It’s that time of year when I begin to scrabble round in a mad panic trying to secure myself work for the coming twelve months. Right now, I should be finished off my fourth book pitch. Once that’s done, I can send them all out on Tuesday to post-festive publishers and pray that I’ll be able to pay my mortgage for the rest of 2012. But I’m too tired. I’ve done a full day of childcare with a three-year-old I swear is more closely related to the Monkey King than me, and had to bathe an unwilling 50 kilogram Malamute; an activity that resulted in a soaking for me, my child, and the bathroom. I need a rest, this is it.

One of the four pitches I’ve worked up is a fantasy series. I’ve wanted to write a fantasy for a while, but have struggled to find an idea that I have not dismissed as risible. This desire got a little stronger in the wake of the success of Game of Thrones on TV, if I’m truthful. Then I thought about how big Raymond E Feist’s house is. Or how rich Terry Brooks is. Get the picture? I am sick of being poor… I thought harder. My mice of ideation are dead and crippled in their little wooden mind-wheels (you know, the ones in MY HEAD), but they perished in to good end. I have a pitch. I can always catch more mind-mice. Maybe I’ll steal yours, eh? EH? Hehehehehe. (Look, I had a really stressful Christmas).

Over the last year or so I’ve spent a degree of my precious thinking time thinking (well, duh) on what makes the most successful fantasy stories – successful in terms of merit, as well as monies — really, there is art as well as Mammon in here somewhere. In tandem to this, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what annoys me about that second rank of fantasy that is not brilliant, yet still hugely successful. ACtually, I’ve probably spent more time on this. I’m talking about the kind of fantasy pedaled by authors who look all pleased with themselves for creating second-rate dreck because it comes with a big pay cheque. And frankly, that’s a state of mind I could live with. I could detail my musings at tedious length, but here’s the crucial bits (they are blindingly obvious, in the main):

Category 1: Narrative factors in bestselling fantasy

  1. Multiple, definite, compelling viewpoint characters.
  2. Multi-linear plot structure driven by the characters.
  3. Richly structured, “whole-cloth” world.
  4. Graspable rules that define the unique characteristics of said world.
  5.  Strong influences from historical and/or mythical precedent.
  6. Genuinely unexpected reversals.

Secondary are the following tropes:

Category 2: Tropes in most fantasy

  1.  Secondary dramatic situation that shapes the characters’ initial actions.
  2. A hidden primary threat that appears distant or unreal at first, only gradually becoming unveiled, and which impels the characters’ second round reactions and drives the main plot.
  3. A sense of cyclical diminishment of the majesty of the world, and/or thinning of magic, and/or lessening of moral purity.

That’s the bare bones, methinks.

Category 3: What I don’t like about a lot of fantasy

There is a shitload of stuff that I don’t like about modern fantasy. Here’s some of it. Most of my ire is sparked upon the yielding stone of American “High” heroic fantasy trilogies:

  1. Strong female characters whose very strength is anachronistic and inexplicable in the surroundings laid out by the author.
  2. Characters who are possessed of or become possessed of ever-increasingly superheroical attributes.
  3. Worlds which seem to function only as an adjunct to story – they do not exist in the readers’ or authors’ mind as separate to the narrative.
  4.  Special relationships with special horses. Or cats. It’s always cats and fucking horses, isn’t it?
  5. Women who just don’t know how beautiful they are, and think they are oh so ugly, but really they’re like totally beautiful.
  6. Endless sequels that outgrow the inventive powers of the author.
  7. Worlds that fail to obey their own rules.
  8. Bad prose of all kinds, but especially that embossed with cascades of amethystine magnificence; lo! laden with a majesty of adjectives that are supposed in their countless, multitudinous companies to evoke the richness of strange lands and exotic kingdoms, but are instead evocative of saying the same thing three times in a glittering triptych of different ways. And of the lack of self-editing.
  9. Recycled cliché.
  10. Poorly employed dramatic irony.
  11. Multiple species all living together in one tiny space for no good reason. Elves and Orcs and Dwarfs and trolls yadda yadda.
  12.  Ecosystems that consist entirely of dangerous predators.
  13. Morally unambiguous characters.
  14. Off-the-peg, “Medieval Fayre” worlds.
  15. Lack of social realism (all our peasants are clean, heck, there are no peasants).
  16. First person perspectives.
  17. World maps that owe about as much to real geological processes as they do to toilet brushes (Good world maps: Yay!. Odd world maps with unusually generated magical/ technological/biological geography: Double yay! Maps that owe their features to authors saying: “Let’s have a forest here”. SHITE)
  18. Not-so-bad dickhead rogues with a merry quip always upon their half-smiling lips.
  19. The entirely egregious injection of contemporary mores into poorly invented societies.
  20. Fantasy that owes more to Mills and Boon than it does to Conan the Barbarian. That’s a lot of it.

Crikey, I could do this all day. I’m going to stop. You might poke me hard in the ribs with your best walking cane and say “I say old boy! This is fantasy, it’s not supposed to be realistic!” To which I’d say: “Fuck off you Edwardian wannabe! Good fantasy has to have realism as a base in order to create a compelling fiction whose fantasy elements appear to be real, and not merely a regurgitated crowd-pleasing ticklist of genre staples. And I’m talking about fantasy, not steampunk, so kindly remove yourself, your cane and cod archaic manner of speech.”

So, I want to write a fantasy that follows the tropes we all expect (Category 2) utilising the toolkitand themes the very best use (Category 1) and avoiding the bollocks that even some very popular writers employ (Category 3). That’s popular folks, not necessarily good. I concede, that kind of writer might write an entertaining story, but it won’t have the power of A Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings —it won’t break out of the fantasy ghetto.

Crucially, I think the most important attribute of all commercially successful fantasy, meritorious and meretricious, is that it is true to itself as a creation. That’s not the same thing as being true to the mind of the author. Fantasy, more so than science fiction, has to exist in its own space. Being apart from real life is one of the main points for it to be. I love fantasy, in many ways it was my first literary love. I dearly want to love it more, but so much modern fantasy leaves me cold, while a significant minority makes me murderous. Can I do better? Can I even get one published? Maybe, maybe not, but I’d be a twat to pour scorn on it and not try myself, wouldn’t I?

Laters, oh! and a Happy New Year, eh?

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Comments
  1. Matt Keefe says:

    I’m not going to be terribly specific to fantasy in my critique here, since most of the peculiarly ‘fantasy’ considerations are to do with clichés and hackneyed old tropes and all the rest of it and you already know that. Some general comments:

    Category 1: Narrative factors in bestselling fantasy
    1. Multiple, definite, compelling viewpoint characters.

    This is also a hallmark of a lot of very bad writing. The relationship between the narration and the narrative is often complex, and in the best writing also subtle. There is room for unreliable narrators, a greater or lesser degree of uniformity between the viewpoints of the viewpoint character and the abstract narrator (or the authorial voice), and so on, but there’s also a lot of room to be lazy. I think switching between viewpoint characters is often both a cause and a symptom of that laziness; the alternating shifts between them become predictable and boring, and blessing the narrator with so many different perspectives provides a very easy way of introducing information that might be harder to incorporate convincingly given a more limited perspective; that would be fine if it didn’t so often still stand out as serving to fulfil precisely that purpose. The shifts are also generally artless – one perspective halts and another takes over, often with a cheesy cliffhanger at the point the first one leaves off. In better writing, other viewpoints are often introduced more cleverly, by use of a framing device or some other mechanism; Frankenstein is probably the best example – the story is contained in Walton’s letters, in which he recounts Frankenstein’s own accounts, but within that, Frankenstein himself recounts the Monster’s story as told to him by the Monster. It’s also epistolary, which is one of the traditional ways of framing information for the purpose either of doing away with the distinct narrator entirely, or of preserving some distinction between various different viewpoints to which we’re exposed, and the viewpoint of the omniscient (or not) narrator. Multiple viewpoint characters just seems a lazy way of getting the best of all possible worlds without any commensurate advances in style or technique. Without something to contextualise it or provide a frame, I think it should rightly be considered bad form.

    2. Multi-linear plot structure driven by the characters.

    Fortuitous coincidence awaits.

    6. Genuinely unexpected reversals.

    No one expects the Spinach Acquisition. But pretty much anything else, they will. Does genuinely unexpected really exist? I don’t think it matters if something is expected or not; I think it’s how it’s portrayed.

    Secondary are the following tropes:
    Category 2: Tropes in most fantasy
    […]
    That’s the bare bones, methinks.

    Yes, all the usual sub-Tolkien stuff.

    Category 3: What I don’t like about a lot of fantasy
    There is a shitload of stuff that I don’t like about modern fantasy. Here’s some of it. Most of my ire is sparked upon the yielding stone of American “High” heroic fantasy trilogies:
    1. Strong female characters whose very strength is anachronistic and inexplicable in the surroundings laid out by the author.

    And also patronising: “Didn’t she do well for a girl.” A female can provide a full, complex character without having to become a third-rate warrioress; it’s not having a woman in a stereotypical female role that makes the character thus a stereotype – rather it is portraying her thus stereotypically which does so. A servant girl with complex thoughts and feelings of her own is still a servant girl, but much less a stereotype (or reverse stereotype) or a cliché than the bikini warrior woman.

    5. Women who just don’t know how beautiful they are, and think they are oh so ugly, but really they’re like totally beautiful.

    See above.

    6. Endless sequels that outgrow the inventive powers of the author.

    This is a publishing industry thing and, being blunt, cf. your own attitude to the cliffhanger at the end of the first Richards & Klein book, your intentional use of it, and your explanation for it, etc. It’s going to take some real honesty and integrity – of a kind I don’t blame people for putting aside in favour of making a living – on the part of an awful lot of authors, publishers, and booksellers to do anything about this one.

    7. Worlds that fail to obey their own rules.

    This is where the Bible falls down for me.

    8. Bad prose of all kinds, but especially that embossed with cascades of amethystine magnificence; lo! laden with a majesty of adjectives that are supposed in their countless, multitudinous companies to evoke the richness of strange lands and exotic kingdoms, but are instead evocative of saying the same thing three times in a glittering triptych of different ways. And of the lack of self-editing.

    I write everything in threes. Oh well.
    (I write everything in threes. Oh well.)
    (I write everything in threes. Oh well.)

    13. Morally unambiguous characters.

    Remember: any story becomes literary when it includes either a rape, incest, or the death of a child. (Okay, that’s cheap – what I mean is that moral ambiguity can be used as a cheap trick, too; the kind of thing designed to get the book or the character labelled ‘controversial’, which is ultimately completely meaningless. Even ambiguity needs a lot of careful ‘why?’ behind it, and that’s hard to render effectively.)

    16. First person perspectives.

    Ask yourself why this bothers you then read my comments on multiple viewpoint characters again.

    17. World maps that owe about as much to real geological processes as they do to toilet brushes (Good world maps: Yay!. Odd world maps with unusually generated magical/ technological/biological geography: Double yay! Maps that owe their features to authors saying: “Let’s have a forest here”. SHITE)

    Maps are shit.

    18. Not-so-bad dickhead rogues with a merry quip always upon their half-smiling lips.

    This is related to the moral ambiguity point. (You really could have tightened this list up a lot if you weren’t so fucking lazy, Haley.) Portraying a character’s qualities in a manner commensurate with how much sympathy the author feels or wants to feel for them is a schoolboy error; real-life is finding out you often have sympathy for all the wrong people, for all the wrong reasons – it doesn’t make them better people, except that in wank fantasy they always turn out alright in the end.

    19. The entirely egregious injection of contemporary mores into poorly invented societies.
    20. Fantasy that owes more to Mills and Boon than it does to Conan the Barbarian. That’s a lot of it.

    You mean being less obviously gay?

    • guyhaley says:

      I do feel that I’ve fallen foul of the headmaster when I read some of your comments Matt! But at least you comment, and they’re good ones.

      I’m not fucking lazy, I just don’t have any TIME to do anything man! You get a three year old, then we’ll see how your carefully structured deconstructions suffer… Perhaps if I cannot post properly, I should not post at all. That’s a more valid point.

      First up, you state your non-specificity up front. But this list is exactly, precisely about fantasy as a genre, not about how the things on the list are used within the wider context of fiction. This grew out of a bunch of notes that I made for myself on fantasy, it’s not entirely serious, nor exhaustive. It’s not supposed to be a list of stuff that would forge “literature” from rusty fantasy archetypes, but what divides the better sort of fantasy from the worst. I myself state up front I want to create a successful book, do I not? (If it were successful, would that stop me writing 15 books when I have ideas for four? Hmmm. Easy to stand on the outside and cast rocks. Anyway, as a punter, it’s annoying).

      All the things I highlight as “good” can be employed very badly. I picked them out because they appear to be used well in superior fantasy, not because they are flawless literary devices. Sheesh. For example, FP writing is not bad in and of itself, but is often very badly done, especially as it brings in that vein of contemporary thinking that derails the whole shebang for me. But of course multi-viewpoint characterisation can be shitely drawn too.

      And come on, who the fuck would buy an epistolary fantasy?! Surely that’s the epitome of highly unfashionable diegesis? I’m looking at commercially successful fantasy that is entertaining, well-structured and at least a little surprising. Not Chekhov.

      I enjoy a good map, by the way, which is maybe indefensible. But I do. It’s like that Atomic Kitten song on my iTunes.

      You think you can do better, you write one, which is my point at the end. I think. 🙂

      Hang on a moment, do you like fantasy?

      Happy New Year, Man of Sheffield!

  2. Matt Keefe says:

    Only if you had a headmaster who really enjoyed taking the piss.

    Epistolary has always been unfashionable; it is often used very badly. It was just an example. But I’m not sure I’ve seen a huge amount of multi-viewpoint writing, in any genre, that was done particularly well either – certainly not without some kind of framing device or motif. Where it works, i think the narration is somewhat withdrawn from the characters in question, so that the multitude of characters doesn’t become an excuse for the sort of contemporary thinking (and easy access to thoughts) that the first person permits. I’m aware that it’s successful, but I just see a lot of storytelling shortcuts that don’t make up for it with anything else.

    • guyhaley says:

      Surely all headmasters enjoy taking the piss? Ah my boy, I don’t intend a shortcut, not at all. I reiterate – all of it can be used to waz effect. Let’s try to be better.

    • guyhaley says:

      By the way, epistolary I think perfectly valid a technique if used in frequently in a novel. To have a whole book or stream of a book in this form is daunting for the reader. However, it can be powerful when used sparingly.

  3. Matt Keefe says:

    Well, it works as a whole book if you go with quite long chunks, and don’t change the perspective very much, which was sort of my original point (or related to it). Dracula breaks up badly towards the end by flitting between the different characters and has to have Mina Harker make rather obvious mention of putting everyone else’s papers in order. Frankenstein is much better; it has the regular potential pitfalls of the first person, but I think these are actually somewhat alleviated by placing a device between the character and the reader – Frankenstein is relating his story to Walton; he’s not doing that weird “hello, you’re inside my head, here’s everything I’m thinking whenever it’s convenient to the story” thing that happens in unframed first person narratives.

    Why do I only use the example of very old books? One, because there’s been a problem with the time machine; and, two, because more people are likely to have read them. (Or I don’t read books written after about 1913, take your pick.)

  4. Matt Keefe says:

    I’ve just started an episstolary novel called Mr. Haley’s Notebook.

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