This rant is very similar to one I did a little while ago, things Limyaael thinks would be really cool. Transformative fantasy isn’t a defined genre of fantasy as such. It’s one I’m defining. The books I like best tend to have at least one of these qualities, and the more they have, the better I like them. Summed up, they tend to add up to:
And Lady, and Goddess, and multiple gods, and whatever other ruling power you want to name.
A wonderful fantasy world will be a living place. Living places play host to living people, fling obstacles at the living people, have traditions and languages and cities and so on that exist as more than just plot devices, and change. “Change” has a lot of meanings, as you’re about to see, but the main meaning here is “don’t go from stasis to stasis as if nothing had ever happened.”
Fantasies tend to face enormous threats, up to and including the destruction of the world. Of course, the number of destroyed fantasy worlds I’ve read about is, uh, well, nil. But even the threat coming close, and having some actual consequences, like wars and human and environmental catastrophe, should have some effect. There should be scars. There should be mourning for the dead. There should be changed relationships between people (see point 4). There should be changed relationships between nations, and people adjusting to the new political configuration of the world.
There should not be, under any circumstances, the sense that the fantasy world has returned to what it was before.
This is the sign of a cardboard stage setting, not a living place. The author can just set up the cardboard houses again. If one of them’s burned, slap on a little paint and it’s as good as new. The scars will heal with magic, the dead paper figures have died for the greater good, everyone smiles and smiles, and every physical and psychological trace of the great threat has been wiped out as if it were never there.
Why do people write like this? It’s so goddamned boring.
I’ve heard some writers defend the idea of fantasy as a growing-up story, and so the adolescent who reaches adulthood takes the place of her parents, and it’s a cycle, so nothing really changes. Ha-ha-bloody-ha-ha. The whole point of growing-up is to change, to adapt and learn lessons and walk with eyes open. Writing a fantasy with this ending after a growing-up story (or bildungsroman) is akin to shutting the door on the wide world and indicating that the character who’s learned sorrow and wisdom and courage is now going to be content to live in a cloud of pink wool for the rest of her life, or a single room. If a threat comes along, she’ll close her eyes to it, and her children will have to pick up the burdens…
Ah-ha. I think I see why these stereotypical fantasy worlds suffer the same ancient evil rising over and over again.
Recoiling from the immense change is only one kind of character reaction. Not every character should share it. Not every wound should be healed. Not everything should be put back just the way it was. Transformative fantasy should include irreversible change, and living with its consequences.
2) It’s going to bloody hurt.
Transformative fantasy’s structure is not really suited to comedy, or at least comedy in the sense of Shakespeare’s plays, where everything is fine, then things go nuts for a while, and then the world settles back into an order that rewards the good characters and punishes the wicked. There’s not much change there. The dysfunction at the heart of the world has been corrected, and the good features of the old order haven’t been abandoned.
Transformative fantasy may end up rewarding many of the good characters and punishing many of the wicked (see point 3), but it’s not afraid of suffering. When the world explodes, people are going to get hurt. Pretending that everything is fine after the fact is silly. Equally silly is pretending that everything is fine when the characters begin to suffer.
This means throwing a lot of genre conventions out the window:
- the assurance that the hero is going to survive simply because he’s the hero.
- the last-minute rescues and escapes.
- magical healers who cure every threatening wound and disease.
- stupid villains.
- reassurances of good’s ultimate victory proceeding from prophecy, the gods, and the like.
All of these are attempts to balk the fall from outside the story, not inside. The characters don’t know they’re going to survive, or shouldn’t, yet many of them act like suicidal idiots without near enough justification. They don’t coordinate the last-minute escapes and rescues, they always find a healer just when they need one, they can count on one of his faults blinding the villain at the crucial moment—lessening the work they need to do to defeat him—and they know what to do because the gods and prophecy have told them what to do.
Transformative fantasy sets consequences in motion and follows them to their end. If something the characters do can block them or lessen their impact, or it’s a feature of the world that the author has managed to make a real feature and not just a plot device, then great. But no bits of silly illogic will show up just to save the characters from breaking their necks.
3) It’s going to bloody sing.
This is what happens when the author’s built up all the despair, gore, failed plans, and hellish moments just right. She earns the right to have them, sure, but she also earns the right to have joy, splendor, plans that work, and heaven in there.
Fantasy that stays safe and small and pastel doesn’t earn the right to have the depths. And without the depths, you can’t have the heights. A character who’s gone through all these horrible consequences on his own; experienced hell in a way that follows naturally and logically from the actions and the personalities of the people involved, and the circumstances that those actions and personalities create; and who’s started to rise out of those depths, is going to have my full support behind him.
Changes don’t have to be backwards, and they don’t have to melt away into stasis, and they don’t have to be only evil. This, I think, is what a lot of fantasists forget. Change is usually represented as evil. The usurper wants to take the throne away from the rightful ruling family, which is Bad. An evil priest wants to persecute the wonderful witches who have always lived in peace, which is Bad. The Dark Lord wants to take over the world that’s been without him, which is Bad. It’s no wonder that people almost always want to restore the ruling family or the witches or the Light as soon as possible, and then bolt their doors shut tight.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. A fantasy world doesn’t have to be white and black, with a little gray in the middle, and black being washed away pretty soon. Paint in deepest blacks, darkest blues, most violent violets, and there can be gold and blue and green and orange in there as well.
Stasis is necessary for everything to turn back to a prettified version of the past. Change is necessary for rebirth, transcendence, and growth.
4) Roses will wither, and rise from manure.
Did I say I was weary of unchanging fantasy worlds, and unchanging fantasy plots, with at most a new coat of paint slapped on them? Oh, yes. But I’m even wearier of unchanging fantasy characters, who exist just to gape at the pretty world, gasp at the bad guys, do clockwork heroic things, and then get slapped with an epiphany whenever the author decides it’s time.
Almost every fantasy book has a few token traitors. Usually, they’ve always been evil/good, with no explanation of how they managed to fool everyone for so long. Sometimes, there will be a personal incident in the far past that shifted their loyalties from one side to the other, which is often explained as the traitor lies on his deathbed. But otherwise, everybody has the same goals and loyalties throughout the series.
Go back to 1 again. Look at it reeeeeal hard. When the whole world is changing and shifting and cracking, on the brink of war or destruction or magical catastrophe, would people living in that world, and especially the ones on the front lines of the change, really remain exactly the same? Would they never doubt, shiver, waver, alter? Wouldn’t their doubts sometimes be greater than a few angsty questions that the author permits them for three pages before they see something that confirms to them that they’ve been on the right side all along? Wouldn’t they sometimes be utterly lost, without a clue of the right thing to do, and so make imperfect decisions?
According to the fantasies I love, yes. Sometimes, they are. Sometimes, they switch sides, simply because they’ve philosophized themselves into doing so—because they believe it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes, they go so far that they’re truly transformed, sprouting from seeds that lay buried in the center of their souls at first, and which would never have grown if not for the changes around them. Sometimes, they’ll be crushed, and never rise again, casualties of change.
Do you want to demonstrate that people are neither really good nor evil, as a lot of fantasies do these days? Then do it. Show characters changing, flexing, revealing different folds of themselves, rather than being slaves to an outline so rigid that they can’t breathe because you need them to do certain things so badly. Quite often, a story like that suffocates its characters, and drags along their corpses, never noticing. Corpses are a little stiffer, but they can still be posed, and that’s all those stories really need them to do.
5) “The truth is rarely pure, and never simple.”
With thanks and credit to Oscar Wilde, I will now take this and say that transformative fantasy shows that saying to be true of other things than truth.
Religions, philosophies, truths, ideals, epiphanies, and other things that guide characters in fantasy novels are often astonishingly pure, as pure as prophecy. Their churches have endured millennia without a schism or a heresy or any complication or obfuscation of what certain things mean—or, if that’s happened, one side is always wrong, and the other side protects the “truth” in some hidden sanctuary. Philosophies will get debated, but you can always tell who’s right and who’s wrong. Truths are pure and hurtful to the villains, and the villains never think to take them and mix them into lies, which will make the lies stronger, or find hurtful truths of their own. (Of course, the heroes probably never did anything less than pure, so that might be harder than it looks). Ideals and epiphanies are 100% clear, and any action the character takes because of one of them is one he will cherish instead of regret.
Shit, people, are you trying to proclaim that this world is cardboard?
A living world has another thing that I didn’t mention in point 1. It has a history. And history changes things, and mixes things up, and burns the wrong books, and makes splits appear in time-honored institutions, and causes syncretism, and involves migration and the extinction of languages and the death of gods and lots of other things that should not leave any truth untouched.
Change that, and suddenly you’re dancing on eggshells while trying to juggle hot coals. Goody. Now invent something to get yourself out of that situation, which of course will cause problems of its own, and follow those problems, and you’re on the road to transformative fantasy.
6) People do not stop growing when they achieve something.
Failure is allowed to change a person in fantasy, though, of course, heroes rarely fail. (Personally, I think this is because authors usually put them in a situation where their failure will mean the damnation of the world, and that’s unfair. You shouldn’t make your readers cheer for the hero to succeed just because of what will happen if he doesn’t). But success isn’t. Character A and Character B fall in love? Immediately, they stop growing, and they will be in love from that point forward. The author may introduce Big Misunderstandings and a few tests of faith, but do not be fooled. They will not fall out of love. They will not become different people who are in love in a different way. They will always be frozen lovers, in the perfect position.
Character C becomes the ruler of his kingdom. He freezes. He will be that same shining king, flushed with his heroic triumph and well-regarded by his subjects, forever. No one will doubt him, or mutter against him, or find out that a dragon-killer isn’t always the best-qualified person to lead the country. He will never grow tired of ruling the kingdom, or make a stupid decision, or appoint the wrong adviser, or fall in love with the wrong queen. He’s a pretty smiling cameo for the rest of his life.
Character D keeps the world from exploding. Now, Everything Is All Right. There are no scars to be cleaned up. There is no mourning for dead comrades, because either they’ve died for the greater good or they’ve gotten themselves resurrected. In fact, I don’t have to keep going, because you can see point 1. Change is reversible, but more than that, it only needs to happen up to a point. After that, characters die.
No, not literally. But they might as well have.
Transformative fantasy will not do this. It can’t do this. The nature of the genre forbids it. People who change throughout the story, in a world where they suffer and sing and can’t erase the consequences and make mistakes, will not stop changing just because they achieve their long-desired goal. The book might end there, but the reader knows that challenges and conflicts and failures and more, different successes wait beyond the pages. The ending is just the ending of the book, not the ending of their lives.
I love fantasy like that. Fantasy like that kicks ass. And it’s the only kind where the characters are really alive. Otherwise, they might live until the last page, but then their faces freeze, and they’re photographs in an album. Transformative fantasy resembles a window instead. It’s moved alongside the characters for a while, and now they’re walking away from it. But they don’t cease to exist, no more than real people do when they’ve passed beyond a window.
Damn, that was fun. Transformative fantasy is what keeps me reading the fantasy genre, even when it seems overrun with clichés. The ones I find affect me like no other books ever have, and maybe like no other books ever will.