Since my last post, I’ve been thinking…fantasy is one tough genre. There are so many pitfalls, so many cliches, and it almost feels like all the fantasy stories that could be told, have been told. Yeah, yeah, there are no new stories, only new ways of telling them. Whatever.
Most fantasy stories take place in medieval times with sword-wielding men, arrow-slinging elves, and axe-carrying dwarves. Oftentimes, the story can be boiled down to a story of good vs. evil or a quest story. There’s a chosen one, who is usually always an orphan. Magic is basically a necessity. Prophecies usually guide a character or two. Dragons. Always dragons. Oh, there’s always an old mentor. And wars. Fantasy writers love wars…well, they are pretty awesome.
So what the hell do you do?! I ask this honestly. I’ll tackle some problems and offer a few suggestions, but please, give me some of your own.
Elves, dwarves, hobbits, even orcs. They’re all people. Sure, some are small, some are scary, some have some pointy ears. Ignore that and you get yourself a run of the mill man.
Why? Because you can’t relate with some nightmarish creature with five eyes. It’s too alien. It’s too creepy. In our eyes, it can only be a monster. Make something humanoid. Scratch that. Make a human. Tweak the smallest of things if need be (e.g. ears, height, hair, etc.), but if you want to connect to your human reader, you need a human character.
Most important of all, make your people actual people. Don’t fall into stereotypes. If elves existed, they wouldn’t all be smart, prideful douchebags. Elves would just be normal people. Some might be smart, prideful douchebags, but others might be idiots or sweet and humble.
Good vs. Evil
Building off of what I just said, in the real world, there are no battles of good and evil. People aren’t black and white. Everyone is grey. We all have our own battle of good and evil inside ourselves. Yeah. Hitler was a dick, but he wasn’t pure evil. He was just a really dark grey sort of guy.
Expand that “greyness” to an entire kingdom. If the leader of the kingdom is really dark grey and wants to do something kinda evil, not everyone is going to agree with him. There will be backlash, from his advisors and from his people in general. That brings me to my next point.
People like power and people will do what they can to get power. George R.R. Martin is a master at this. Sorry, I tried my best to resist mentioning him…but I just can’t take it anymore.
Okay, so people don’t have to be dying left and right like in A Song of Ice and Fire, but be realistic. There will be change. One family might be in power, but most other families will want to be in power. How will they get power? Who do they have to marry? Who do they have to kill? Do they have dirt on the powerful family? Can they blackmail? Can they bribe? Maybe the powerful family screws up so badly that an insurrection starts.
Politics is an ever-moving beast fueled by logical plays for power. However, random things happen too. Sir Johnny the knight has been a knight for ten years, but his wife dies of the pox. Sir Johnny takes to drinking. Sir Johnny is a belligerent drunk. You and I both know that Sir Johnny would eventually just end up as Johnny.
Economics plays an important role in politics as well. What goods does a country produce? What goods does it buy? Do they grow certain plants, care for livestock, make wine? Is there a lot of trade? Is there any debt? How is the country’s money being used? Are there taxes? Is money being used for construction of a castle or a monument or something of the sort?
Each area has its own history and its own legends. Don’t leave this out. There have been other kings. There have been wars. There have been disasters. Not everyone in your world would be a history buff, but most people have a general knowledge of what happened in the past. Some would be history buffs, though. So if you want to spout off facts, you can always use them. Just don’t force it too much. A character shouldn’t mention the war of 92 if the current conversation revolves around lice in a poor, dirty inn. That would just be random.
Legends are fun. That’s where a lot of the fantasy comes in. Yet, real-life legends are usually always wrong. That’s why most people don’t buy into them. That doesn’t mean you can’t make a legend that is real, but not everyone should believe in it. Additionally, some people have different takes on the legend. Imagine some legend about a beast in a forest. Two villages bordering the forest might have similar legends, but one village might say that the beast has two heads and the other might say it has three heads. Small things like that. Stories change as they’re told. Ever play that game Telephone as a kid? Yeah. Exactly.
I honestly love quests. I love the idea of a journey across different lands with different cultures. It’s exciting. You know you’re in store for a good adventure.
Just don’t make it quest that depends on one person. And this quest shouldn’t be a last ditch effort for something big like preventing world domination. Cough cough Lord of the Rings, I’m looking at you. No group of people, no fellowship, would put all their eggs in one basket. There has to be a Plan B. Honestly, I love the Lord of the Rings, but here’s their plan: Frodo travels across a dark and deadly world into enemy territory to put a ring in a volcano. If he fails, everyone is fucked! It’s crazy!
No chosen one especially if he’s an orphan (SOOOOOO overdone). No chosen one…unless…unless two things.
1. The chosen one may fail. If the chosen one is destined to vanquish the baddy, then close up the book. You know what’s going to happen. Why read anymore? Yeah, you get to see how the chosen one vanquishes the baddy, but it’s so much more exciting to wonder if the chosen one will fail or not. When the chosen one gets in a pinch and it looks like he might die, you should actually worry whether he will die or not. Otherwise, you’re just like “Psh, he aight!”
Of course, if you do this, I would suggest following the point of view of several other characters. If you don’t, people will stay say, “Psh, he aight!” because he’s your main character.
2. You don’t know who the chosen one is. George R.R. Martin does this with Azor Ahai. Melisandre says that Stannis is Azor Ahai, but he obviously isn’t. So is Jon Snow Azor Ahai? Is Daenerys Azor Ahai? Maybe Davos is Azor Ahai. We don’t know!
It’s good if you don’t know. It’s another thing to guess about as you read. It also makes you worry. You know Stannis can die anytime because he’s probably not really the chosen one.
Magic must have a limit. A man with limitless magic is a god, and gods can get out of any situation. That’s not good for your storyline. You need your characters to struggle.
You can have magic with limitless power, but in that case, the character should not be able to control it. Look at Avatar the Last Airbender. Yes, I am referencing a kid’s show. It was a great show dammit. As I was saying, Aang was easily the most powerful person in his world, but he didn’t have complete control of his power until the very last episode.
Keeping with that example, notice that Aang had further limits. Aang struggled against Ozai (villain) even in his glowy-eyed Avatar state (his most powerful state). He also had to learn how to control each element, which required effort. Additionally, Aang was vulnerable in his Avatar state, despite all that power. You see, the Avatar (a person who can control all the elements whereas all others can control only one element or none at all) reincarnates after death, but if the Avatar dies in his Avatar state, then he will not reincarnate. There will be no more Avatar.
Limits people. Limits.
Limits leave room for risk and struggle. And if someone does magic beyond most others’ limits, it will actually seem like a surprise. Your characters and readers both will be like “Whoa, how’d that guy do that? What about all those limits? That’s crazy!”
Make the prophecies ambiguous. Not too ambiguous. You don’t want to spurt out nonsense. Make it something that can be taken broadly. The Great Jack who will liberate the world is said to be born underneath a red star. Bad example. That was very specific. But think about the star. Does it have to be a star in the sky? Can it be a star painted on a sign or on a flag? Maybe the star is actually white but gets stained red by blood or wine. Does the star have to be a physical thing? Maybe a red star is the sigil of one family. Then the prophecy means the Great Jack is supposed to come out of one family. Be broad. Keep people guessing.
Also, like the legends. Does the prophecy have to come true? Maybe it’s all a lie.
Everything else falls under some of the other suggestions. For the old mentor, don’t make him the quirky and wise old man that we’ve always seen in stories. Focus on making him a person.
Dragons are cool, but they’re overused. Make a new creature. Or don’t. You know what’s scary? People. People are scary. They’re scarier than most other things because they do what they do by choice. So if they do something horrible and evil, it’s because they want to. Now, that’s scary.War is fine. Just make it sensible. You will have multiple battles, not one epic battle. Remember your politics. Think about food and supplies.
Why am I such a stickler on all the realistic details? It’s fantasy after all. Well, real people connect to realism. If you want to make your readers cringe and cry, you can’t have them constantly saying, “Well, that doesn’t make sense,” “That would never happen,” “This is ridiculous.” Have fun with the fantasy. Explore worlds thought of only by yourself. But don’t lose yourself in them.