The Fantasy Rant

By Aetre

I consider myself a pretty blunt person. I don’t mince words, and subtlety is not one of my stronger points, in writing or in life. It’s not so much that I punch for the gut as that I punch for the face. It’s the same technique I used to get a second-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and I’m not about to stop now.

I open with these words because the following rant is going to be pretty harsh, and some people aren’t going to like it. While I don’t name any authors outright, the ones I’m aiming this rant at know damn well who they are, and while I honestly doubt that any of them will ever see this rant (myself being a little-known hack with less than a tenth of a percent of the fan base some of these people have), some of you reading this might be fans of those authors and might be offended by what I have to say here.

That said, let me emphasize that this is not a “flame” of the authors; it is constructive criticism. The problem is, my constructive criticism is as blunt as, well, the rest of my writing, and some are bound to take it the wrong way.

Now that we have the disclaimers out of the way, here’s the topic of today’s rant: Reasons Why I Can’t Stand Most Fantasy Books.

Before I go further, let me address the question of, “Why do you feel the need to do this? If you don’t like the books, just don’t read them! Don’t get on others’ cases for liking them...”

The answer is that I’m not going to tell people what they should or shouldn’t read, nor would I ever. If you like fantasy, go ahead and read it. It is not my aim to stop you. My aim is, as I’ve said, to offer constructive criticism to fantasy authors (and would-be authors, too). As with all criticism, you may take it or leave it, in whole or in part, as you see fit. It’s that simple.

I’ll start by getting right to the heart of the matter: the biggest problem I have with a lot of modern fantasy books is the constant and sometimes desperate dependence upon fate, prophecy, and destiny to drive the entire plot.

In the world of writing, there are many literary devices universally accepted as hackneyed and trite, and among these is an age-old trick called Deus Ex Machina. Unless it’s used for the purpose of parody, I will assert here that bad authors use this device far more often than good authors do, and whenever Deus Ex Machina can be avoided, it should never come into play. I mean, when a logical explanation is possible, or an exciting yet realistic outcome can result from the situation, there is no sense in introducing an unbelievably convenient event or twist that serves no purpose except to force the plot in one direction or another.

The thing that few fantasy authors seem to realize is that fate, prophecy, and destiny are all forms of Deus Ex Machina. There is never a need, strictly speaking, for crystal balls and ancient myths and legends to make the hero fight the villain in the climax scene; such cheap tricks merely force the issue.

Now, I’m perfectly aware that some authors are at least clever enough to use prophesy and legend as a form of foreshadowing, and that they may be careful not to reveal every single detail of the outcome, but just enough to keep the reader hooked. To this, I say, foreshadowing is a pretty damn trite device, too, frankly. Why would you hint and tease, when you can have real suspense just by being, oh, I don’t know, a little less formulaic and a little more original?

For example, instead of telling the audience (on page two) that an ancient legend has foretold of a hero who will arise and conquer the land, why not let the hero and the reader discover and develop this ambition throughout the plot? Help the reader identify better with the hero by showing them the situations, the trials, and the thoughts and choices of the protagonist; don’t just throw his destiny out there as something that could not be avoided, but make it one unique result among several possible outcomes, and keep the reader guessing...

At the very least, why not let some of the prophecies and legends and ancient myths be wrong for a change? It may sound odd to you, but a 100% accuracy rating for all predictions can have a tendency to make your story, well, predictable--regardless how completely (or vaguely) said prediction in and of itself reveals the outcome.

To see this, take the example above. If our hero and reader learn about him conquering the land before it actually happens, the reader’s mind jumps immediately to two questions: 1. How will it happen? and 2. What will happen after that?

The author would have had to answer the first question anyway; the prophecy adds nothing to the suspense or excitement, because “How will things develop?” is an essential question in any plot, and it will be in the back of the reader’s mind no matter what ancient legends exist--or don’t. The second question, by contrast, is way ahead of schedule. The reader is no longer asking “What will happen now?” Instead their mind is on something far down the road. What happened here is that the legend removed all immediate suspense from the plot. The effects of this range from benign to extremely harmful in trying to engage the reader’s interest for however many pages the story covers.

The second-biggest problem I have with a lot of modern fantasy is somewhat related to the above, but it has to do specifically with a recurring theme I see in much of the literature of this genre. The theme goes like this: “You are born with certain blood/heritage/genetics, and try as you might, you cannot change who you are.”

Certainly, genetics do play a large role in some parts of our lives--most notably, in our physical traits. There’s nothing wrong with a child of two red-haired parents being born with red hair, or two elven parents giving birth to an elf as opposed to, say, a goat. That’s not what I’m getting at here.

The problem with this theme starts occurring when you make a character’s non-physical traits dependent on their lineage. Example: if you just so happen to be the last remaining descendant in a line of ancient kings, well, you must therefore be noble somehow. By contrast, if said line of kings were evil and tyrannical rulers, you must surely be evil yourself and want no less than world domination.

Is this believable? No; genetics may affect who we physically are, but genes alone do not make a person good or evil, nice or wicked, etc. Many other factors (environment, education, and personal experience, to name a few) affect such inward traits in real life. But bloodline fate happens all the time in fantasy. It’s stifling to character development, to say the least, because it is inherent in the theme (if one “cannot change who they are”) that the entire cast will remain relatively static throughout the plot.

This problem becomes much greater when such forced traits generalize an entire community within the story--especially when such a community is determined according to physical traits alone. For example: “Elves are eloquent.” “Dwarves are rugged.” “Orcs are evil.” It doesn’t have to be a Tolkien character; every now and then comes a new race of creatures, like a moogle or something, and other fantasies may have several uniquely named races of creatures. Same difference. My point is that, while I know most fantasy readers and authors probably don’t think of this as a problem, these types of generalizations and--yes I’m not afraid to say it--racial stereotypes really rub me the wrong way.

I’ll even go further and state that the very idea that one is born good or evil, noble or otherwise, and cannot change who they are, is the fundamental basis of all prejudice, when you think about it.

No, I’m not accusing fantasy authors of being prejudiced. In fact, I realize quite well that usually, when this theme is implemented into a work, it is with the intention of speaking out against prejudice. It goes hand in hand with the argument that one should not judge others because of what they cannot change--that no one should be judged just for being who they are.

I have two responses to this. First, considering the fantasy audience in general, usually such a message is preaching to the choir. I don’t think I have to expand upon that.

Second, think this through logically: if you use this theme, and you state that people cannot change or help the way they are, and you extend this to traits beyond the physical realm, and it just so happens that your story has a villain, well... Your villain is a character, too, right? And if the hero is justified in battling the villain to the death (as happens in most fantasies, let’s face it), then you’ve just justified killing somebody because of who they are. Therefore, you’ve defeated your entire purpose in only one character.

Let me repeat that:

If you state that people cannot change the way they are, and you have a villain whom the hero is justified in killing, you have, by transitive logic, justified killing somebody because of the way they are.

There are two ways to avoid this problem and manage not to install prejudice into the plot, but they both involve taking a different attitude toward your characters’ traits. The first way is to say that all beings are inherently equal--but a story with completely equal characters is rather boring, most of the time, so the subtle differences between individuals can become hard to explain and work with to develop enough conflict for a plot. You can’t really have a villain, either; you’d have to make any antagonist out as a tragic hero, instead. I’ve seen this work a few times, and I’ve seen it flop a few times. But it is a legitimate method of at least trying to avoid the whole judgment thing... The other method is to take the individualist stance and say that every single being is inherently unique, and that while there may be similarities between some of them, in the end, it’s not bloodline or race, but rather individual experience that determines who a person becomes. Certainly, in some cases, bloodline can be a part of one’s background, but it should never be the whole story. Neither should one’s race determine who they are, unless, of course, they happen to be the type of being (and some do exist) who lets their race determine their character (and whatever prejudices they may have against others).

The last problem I have with Fantasy is broader than those previously mentioned: ripoffs and lack of originality in the genre.

Fantasy, one might expect, is supposed to be a genre for those with great imagination and creativity; it is a category bold enough to escape the bounds of Earth as we know it and bring such things as magic and whole new universes, otherwise possible only in our wildest dreams, to life. There are some authors who embrace the opportunities this genre gives them, and I commend such authors. But then there are those who blatantly copy Tolkien (how many books out there have mithril mines in them?) at every step and/or evolve only according to the most cliched formulas out there: an evil overlord wants world domination... a princess has been kidnapped... the last survivor of a village swears revenge against his aggressors...

Come on, people. If this is honestly the best you can do for a plot, you shouldn’t be writing in any genre, especially fantasy. Yes, I’ve heard the argument that there are no original plots out there, just original ways to tell the story. I’m not a believer in that saying, but you can argue it if you want to. But nine times out of ten, these ripoff fantasy books I’m talking about can’t manage to tell their stories in a way that is even remotely original. Instead, they lean on the crutch of others’ works and never dare to go beyond that which is familiar to them...

In a way, I guess that’s a short summary of all my problems with a lot of modern fantasy works: they lean on crutches and refuse to be, well, fantastic. Whether it’s the crutch of destiny to guide the plot, the crutch of lineage to explain away all the characters’ innermost traits, or the crutch of familiar worlds invented by the more creative authors of yesteryear, an author who cannot make a fantasy work stand on its own two feet will never be creative enough, in my view, to write in the genre until he or she dares to meet the demands of the genre and, in essence, stop rewriting old legends and start writing fantasy as it’s supposed to be.

So in conclusion, drop the crystal ball, learn to write dynamic characters, and think up your own damn ideas for a change. I promise that both you as an author and fantasy as a genre will be the better for it.