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
- Multiple, definite, compelling viewpoint characters.
- Multi-linear plot structure driven by the characters.
- Richly structured, “whole-cloth” world.
- Graspable rules that define the unique characteristics of said world.
- Strong influences from historical and/or mythical precedent.
- Genuinely unexpected reversals.
Secondary are the following tropes:
Category 2: Tropes in most fantasy
- Secondary dramatic situation that shapes the characters’ initial actions.
- 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.
- 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:
- Strong female characters whose very strength is anachronistic and inexplicable in the surroundings laid out by the author.
- Characters who are possessed of or become possessed of ever-increasingly superheroical attributes.
- 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.
- Special relationships with special horses. Or cats. It’s always cats and fucking horses, isn’t it?
- Women who just don’t know how beautiful they are, and think they are oh so ugly, but really they’re like totally beautiful.
- Endless sequels that outgrow the inventive powers of the author.
- Worlds that fail to obey their own rules.
- 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.
- Recycled cliché.
- Poorly employed dramatic irony.
- Multiple species all living together in one tiny space for no good reason. Elves and Orcs and Dwarfs and trolls yadda yadda.
- Ecosystems that consist entirely of dangerous predators.
- Morally unambiguous characters.
- Off-the-peg, “Medieval Fayre” worlds.
- Lack of social realism (all our peasants are clean, heck, there are no peasants).
- First person perspectives.
- 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)
- Not-so-bad dickhead rogues with a merry quip always upon their half-smiling lips.
- The entirely egregious injection of contemporary mores into poorly invented societies.
- 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?