why I think writing good fantasy is a difficult task

It’s been a long time since I’ve picked up any fantasy novel without a modicum of suspicion. Actually, let me be specific: I’m referring to what could be termed “high” fantasy in particular.

This is because the genre seems particularly influenced by the formulaic. It’s a kind of inertia: the prose is tugged towards the verbose, the plots towards hackneyed yarns, and the characters inevitably wander into the graveyard of the stereotypes.

Watch young man, the zombie of “youth who is unaware of his special lineage” is shambling towards you! Jeepers girlie, you were nearly impaled by the shade of the “sword-wielding bimbo who is also a magician, and smart”. Oh no, granddad, the skeleton of the “doddering old man who really is an ace magician, and guide to the youth of special lineage” is rattling towards you menacingly. Watch out, stalwart fellow, the vampire of “broody athletic comrade” is sucking upon your neck! Oh dear lord, get out of the way! The ghost of “shady companion who betrays the group and later has a change of heart to die, sacrificing himself, for the people he earlier betrayed” is about to wrap his spectral fingers around your throat.

The cemetery of stereotypes is a silly place.

Not all fantasy is like this–China Miéville‘s fiction (and notice he eschews the fantasy label in favour of “weird fiction”) is one exception that comes to mind– but the genre has a tendency in this direction.

There is often a lingering false feeling about how the worlds are depicted, even when you get the impression the writer went to tremendous effort to get the details right: the mud squelches convincingly, the type of clothing the characters wear is accurate to the period that the story is based upon, and all the houses and castles have the correct doorknobs and crenelations. This lends scenes a hyper-reality, where the reader is distracted from the plot and characters by the sparkling purity of the background. Yet, the “folk” don’t interact with the scenery in a convincing manner, and their mindsets are startlingly modern despite the archaic references and costuming.

Technically, in fantasy, anything can happen. This is its greatest strength. Yet too often there is nothing wondrous, inventive, or new about the story, characters or plot. People get mired down in recreating a certain period, when they could just come up with something completely different and new. Strangely, there is a startling absence of imagination.

There is also a romanisation of feudal periods, and a lack of gritty realism. The ironic thing is that for any speculative fiction to succeed it has to have a basis in reality.

It reminds me of the experience of watching The Quiet Man. Most Irish people enjoy this film because it gives us a good laugh at the stereotypical depiction of Irish life. The cottages are whitewashed to perfection, the townspeople are alternatively cunning or friendly, Mary-Kate’s red locks bounce in a particularly feisty way when she’s mad, and even the sheep are well-behaved. Basically, it’s fantasy, in the sense that it projects a world that some wish existed, but never has. This is the kind of fantasy, in the literary sense, I don’t enjoy.

It’s candy floss. It looks substantial, but when you’re finished eating all you’re left with is a sickly-sweet taste and a vague sense of having been cheated. Obviously it has its fans because there are loads of books out there like this.

I will admit to experiencing first-hand the fantasy inertia, which is why I don’t write in that style very often. I think it’s a particularly hard genre to get right. You set out with good intentions of writing something meaningful and different, and next thing you know a quest has materialised and there are elves at the door muttering about an ancient prophesy and a darkness rising to the East, and did you know that your father was the King of Profundia who secretly married a Faerie Sorceress?

OK, so I’m exaggerating a little…

The funny thing is that I don’t read speculative fiction to escape from reality. I realised this a while ago when I was thinking about why I wrote in these genres. I read, and write, sf to escape into reality.

Because I learned a long time ago that if you get the trapping of speculative fiction right, it allows you to address meaningful issues in ways that can be more difficult in mainstream fiction. It adds layers of meaning, metaphor and symbols that can create a satisfying texture and depth to your story.

The trick is not to get lost in the details, but to stick to what’s important. You want to see the wood, as well as the trees. I see this problem in science fiction novels too: where the author gets so enamoured with the tech behind the story that s/he wants to show it off at every chance. It’s almost as if the author is bouncing up and down, saying, “See, see, I did my research, and it took so much of my time I want to explain every mind-numbing detail to you.” I guess the science boffins probably do get off on it… (By the way, I’m not implying that science fiction is somehow better than fantasy, as that’s a self-defeating debate as I discussed recently. I’m just examining what I see as some of the weaknesses of the fantasy genre.)

Perhaps I’m unusual in that respect, but sometimes I’d prefer to skip the description of the workings of a Trebuchet or the precise science behind a hyperspace engine; if you give me enough detail I’ll trust the author knows the rest.

Anyone who can work this level of detail into a story, and continue to hold my attention to the point where I haven’t even noticed I’ve taken in a ton of information, is a top-notch writer. I aspire to be that kind of author.

So, anyone who tackles the fantasy genre and manages to write a entertaining and fresh story (preferably in a single lean volume) gets my respect. Those novels are out there, they’re just in the shadows of the obese epic fantasy tomes that make bookshops’ shelves groan.