A few people have asked for a rant on…non-complex fantasy.
I dislike this name. But I have stared at it for a while now, and there doesn’t seem to be any better replacement for it. “Simplistic” fantasy is an insult, and “light” fantasy usually implies some element of humor that’s not always there. A book can be a good read without delving into the most Byzantine themes ever and without having a joke every three pages. That’s the kind of book I’m talking about here.
(I will note that it isn’t the kind of book I usually enjoy, since temperamentally I’m inclined towards fantasy that makes me strain my intellect to keep up with the ideas being presented and smashes me into an emotional wreck by the end. I don’t always find it, but the books I love do it, and the ones I like the most come closer to it than not. So this rant may have hidden biases).
1) Choose themes or ideas or both that you can work with.
I mean “work” here in the sense of “craft and shape,” the sense surviving in “metalwork,” as well as “labor at and struggle with.”
No, a non-complex fantasy doesn’t have to engage with the Big Themes, and it probably doesn’t have the subplot room a complex fantasy does to ring half-a-dozen changes on its ideas. But neither does it have to go with themes the author is not interested in simply because they’re “what you do.” For example, if you hate the idea of kingship, why are you writing about it? Similarly, the Obligatory Romance. When it becomes obligatory, it’s time to dump it. I think more plots become forced and themes die because of authorial uninterest in them than anything else.
So choose a theme that will interest you through however long the book or series carries on, and is plastic enough to mold. It might be a theme of sacrifice. Or, yes, true love. Or heroism. Or finding joy in the mundane and the ordinary even when life has no room for heroism. Or reconciliation and second chances. Or the power of language, when persuasion becomes tyranny. Those are a whole bunch of things I’m interested in right now—except one of them, and I bet you can guess which one—that are not the Post-Modern Condition or The Fate Of Mankind After Death. All of them can be obvious, but obvious isn’t always bad. It’s what you do with it, and how much passion you can summon to work with it, that matters.
2) Paint your main characters both bright and deep.
I’ve been traveling to the place where metaphors go to die a lot lately. This time, I’ve stolen from the paintbox.
By “bright,” I’m talking about intriguing and interesting traits that make them stand out in our minds. I almost write “likeability,” but while I think the protagonists of non-complex fantasy are more often likable than not, that’s not an absolute rule, either. (There are no absolute rules, I think. Except that writing ‘lol’ in formal communication makes you look dumb). What will first make your readers look at these people, and what will hold their attention? Is it the snarky way the characters communicate? Their wide-eyed wonder at the world around them? Their crazy wacky family? Their absolutely cute passion for a dying species of beetle?
By “deep,” I mean driving those traits in and revealing their sources. The non-complex fantasies I’ve liked—or, in some cases, come the closest to liking—usually had a pair or trio of major characters at their heart that they could explore under the surfaces of. (Why not more than that? Well, see point 3). These characters usually had a connection, like friendship or mentor-student, so they could bounce off each other and reinforce their positive and not-so-positive traits, change and influence one another. They helped shape the plot. They fit well with those themes the author had chosen to explore. In other words, they weren’t hopeless sketches or talking heads there only to reveal the world.
For me, it’s the characters that make a book, and when it’s fantasy that doesn’t want to do a world-spanning story or Byzantine politics or constant sympathetic exploration of a dozen points of view, bright and deep people are a huge bonus.
3) Watch out for the Minor Character Trainwreck.
When the author is not setting out to explore everyone in the whole wide world, she naturally doesn’t give everyone a point-of-view, and she naturally has more people who are plot devices, means of conveying information to the protagonist, or stock types. And that’s not necessarily bad, nor is it what I mean by the Minor Character Trainwreck.
The trainwrecks happen when the author, seemingly, puts away the birth control and the minor characters breed like Tribbles. Suddenly there are so many of them that it’s hard to keep track, and because they’re not sufficiently differentiated from one another by length of time spent around the protagonist, nor point-of-view, nor character-building scenes, the plot can degenerate into a game of, “Who was that again?” In extreme cases, minor characters built as important will simply vanish from the scene, or their unclear motivations will make them seem to drive the plot without rhyme or reason.
I’ll mention two otherwise enjoyable books that had this problem in spades. One I’ve talked about before: Kushner and Sherman’s The Fall of the Kings. There was a pair of main characters that engaged my interest—though I liked one much better than the other—but a bunch of minor characters, including religious worshippers, students and colleagues of one of the protagonists, and family members of the other who were there for no apparent reason and were incredibly hard to keep track of as a result. The colleagues in particular seemed to have good reason to spend time with Basil, the scholar main character who could have used their help in his research, but they kind of got lost along the way.
My other, and more recently-read, example is Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon. Laurence the sailor-turned-aviator and his dragon Temeraire are well-developed, and I really enjoyed reading about them and their interaction. Celeritas the dragon drillmaster and Laurence’s mother also stood out in my mind, because they got private and striking scenes. There’s a whole host of other people, though, that I never figured out. In particular, I didn’t understand why the other dragons, most of whom (there are some exceptions) are not less intelligent than Temeraire, hadn’t thought before of being cleaned off after meals when they turned out to enjoy it so much, or questioning the duties that bound them and which caused them to have less freedom than their human handlers, until Temeraire came along and showed them how to do it. Nor could I keep track of Temeraire’s crew or most of the other aviators, and at some point in the book I gave up on doing so. They simply weren’t distinct enough.
This is always a risk when the author has people in the book who won’t all get to have their life histories described or, really, independent lives outside the protagonist’s orbit. But, in that case, I do think the number should be limited. Keep an eye on this, and ask if you really need the protagonist’s three aunts and six cousins to be at that family dinner, or whether an aunt and two cousins will do.
4) Go for repetition, not redundancy.
This fits with point 1, about the plastic molding of themes. A non-complex fantasy does not have to be tired and rely on thin characters or an idiot plot, any more than it does on slapstick humor. Yet it simply isn’t trying to scale the heights of variation that a madly ambitious story will do. That isn’t what it’s supposed to do, and that’s perfectly understandable.
(See, this is probably another place where my biases are showing, because I think I phrased that as condescending, and yet I can’t think of a way to rephrase it that won’t be even more condescending.)
What about patterns of repeated images, phrases, metaphors, echoed thoughts (where one character thinks something and the other thinks in a similar manner, without their having actually talked about it), scene structures, and other things that are not actual plot sequences? I think this would cut out some of the flab I’ve complained about in other rants, where the characters ramble at each other about things they already know or go on long journeys across empty countryside. That’s redundant, and a lot more noticeable. But if you have one character thinking of the future as wonderful, in an echo of an earlier thought about the future being wonderful—from a character on the opposite side, no less—then it can help bind the book together without announcing, “Look at meeee, the author had to use me again!” Or if you structure one chapter bouncing back and forth between the viewpoints of your protagonists, one as she duels with swords and the other as he duels with words, the similarity can be pretty damn obvious, and useful.
This is always a fine line to walk. Some readers will notice any repeated metaphor and dislike it. On the other hand, some readers will get confused if the author doesn’t use the climax to reiterate what happened fifty pages back. There’s no pleasing everybody. I think it’s best to err on the side of binding the book together by other means than plot.
5) Know how much emotional investment you want, and how much you are willing to give.
Yes, sometimes they are different things. I don’t think they should be—in other words, if the author wants me to laugh, I think the book has to have amused him, and if the author expects me to bleed tears, I hope he slit his emotional wrists open—but here’s another chance to try to hush my biases.
If you want a light, bouncy, happy, fun book, I think you can do a lot worse than try to write a light, bouncy, happy, fun book. Yes, sometimes that doesn’t work, but I’m also hostile to the idea that an author has no control over the emotional tone of her story and has to just let it work how it wills. That tends to result in overwrought melodrama and an inability to tell tragedy from angst. Partner the story rather than surrendering to it. What do you want from it? What kind of passion will you need to pour into it to get that result? Yes, non-complex fantasy still needs passion, hence both point 1 and this one.
Say the book is not going to be light and bouncy and happy and fun, but it will still stay away from the Post-Modern Condition. So what kind of mood do you want it to invoke? Will you have to work harder than usual to get that mood? Perhaps gentle melancholy is harder for you than sturm und drang (guilty as charged). Be prepared to work harder than usual if you want that melancholy.
One reason a lot of meant-to-be-non-complex-fantasy crosses the line into simplistic is that the author seems to think, “Not ambitious= no ambition at all= no work.” Bullshit. I would hope that an author who is writing what she hopes is a fun book will still want to pour herself into her fun. And if the book doesn’t do what it was meant to do because the author pooped out, even if it’s a “just” motivation— as in “That’s just entertainment” or “That’s just a popcorn book”—the book’s a failure.
6) Don’t bite off more than you can chew.
The amount you can successfully chew will depend on all the points I’ve raised plus many I haven’t, and it’s different for every author. Some common examples of too-large mouthfuls:
- too many characters.
- a sudden sharp change of mood the story cannot sustain (from humorous to tragic, for example).
- damagingly slow pacing (if you’re writing a comedy, light and fast is usually the pace you’ll want).
- too many plot points that need constant explication, often a cause of the damagingly slow pacing.
- dropped subplots.
- overuse of “cool” scenes that make the protagonists look awesome but do nothing else.
- Only Begotten Hero syndrome, where suddenly the engaging protagonist has transformed from someone to be liked into someone to be worshipped.
I think trimming is probably going to be more common with non-complex fantasy than addition, especially if the author does start out with interest in her themes rather than tiredness, or a nice length of plot rather than determination to stretch the plot of a short story into a whole novel. Yes, being good means you need to do more work. Don’t worry; you could always shrink some of the less important points to keep them as leitmotifs, or use them in the next story you write.
Still not sure about the name of this rant, but the only other term I’ve thought of is “mindless,” and that would result in extreme sarcasm against the whole idea, so non-complex it remains.