Problems with modern fantasy writing- and solutions

If it wasn’t for Dungeons and Dragons, I wouldn’t be a writer today. One of my earliest memories is sitting with my friends, knee deep in our most recent campaign. It would normally be at my house on the weekend as my parents would be happy to sacrifice the living room, even if they didn’t quite understand how our game worked.

There would be dozens of cans of coke, sweets like strawberry laces, mars bars, snickers (my teeth hurt now thinking about how much sugar we devoured). We would all be joking and laughing, then I would clear my throat when it was time to start the adventure.

Silence would fall over the group as the adventure started. Seeing the genuine enjoyment on my friends faces as they cut their way through my admittedly remedial stories was a thrill for me, I felt so proud. In terms of the stories being totally by the numbers fantasy, cut me some slack, I was sixteen! Dark Lords, orc legions, a small group of prophesied heroes, it was great fun even if the stories were an unoriginal mix of Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Baldur’s Gate.

As we grew older, the stories became more nuanced. Now, in our late twenties, we still find time for the occasional campaign, which we do over skype since we have been scattered across the country. Our most recent campaign is set in a Greek themed fantasy world where there is a clash between mortals who want to be masters of their own fates and those who believe mortals should serve the pantheon of gods led by Zeus. What began as debate has devolved into violence and hatred on both sides. The players are sent back in time by a Chronomancer to prevent this turning into a full-blown war between the two agitated factions. How they tackle this is up to them. Do they simply murder the most violent members of each side? Do they try to find genuine understanding and common ground between the two factions? Do they take a side and ensure the war never happens because one side attains crushing victory during the opening shots? Time travel, morally grey sides, problem solving at a society wide level. Quite a move away from “ye olde town is under siege by orcs, we need your help brave heroes!”

I owe a lot to D&D. Through it, I realised that the one of my greatest joys is someone getting pleasure from a story I have written. At first I thought this might be limited only to D&D but I progressed to Star Wars, Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th fan-fics which people online seemed to really enjoy as well. I still remember some of them, most were pretty bad but the rise of Jabba’s criminal empire was well received. Then, with some encouragement from my fiancée,  I hit out with my original works, North Sea Nightmare, Bad Credit, The Shape in the Sky. I’ve made some decent sales, had good feedback, and am pressing on with my fourth book.

None of it would have happened without D&D.

So, you can tell, I like fantasy as a genre, my writing originated from writing these sorts of stories.

That doesn’t mean though that the genre, and especially its most recent incarnations, don’t have some major problems that really put me off, problems endemic to the whole section of fiction rather than one or two isolated works. I wanted to discuss a few of these and possible solutions.

  • Book one of fifty in the blah blah saga

The elephant in the room, there seems to be some unspoken covenant between fantasy writers that every story should really be a dozen or so books. I’m being jocular, but you know what I mean. Part of it is no doubt because the giants of fantasy all have vast sagas, and it is normal to want to emulate the greats of your field (I’m sure I do that in my horror).

It can be off putting to see that. I’m in Waterstones, looking for a new book as I am pushing through my Goodreads 2017 goal. A novel catches my eye and I see on the cover “book five of….” Really? Most the time I put it back down and see what else is on the shelf. Don’t get me wrong, there are some sagas I really enjoy, Dune is my favourite book series of all time, but I am struggling to find many fantasy stories that are one story, self-contained and lean.

A gut reaction can be that it sometimes feels a bit self-indulgent, the author wanting to spend book after book talking about how fascinating their world is without much concern for the reader. Indeed, many of these sagas have pretty flat characters. There are writers who can do a whole compelling character arc in one book, then there you get a series ten books long where almost everyone is exactly the same at the end as they were at the start. If not self-indulgent, these extended sagas can come across as a very shrewd commercial decision. I was disturbed how many writing guides I read that suggested a saga is a great way to maximise sales rather than a one shot story. The fact that might not suit the story you are writing seemed irrelevant. I have rejected that advice needless to say.

We need more stand alone fantasy novels, self-contained stories that you can pick up and finish. Jonathan Strange comes to mind, as does The War of the Flowers. The genre is in danger of drowning in an ocean of needlessly long sagas.

  • Generic vibe

In fantasy, anything can happen. A city that is actually the crown of a benevolent giant? Sure, no problem. A castle that stands at the intersection of all parallel universes? Can do that. How about a literally two faced royal court, where the venomous courtiers have two faces constantly arguing and undermining each other? Yeah, you can put that in your story.

Despite the unlimited possibility, so many fantasy settings feel the same. To look at gaming, Dragon Age, Neverwinter and Skyrim/Oblivion all feel very similar to me. They might as well be the same world, they are almost indistinguishable. If I saw Neverwinter on the horizon when trudging through Skyrim, I wouldn’t think “What on earth!?” Rather, it would fit perfectly with the setting despite being two totally different works.

Fantasy novels, games, films should feel different, unique, there is unlimited possibility, use it.

  • Too lazy to write historical fiction?

David Gemmell was a fantastic writer. Legend was the book that got me into his writing, the same for many others I’m sure. His fantasy world has very muted magic, generally is only populated by humans and has a lot of similarities with real world history. In numerous interviews, Gemmell admitted that he would have written historical fiction but felt the burden of researching the period and making sure it is all accurate was too much. He opted to write fantasy that feels very familiar to real world history. George R.R. Martin has made similar comments.

If you a going to write FANTASY, I think it is better to making a running jump into it, really submerge yourself into it. If I was going to write a fantasy story, I wouldn’t want to copy a historical battle with one or two tweaks.

BAD EXAMPLE

I’m a history buff and I have always thought the Bishops War was an interesting flash point in the pretty violent history of Scotland, where I live. In an attempt to standardise religious worship, the King Charles 1st wanted to impose Bishops in Scotland. There were Bishops across England but in Scotland, there was the Kirk, a far less formal, less hierarchal church, more a loose gathering of religiously motivated people. As the King of Scotland and England, Charles 1st decided there would be Bishops in Scotland as well and all these Bishops would answer to his friend and colleague Arch-Bishop Laud, who in turn, answered to the King. Long story short, the Church in Scotland would have a hierarchy and he was going to be at the top of it.

When the Bishops arrive, Scotland erupted in revolution. The King marched his army up to enforce this but it was massacred. Most the English troops didn’t even understand the conflict (think the typical GI in Vietnam) whereas the Scots were fighting for their very way of life. Awkwardly, after the string of military defeats, Charles 1st said Scotland could keep the Kirk, there would be no Bishops. In order to placate the Scots, the UK Parliament demanded the execution of Archbishop Laud, who had suggested the whole plan to the King in the first place. Despite being the King’s good friend, the man was indeed executed, the pleas of the King ignored. This was laying the seeds for the English civil war.

So, I could write a story set during all that. Hmmm, that would be tough though. I would need to research key battles, understand what society was like back then. I might even need to make the people speak differently. No…I’m not liking that.

I know!

In the fantasy world of Scoloand, conflict looms. The evil Emperor Caharles 1st is imposing his own religion on the land, using High Clerics to stamp out the native religious practices. However, when the people rise up, a hero shall lead them to victory.

By A. Hack.

It will follow all the same beats but I don’t need to bother with all that research or realism.

GOOD EXAMPLE

I recently read the War of the Spider Queen series. The Drow are dark elves who are ruled by a violent, tyrannical priestess class. They gain their magic from their fickle goddess Lloth, a chaotic evil spider like being. She falls silent though, stops granting her followers magic, and suddenly the whole Drow Matriarchy is in the midst of violent revolution from the lower classes, non-Drow slaves, Drow men and female non-priests and foreign powers keen to destroy them. It’s fascinating, I read all six books in a matter of days. This is fantasy done well, it isn’t just our history rehashed. We need more of this, fantasy that really uses the genre it is in, not rehashed real world history.

If it wasn’t for fantasy, I wouldn’t be a writer. I owe the genre, and D&D in particular, everything. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some big problems though. 

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