1) Personality-dominated stories/characters with unique motivations.
When I read a fantasy now, doubt about why the character’s doing what she’s doing often hangs around in the back of my mind and harasses me.
“Why does she want vengeance for her dead parents? She seems to love them in the same way that everyone else does, and she’s not particularly strong-willed or vengeful, and if the villain was doing the same thing it would be called evil.”
“Why is she fighting for this ideal? None of her actions ever conform to it, however much lip service she pays to it. Is this a case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’?”
“Why are these people following this leader? Yes, yes, he’s the king, blah blah fuckity-blah blah, but what did he actually do to win and hold their loyalty? Surely it takes more than a crown.”
I sit up and pay attention when I see characters who are doing things that matter to them as individuals, not just things that are expected of them because of social position or the role that they’re playing in the plot. No, writers don’t have to think up a whole, completely different motivation, but they should invest the vengeance or the ideal or the loyalty with reasons that matter to that character. If the king makes a speech and catches the character’s attention while alienating everyone else in the crowd, what is it about that character that makes him stand up and pay attention? What hooks in his soul did the speech catch on? Why decide on this method of vengeance for the dead parents and no other? If the hero wants the villain to suffer, why? What exactly about that method makes so much sense to him, makes it so deep and compelling, that he’ll go through hell and back to enact it? (And “this makes a good story” is not a good answer without the character to match). Don’t just tell me that the revenge is cruel and subtle and psychological and devastating; show me why it has to be that way, how and why the character plotted it out of himself.
This doesn’t mean asking why. It means asking why, and asking why again, until you’ve gotten to bottom ground where the personality doesn’t answer questions with words. It means hooking the motivations together, and showing why this character immediately makes improvisation A and not improvisation B when his plan goes wrong. I’m tired of, “Well, he believes in self-sacrifice, so of course he would stay behind and delay the enemy while everyone else gets away.” Show me why this person believes in self-sacrifice, why it drives him, why, when it comes to only the two choices of sacrificing himself or running away, the option of running away doesn’t even occur to him. “Drama” is not a good enough reason, either.
Have characters with depth. Superficial ones just aren’t fun.
2) Gender-equal societies.
I’ve read some of these in fantasy, but they tend to translate to, “Women and men both act like men,” and follow—still!—the warriors and mages who blow people apart, rather than concentrating on plots in the areas of art, academia, business, the household, the founding of a city, marriage, or any other of half a hundred arenas where our own gender system has consequences. Those books also sometimes contain plot elements that it’s hard to imagine arising in a truly gender-equal society, like it being assumed, not discussed, that if a woman gets pregnant, the life of her child does and should matter to her more than her own life. Or the author sets up a system that’s a close reflection of modern Earth’s, without explaining how it got that way, or a set-up that mimics medieval Earth’s almost exactly—even as other things running about in the background, like magic and a different religion, should have changed the system at least a little, or necessitated different justifications.
I know it’s hard, I know it’s complex, and it’s probably impossible for someone reared in our own world to imagine the details of a gender-equal society unto the last and the smallest. But there’s quite a lot that can be done with the knowledge that authors do have. And doesn’t the challenge call up the idea of flinging oneself at it, rather than crumpling down in defeat?
Undoubtedly there will still be inconsistencies. And there’s no reason that gender-equal societies would be utopias (one of the problems that I have with a lot of fictional matriarchies, since I do not believe for one red-hot minute that the world’s problems would all vanish if we just worshipped a goddess). But that’s part of the rich and dazzling freedom of fantasy, what it offers that no other genre does. You don’t have to take the Earth baggage with you if you don’t want to. You can expand, and expand, and expand, and create a different kind of world and the people that move in it.
3) Stories with a skeleton of serious optimism.
I actually have an example for this one, yay! Two of Terry Pratchett’s recent novels, Night Watch and Going Postal, both achieve serious optimism. They don’t turn into either fractured-fairy-tales fluff (which fluff is the primary reason that most people mention ‘comic fantasy’ and I take off as if they’d lit me on fire) or THE DARK AND DEADLY DOOM OF PROPHECY AND PORTENTS. While I enjoy dark fantasy, I get just a bit sick and tired of how seriously the authors take their own stories. The humor quotient is zero—no, I don’t count the heroine mouthing off to the Dark Lord as humor, thanks—and the characters speak in heavy-handed symbolism and psychobabble. Meanwhile, the fluff authors often don’t bother coming up with what it would actually be like to live in a fractured-fairy-tale world. They have a cotton candy surface, and underneath it is only more cotton candy. Character motivations and actions alter for the sake of puns and jokes, not for the sake of story.
I want a compromise, damnit. I want stories where the characters are stuck in some situation that can’t turn out to be solved by a pun, yet where they don’t spend ten pages telling each other how doomed they are, or moaning angstily about all the people they’ve failed. I want stories where the plots don’t just hang on silly jokes, yet don’t depend solely on sadism and torture, either. I want stories where the characters don’t laugh all their problems away, or moan in despair before miraculously standing up and blasting the villain away with the power of love.
I want some goddamned hope. It would help. The Pratchett books I mentioned were like that: serious optimism, hope aware of the consequences but daring to exist, characters afraid but going ahead anyway—and isn’t that the definition of courage, rather than hiding your head in the sand until the last moment?—and consequences falling out even-handedly, without a sense that the author was making sure everyone got just what they deserved or heaping in gratuitous brutality.
Maybe my fourth point would help stories like that along.
4) Characters who go on living.
I had to stop reading recently when I realized I’d gotten four pages into a fantasy book I hadn’t read before—Jim Butcher’s Storm Front, if you’re interested—and was wondering when the abuse would appear. That made me ask some hard questions of myself. When did I start expecting fantasy hero/ines to be abused? When did I start taking a dark background for granted, rather than expecting the author to explain and explore and justify it? When did I start skimming paragraphs that mentioned angst, to get back to where I thought the real part of the story would start?
For the record, and those interested, I did end up finishing Storm Front, and enjoying it. And yes, the hero does have a dark background, but one could argue that the Philip Marlowe-esque influences that are playing in the story practically demand that. “Normal people do not become private detectives.”
So what’s the excuse of fantasies that lie outside this subgenre?
I’ve done some more thinking, and you know what? I’m tired of it. I’m tired of characters who freeze because one trauma happened to them, and never grow or develop or change ever again. I’m tried of characters whom the author feels she has to make child sexual abuse victims, because otherwise none of their motivation would make sense. (Doesn’t that rather trivialize child sexual abuse, by implying that every case is the same?) I’m tired of characters who become nothing more than a record of the things they’ve suffered, without a spark of personal reaction; everything that comes out of them could come from a psychology textbook, instead.
Are these stories about survivors, people who have grown stronger because of their traumatic experiences? Then let’s see some survival, rather than people the author insists have stopped growing or changing because of the trauma. If fear and despair aren’t the only emotions they feel any more, then show some emotions that are not fear and despair. If they have experiences and memories and lives outside the trauma, then mentioning them would help.
Understand: I’m not saying that an abused or traumatized character would never make a good hero/ine. I would just like to see some hero/ines that are more than their abuse or trauma. I’d like to see some who have generated rage to get past it, or have taken control of their own lives because of it, or some who face the old lovers who try to emotionally manipulate them and say, “Fuck you,” instead of falling back in love with them.
I want more hero/ines I am convinced could be realistically out there saving the world or whatever else they have to do, rather than more I am convinced need to be locked up in a mental ward for their and everyone else’s safety.
5) Some more direct engagement with violence.
I derive a bitter amusement from how very, very prudish many fantasy books are—the heroine has to stay a virgin until she meets her true love or be called a whore and treated like one, the hero and heroine are never shown having sex until after they’re married, homosexuality is hinted at slyly if mentioned at all—while going all out for the violence. I suppose blowing off someone’s else face is always better than sleeping with someone before you’re married. After all, if you blow someone else’s face off, at least you’re not letting a dirty, dirty penis into your virgin vagina, right?
Once again, what gets me is not that fantasies have violence in them, but that their dealings with violence tend to be half-assed. We’re told that war is a terrible thing, yet the heroes make no effort to fucking stop it, instead always seeming to think that, yep, swordsmen are great and honest, while diplomats and ambassadors are slimy, horrible, awful people who probably really wanted to start the war in secret. We’re told that violence affects the human soul, but the hero will vomit once or twice and perhaps have some nightmares, and that is it. We’re told that the villains are the only ones who would condone torture and the killing of helpless captives, and then there go the heroes, doing it in the name of “necessity.” We’re told that the death of anyone is terrible, yet if enemy soldiers or sidekicks die, that’s all right; the author is only really invested in making us mourn the protagonists’ mourning. We’re told people die of their wounds, yet the magical healer is always around to patch everyone up as good as new.
This is one of the reasons that the most common complaint about Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, that it’s too depressing because of its violence, makes me crack the fuck up. What else should violence be but depressing? Martin works on a medieval scale, so, quite often, he’s not killing the same number of soldiers as many fantasists write about dying in the faceless enemy armies swept away by the hero’s fireball. What he does do that’s different is describe wounds, rapes, deaths from wounds after the battle, mercenaries and displaced knights gone rogue and attacking everything that moves, the devastation that war does to the land—and the devastation that’s done to people’s souls. I think someone could legitimately claim that he uses too much violence, though I wouldn’t be one of the people doing the complaining. I think it’s absolutely stupid to say, “I’ll read about the hero killing ten thousand goblins with a fireball, but I won’t read about a ten-year-old plucking an apple from a tree with hanged men on it and eating it.”
If you’re going to use magic that would actually start a tsunami and send it sweeping down on the coast of a nation, think about what the hell it’s going to do, the psychological aftereffects of that much sudden (and human-caused!) death as well as the physical and military consequences. If you want to portray the protagonists as people who abhor violence, then show them making a greater effort to avoid it. If you want to show that the death of any one man or woman diminishes the whole, then do more with the death of a minor character than just making it the spur for the protagonist’s angst.
Do that, and you plunge the reader, as well as the characters, into the midst of a world where they can’t hide. That intensity, that passion, will set the connection between audience and story aflame. I get drawn into Martin’s world with a force that rips out my guts and leaves me exhausted for days afterwards. Since there are already lots of books for easy, pleasurable popcorn reading, I want more like this.
6) Authors creating their own genres.
Or subgenres, maybe, since if it was a whole other genre entirely, I suppose it wouldn’t be fantasy.
Subgenres are useful tools for classification, but when they cease being toys and become chains, I think the problems begin. A book might be an “urban fantasy,” but I hope sincerely that it just doesn’t involve all the urban fantasy tropes that have come before it, arrayed in a slightly different pattern. I hope the author brings something of his or her own to it, and the ones that I like best tend to become “fantasies set in cities that, yeah, could be called urban fantasies if you need a label for them.” I also like books that, though they have romance in them, can’t be called “romantic fantasy” without some flexibility in their labels, and, as already mentioned, “dark fantasies” that don’t rely solely on werewolves, vampires, gore, and torture to make the book dark.
If you want to create your own subgenre, you might want to combine a certain setting with a couple of different but related themes and some interesting “rules” to follow for the character and plot—perhaps characters of a certain age, for example, or the idea that the story must begin and end in the same place. Then, when you combine them, some of them will undoubtedly not work together, either in the planning stages or in the actual writing, and you’ll have to modify or discard them. But what bounds out at the end is a fantasy that works within a certain, perhaps even visible, formal structure, but which is nevertheless its own, the way that a poem in a new pattern of rhyme and rhythm would be. Playing with constraints, deciding to obey certain rules because they please you, is infinitely more fun than grimly deciding that you have to do X because all writers of urban fantasies do X.
And then, once you have the subgenre, you can abandon it. I think more writers need to look at their writing critically and realize when they’ve been writing the same thing—for example, twelve books in a row with abused teenage heroines who run away from home and find elemental magic and romance of some kind and a telepathic companion—for too long. The need is even greater in fantasy, with its tendency to long series. Perhaps they’ve made that kind of fantasy their own, but sooner or later, the writing gets comfortable.
I don’t think writing should be comfortable. (You may have noticed that). Creating a subgenre, using it once or a few times, and then skipping away to create another is one possible means of keeping fantasy alive, flying, a golden-winged dragon, rather than a mule plodding along an old rut in broken-down traces, following a carrot that isn’t even there anymore.
Love these, because I like babbling, and they always make me want to go out and write more books like this, and go on writing until I die.