Fantasy Genre Theory

Fantasy Genre Theory

Fantasy and Sci-fi often get lumped together, and while there’s a lot of cross over between the two genres, both in terms readers and concepts, there is one vital difference. Sci-fi is representation of how we think of the future, while fantasy is often about how we view the past.

Fantasy novels are clearly not history books or even historical fiction (though they do share some DNA). Fantasy isn’t a verbatim retelling of past events, but rather seeks to capture the overall ‘feel of the past’, that’s why so many have magic and fantastical creatures, those things feel realer, or were believed to be realer, in pre-modern times. And while magic and fantastic beasts appear in almost every fantasy novel, they are not the defining element of those worlds. The setting of a fantasy novel is not so much a magical place, but an old one.

One of the reasons Game of Thrones became so popular was that people thought it was a more ‘realistic’ fantasy story. Most of its seasons don’t deal with magic at all, but rather brutal medieval combat and court intrigue. It shows a Hobbesian past where life was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. In part we watch it because of all the nastiness, it intrigues us even though we wouldn’t want to live through it ourselves. It’s a past that we’re grateful to have move beyond.

In contrast Tolkien envisioned a gentler past, his hobbits live simple, pleasant lives, suffering only village gossip and British passive-aggressiveness. War comes, and it is brutal and requires sacrifice, but the lines are clearly drawn: good and evil. The enemy are literal inhuman creations, spurred on by an evil god. Men are mythical heroes, taller and stronger than the simple hobbits who themselves have more in common with the reader than the mankind of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Tolkien’s past is both idyllic and epic, it’s something we feel we’ve lost.

Both Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings speak to the way we view history rather than to any particular period of history itself. And while it’s true that both Middle Earth and Westros invoke some of the more exciting elements of Medieval Britain: knights in full plate, maidens in long gowns, the remnants of a more advance people (the Romans), barbarian invaders, etc. They have as much to do with actual Medieval Britain as Blade Runner’s 2019 Los Angles has to do with modern LA.

Outside of the hobbits, dragons and white walkers Medieval Britain also didn’t have taverns, smoking pipes, sewers, full plate armor (until the very end), banks, or large population centers. Medieval combat rarely involved pitched battles on the field and was mostly castle sieges. Trial by combat was exceedingly rare.

Tolkien’s Hobbits have a lot more in common with 18th and early 19th century British farmers than they do with Medieval peasants. Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law series has Norse style Northmen raiders, but they’re duking it out with Union soldiers who use fencing foils, a technology appearing more than five hundred years after the Vikings. Michael J. Sullivan’s Heir of Novron series takes place in a world of knights and a tyrannical church, but also has early 19th century style ships, with sailors that would have fit in during the Napoleonic wars.

The British Empire itself looms large in most of our Fantasy. The attitudes, manner of speaking and social economics of a great deal of supposedly medieval fantasy worlds instead come from late 19th, and early 20th century Britain. Medieval Britain was poor and splintered, with dozens of ethnic groups and a ruling caste that considered itself more French, or Norman at least, than English. The arrogant western like kingdoms in fantasy who refer to other people as savages and who think of themselves as more advance come from our living memory not our distance past.

None of this is to belittle or attack these works, I’ve enjoyed every series I mentioned here. None of these writers are trying to create a historical place. Their worlds are constructed from a hodgepodge of myth, different historical periods, and imagination. But all of them are trying to conjure the past and when they do so they are speaking to our comprehension of it. The use of so much British empire in our fantasy works shows the impact that the British empire has had on us and how we distinguish our modern selves as people distinctly different than the Imperialist of old.

And as the fantasy genre has spread out it has begun to leave behind both the trappings of Medieval Europe and the attitudes of the British Empire. Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty series takes its inspiration from early Chinese history (as well as the Odyssey, and the Vikings again). S.A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass and Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon both focus on myth and history from the Muslim world, while Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti brings in influence from African history and culture. The expansion of Fantasy genre is an expansion of our understanding of the past, of who’s past has value, and who’s past deserves to be mythologized and critiqued.

As we grow, becoming more multi-culture our fantasy will as well. The genre will ask us to explore new pasts, new combinations, new understandings of where we come from, who we are and who we are not. The past might be the past, but that doesn’t mean it can’t change.

Where do Characters come from and what do they want?

Where do Characters come from and what do they want?

Interesting, complex characters are the most important element of any novel. I will tolerate the most cliched of settings and plots if I love the characters. When writing my own fantasy novel, (which involves the very cliched plot of a kidnapped princess) I sought to create a team of fun characters that I wanted to spend time with and see embark on future adventures. Knee-deep into draft three of my novel, Ghets, I’m not thrilled with my word choices (seriously Matt, you’re using ‘luckily’ again?), but I absolutely love my Ghets team. They feel rounded and interesting and play off each other well.

Creating characters is lot like creating worlds to me. There’s a long germination period where I play around with an idea in my head. I usually have some sort of framework to start with when I sit down to write, and generally can’t track the character’s inception point. Reez, my lead, started with some questions like why not make the lead an orc? Why not an orc woman? and grew from there. Elise the Coward’s backstory was a direct reaction to the macho-mythologizing of the Spartans. But other characters, like Jaques, seemed to emerge ex nihilo. I can’t even remember a time when I was work-shopping them.

Characters follow a truth that has become something of mantra for me and writing: everything is perfect, until it’s real. Meaning, when you’re doing the necessary, fun and frantic work of constructing a character in your head they seem dynamic and stuffed with potential. But then when you start arranging them on the page, you realize you don’t know what they’ll say or how they’ll react. No matter how much time you spend thinking about your characters, you don’t know them until you start writing them.

Writing is a process of creation, re-examination, and change (yes, I couldn’t think of a third ‘tion word), characters follow the same process. They start out one way in the early drafts, and then slowly evolve the more time we spend with them, shaping them, coming to understand them. I would even argue that it’s a good idea to just start with a scene, something you never intend to include in your novel, that’s just your characters doing something together or sitting around talking.

I’m a dialogue guy, so I do a lot of scenes of just talking. But when I first started writing I noticed that a lot of my characters sound alike. To try to find their voice I would play with dialogue, create lists of words they could or couldn’t use, tried to reach outside of my own vocabulary and vocal meter. I tend to ramble, so a lot of my characters did too. I tried to reign that in, create characters that said little or nothing and communicated with expressions and gestures or characters that spoke very precisely.

Character voice is important, it’s one of the few things that can help differentiate characters on the page. Ideally you want each character’s voice to be so unique that the reader can tell who’s speaking by voice alone. But what’s even more important than a character’s voice is a character’s desire.

If you want compelling characters you need to know what they want, and what’s keeping them from getting what they want. A lot of times what your character wants is something immaterial: respect, connection, etc. And also, a lot of times the character themselves might not realize, or be resistant to, their own desire. Ideally as the writer, you should know what your characters are after. Good scenes and good character moments are created when we let characters and their desires drive the plot.

If you get your character’s right they will help you understand your own story better, they’ll guide you as much as you guide them. Readers too will stick through a tough or detailed book if they love the cast. So take your time, play around with them, ask them questions. Figure out how they talk and think and most of all what they really want. It’ll help you figure out what you want from them.

On World Building

On World Building

Hugo award winning author N.K Jemisin was recently on Ezra Kline’s podcast, where she talked about world building and did a world building exercise. It’s a fun and fascinating episode and my fellow fantasy writers should definitely check it out, find it here

Jemisin has a very wholistic approach to world building, starting not just with the geography of her worlds, but with the atmosphere and gravity. After settling on the basics, she zooms in on an ‘element X’ the thing that the work is going to explore and makes the world ‘fantastic’ in some way. In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms it was enslaved gods, in The Fifth Season it was the earth magicians known as Orogenes.

Jemisin has a masterful talent of taking her ‘element x’ and extrapolating it out. In particular the effect ‘element x’ would have on societies, the way people would react to it and build their cultures around it. She’s a writer who has thought long and hard on her world building process. Listening made me realize that I don’t have as tight grip on how I build worlds.

World building for me has always been fun. I world build on walks while listening to music. I world build at night to try and help me fall asleep. Once I have the energy going and the bare frame of the world, it’s easy and exciting. One thought leads to other; ‘They make their soldiers from a living pit, how do they make the pit? Do they also make living tools?’ And everything just keeps building.

But I realized that I’m much more genre focused in my process, even to a creative detriment, than N.K Jemisin is. Grant it, I’ve only written two novels, (find out more about the good one here!) and one of them is a direct reaction to the High Fantasy genre. But a lot of times when I start my world building I start it from a place of genre knowledge. I look at other people’s work, I write in reaction to them. I think about the tropes I like and want to emulate or explore and what tropes I don’t like and want to subvert. In other words, I don’t approach my worlds so much as worlds to begin with, but rather as stories.

Now as I world build I do start to gravitate away from the confines of genres. The Dairkkul started as a reaction to typically demonic, evil factions in Fantasy stories, but evolved to be their own complex people. Mostly this came from considering their ability to shape life out of Doom Cotta and the problems and moral quandaries that ability created. But even as I started to write the Dairkkul and decide their noble houses I still leaned on my genre knowledge and the overall ‘theme’ I wanted them to exhibit.

In general theme and genre define my worlds more than a logical or focused extrapolation might. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. Ghets is meant to be a playground where I can fool around with fantasy tropes with semi-self-aware characters. And there are always questions that writers can’t answer or even address in their worlds/stories, because it will break them. But I do think that there is something to be gained by throwing genre away.

To create new, interesting worlds, we need to do more than just remix the tropes we love. I’m not saying we should abandon genre completely. Emulating and reacting to other’s work is the foundation of art and it’s good to know of the novels that are similar to your own. But rather than trying to figure out the box we’re writing in, it might be better to start with the world first and then let the natural formation of that world and it’s reaction to element X decide the theme and genre. Maybe for my next work I’ll try it more Jemisin’s way.

My fellow writers, what’s your take? How do you approach world building?

An Ode to Spider-man

An Ode to Spider-man

Insomniac’s Spider-man game releases on Friday, and I am very much feeling the hype. So, in honor of everyone’s friendly neighborhood web-slinger, this week’s post is an ode to Spider-man.

Spider-man was the first character that I loved. I discovered him as a kid when I was dealing with my own sense of identity. He was nerdy, but funny, shy in his personal life, but also a hero in a colorful costume. His conflicts went beyond super villains, and into the mundane. Doing the right thing was hard for Spider-man, not because the moral decision was tough, but because putting on the mask and fighting crime often meant sacrificing something that Pete Parker wanted.

I was bad at time management and expectations as kid. I loved reading and writing and was generally considered a ‘know-it-all’, but I only had okay grades. I would read other subjects in classes that didn’t interest me. Even in the ones that I did like I turned in assignments late or not all. The year I graduated high school the history department didn’t give out an overall achievement award like the other departments. One of my history teachers pulled me aside after the awards to tell me that the history teachers all agreed I showed the most interest and knowledge in the subject, but they couldn’t give me the award because of my grades.

Suffice to say I got a lot of ‘wasting potential’ speeches just like Peter Parker. I felt deeply ashamed after every one. I didn’t have the excuse of great power or great responsibility but seeing a character that I knew was smart and heroic get the same lectures and have the same reaction was powerfully relatable. It gave me hope, maybe I wasn’t a dumb loser, maybe there could be something special about me too, maybe I was more than my disappointments.

And Spider-man knows about disappointment. The character has always been made great by his defeats. Running off to stop the Green Goblin means leaving Mary-Jane alone at the dance. Throwing away his costume to win her back means people die. Self-less or selfish Spider-man loses. It’s super cathartic to read a spider-man story when you’re feeling down. Pete Parker suffers unlike any super hero out there. Yes, he deals with melodramatic trauma, but he also has normal sucky things happen to him like losing his job or disappointing the woman who raised him.

One of the best examples of this is Amazing Spider-man 617. The story is actually focused on the Rhino, meant to reinvent the character from one-note villain to real person and it delivers (seriously, it’s one of my favorite single issues ever, nearly ten years later and the story is still with me). In the issue, absolutely everything goes wrong for Spider-man. He’s not able to keep his promise to the Rhino, he’s not able to protect anyone. He does everything he can, and he still fails, people die. The story ends with Peter Parker in the unemployment line. It’s grim.

And yet despite this constant barrage of failure and depressing situations Peter Parker is one of the most upbeat super heroes around. He doesn’t brood. He copes with humor, he’s hopeful. Unlike Batman who faced similar trauma and obsesses over it, Spider-man focuses on what he still has, not what he lost.

Part of that has to do with his origins. Spider-man is older than Batman when Uncle Ben dies, a teenager rather than a child. He’s also feels complicit. Guilt motivates him at first rather than vengeance, but it’s more than that. Peter didn’t lose everyone, he still has Aunt May.

Now if written (or drawn) poorly Aunt May comes across as an embarrassingly anachronistic grandmother, or a plot device to pile on guilt and conflict. If done well she’s Peter’s family; someone who he wants to make proud and who loves him. Aunt May humanize Spider-man, her being there doesn’t let him brood over his loss. She lost just as much, they help each other cope, they have to be strong for each other.

Failure and family are what makes Spider-man unique amongst super heroes. People don’t love him because he got bit by a radioactive spider, but because he’s us. He’s balancing a thousand different obligations, needs and responsibilities. He’s trying to make it in a tough city, find love and stay close with family. He does his best, he fails, he jokes about it and he keeps trying. He’s imperfect, but there’s something special about him, something others only get a glimpse of. And when we need him, when we really, really need him. He’ll be there.

Problems with the ‘The Poppy War’

Problems with the ‘The Poppy War’

I recently finished The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang. The book’s first half was enjoyable, but it’s second half was frustrating. It encompassed a lot of the problems I see in fantasy novels. The world building was under-cooked, the pacing messy, the villains one dimensional and it’s grimdarkness unearned. Still, there’s something to be learned from it’s unevenness.

*****Spoilers for The Poppy War below******

The Poppy War is a pretty standard fantasy novel. It’s protagonist, Rin, starts off as an orphan and through a combination of hard work and a ferocious will becomes the vengeful avatar of a god. It’s a classic power story, complete with training montages and a special school. The school part is enjoyable and Rin is an interesting protagonist. She starts off normal enough, but shows hints of a power hungry side that threatens to overtake her.

However, once the title ‘Poppy War’ starts? (I’m actually not sure if it is a Poppy War, there were Poppy Wars in the past with the same enemy, but no one calls it anything other than ‘the war’ when it begins,) things quickly fall apart. It’s hard to tell exactly what’s happening, the reader has no sense of scale or the strategic value of any of the cities in play or even the bare geography of the Nikara Empire which Rin is fighting for.

Worse of all is the enemy Rin faces, the Mugen Federation. The Federation is bland and evil. They’re somehow more technically advanced than the Nikara, though we get no details at all about their equipment, fighting style or even their ideology and culture. Really, the only thing we know about them is that they will kill themselves for their emperor and think the Nikara aren’t even human. Oh, and they’re basically Japan.

This another problem with the Poppy War it leans way too hard on real history for its world building. Nikara is very obviously China, Mugen is very obviously Japan, there’s even a very obviously European faction with fair skin and tall ships across the ocean. R.F Kuang talked about how 20th century Chinese history influenced her and boy does it ever show. The opium wars is right there in the title and Kuang uses the details from the rape of Nanking when describing a massacre done by the Federation.

The mining of a real world tragedy to give a dark edge to the story and motivate the hero, didn’t sit right with me. It was so grotesque and hard to get through that it shocked me out of the story. I could dedicate a whole blog post to discussion of using details from a historical tragedy as fodder for your fantasy novel, but outside of it being in poor taste, it’s also not a great narrative device. Going grimdark doesn’t give your story weight, it can have the exact opposite effect, snapping suspension of disbelief. This is what makes tone and tonal consistency so important.

I never really recovered from the massacre and neither did the novel. The pacing became even more hectic and what world building there was frayed with inconsistencies and random betrayals. It all built to what was supposed to be an horrible act of genocide, the complete destruction of the Mugen Federation’s home island and everyone on it. But I didn’t care.

The Federation might as well have been orcs. There’s only one named Federation character and he’s a literal mad scientist, with a white lab coat and everything. (Doesn’t this book take place in medievalish times? Maybe? Another character treats a fucking crossbow like a machine gun, complete with a dull thud when it’s ‘out’.) The genocide fell flat. Mugen was never made to feel real. I didn’t care about it because the writer never did.

In many ways the Poppy War is a story that can’t live up to it’s ambition. It wants to talk about tragedy and sacrifice on a deep level, while also being an engaging action story. Achieving that tonal balance was always going to be difficult and the Poppy War’s bland, over the top antagonists and weak world building couldn’t sustain it. In some ways it asked both too much and too little of the reader. At the one hand we have to read through detailed rape and murder, on the other hand we don’t have to sacrifice anything when the hero burns a whole people away, because they were never described as people to begin with.

The Kingkiller Chronicle and the Problem of Pay Off

The Kingkiller Chronicle and the Problem of Pay Off

I’ve been listening to the audiobooks of Patrick Rothfuss’s The Kingkiller Chronicle recently. The books have something of a ‘geek cool’ rep to them. When they first came out everyone from my favorite webcomic to the dorm DM were gushing about them. And even close to ten years later I bump into people at writing groups, cons and parties that talk about The Kingkiller Chronicle the same way hipsters talk about obscure EPs.

Yet despite the rep and the fact that the book stars a fellow ginger, I simply couldn’t make it through the first one, The Name of the Wind. Even the audiobook with its excellent narration was painful, I would find myself shouting at Kvothe to ‘Get on with it already!’ (My favorite parts were when Kvothe, after doing this rambling, overly clever description, say something like ‘but I’ll spare you the details.’ I would always mutter ‘thanks? But why this time? You certainly didn’t spare them anywhere else!?). The Kingkiller Chronicle is supposed to be a story told over the course of three days, but honestly Kvothe is such a blowhard that it feels like it takes three months.

The Kingkiller Chronicle has a novel framing story. Chronicler, a famous scholar and scribe, hunts down the legendary figure of Kvothe who is in retirement and running an inn with his otherworldly apprentice Bast. Kvothe agrees to tell Chronicler his whole story and help separate what is legend from what is truth. From there the majority of the novels are in first person with Kvothe telling his story, with interludes in the ‘present’ at the Waystone Inn.

Kvothe can be a trying storyteller. He often feels like someone’s overly designed RPG character. He’s a master musician, wizard (though magic doesn’t exist in this world! Though it also totally does), swordsmen and thief. He’s smart, cunning, handsome. He’s a mythical figure that everyone knows about, with thousand of tales that have been repeated over and over again all around the civilized world…and he’s also like under thirty, maybe not even twenty-five.

I’ve always found instant, ultra-competent characters annoying, even more so when they are ultra-competent teenagers, which Kvothe is for the first two books. On top of that he’s melodramatic and tragic when we meet him in ‘the present’ at the Waystone Inn. And none of his tragedy or his skill feels earned when he’s introduced. We’re told Kvothe’s a tragic legendary hero, not shown it. But that’s fine, because Kvothe is going to tell us his story and the truth behind his amazing legacy that everyone can’t stop talking about, the one he even quotes in detail as he begins his tale….

Expect he doesn’t.

The Kingkiller Chronicle’s true sin is one of pacing and pay off. Every event in Kvothe’s life seems to require a hundred pages of in depth detail to get through, even when they’re not that interesting, like the time Kvothe wandered around a fucking woods for months just feeling sad. By the time the first book ends, Kvothe has maybe done one or two things of note and none of the things he specifically talks about when he begins his tale. The second book is more interesting, but it’s still stuffed to the brim with words.

I don’t know how many times Kvothe talks about going over to Eolian to play music, or how many cute but platonic interactions he has with his love interest Denna, or how many times he talks about longing to play the fucking lute, but there are just strenuous pages of this stuff that builds to almost nothing. As someone who has also wrote a five hundred page fantasy novel that I’m sure seems like it goes on forever (Find out more here!), I have a hard time begrudging Rothfuss some of these asides. And I will admit the more I listened, the more I enjoyed Kvothe’s story, mostly because interesting things started happening in the second book, but it is still overrun with chaff.

At the end of one of Kvothe’s episodes (the story is at times very episodic), Kvothe stumbles upon Felurian. Felurian is a Faye creature and is equal parts seductive and frightening. Kvothe ends up in a dual of sorts with her and tricks her in a very folklore- style way. It works, and it’s over pretty quickly and I thought Rothfuss was finally picking up the pace. But then Kvothe stays in the Faye with Felurian for what feels like forever. Pages are spent taking about how he learned to kiss from her and how they wandered around naked. It stretches and stretches, finally something interesting happens again, but rather than having that propel Kvothe to his next adventure he spends some more time with Felurian recovering from the event. Chaff like this swipes the momentum of the story out at the knees.

Rothfuss writing often feels more indulgent than engaging, as if he left too many darlings alive on the page. But even so, I’m listening. I will download the next book whenever it’s finally released. The novel is frustrating because it has potential, not because it’s bad. Kvothe can be clever, some of the details of his world interesting. But Kvoethe should have learned more from those quiet Adem mercenaries than just fighting. As his friend Tempi said, ‘one word can say more than many’.

The Problem of Progression

The Problem of Progression

Publication; that is the elusive goal that I, and many other writers on this site, are after. We envision it as finish line, a medal we can wear that says ‘Author’. If you’re published you’ve made it, you’ve moved from dreamer to doer, amateur to professional. Lay people out in the world will take you seriously, you’re not just that guy at the party ‘working on his novel,’ you’re legitimate.

I know thinking that way is a trap, but it’s one that I often fall into. There are so few tangible bench marks in writing that publication becomes alluring. A clear sign that you are doing something right; that you’ve progressed. Often in my day to day writing I can’t tell if I’m getting better, if I’m challenging myself enough, if I’m too afraid to share my work, if I’m really ‘moving forward’ or what that even means.

We like the idea of progression, that one step leads to another. It’s one of the reason RPGs are so fun, you level up, you have real rewards for your experience. The stories we hear about success follow that same linear structure and when we look back on our own success we often organize our history into a clear path of progression.

But that path is never clear. It’s marked by failure, experimentation, stalling and hurdling leaps. You don’t move forward as often as you move in an angle, you’re footing never certain until it is, the demarcation lines of success only visible when you turn around, what’s head is nothing but fog.

I’m at a point in my writing that I know that I’m not a beginner and I know I’m not an expert. I would love to be intermediate, but I have suspicion that I’m several style books behind that (seriously, I’m in dire need of regular line editing). I’ve been writing consistently for close to ten years, mostly creative work, mostly creative work that no one’s read.

When I started writing, the path forward was easy to see and the goals tangible: write a short story, write a novella, write a novel, edit a novel. Writing advice was easier to find or at least more relevant. There’s a lot advice out there about ‘finding time to write’, hell I’ve got some if anyone wants to hear it, but I’ve found the time and done a fair bit of writing and now I’m not sure the way forward. The more I learn about writing, the less I seem to know.

When everything is murky like this it’s best to get out of your own head. Talk to someone who knows you. I have a friend who is a creative too. He’s read my work and we bounced ideas around together. He was able to explain how arriving at the murky part of my goal meant that I had gone farther than before. I’ve progressed to a point where I have no real experience to base it on and need to do some experimentation. I need to prod different avenues, I need to fail a little and find out what works and what doesn’t. The unknown can be exciting; an opportunity.

If you don’t have a friend, you have yourself. Tell yourself your story, look back, see the points where you’ve done well and how they’ve led you to this moment. Remember the missteps, the rejections, the work you’ve abandoned. They are part of the path, they’re not so much dead ends as circular steps, spinning you around and leading you forward. When facing the fog, pick a direction, any direction, work out the steps to it and start moving. You’ll find that you stumble and slide and maybe it’s not worth going there, but at the very least it will eliminate a heading.

Writing is art and art isn’t neat. It can be hard to define. It can be nebulous and therefore it’s success can feel that way too. Embrace it. It’s okay to get lost for a little bit, if you keep trying different ways to move forward, you’ll eventually improve. Don’t focus on one goal other than to be better, to grow, to learn more. Or at least, that’s what I’m going to try. I’ll let you know when I find my way out of the fog.