Medieval fantasy is great. It’s just one subgenre of fantasy, though, and there’s no reason…
1) Get rid of certain assumptions about “what needs to be in fantasy.”
Fantasy’s a difficult genre to define at the best of times. You could say it has to have magic, but there are fantasies that have no magic, or such limited use of it that there’s no point basing the genre on that, or magic mixed with technology (as in science fantasy). You could say it has to be set in another world, but there’s urban fantasy. You could say it needs to end with a great eucatastrophe, but there’s tragic fantasy. Yet at the same time, it is possible for people to make personal distinctions, if nothing else, between fantasy and science fiction, fantasy and magic realism, fantasy and horror, and fantasy and mainstream.
However, I don’t actually think that too-wide definitions are as much of a problem as too narrow. People seem to start out plotting fantasies, and instead of worrying about whether they’ll have magic or other worlds or whatever, they start out assuming they’ll have kings, peasants, merchants, village inns, travel mainly on foot, quests for mystical rings/swords/jewels, a raggle-taggle band of people bent on saving the world, elves and dwarves, a hidden royal heir, and so on.
You don’t need any of that. I’m going to suggest things that could take their place below, but the first step that has to be taken to write any non-medieval fantasy is to get past assuming it must be medieval. Those are the tokens and trappings of only one subgenre of fantasy, not the genre as a whole. It is possible to write stories not only without kings, but without peasants, without raggle-taggle bands of heroes, without saving the world.
2) Move out of the typical landscape.
I’ve written rants on the northlands, the jungle, the desert, and the high seas, if you want to look at them, so I won’t be repeating what I said in them here. But it can do a fantasy author good to move away from the temperate, forested and field-dotted landscape that most of them assume automatically. That landscape seems to be based on England (except with much better weather), but rarely has consistent ecology or much of anything to distinguish it from a hundred Fantasylands. Sometimes there’s a desert or such off in the corner, but that’s only an exotic locale for the heroes to cross in pursuit of the One Ring ripoff mystical Jewel of Ophidian. There are a great many castles and peasant villages and rivers running to the sea. You can probably picture it perfectly in your mind.
Get rid of it. Create a landscape that you can’t picture perfectly at first, one you’ll need to work with. It could be based on an under-used earth biome, like the taiga. It could be based on the geography of dreams, with seas of fire and lakes of purple air. It could start out as an earth landscape and then be altered with the use of magic; if magic functions as a natural part of life there, surely some life-forms have adapted to use it, and the geography may have been altered because of it. (What would a world where magic and not plate tectonics raised the mountains look like?)
All of the changes, of course, will affect the way your heroes live, the clothes they wear, how they travel, what food they eat, and, to some extent, probably the ideals they hold and the religion they believe in, unless those are imports from elsewhere. It’s not always possible to see the end of those changes, unless you’re writing strictly historical fantasy based on a certain people’s way of life on earth. And even then, there’s no reason that the fantasy has to stay historical, or enslaved to something that “really happened” if it doesn’t suit the story. Either way, though, what emerges will not be medieval fantasy.
3) Come up with different series of causal relationships.
Another reason that many fantasy authors end up turning to medieval fantasy, I think, is because the set of relationships that most people end up having, and what kinds of actions are necessary to maintain or change a medieval society, are well-known. (Even though a lot of authors end up ignoring them anyway, in favor of whitewashing, say, angry kings or peasant rebellions). There’s a lot of research available about them, there’s a sense that many authors have used them before, and made them work, and there’s a fairly good chance that an author faced with a “new” situation will be able to reduce it to and speak in terms of the old.
Get rid of them. Toss them out. Don’t start from a king, or for that matter a hierarchical society. Start with, say, a society where the people are all equal if you want, and try to figure out how they got that way. Or start with a society where you want to write about a particular kind of person, and explore what kind of society would have turned that character out. Or build on 2 and come up with a set of relationships that the people would have had to form to adapt to that environment. There are all kinds of relationships you can form, the minute you start remembering that you don’t need a monarchy.
It also moves you away from some of the more clichéd plotlines: the ones that aren’t beyond redemption, but which it’s very hard to breathe new life into. The hidden royal heir, the quest for the throne, the too-good peasants and the simpering nobles, can’t exist in a world where there is no monarchy, no thrones, no peasantry and no nobles.
Yes, monarchy is supposedly a stable system, it’s too rooted to give up, blah blah blah. But as long as you’re using it, then you’re binding yourself to a set of assumptions that can and will influence the story, and often not for the better. See point 1. Monarchy doesn’t need to be in fantasy; it’s not part of what defines it as a genre. Come up with something different instead, if you don’t want to write a medieval fantasy. The more baggage you bring along from the medieval world, the harder it is to build a truly unique world.
4) Personal stories can matter, too.
It is possible to write fantasy where the objective is not saving the world, or even a whole country, but one person, or one family, or one small group of people. And no, the author shouldn’t take the cheating way out and make that person or group of people the secret hidden whatever and the key to the saving of the world, because there goes the story leaping back into clichés. It’s also a staple of medieval fantasy thinking, where one person must be better than other people just because she’s the princess, or one small group of persecuted people (usually Wiccan-like witches, lately, or a special kind of magic-user) must be better than the others because of the group they were born into. And that leads right back to saving the world.
Try taking an ordinary person and making him the hero, or her the heroine. Yes, it is hard. It’s probably even harder to write a story about a person with immense magical powers/immense social power, and not make her the key to saving the world. If a woman’s the most powerful magic-user in the world, she may not have that much competition on the magery front, but what about on the legal front? What happens if the city-state she serves decrees that she can’t stay on her land anymore, since she never paid her rent? If she’s kind-hearted, she’s probably not going to go and blast them apart, and if she’s a good person, she’s probably not even going to threaten the government. How will she get out of it?
Say that this mage finds a battered and abused child. And no, no one is looking for the child because she’s secretly the Ophidian Key or something. She’s just an abused child, who will need time and help to return to herself. Will the mage have enough strength and time and patience to raise her, even if she has enough essential goodness to raise her in the first place?
Writing about people with splendid souls, rather than just a high place in some noble hierarchy or who are secretly going to become king, is a step away from medieval fantasy, too, but not in the sense that it couldn’t occur in a medieval setting. It simply forbids the writer from going back and leaning on any of the easy assumptions that get made otherwise.
5) Don’t tie magic to blood.
Simple step. But it alters everything.
One of the reasons that blood gets linked to magic in the first place is that, in medieval settings, birth is important. Not too many medieval fantasy-writing authors—in fact, not enough fantasy authors, period—violate that. Their important characters are the nobles and the royals. The peasants who might get swept up in the action are almost always reminded of their backgrounds by everyone around them, and, just as often, turn out to be “explained away” by the presence of royal blood in their backgrounds.
*Limyaael pauses to kick authors who do that*
So it’s “natural” for magic to be explained genetically, as well. That would be one thing. But most authors screw up with it in one of two ways:
- The gift of magic gets tied to either exclusively noble bloodlines, or to bloodlines that are special and important because of the magic (like members of a hereditary underground magic-using group). Once again, that leads back to certain people being more important than others because of who they’re born, which leads to points 3 and 4 being more difficult.
- Most authors insist that magic is supernatural and obeys no natural laws. Why’s it so obediently genetic, then? Why not just have it choose whoever the fuck it wants, happen wherever the fuck it wants, and vanish and appear at different times? That would unsettle the medieval society right quick.
Link magic to something else. Perhaps it’s totally random. Perhaps it does have a set of laws that it obeys, but it’s not genetic. Perhaps everyone could learn it, with enough time and training, but not many people have both the time and training. Perhaps people think it’s genetic, but it’s not like hair or eye color; it’s formed partly by nature and partly by nurture, like different personality traits or a creative talent.
The tying of magic to blood is usually a symptom of a medieval fantasy, rather than actually required in it. But even in fantasies where the author is trying to create something new, it tends to drag the story in the direction of tired plots, making some characters better than others because of something they did nothing to earn, elevating certain people to importance just because they were born to certain parents, and violating any ideas of self-worth or heroism earned along the way by suggesting that what lies coded in the genes is most important of all.
More on this next rant.