This is mostly another, “Here is a list of ideas I think are really cool!” entries, and it doesn’t go into that much detail on any one of them. Just thinking about writing these gets me all bouncy. These are not prescriptions, these are Shiny.
1) Natural awareness.
Pun in the subtitle fully implied.
Do your characters live out in the country? In the temperate deciduous forest? On a farm that grows a variety of specific crops and has a variety of specific domestic animals? In the desert? In the jungle? On the taiga? In the mountains? Then they could know what role nature plays in their lives, more than the average town-dweller might—or the average Western world citizen of the twenty-first century. Not the whole of nature (see points 2 and 3), but that part which is useful, is noticeable, is threatening, or simply surrounds them day in and day out, breathing when they breathe, feeding them and feeding on them.
This is a great way to make your setting come alive to your readers. It’s sometimes done in omniscient POV, but why not also do it through your characters? Then it tells us something about the person doing the looking as well as about the area itself. A farmer’s perception of his farm will be very different from a town-dweller’s, as well as different from that of a forest trapper who lives in the woods and makes a trip to town to trade his furs only once a month. Someone who hunts for his food may know a great deal about birds and not a whole lot about cattle, as well as much about the best weather for hunting certain kinds of prey, the rounds of the seasons, the places in the forest where it’s best to lie in wait, the watering holes, the game trails, the territories of dangerous predators who compete with him for the top of the food chain, and those places where you don’t want to go because the elves will make you disappear.
Fantasy sometimes suffers from a paucity of other species even where it should most belong, in the minds and senses of characters who have lived all their lives close to it. This probably comes from the ability of many fantasy writers to ignore things like seasonal changes thanks to air conditioning and central heat. Think yourself into the minds of characters who are close to other species and see what happens.
2) Be specific.
An endless list of tree names often makes my eyes glaze over, particularly if the trees are never mentioned again. In the hands of a skillful writer, it can add texture to an environment, but it’s not the best way for everybody (I can’t use it). And if the trees aren’t given individual interactions and relationships with the protagonist, then they may have no different purpose in the story than describing the contents of a market.
Instead, you could pick out a few species for individual attention. Is there one kind of tree that gives wood for staffs and carts and houses? What relationship do the people living around it have with it? Is it considered blessed, useful enough to cultivate and protect from pests and blights, part of the family? What about trees that are the symbols of a tribe or clan, the heralds of a certain environment, the home of a nonhuman sentient species, twisted by the presence of magic and so noticeable as different from the norm? Going down from “tree” to “oak” to “white oak” can give a sharper and clearer picture, and much more grounding.
The same thing can happen with animals. Vague deer and fish and birds show up in a lot of Eurofantasies. Specify them. Are the fish salmon swimming back to their breeding grounds? Are the birds skylarks, starlings, finches, swans, phoenixes? How tall are the deer, do they show their tails as they run, how much fear of humans do they have, are they female or male or fawns?
And yes, this may mean research to insure that you’re not mixing in species that won’t do well in certain ecologies. But, once again, concentrating on a few species that are important to the story or the society, rather than lists, can help with that. So can point 3.
3) Act locally.
Many fantasy stories are global in scope, with people having to save the whole world, or at least occupy fairly big countries. Local and regional fantasies give a heck of an advantage in nailing you down to specific species, characters who care about what’s around them instead of far away, and certain stories that may be able to happen in a desert or taiga environment but not in a forest. (Sometimes, much as I like them, I do get sick of stories set in a temperate climate with forests and want something else).
And plenty of “saving” plots, if you want to use them, can still happen in a local or regional environment. Someone who tries to manipulate a village could be just as cruel and hurtful a person as the general trying to conquer the world; she just doesn’t have as big a power base. Battling to save a local species from insidious magic could generate as much excitement as the battle to save a kingdom’s dying vegetation when the wrong king is on the throne. And if a watershed depends on the health of its rivers, poisoning the rivers could be just as much of a disaster as an army marching on the capital cities.
Sure, it’s a little harder than the well-established genre modes. But I think hard is good. Mostly because I tend to lose interest pretty fast in uncomplicated things. Yes, this is about my limited attention span with things that bore me again, and one of my most selfish reasons for writing these rants: talking about more fantasy that can entertain me.
If you’re dealing with an animistic culture, locating intelligence or divinity in the world around it, you’ll automatically have a different religious setup than one that looks solely to a transcendent deity or pantheon of deities. (Yes, a lot of fantasies have a Mother Goddess hovering in the background, and sometimes a sea god or moon goddess as well, but how often do they get to play the part of more than mystical adviser to the heroes? How often do they have a real personality beyond a mostly human one mixed with a few stereotypical “earthy” or “heavenly” characteristics? Be honest now).
People have to have a different relationship with the other species around them, too, and the abiotic components of the community like rivers, hills, and stones. If a river can punish you for watering your cattle in the wrong place, the balance of power has changed. If the thunder speaks in a certain voice (see point 5), then what it’s saying becomes important. If forgetting to give thanks and blessing when one kills an eland results in the eland trampling your tent and depositing ghostly feces on your head, watch out!
One reason the idea of the genius loci excites me is that it implies the ecologic community has an independent existence, outside the human, and often with its own concerns that couldn’t give a fart about who sits the throne. To make them care, to engage them, can easily play into every aspect, not just the religious one, of an established society.
5) Who speaks for the animals?
Ideas of agency via gender, race, and class are becoming established in fantasy. Who does your female character speak for in feminist fantasy? All women in general, or the women of a certain group, or just herself? Who does a black character in an urban fantasy speak for? How do you tell? Is there a way for a writer outside those groups to make an honest attempt to write a character who is part of such a group, and how will it go wrong? How do writers who are part of those groups write such characters, and speak for/through/with them? Are people who set their fantasies in a culture that is not the generic mishmash of medieval Europe practicing cultural appropriation? What problematic assumptions are there in the genre? (This is where I say, “The one that claims no one can ever succeed on intrinsic merit, even though they say so, but must turn out to be the son of a royal bloodline or the chosen of a god.”)
A whole bunch of other issues arise when speaking for nature. To quote Jonathan Bate, author of an ecocritical book called The Song of the Earth, “The ecocritical project always involves speaking for its subject rather than speaking as its subject; a critic may speak as a woman or a person of colour, but cannot speak as a tree” (72).
But fantasy might imagine people who can—either intelligent trees themselves, which is the route Tolkien went with the Ents, or characters who can communicate with the trees via magic. They’re there, in fantasy, but this is usually treated as a fairly trivial power. It’s of a piece with the same trivialization that makes most telepathic animal companions a convenience for the human protagonists, rather than beings with lives and independent wills of their own; with the shaping of nonhumanoid sentient species, like dragons, into a shadow of humanity, having the same preoccupations and often the same physical world, despite the obvious difficulties with this; with the almost inevitable changing of “natural” magic into a feminist statement or a pagan statement or a New Age statement. Anything, as long as it speaks for humans and not animals or trees.
But it’s really interesting to consider what could be, if someone can hear the voices of trees, and the almost instant ethical conflicts that involves her in. Who is she loyal to? Is she compelled to act, if she and no other can hear them when they cry out in pain or suffer the environmental fallout of human activity? If certain species need flame to survive and others suffer from it, what does she do with a forest fire?
Again, this is hard to write about with many of the traditional shapes of the fantasy narrative. But new ones can be carved.
“Dwelling” is another idea borrowed from ecocriticism, and ultimately from Heidegger. This involves a person making him- or herself at home in a certain environment by conscious decision. So neither the “instinctual” communion that some fantasy protagonists share with nature nor simply being born in a certain place qualifies. The person has to learn—in Heidegger’s conception of it, reaching out fourfold to the skies, to the earth, to whatever remnants of divinity there are, and to other mortals—and shape herself into a citizen of that place, compliant with the seasons, the weather, the local foods, the local species, the local gods. Making the human, or other sentient person, fit the place, and not the other way around, is also a fascinating way to write a novel. I think it would apply to science fiction as well, at least a novel that was about adaptation to a planet’s surface instead of terraforming it.
I’m trying to think of some fantasies I’ve seen with themes of dwelling. There aren’t a lot. The prevalence of journey and quest narratives might account for this, or the fact that the protagonist who returns home usually spends a lot of time far away first, learning to value it by its contrast with his immediate environment, rather than settling into the landscape he journeys through. Even Tolkien’s Hobbits don’t spend as much time in the Shire as all that, though they carry it with them. There are many fantasies with strong senses of place, including a lot I love, but again the protagonists are free to leave whenever they like, and the plot often demands it of them. So once again there might be a lack of narrative shapes to fit this into. I think you know what I’m going to say to that by now: so create them.
7) Sympathies for the herbivores and the carrion-eaters.
When I first tried to read Watership Down, I was so violently creeped out by some of the stories of the rabbits in it that I couldn’t finish the book. (In my defense, I was ten at the time). I did read it later, and liked it the way I like most fantasy centered on animals. My reasons for appreciating changed over the years, and now one of them is that it’s one of the few fantasies in which some sympathies for the herbivores are felt.
Sympathies with predators? Pretty common in fantasy, actually. A lot of the telepathic companions are predators: wolves, raptors, cats. (The one big exception is horses). Awesome imperial beasts like dragons usually eat meat, or at least are omnivores. Characters who shapeshift are far more likely to become werewolves than werestags. If the book takes a stance on animal rights at all, it often contains a scene of the humans who Just Don’t Understand threatening a predatory species. Those who do understand usually compare themselves to tigers rather than sheep. It’s romantic. It’s violent.
I wonder if it’s easier to empathize with predators because of the idea of violence? That’s, um, kind of disturbing.
A fantasy that switched its sympathies to the herbivores, or, if seeking ecological balance, acknowledged them as more than dumb prey to feed the real—and pretty!—masters of the food chain, the meat-eaters, would need a new set of metaphors almost right away. It’s easy to invent a bunch of mindless followers to be the enemies of your protagonists and call them sheep, but if they happen to be a pastoral herding culture that identifies with the buffalo instead, or a certain kind of antelope? If this is a grasslands or prairie environment where that species is the main source of food, and compels the people who hunt it to conserve, respect, and honor it? If the herbivores are noted as dangerous? Much fantasy that concerns itself with wolves shows the wolves killing far too easily. Many caribou, or elk, or deer targeted by wolves as prey escape, because they’re faster, or they have horns and antlers and hooves with which to defend themselves. An idea of balance recognizes that, instead of merely concluding that plant-eaters are dumb and have no survival instinct because they overgraze without predators to control them. Predators can, of course, overeat too, and then they’ll die off when the source of food fails.
And the carrion-eaters! Ravens and crows can be avatars of admiration in fantasy. Rarely do the hyena, the jackal, the rat, the maggot, get a turn.
And sure, it can be very hard to describe these species in beautiful terms. Luckily, fantasy has two other weapons at its disposal: wonder and fascination (in all the senses of the word). You can hold a reader’s attention with, say, a description of a villain based on a jackal even if the reader doesn’t like him very much. Or the power to summon insects can wake a frisson of wonder that’s dead when it comes to dancing in the light of a full moon. Some dark fantasy taps into that, including K. J. Bishop in The Etched City and—so I’m told, as I still haven’t finished one of his books—China Mieville in his Bas-Lag novels.
Moving the center of sympathy into the scavengers requires yet another set of metaphors, yet another place to stand, yet another way of ecological thinking mixed in with the human or sentient characters. And it sets up a certain kind of barrier that a fantasy written in sympathy with the herbivores might not. But that’s just another kind of challenge to be met.
8) Face the ethical issues head-on.
Ecological thinking can take a sharp turn into fascism. For example, start thinking about how humans can survive in a better balance with nature, and often one of the first answers that pops up is, “Population control.” Just a few steps down that road lies eugenics, and forced sterilization, and control by the state to allow only the “right” people to reproduce. And if too many of the “wrong” sort are alive, why, then you kill them off.
Likewise with evolution, which can be twisted so easily—admittedly, most of the time by people who have little understanding of what evolution really means. If you have the idea that evolution is a “progress” towards “better” species, then the death of “lower” ones might not bother you. Of course, the idea of a species becoming “better” than humans is then ultimately terrifying, because we would expect it to share the same ideals. (This is potentially a strong factor in stories about fear of artificial intelligence, I’d guess—why wouldn’t they see themselves as the highest step in the ladder of evolution and want to eliminate us as pests or upstarts? Most people don’t seem to think that another species’ conception of evolution might be quite different).
And, of course, in any story about reconciliation, coexistence, interdependence, there are going to come the tough cases, like what happens if two sentient species compete, or one species gets out of control and starts threatening the others. I don’t think there is any self-evident right answer, if the author writes honestly and from both—or all three, or all four, or however many there are—viewpoints. That’s what makes for complex fantasy. The characters making their decisions and living with them, all the while seeing other ways they could have gone, or clashing passionately against each other in their well-developed beliefs, with one side never denigrated as stupid or idiotic just for believing differently, is a natural consequence of this kind of thing. Of course, that could be where the themes of coexistence and reconciliation return, particularly if you’re dealing with a conflict between two sentient species, not just genocide.
And now that I have chattered on and on and on, in at least partial incoherence—I’m sorry; this touches on my major interest as an English academic as well as one of my major interests in fantasy—I’ll give it a rest.