More things in amateur fantasy fiction that make me squeak and hide.
Many fantasy novels are at heart bildungsromans, the fancy name for coming-of-age stories. Child grows up, becomes angsty teenager, inherits magical, royal, or prophetic power (sometimes all three at once), saves the world, and often rules the world.
This is such a basic form that saying I object to it would be like saying I object to the use of dragons in fantasy, or the marriage plot. Every time I think I hate it, I recall a book where it was done well. The points to remember are:
1) I hate badly-done bildungsromans more than any other form of fantasy fiction.
2) The number of professional fantasy authors whom I think do this well is extremely small. Guy Gavriel Kay (to the extent that any of his characters are teenagers) and George R. R. Martin do it extremely well, but then they’re gods anyway. Tad Williams and Dave Duncan are the only other ones I can think of off the top of my head who do it well with teenagers. Lois McMaster Bujold and Carol Berg guide their adult heroes through believable revelations. Given this, you can imagine how rarely I find an amateur fantasy author handling the plot well.
So. What Should Be Done (according, of course, to the High and Mighty Limyaael, who fully expects everyone not to agree, but does not really care).
1. If you’re going abusive, go subtle. By this point, seeing a drunken father hit his kids and give them broken arms makes me shriek in boredom. Yes, Child Abuse is Bad. You’re probably not going to find anyone among your readers who disagrees with that by now, or who has not seen ten million variations of this plot. You know it, I know it, the psycho aliens from a planet ten miles over the rim of the universe know it. Using your book to either preach about child abuse or make the reader coo over the hero, so Bwave and Stwong for Suwiving Abuse, is old.
What many writers don’t realize is that neglect, indifference, and emotional abuse can work just as well as the more dramatic physical kind. So can (if you really must inject sexual and/or physical abuse in there) hinting at it. I find myself much more disturbed if I know that something bad happened in the heroine’s childhood, but I don’t know exactly what, than if I am treated to a ten-page monologue about how she was raped, beaten, spat upon, and trodden down.
Ultimately, this hearkens back to what I complained about before: inflicting abuse on your protagonist in the very first scene of the novel. It wins emotional sympathy, but it’s cheap emotional sympathy, and it makes your hero a victim.
2) No angsty monologues. Such as this, which is not real but could be:
“And stay out!”
Sarah sobbed as her father slammed the door behind her. Why was he so cruel to her? Every day he told her he had wanted a son instead of a daughter, and every day he made her go into the briar patch and pick berries, just because he wanted her to suffer.
Show your readers the characters reacting, instead of telling them. And for the sake of any god you might believe in, don’t always make the reaction tears of shattered innocence. At least some characters would probably go into shock, or have this horrible rage, or be completely passive and think the horrible things that happen to them are deserved. Tears and moping and angsty “Woe is me, for I am Teenage Protagonist #1298463 and My Parents Hate Me and I Have No Friends” monologues do not age well. They generally engage my interest for a page if they’re well-done, half a page if they’re puerile.
3) Start with something other than the hero’s birth. You’ve probably read at least one fantasy book that starts with a child being born and various people- midwives are favorite candidates- telling how the child will grow up and defeat King Avediwhoop. Poor King Avediwhoop.
Why do this?
I mean it. Why? Prophecies work best when they’re tricky or vague, and these are usually explicit. Also, childbirths aren’t really all that interesting, particularly with the stock tropes of lots of blood and the prophetic birthmark and the mother dying, and having the narrator try to force me to root for an infant is annoying. Show me why I should root for this person. Show me why people are dying to keep them safe, or protect the prophecy, or whatever. A squalling baby has zero personality to separate it from other squalling babies, and I don’t see why I should care that this particular one has golden eyes or a caul or a prophetic glow hanging about it.
4) For the love of [insert deity’s name here], do not make children into Prophesying Zombies. You know the kind I mean. The child who’s usually six or seven, sees into the future or at least is “wiser than his/her years,” and makes cryptic statements that turn out to be eerily true. These are not children. These are excuses for the author to plant prophecies in the body of the story.
Quite often, these children have little personality outside of their ‘Sight,’ which is why I call them zombies. Also, there are very few characters who ever think, “Yeah, right. Kid’s playing a joke.” They bow down in awe instead.
5) Do not make children supernaturally skilled, either. Can you imagine the power of destructive fire in the hands of an eight-year-old? Apparently many amateur fantasy authors can’t, since they give their children enormous magic and then, though it may threaten to get out of control, it never does. Sure. Like an eight-year-old wouldn’t try to use that to make Mommy and Daddy stop harassing him to go to bed.
This applies to other things, as well- being really good at hunting, swordwork, archery, you name it. About the only skills other than crying and making messes that kids could be expected to be reasonably good at are finding food, taking care of other children, and herding animals, since these are tasks that don’t take much physical strength and can be taught young. A child might start learning with a wooden sword, but having him defeat a knight twice his age makes me laugh hard enough to lose my lunch.
6) Reconsider the Dead Parent Angst. Think of how many fantasy heroes or heroines come from a home where both their parents are alive.
That’s right. Almost none.
And verily I say unto you: Why the fuck not?
Yes, mothers die in childbirth in medieval settings. However, it really, really stands out when the mothers of all the other children are alive and apparently only the protagonist is suffering Dead Parent Angst. It makes even less sense if there are skilled healers or midwives nearby. Of course, perhaps they are under a special commission to let the mothers of saviors die so the saviors can angst.
The father is often either missing and mysterious, in which case the child gets to angst about being a bastard (even if no one else appears to care), or died in some heroic noble way. There are almost no fathers who succumbed to accidents, such as chopping down a tree that fell over on them the wrong way, or died of disease, or anything else that the protagonist might possibly get over. Oh, no, the Dead Parent Angst is there to stay, so that the protagonists can weep tears over how much they miss their mommas and daddies and how terrible their lives are as orphans or half-orphans, and I can scream and hit the back button down so many times I get carpal tunnel syndrome.
You’d think, from the way that amateur fantasy protagonists fixate on their parents, that the authors were working out their own problems.
No, no. That can’t possibly be it.
7) Have at least vaguely normal relationships with their siblings.. Did your siblings idolize you? Probably not all the time. Did they hate you and make your life a living hell? Probably not all the time.
There’s nothing wrong with touching some of these extremes some of the time. But really, how many times can you retell the Cinderella story, or the story of the Big Brother who is the Darling of his siblings? Try to mix and blend those extremes with the more normal middle. Few people hate or love their siblings as extremely as their creations do, and when the siblings start doing one or the other to the hero/heroine, they signal heavy-handedly that the reader is supposed to love him because he’s so tortured, or love her because, look, everyone else loves her!
8) (For female protagonists). Reconsider the rebellious princess/psuedofeminist plot. Girl wants to learn swordplay. Girl can’t. Princess doesn’t want to do ladylike things. Princess is told to do them. Much “They hate me because I’m a girl!” angst follows. I yawn, or shriek, depending on how badly it’s done.
These are shallow things, not true feminist fantasy. I can’t remember a book I’ve read with a plot like this where the main character goes out and starts trying to change things for other women. It’s about her, her, her, and how miserable she is because she has to wear dresses (twit) or because she isn’t allowed to go out and fight with a broadsword (normal human women can’t lift them. Twit.) or because she’s going to be forced into an arranged marriage (which, of course, never ever happens to males in fantasy fiction either. Twit), and how she will run away.
Yeah. Okay. Petty problems, one-dimensional male and female baddies determined to make SpunkyGirl Generic here suffer, and of course she’s a shining paragon of truth and light no matter how much she whines.
I think it’s possible to write true feminist fantasy, but not by making your female protagonist use cliche language, suffer cliched problems that are nothing compared to what some of the poorer females in a medieval-like society would be suffering, and somehow only meet people who sneer at her for being a woman or love and worship her as the Greatest Thing Ever.
So. There you go.
Rant on fantasy teenagers next.