimmicks. I applaud you for your ability to create worlds, languages, peoples, laws. Just remember: the story is more important. If the heart and soul of your story is solid, I'll keep reading, I promise.

Even if your heroine is an elf-dragon.


P.S. My apologies for the slightly off-topic post. It's been on my mind lately (as should be apparent by "Ordinary") and I wanted to write about it. I'll be back to Robin Hood and research shortly!


Lei said...

Hi, you don't really know me, but I'm from OYAN. :) I just wanted to say thanks for the challenge to write better fantasy! I'll definitely keep what you said in mind while I'm writing. :)

Dewaalenator said...

I very much agree with a great deal of this. The characters must be likable before I care about the story in a true sense.

However, those "cool" things can be a nice pay off. Let me explain:

I don't know if you remember me or my thing about fantasy, but after one writer told me I wasn't as good of a writer as them because I use the real world (A modern day one at that) I became quite anti-fantasy myself.

Because of that, I was most surprised when I read Harry Potter and I enjoyed it. Is Harry powerful?

Yes, especially in the last books. But I already cared for him because he doesn't want that. He wants his family. Is there cool stuff in there too?

Oh, yeah. Werewolves, house elves, shapeshifters, and dragons all make appearances at some point or another. But those only added flavor to the story of a young boy (Eventually young man) who fundamentally reminds me of me. I empathize with him, so I cheer when he fights a dragon. I care for his friends, so I hate those who endanger them.

First and foremost, Harry Potter isn't about witches and wizards; it's about something far more powerful: Sacrificial love. And that's something I can get behind, magic or no magic. Dragons or no dragons.

But this is pretty much what you're saying, in a way. Make sure the heart is in the right place and we'll keep reading.

However, I would caution you against putting these stories into a box labeled "Fantasy" and not giving anything a chance, like I have been doing for far too long. If I had stayed in my close-minded ways I would have missed Harry Potter, which was too much fun for me to want to miss, and other stories.

Some times we have to give things a chance, even if it sounds silly. Like the Monster Blood Tattoo Trilogy. Is the title bizarre? Yes. Very yes. But when it got down to it it was a clever story about a young man who seems to have everything against him, and like I said before, that is something I can get behind.

So what's the point of this over-long post? Well, partially I agree with you. But I also want you to take it a little farther. Don't miss out on good stories because they feature magic because in the end there are both good stories about bizarre things and bad stories about every day people. As soon as we start judging books by their genre, not their quality, we start missing out.

Nairam said...

@Lei: I'm glad to have challenged you! Encouraging and challenging young writers is what I like to do best. :)

@Dew: I am actually not put off from Harry Potter from these things--so far it has been a family decision not to read them, though I think if I asked they would let me now, being older. I've heard they're excellent books and have been interested in trying them for awhile.

Perhaps I should have been a bit clearer--I've gotten this jibe from the large amount of STUDENT fantasy I've been exposed to over my time on the forum and the traps it seems to fall into. I hope I'm not putting everything in a box labeled "Fantasy" and throwing it away! Thanks for the warning, though...I'll try not to do that.

Teenage Authoress said...

Zef is offended.

Don't take it too personally, she was already sulking anyway :P

That is what annoys me about fantasy. I've been steadily getting further and further away from high fantasy (which is what you are talking about) and to low fantasy/sci-fi.

High fantasy is often very, very gimmicky and often very annoying and poorly written. Low fantasy is often just bordering on being fantastical. Often the fantasy element is a subplot or a tip-of-the-hat to the non-reality of this particular story. Its like saying "Don't take me too seriously here, because if you do you'll get hurt."

Of course, a lot of low fantasy is equally poorly written, but at least it isn't such of a magician's hat.

GeoQuester said...

You just gave me a story idea! O-o

About the gimmicks: the same thing happens in science fiction! There is an old sci-fi TV show I like, and the main ally is a talking robotic car. One of my favorite sci-fi characters ever. But he's really just a gimmick!
Sci-fi doesn't really have to be all about robots and spaceships and futures any more than fantasy has to be about elves and magic and fairies, but it often is anyway. I didn't realize fantasy had the same problem until I read your post. This could be a bad habit spread out across all genres.

Thanks for reminding me to focus on the story! :D
~ Imenpogumsalel

Anonymous said...

Well, you are right that we can just make up names. But we (fantasy or sci-fi authors) also have to make up totally new worlds. At least you have a forest to work in. ;)

DV (Darth Vader from OYAN)

Nairam said...

@Samii: I see what you mean. My problem is "low" fantasy confuses me. "Wait, I thought it was real! Why are there fairies dancing in a circle around Robin and his nurse? O.o" (Yes, I have encountered this.) I remember liking what I read of Line Between though.

@Geo/Imen: This is true. For some reason, my tolerance for sci-fi gimmicks is higher. I like goofy stuff that would neve work in a million years but has a bunch of tecnhobabble to make it sound like it would. I'm just wired like that. However, if that's ALL there is in a show, I don't watch it obssesivly. Only one I do that to is Doctor Who...and it's more for the character than anything else...

@DV: Woah, buddy! I wasn't talking about names in this post. Yes, I have complained about names in the past. And I also acknowledge the amount of imagination that has to go into making up worlds!

But I could get into an argument about your last sentence (friendly, of course). That forest is actually a whole lot more work than you might imagine. Don't downplay it too much!


Katie Oostman said...

Nai, you may have just, quite simply summed up and solved my problems with imagine. Not so much the gimmicks, but the wrong focus.

Thank you~

Anonymous said...

Ah, you're talking about research. Point taken. :)
Another thing you don't have to worry about, "Does this sound too much like Earth?" We have to choose a line between Earth and wherever our story takes place. I hope that I've found that point. I probably haven't, but I'm hoping!
So I guess my point is: Don't downplay us either! :)

PS. I may write His. fiction later (I actually have some interesting plots in mind). So I may come to join your viewpoint! XD


Nairam said...

@Inky: Wow, I'm glad to hear it! Keep plugging away!


I think you're misunderstanding my whole post. This isn't a rant about how fantasy is "easy"--it's what puts me off about fantasy. I understand the amount of work that goes into both. I wrote a fantasy novel. (Not a good one, but it helps me know the amount of work I would have to put into it to make it good.)

And I wasn't trying to downplay fantasy writers. Did you miss these lines?

"I hold [fantasy writers] in the highest respect. You're a writer, after all! You work just as hard as I do."


"I applaud [fantasy writers] for [their] ability to create worlds, languages, peoples, laws."

This post wasn't supposed to downgrade fantasy at all. I thought the thoughts of an outsider--that is, a historical fiction writer--might be helpful to the many, many fantasy writers I know.

I hope I have made that clear now. These aren't "fighting words"--they're supposed to help you see what poor fantasy looks like to someone who prefers historical fiction so you could work at making great fantasy, like Narnia and Lord of the Rings.


Anonymous said...

Okay, now those lines make sense! Thank you for clarifying. Sorry for misunderstanding you.

Nairam said...

That's fine. When a writer is misunderstood, it's usually the writer's fault, not the readers. Glad it makes sense now.

ZNZ said...

As a fantasy writer, I find this really interesting. This post helped me understand a little better the reasons why some people don't like fantasy. I actually agree with a lot of what you've said, and I think you've shown some of the differences between good and bad fantasy:

I, too, don't think that characters should be able to use magic to get themselves out of every difficulty. My characters are mages, but what they can do with their magic is fairly limited. For example, I have a character who only has weather power - he can call up storms, and he's good at lightning, but these obviously won't be helpful in every situation. A woman he's friends with has magic that only works through plants. And it always makes me happy to read about magic that has a price or takes energy to use.

When I see creatures that are half-elf, half-dragon, and other such logic-defying hybrids, that is often a reason for me to put the book down right away.

And I agree that never should the story and characters take second place to "look how awesomely cool this magic is!"

I really like your blog, BTW.

Rachel Rostad said...

Hey, it's Rachel Rostad from IYWS here - I was just creeping through your blog, hehe. :)

Fantasy is pretty much what I grew up on when I was younger; I've expanded my palate in recent years but it's definitely the genre I'm most widely read in. Judging from what little I've read of your writing, you might enjoy Robin McKinley's books. All of her books have some sort of fantasy elements in them, but the characters are realistic and likeable (in my opinion at least). I recommend Rose Daughter or Chalice by her. Also, you might want to try Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith.

These are just a few recommendations if you have spare time to check them out. I hope the revision process of your novel is going well!

- Rachel

Rowan said...

Hi, it's Summer from OYAN ~ I completely agree with your points on fantasy writing. That stated, I am writing a fantasy novel for my OYAN this year. Only by a very slim margin could it be called 'fantasy', however, since there's no magic or fantasical races of any sort.

Do you have an opinion on fantasy that's firmly grounded in historical reality? My novel is set in a quasi-medieval fantasy kingdom that's nearly identical to, for example, Richard the Lionheart's England.

I enjoy reading your blog! I love Robin Hood as well. ;)

Josiphine said...

I USED to write a lot of fantasy. Not so much anymore, but that's long and complicated.

My fantasy falls into a little known genre called 'historical fantasy fiction.' No, or very little, magic, hardly any magical creatures. The main difference is that I got to draw maps and make up customs for each of my countries, something I love doing.

I'm not a fan of gimmicks either, especially when they try to say things that everybody agrees aren't true like: DRAGONS ARE AMAZING CREATURES WHO ARE ON THE SAME LEVEL AS HUMANS.

I prefer the Eustace dragon, :)

I do like some gimmicks though. I'm partial to fairies (spelled like that, please), but only to a certain, and very limited, extent.

I agree mostly with you. Not quite, but mostly, :)

LadyPenWarrior said...

I struggled with the originality -- or rather, lack thereof -- of my novel for a while. It's got all the gimmicks you listed, Nai, except vampires and magic. Dragons, elves (silvuns), dwarves (Forgers), shape shifters (Meerinorans and Minnecovans), dragons, race hybrids (Dreyons), and several others. Add on top of that the fact that it's a story in which modern teens transport from our world to a fantasy world, and you've got the structure of one of THE most potentially cliche stories ever.

Xystia has developed immensely, and though a lot of it has its foundation in gimmicks, the fact that I've had little real exposure to the gimmicks you've listed in action, and that I purposely tried to make my story as original as possible, makes it distinct at the very least. Now Xystia's a place I adore to explore. It's too far gone to change, which leaves me with two options: despair and give up, or make it work.

You can guess which one I'm doing. :P I have hopes that despite it's massively cliche beginning point, the story, characters, world, cultures, and even more importantly theme of the Outlander Trilogy will make it rise above mire of over gimmicky-ness. Personally, I feel it's original enough to do that, but I know not everyone will agree. But I love it too much to give up on it, and I truly believe God's given me this story to write, and will use it the way He needs it to be used. What more could I ask for? Possibly it's a little easier for me to just keep going and not fret because I know that I have a truly original fantasy world in the making that's story will be written sometime in the future.

I can't say I understand what you're feeling, since I extremely rarely read fantasy because I AM a magicaphobe, so I'm not bombarded with the cliches as much, but your post made sense.


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