Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Amma gonna go all Smaug on yer arse

This week I read an article online that actually made me want to get all Smaug on the writer’s arse. Said individual was having a go at the fantasy genre, pretty much bitching about the standard tropes of elves, orcs, wizards, et al, and how set in its ways the fantasy genre has become. Blah, blah, blah, dwarves are boring etc etc. That whole vibe.

                                          Image: Wiki Commons
The writer bemoaned the fact that there were so few authors willing to push boundaries, and yes, to a degree I’m tempted to agree. Tropes exist. But here’s the rub – it’s what  the author *does* with these tropes that matters.

(Some fellow authors might also sympathise when I mention about going too far out on a limb, and encountering reader resistance to ideas that are just so far off the beaten path.)

To this end, I feel it’s important that all established and aspiring fantasy writers should read widely within (and outside) their genre. Know your classics. Go look up the less mainstream material too. If a book has many negative reviews not related to grammar gremlins, ask yourself why is it that a book is controversial. Go read the book yourself, and make up your own mind.

(I did that recently with Karen Miller’s Empress, and I fucking loved the book. Ditto for everything of Mark Lawrence’s that I’ve read so far. None of these are everyone’s cup of tea.)

Hell, for good measure, load up on non-fiction too. A subscription to National Geographic will expose you to so many ideas. Keep up to speed with current affairs. Watch documentaries. Challenge yourself with ideas that make you uncomfortable. Ask yourself why you are uneasy. Then see if you can channel some of that into your writing.

Now, if you’re absolutely hellbent on writing about dwarves, elves and orcs, ask yourself this: what can you bring to the trope to make it uniquely your own and not some thinly veiled Lord of the Rings fanfiction with the serial numbers filed off (though fanfiction has its place, no matter what the critics say).

Tropes offer us a recognised framework upon which we can hang a story. If we look at Joseph Campbell’s conception of the Monomyth or how folk tales often have common occurrences and themes, we have shining examples of why touchstones of familiarity are so important. They satisfy a deep-rooted need for those who engage in the appreciation of storycraft. Take those away, and it becomes difficult to relate to a story.

You might whinge that as readers and writers we’ve become lazy, but I’ll argue that we need our shared themes as common ground and a launch pad for the worlds we build. While fiction plays with alternative realities, it is in and of itself not necessarily an accurate depiction of reality.

Real life doesn’t always tie up neatly. The hero doesn’t always slay the dragon. Sometimes the princess is an evil, conniving bitch. When we read (or write) fantasy, it is because we wish to escape from the mundanity our day-to-day existence. We therefore (often) seek some sort of ideal.

Our needs for particular stories are also different. there are days when I’m up for a challenge, and something radically different from the norm (like Storm Constantine’s hermaphrodite Wraeththu) is exactly what I need. Other times I want my dragonriders flying across Pern’s skies or even a few sneaky hobbitses, no matter how many times I’ve read Tolkien’s words.

Yes, I think there are some fantasy novels out there that wear their influences on their sleeves (hello, Terry Brooks, Raymond E Feist) but I’ll still dip into their worlds from time to time and enjoy myself, despite the obvious parallels. Or I can hit up Ursula K Le Guin and have my world stretched to the point where nothing is familiar. You have to consider the context. And also, bear in mind, that certain *types* of fantasy fiction will naturally be more accessible to particular readers more so than others. You opt for terra incognita or stick to the well-worn paths. To say that one is inferior to the other is missing the point.

In closing, I’d like to charge you with the command to write the stories *you* want to read. That’s what matters, ultimately. Also, don’t apologise for your choice in reading or writing matter, and if you want vampire elves riding unicorns, DO IT. Life’s too short and brutal to pander to others’ whims.


  1. Vampire elves riding unicorns = WIN. That'd be a new take on the last ride of Theoden King, surely.


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