1) A character and his or her world in harmony.
People with unique motivations, unique pasts, unique powers are and have been intriguing fantasy protagonists. There’s a price to be paid for that, however, at least in most of the stories as-written. The protagonist is disconnected from the world background that should have produced him. He knows things most people don’t, or he’s extremely ignorant. She’s never had X experience that everyone in her society has, or she’s had too many of them. He has tempered, time-tested beliefs while everyone around him is happily naïve, or his beliefs will turn out to be right even though everyone heaps scorn on him for them. People are awed by her, or turn out to be awed by her; she can never blend into a crowd.
What about writing someone who is a citizen of her world, a product of his realm, not brought closer to the twenty-first-century audience through author contrivance, or marked out as “special” by means of Destiny and abuse and people going silent and pale? Someone whose mindset is influenced by everything that’s different about the fantasy world, someone who lives in her society as a fish does in water. Someone, in fact, who’s an ordinary person in a very different world.
I love this because I love immersive fantasy in general, the kind where the author doesn’t stop to explain every little thing that’s different and doesn’t nod to our own world through shortcuts like making the protagonist very anti-slavery even though she lives in a pro-slavery society. The protagonist doesn’t stop and think in detail about her order’s floating temple, because she’s lived there all her life and doesn’t see anything special about it. Or he doesn’t muse on the process of forging his unique sword, because he doesn’t care two bits about the forging; he only wears the sword to impress people. Character and world are blended in such intricacy that they aren’t possible to separate, and the author doesn’t go about showing off her research or sticking in random information from her world-building notes just because she can. She trusts the reader to keep up, and if the reader can’t, well, tough; enjoy the dazzling confusion, then.
The book is written, in fact, like someone is living his or her life through it.
I like that.
2) Regenerative fantasy.
I still love transformative fantasy, but I’ve also become fascinated in thinking about what happens after the end of a story. So the great change sweeps across the country. The world’s whole metaphysical structure has altered, or the truth of two religions has emerged from hiding, or a volcano has exploded and destroyed a good portion of the continent.
Then what happens? How do they rebuild? How do they regenerate? What is life like for the survivors? Who comforts the mourning? Who deals with the bodies? What is life like for children born in this new world, who’ve never known anything else?
In some ways, this resembles post-apocalyptic fantasy. However, I can’t remember one post-apocalyptic story I’ve read written in the general tenor of, “Life goes on. Let’s see how it goes on.” Most of the time, the world is decaying and falling apart as people do drugs and experiment with weird sex and body modifications and gradually revert to barbarism (the territory of a lot of science fiction set after nuclear wars). Other times, the survivors are chosen to create a new world, and are adjured to avoid the problems that led to the apocalypse in the first place (The Stand). There’s the idea that the apocalypse will always just have happened, will always hang in the minds of the survivors, and if anyone ever shows a sign of forgetting it and treating the new world as a place in itself and not the remnants of a greater society, some character will show up spouting “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” One must not ever forget the apocalypse. Change can only happen once, and then everyone must cower in its shadow.
And yet. And yet. Humans are survivors, and so are a lot of other species represented in fantasy. What would happen if the author went along with them as they began to make things new and different, to regenerate, and not just divide into an Evil Group who will make the old mistakes and a New Group who won’t?
I think this kind of story is hard for a lot of people because there’s not an automatic blueprint in fantasy authors’ minds for it, the way that there is for “Go find the Mystical Object” or “Fight war and fall in love and reclaim the throne.” Well, that just means that this is relatively uncharted territory, then, full of new mistakes to be made and new high points to be found and new clichés to be forged. One could do a lot worse than writing a regenerative fantasy and seeing what happens.
3) Empathy for everyone.
Speaking of things I like (which the whole damn rant is, really), I like the Oscar Wilde quote “To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.” Of course, I like best my own rather specialized interpretation of it: to wit, I like it when the artist, the author in this case, is not tipping her hand as to which characters she likes best.
Yes, yes, there are always reasonable assumptions. She probably likes the protagonist or she wouldn’t be writing about him. She probably dislikes the villains or she wouldn’t represent them as wrong. She probably feels the protagonist and his/her love interest would be good together, or she’d find someone else for them both to fall in love with. (Leaving the protagonist single is an option that few authors take).
But so long as those all stay reasonable assumptions and are not forced into my face as facts, then I can maintain the picture of an author with at least empathy if not liking for every character—trying to understand them instead of dismissing them as evil, portraying their motivations as part and parcel of their backgrounds and relationships instead of hurrying things up so that one character appears stupid or independent or cool when he has no reason to be, letting their wills and emotions and reasons and actions dictate the flow of the plot instead of shoving them where they need to be.
There are several signs that an author is doing this:
- The “hero” is probably going to be a protagonist instead, and will not win the adoration of every reader, since he’ll have his flaws and make his mistakes. In fact, he may be a deeply frustrating character, since the author will refuse to hurry up and rip open his eyes to let him see what the reader sees, or hit him over the head with the Epiphany Club.
- People against the protagonist will not be discussed as evil in the narrative’s objective voice.
- Misled or mistaken “villains” are common.
- People can change their minds, and frequently do.
- People can refuse to change their minds, and frequently do; they have no reason to be convinced of the hero’s awesome coolness unless it would make sense, given who they are, for them to be convinced so.
- Each and every character is either their own person, or the author hints that they are. No mindless shells who exist only to comfort the heroine here.
- The danger to the characters is serious and real. The reader cannot be sure that the protagonist will survive to the end of the book just because he’s telling the story.
When I can’t tell who the author favors—or, conversely, when I know that she cares more about telling a good story with fascinating people than about bending everything for one character—then I know I’m in for a good story.
4) Non-war revolutions.
I’ve read several good fantasies that started when a new invention or magical process came along, or when a new truth was uncovered, such as the true origins of a religion. However, each and every time the story spiraled into open warfare. The invention was a weapon, or could be used as a weapon, or had to be taken away just in case a country used it as a weapon. The new knowledge was dangerous and something certain people would kill to prevent from becoming common knowledge. And so we get the war plot all over again.
Now, there’s no denying that all these things could cause wars. But there’s also an awful lot of history that’s not war. The Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution both fueled conflict in various ways and were joined to it and proceeded under its auspices, but they were not, in and of themselves, only battles. (Tell me they were intellectual or environmental warfare, and I will ask you why you cannot find another metaphor). They changed people’s daily lives in profound and far-reaching ways, and they changed culture and art and religion and politics and social status and the economy a good deal, too. I think the finding and translation of old Roman and Greek manuscripts during the Renaissance had reverberating effects that Yet Another Fantasy War to put the rightful heir back on the throne is going to have a fuck of a hard time duplicating. Yes, even if the rightful heir has been ordained by the gods themselves. Yes, even if he’s in a love triangle. Yes, even if he has the Mystical Sword of Doom. Just yes in general, all right?
Let’s see some non-war revolutions, life changed and arranged into new patterns by something other than a battle. What traditions has your world developed? What happens when a new invention pops up and spreads overnight? How do ordinary people react to an invention meant for them, rather than their lords and masters? How does the spread of a genuinely new political idea change minds, rather than the return of an old one such as “The new king doesn’t belong on the throne, let’s put the old one there?” I would love to see a fantasy monarchy attempting to cope with a serious democratic movement.
5) Non-anthropocentric fantasy.
Not necessarily animal fantasy. I’ve read those and they can be done well; I remember enjoying The Blood Jaguar and The Wild Road years ago, as well as the usual suspects like Watership Down. I’ve also read some insipid and cloying ones, but never mind.
I’m talking about fantasy where sentient species, humans or whatever other species the world has, are not the center of the world, and do not consider themselves so. Instead, they’re as important as the other species in the world, no more and no less.
This is the way that fantasy elves are often represented as being, but I don’t usually believe in them anymore. The authors are too vague on some points—well, how do they build houses in trees and not cause the same mess humans would? It’s magic, that’s how!—and too cutesy on others—the elves can read hearts and minds, and of course that results in a society of utter perfect harmony.
No, I’m talking about an attitude instead, one that can be called biocentric, where the ambitions of the society are oriented towards survival and improved life for themselves, but not at the expense of other species. Costs are calculated and conscious rather than unconscious. People live more in that world than in their heads, or in an imagined otherworld where everything is all right, or in a suspiciously sterile fantasy world where, despite intimations of agriculture and low technology, food is just as clean and fresh as if fridges existed and no one ever gets sick or has to deal with bad weather, insect bites, slow horses, or any of the other bodily facts of life.
Living in such a world, with such an attitude, is obviously going to produce a very different kind of society. It would be almost impossibly hard to do, since Western society is mostly anthropocentric to the core. But I’d love to see what the result would be.
6) Variegated political landscapes.
Here is Typical Fantasy Continent A. It has six culturally and linguistically different groups of people on it. However, they all live in kingdoms with more or less the same system of government. They all follow basically the same trade laws and accept the same coinage. Their religions are different, but no religion is allowed to influence the government in a unique way, unless the author plans for one country to be the Crazy Cultist Group.
Or the author has a whole world. And every single “civilized” society in it is a kingdom. There might be some tribal people living in remote islands or the frozen north, but meanwhile, there are kingdoms.
Does this really make sense to anybody?
Yeah, didn’t think so. Look. Real-world societies, which a lot of fantasy authors supposedly draw inspiration from, have always been more varied than that. Kings and queens had to contend with differing social and political forces depending on the country, the time period, the most recent crisis, the most recent invention, which crop had just flourished or failed, who the invading barbarians were this time, what the latest cool political idea was, and who had just allied or broken off relations with them. It may be accurate to say that a lot of the world has experienced monarchy. It is bullshit to say that all the monarchies were identical, and decide that the medieval model, or even just the English model, is the typical example.
And, hey, even in Europe there were variations existing side by side at the same time—monarchies with Holy Roman Empires, half-conquered countries with countries wholly in the possession of one cultural group, warring city-states or provinces with united nations, democracies or republics with monarchies. Countries will influence each other, but just because one is a monarchy doesn’t mean the others have to follow.
This one is more ranty than the others, I suppose. Don’t care, though. I’m tired of seeing authors claim to take inspiration from history and then have all the countries the freaking same. And since I enjoy political fantasy, I’d like to see various arenas for it to be enacted in, rather than a series of bland monarchies with perhaps one tribal group or pseudo-Italian city-state thrown in for “variety.”
There. That’s what I want to see.