This rant could also be called, “Yank the tablecloth out from under everything and see what crashes.” Beware. I’m in the kind of mood where I dance sideways and crash into furniture a lot.
1) Use a society forged in present conflict.
I was at Barnes&Noble the other day, and looking specifically to give new authors, or authors I had heard about but never read, a chance. I picked up two books that seemed to be the first in series, turned them over, and began reading about a land at peace until some evil began stirring and a destined prince had to go find and reunite the artifact of Whatever split into the [insert number] pieces of Whatever to stop the evil.
I am very sorry to the good people at Barnes&Noble if I burned the books, so fast did they leave my hands and go back on the shelves.
Strangely, it was that “peace” and the mention of elaborate backstory involving gods and prophecies and ancient artifacts of Whatever split into [insert number] of pieces of Whatever that got to me, rather than the destined princes. I’m tired of fantasies where the author spends more time telling me about what happened before the story began than they do telling me about what’s actually happening at the moment. The war is always just rising, but at the same time, it’s a continuation of the _____ of _______. (Fantasy names of wars would make for a marvelous game of Mad Libs). The evil is always ancient, never new. The past is more important than the present.
Why not take a society that hasn’t been at peace for a while? Show me what a kingdom forged in conflict is really like. Show me someone prepared to fight the enemy, because the enemy is one they’ve been facing for years on years. Show me a war that’s been going on for so long that the heroes have extra incentive to end it soon, because they are so fucking tired of their people dying. Show me wartime politics, without the tiresome business of trying to convince stupid people that the evil exists, when I know it exists from the book blurb. Fantasy has an obsession with war. Very well. Show me war, then. Show me the domain of blood and thunder, tyranny and freedom, steel and dirt. Show me a society where people have reason for their Mad Warrior Skillz, instead of everyone who wants to fight having to be part of some hereditary secret order.
I’ve heard complaints that introducing the readers into the middle of an ongoing conflict would be too hard, too complicated. Bullshit. Fantasy authors handle the challenge of enormous chunks of plot all the time, most often about the distant past. Wouldn’t it be great to give the hero a chance to speak with historical figures who are still alive? Sometimes I have the sense that the story the writer really wants to tell me is that story about the distant past; it’s more exciting than the one happening right now. So tell that one.
2) Build a society around its magic.
One reason I think magic is so rare in fantasy, so often safely contained—it’s always threatening to get out of control but never does, have you noticed?—so often following well-trod paths of spellbooks and wards and the rest of it, is because authors are frightened to think of what would happen if they really let that magic out. You have a magic that resurrects the dead. What happens if you restrict it to a few people and make it complicated and have the group who practices it persecuted? Your typical fantasy novel. What happens if you make it common and easy and the people who wield it everywhere, both high classes and low, both men and women, both elven and human?
Ah. You’ve let the magic out of its cage. Ooh, watch out!
Now let’s look at the reasons you might not want to do this:
- “It’s too hard.” Good! Let’s get some complicated, thorny, ethically challenging fantasy novels in here. I’m getting tired of knowing whom I’m supposed to cheer for from the sheer eye color that the author gives the characters.
- “It’s too complicated.” When authors build genealogies stretching back hundreds of years and pantheons of gods that have their own quirky histories? Now, given that so many of those world-building exercises end up sounding the same, anyway, by some law of the conservation of bad fantasy, I’ll grant you that the complication factor will be different from the ones that most authors are used to.
- “The world would have to be built around the magic.” Now you’re getting it. Authors don’t hesitate to build societies around a product—such as coal—or a certain kind of government—like a monarchy. So take magic, the one tool that other genres use so rarely, the one tool that other writers should envy the fuck out of us for, and extrapolate from there. Science fiction writers don’t hesitate to extrapolate from the effects of high technology to really strange far future societies. Let’s see some high magic!
3) Use “enemies” that aren’t a Dark Lord, or an evil king, or another race.
I suppose I should include “aren’t evil siblings” in there, too, given that both of the burned fantasy books mentioned evil siblings who were trying to keep the destined princes from inheriting their thrones.
One example: Take high magic, flip it, and there’s your enemy—implacable in the face of human reasoning, hard as hell to fight, and no one cares if you characterize it as evil, because it’s not a person. I still want to read a story with ecologically destructive magic. (I’m toying with one world, in fact, where the widespread use of high magic for such things as healing psychological wounds and making houses fly caused all the animals in the world to vanish simultaneously. You can imagine what a mess that was). Or make the magic sentient, and have it object to being used.
Another possible example: Let the hero be his own enemy, the way he is in Greek tragedy. That doesn’t mean he has to succumb to his tragic flaws at the end, because fantasy is not Greek tragedy, and doesn’t have to follow it if it doesn’t want to. But the hero facing the unintended consequences of his magic, or his personality, or what he did to gain the throne, is something fantasy sees all too little of, despite the destruction and chaos that you could expect to follow in a typical fantasy hero’s wake. If “life and healing run beside his horse,” so does death.
Another possible example: A philosophy. Imagine a whole society dedicated to fighting one particular ideology—not people, an ideology. This is a philosophical society that has advanced beyond hating the sinner (something all too many people are happy to do) and deciding that the best way to solve a problem is to hack someone’s head off or fling a fireball. How do they go about fighting a “war” with persuasion?
Take away the dark brooding fortress and see what’s left.
4) Stop assuming the world has to be Earth-like.
One thing I like to do is screw about with the seasons. Imagine a world where it’s one season at a time. Spring happens for perhaps a thousand generations, and then everything collapses and dies all at once, giving way to a completely new summer, new plants and landscapes and people and all. Then that dies, and forth comes a completely new autumn. The ways that people lived in such a world would be strange to us. How would they explain the artifacts of previous seasons? If they became aware that the world was doing this, would they try to find a way to survive beyond the end of their season? What would a society living in winter and never knowing any other season be like?
Do you have to have a world where there’s water? What about a world where creatures eat only plants and animals? What about a world with only two sexes, or where children are the natural destiny of everyone? What about a world with death?
Alter one. You alter a hundred consequences, and those alter a thousand. You might not be able to get them all, but then, the fantasy reader who expects the author to have anticipated everything is rare. So long as there aren’t gaping plot holes—like the women being treated as mothers when they aren’t the sex that bears the children—most readers will be willing to go along for the ride and see where you take them.
This might sound too hard, but consider this: Many fantasy authors do alter something from Earth, whether it’s adding magic or making the sexes equal. They don’t always work through the rigors of their change, but they do do it. All this means is that you’re signing up for a marathon as opposed to a sprint. Really, it won’t hurt, that stitch isn’t going to kill you…
5) Take away some safeguards.
As I’ve mentioned before, fantasy’s addicted to loopholes. If a hero finds a mysterious amulet somewhere, that amulet is sure to show up in the final confrontation and save his ass. In a way, that’s good authorial practice. If you have a gun on stage at some point, it has to be fired, as the rule goes.
But authors could make their stories different at least part of the time by just never introducing the loophole in the first place. More to the point of this rant (ha, you’d thought I’d lost the point somewhere in the morass, didn’t you? Not so!) they can alter whole societies with it. What was bland and safe a moment ago, a tightrope three feet off the ground with a safety net beneath it, becomes a tightrope a thousand feet in the air with knives poised and waiting.
Imagine a fantasy novel without some of these safeguards:
- Magical healers. Someone falls ill of a disease, takes a heavy wound, experiences a little too much in childbirth, and there’s no convenient magical healer to pop in and save them. The death toll in many fantasy novels would mount like crazy.
- Destiny. The hero has something important to do, but he doesn’t know that he will succeed. Most of the world doesn’t care about him. People don’t swear instant loyalty to him. He has no one to give him carefully worded prophecies and explain what companions he needs to him. He has to prove himself, instead of the author explaining “It’s just fate” and hand-waving him through. People will have societies with better things to do than wait around for the hero.
- Nick-of-time rescues. If there are no mysterious companions waiting for the hero or wise old mentors swooping in to rescue him, he might, gasp and shock and awe, actually have to think himself out of the trouble his quick temper or hasty tongue got him into.
- Importance attached to bloodline. Magic in this world doesn’t depend on the blood. (Susanna Clarke did this with Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Jonathan Strange doesn’t discover he’s descended from some great ancient mage. He just starts doing magic one day). The heroine doesn’t come from an ancient, important bloodline, and she has no doting parents who can get people to pardon her. If she wants a grand dynasty, she’ll have to found it herself. It’s really strange how few stories in fantasy are about founders of things, as opposed to descendants. I suppose it’s too “hard.”
- Gods. Faith in most fantasy novels isn’t faith, since, after all, the characters know the gods exist, and that they’re favored, and where they’ll go when they die. If people do die, they can always picture themselves or their companions entering the equivalent of the pearly gates. Make a world where there is no afterlife, no immortality of any kind—people just end when they die—and the majority of the people are atheist. Whee!
The self-editing rant is next.