Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Cool Fantasy Tropes

Okay, last time I covered some things that many of us think are overdone, or often done badly in fantasy. So this got me to thinking about what kinds of tropes and themes attract me to fantasy stories in particular (assuming they're handled well). I'm sure some will not agree with my list, but I'll bet most fans of the genre have one of their own.

Eleven things I can't get enough of in fantasy novels:

1. Worlds where the gender dynamics didn't play out exactly the way they did in our history. I like stories where female characters can be pirate captains or, priests, or wizards, or swordswomen, or hey, even just walk down the street and go into a tavern without everyone automatically assuming she's a harlot.

2. Same for characters from other groups that were marginalized in so-called "real" history.

3. Settings that are preindustrial but depart from the traditional European Middle Ages. Don't get me wrong: I love castles and knights, but the Middle Ages of Europe is only one time and place in history, and there's no reason why they should have a monopoly on magical adventures.

4. Magical creatures. Not everyone does these days, and a lot of fantasy novels have minimized things like dragons, gryphons, unicorns or whatever. But like other fantasy tropes, there are still interesting ways to present them. If a dragon's on the cover, I'll likely pick the book up and at least scan its back copy.

5. Characters with cool pets. Yes, I know that's a cliché, and some readers put this on the list of things they've seen enough of. Still, I have a soft spot for characters with cats, dogs, horses, or even more exotic creatures. The bond doesn't have to be magical or telepathic, but it can be if it's done well. But I will include a caveat: I like the animal in question not just be a human in a fur or feather suit. A dog/wolf/cat or whatever would have very different perspectives, even if it's sentient.

6.Magic that interacts with the real world in a physical and definable way. I don't mean the author needs to (or should) give a blow by blow of the intricacies of their magic system, but I do like seeing magic that obeys the laws of thermodynamics at some level, follows rules, and imposes consequences or costs.

7. Characters who are misfits or outcasts. Maybe it's because I'm not and never have been a "cool kid," but I like stories about outsiders and underdogs who prevail against the odds, connect with some kindred souls, and make peace with their own quirks.

8. Worlds that are complex, messy and that contain an array of cultures, perspectives and peoples, all of which have pros and cons and plusses and minuses. I'm fine with a novel being more sympathetic to some than to others, but presenting enemies as a monolithic, faceless "other" smacks of wartime propaganda more than good storytelling in many places.

9. Nasty but complex antagonists. The bad guys are more interesting if they have some kind of reason for doing what they're doing. Very, very few people think of themselves as "evil," and if they do, they're usually too crazy or sociopathic to glean many followers.

10. A romantic subplot. While I don't tend to read novels that are first and foremost romances, I do enjoy stories where two characters fall in love (and no, they don't have to be opposite sex). Not only does this raise the stakes, but the tension and connection can contribute to character growth in profound and fascinating ways.

11. To balance out the sweetness and light, I enjoy a touch of pathos as well. Completely happy, well adjusted characters are, well, boring. ;) But I will add the caveat that I tend to prefer protagonists who are basically empathic, ethical people dealing with awful stuff in the best way they can.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Fantasy Clichés

I've loved fantasy since I first heard the songs Puff theMagic Dragon and The Unicorn on the radio when I was a little tyke. I loved animals already, and the ideas of magical animals enraptured me. My mom later read me The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia, which launched me on a lifetime love of fantasy, and later science fiction as well (my parents' bookshelves were well stocked with both kinds of books).

All stories contain an element of "what if," but fantasy (and SF) dial that up a notch. They allow us to visit worlds that never were (but that surely must exist ... somewhere), do things that no one has been able to do, experience political systems that are both similar and different from the ones in our world, and to meet people (human and non human alike) who have been shaped by these realities and yet remain relatable and believable to us. Nyki Blatchley puts it very well when he said in his own blog that all stories take place in made-up worlds, but speculative fiction is more honest about it.

As much as I love fantasy, though, a recent discussion on a writer's site made me think about some of the cliches and overused tropes that exist in fantasy novels. Everyone has their own list of things that sometimes make them roll their eyes, so I decided to toss a few out there.

1. Novels that spend an inordinate amount of time on world building. You read for hours and learn about the history, religion, biogeography and cultures of the world, but one hundred and fifty pages in, you still have no idea who the story is actually about, let alone what his or her goals and problems are going to be.

2. Worlds with fantasy races (elves, dwarves etc) who are homogeneous. Humans have (or maybe they don't--see #10) different religions, cultures, ethnicities etc., but all the elves live in trees in the forest and worship the goddess of the moon. Orcs, trolls and other "evil" races fare even worse. They are unilaterally brutish, nasty, and in the thrall of some dark lord. Don't these species get free will at all?

3. Prologues with throwaway characters you never see again and that seem to have little connection to the main plot of the story. These often exist for world building purposes, or maybe to show some prophecy or catastrophe occurring or to show the birth of some chosen one.

4. And speaking of prophecies and chosen ones, fantasy is full of these too. They can be really cool, but now and again, it's even cooler to see a chosen one fail or to see a prophecy be wrong (or at least, oh gods, let us occasionally see a girl chosen one instead of a boy).

5. Some really cool, powerful magic that somehow doesn't seem to affect any aspect of life in said fantasy world outside of warfare. If you can use magic to burn down a city, can't you also use it to heat water so you can take a hot bath?

6. Fantasy worlds with histories that extend for thousands of years and where nothing at all has changed during that time. All the countries have the same approximate borders , religions and identities and they've been living under some kind of feudal system for aeons with no changes at all and no real explanation.

7. Magic being something people either have or don't have (aka, you are mageborn), as if it were conferred by a single gene allele you either inherit or don't, and experience or hard work doesn't matter. How many human talents actually work this way in real life?

8. This sort of segues into the stereotype of the whiz kid (Mary Sue-ish) protag who is just naturally awesome sauce at magic or something else that's important to the plot and that older, harder working and more experienced people are actually his or her biggest obstacle--because they won't acknowledge his or her awesomeness and insist that he or she waste time on learning the rules and learning the theories behind his or her talent.

9. Taking something from our world (or something so like as to be indistinguishable) and then giving them a cute new name. So I'll be halfway through the book before I discover an "oophy" is just a pig (and yes, I'm looking at McCaffrey's runnerbeasts). I wasn't sure whether they were just horses until I read the Dragonsdawn books. These books did show me, however, that "klah" was not actually just another name for coffee.

10. A world where there don't seem to be any people who are brown, or black or golden. Or if they exist, they're always bad guys or noble savages of some kind.

11. E to the infinity length books. Now I love me a good wrist sprainer. Very few of the high fantasy novels on my shelves are under around 130,000 words, and some are much longer, so my lip trembled when I learned I had to trim my beloved novel down to below 120,000 words (some say closer to 100,000) if I want to have an agent even bother to read the query letter. But sometimes fantasy novels really are too long, and sometimes it is possible to trim some stuff--like that prologue with the throaway characters and the 150 pages of plotless history and world building at the beginning, for starters. One of my students brought the "last" Wheel of Time book to class the other day. I'm sure it's very good, but I've seen unabridged dictionaries that were thinner.

I'm sure that everyone has their own list of tropes and conventions that have become clichés, and fantasy is not the only genre of fiction that has them. Some would argue that even so-called literary fiction has clichés. I do want to include the caveat here that I have enjoyed books with every one of the above-mentioned tropes, and I'll likely enjoy more, if there's a reason for them and they're presented in a fresh and vibrant way.