Quote of the Day:
“There is assuredly something wrong with you.” -Ruskin, to Swinburne.
I know there are several genres of fantasy that could fit this description, so I’ll clarify what I mean. This is when characters from our world get sucked into a fantasy world, as compared to urban fantasy (which involves characters or creatures from other worlds or legends in ours) or just fantasy novels where two different realms intersect.
I’ve read a lot of stinkingly awful crossover fantasies; in fact, I think most of them are stinkingly awful, no matter what the means of transition is (a book, a video game, a computer, a mirror, or anything else). The only exceptions I can think of off the top of my head are the Narnia series, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry, and Stephen R. Donaldson’s “Mordant’s Need” Duology- The Mirror of Her Dreams and A Man Rides Through. I’ll be using Mordant’s Need as an example of a good one, though since I think everyone should read it, I’ll try not to be too spoilerish.
1) Too often, the characters from Earth are unconcerned about leaving their Earthly lives.
There are various reasons for this. If the characters are your typical angsty teenage roleplayers/fantasy writers, they think anything would be better than life on Earth. There’s no mention of how they react to not having running water, electricity, air conditioning, or all the modern conveniences. They don’t make much of a change. This is the “they don’t understand me, so I’ll go to a world that will” shtick, and is very hard to make original.
Other times the character lost “everything worth living for,” usually a lover or a family member. These are more of your stock fantasy characters who somehow never recover from psychological wounds until the author deems that they should. In general, deep grief mourning lasts six weeks. If your character is still upset twenty years later, something out of the normal is wrong with her, and it should inconvenience her in ways other than the shedding of a few tears here and there. If it’s just after the loved person died, why do the characters shed the grief the moment they step into the other world?
Still other times, the characters have always “known” there was a world beyond Earth, and are all mad to go explore it. Again, no mention of their bubbles bursting.
Donaldson’s treatment of Terisa Morgan’s transition from one world to the other is one of the most realistic I’ve ever seen. He pays attention to the small details like having Terisa really feel the cold in a stone castle and being measured for dresses she’s unaccustomed to wearing. He also gives her a truly shitty life where she’s convinced that she doesn’t really exist, and needs to surround herself with mirrors to think she does. It’s something she manages to leave behind realistically, and even then, it still influences her perceptions of the other world.
2) Almost no attention is paid to the language problem.
If your character is going to a world that is decidedly not Earth, how can she speak the language once she gets there?
Sometimes the explanation comes out as even more a contrivance than no explanation would be (like the ones where the character is “really the princess of the other world” and “just knows” the language when she gets there), but most of the time the author could at least mention it. This is especially pertinent if they’ve taken the time and trouble to develop languages for that world. Why note carefully that your fantasyland characters are not speaking English, and then have the modern English-speaker fit in with not even a mention of the language being different to her?
Probably the best way to deal with this problem, other than having the character arrive lonely and miserable and have to deal with learning the language, is to embed something in the transition that explains it. Donaldson “translates” Terisa to the land of Mordant through mirror magic, and the main philosophical conflict in Mordant is over whether the Images in mirrors are real or not. If she is real, then she was changed in the translation to fit the land of Mordant, which has happened to other translated people. If she’s not, then her creator made her able to speak the language anyway. It explains it neatly.
3) Medieval realities don’t intrude.
This is even aside from the loss of modern conveniences. The characters from modern Earth do not have to deal with the following things:
- Diseases they have no protection against.
- Bugs (fleas, lice, bedbugs, and so on).
- The cold, keener than they’re likely to ever have experienced.
- The impact that a heavy meat-and-ale diet will make on them.
- The filth, stink, and noise around them.
- Wearing the same clothes day after day.
- The pain that comes with learning to wield a sword or other weapon when you’re not a child any longer.
- The social status of women, serfs, and slaves.
I would be mightily impressed if an author tried to think up some way around these, or even just exposed the characters to them, said, “Ugh, that’s horrible,” and ignored them for the rest of the book. Instead, characters adapt without problem, are expert sword-fighters inside a few weeks, manage to find the only bug-free beds anywhere in the country, and so on. If the society is one that traditionally restricts women to heavy gowns, sewing, and popping out babies, the female character still manages to topple over the whole system with a few smart-aleck remarks and get treated like one of the boys.
What in the hell is the point of going to a medieval world if you’re going to treat it like a medieval section of Disneyland?
Donaldson doesn’t cheat, except possibly in the matter of diseases. Terisa suffers pain from riding, doesn’t become an expert sword-fighter, is treated as an ordinary woman would be except in the case of her magic (which most people doubt she has), and suffers through lack of food and water and political uncertainties just as any other person would.
Even better, she’s not the key to everything.
4) The fantasy world has supposedly existed before your characters. Make it seem like that.
I groan and roll my eyes when the crossover character is the answer to the prophecy and the prayers of the common people and the legends and blah blah blah, but it’s not that in and of itself that makes me turn away from a crossover fantasy book. It’s when the fantasy world has apparently been in stasis before the character arrived, and only now it starts to move.
Nothing ever seems to have happened before she gets there. She’s tossed into the beginning of a complicated political system, not the middle of one. People tell her the truth when she asks questions, and admire her and try to help her- or fear her, and also tell her why they fear her. She knows what’s going on, and she marches through a fantasy world of sterilized complications to her victory.
Terisa doesn’t get that treatment. Lots and lots has happened before she gets there. More happens after she gets there. When people tell her things, they’re often as not likely to be lying or concealing the truth, or shading it for their own purposes. Her dominant view of Mordant gets toppled at least two times. When friends and enemies show up, she doesn’t know at first who they are or what they want.
Mordant has had a history before Terisa, and it will have one when she goes. That’s incredibly rare, and one of the reasons that I treasure those books.
5) There shouldn’t be a slot just waiting for the character to drop into.
Earlier I said that the heroine being the center of the fantasy world’s universe is not enough by itself to make me shut the book. Well, it’s not, but most of the time it comes damn close.
Just once, consider taking an ordinary person and putting her in the fantasy world. Don’t make her the answer to every prayer, or the key to the prophecy, or, if you do, don’t make it obvious. If there are people telling her from the beginning of the story that she’s special, special, special, you’re cheating the reader out of coming to agree on his or her own. I hate being told that a character is intelligent, talented, clever, magic-wielding, and so on, without seeing it. Show me the heroine outwitting her captors, instead of telling me that she’s going to do it because of a prophecy.
Donaldson fudges a little on this, because Terisa is special, though at least no one knows how and everyone rattles around debating about whether or not she really is, or whether or not she might be a dupe or in league with Mordant’s enemies. Probably the better example in this case is Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry. His characters have roles to play, but they’re not obvious from the outset, and most of them don’t really get going until the second book.
Oh, yes, and people die, in both Fionavar and Mordant.
6) Don’t have your adventure take place in a clinic.
Many crossover fantasy authors do it not only to those aspects of the fantasy world that might inconvenience their Earth characters, but to those aspects that, supposedly, the characters and the readers are there for. The quest is never too difficult. The war is always won, and doesn’t cost much. And, above all, no one but a few minor fantasy sidekicks ever dies.
For fuck’s sake.
Why should the prophecy protect the modern Earth character from all harm? Surely other people can’t really believe it does, or her enemies wouldn’t bother attacking her and her friends wouldn’t bother protecting her. Similarly, why make her the most powerful or intelligent character in the world when she doesn’t know how to wield magic or know the world’s history until she comes there? (Oh, yes, I forgot. Point 4).
There’s no need for crossover fantasy to be light fantasy. Despite some funny moments in the Fionavar Tapestry and Mordant’s Need both, neither is candy fantasy. And when the characters from modern Earth are there to engage in serious quests, other crossovers shouldn’t be either. Make them suffer. Make them sacrifice. Make them die.
I think there’s something wrong with a lot of crossover fantasy authors, too.