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For you, what gives to the fantasy genre it's vibe?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Eduardo Letavia, Aug 22, 2020.

  1. Eduardo Letavia

    Eduardo Letavia Troubadour

    This question comes from a chat session we had a few scribes in which we ended talking about this matter, and I thought it would be nice to have a debate thread about it with all the community here. Also, my other intention is to see how the fantasy genre is perceived nowadays, like a little snapshot of its current state from your point of view. And, to spice this thread up a bit, there a couple of extra questions that I think are worth to add to this debate:
    • Do you find the medieval settings overused (or even misused!) in the fantasy genre?
    • Are there themes or stories that you find hard or impossible to tell in the fantasy genre?
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  2. Eduardo Letavia

    Eduardo Letavia Troubadour

    And here I give you my thoughts about those questions above.

    For you, what gives to the fantasy genre it's vibe?

    I think it's the lack of explanation, the ignorance, the assumption that things in a certain fantasy world work in such manner "just because". When you know about that world, and understands better what makes it tick, it kinds of loses its fantasy charm. Essentially, it becomes real and, depending on the level of detail you get from it, could even turn the story almost into a scifi one.​

    Also, there's this thing about how things in fantasy settings can be affected just by the sheer will or the emotions of certain characters. Fantasy elements like magic can be affected just by the will or feelings of the user, not by physics; words used in spells can have real consequences. Again, all of this just works without proper explanation, beyond vague allusions to misterious forces or entities.​

    So, the core idea for me is that superstitious feeling, the ignorance and the acceptance of the misterious as it comes, without concrete explanations that could break the fantasy spell.​

    Do you find the medieval settings overused (or even misused!) in the fantasy genre?

    Yes, if we're referring to the European medieval period (which, by the way, wasn't exactly uniform). On the other hand, nowadays we see more cultures and historical periods added into the mix, so this is becoming less of an issue. Now, I don't think we'll stop seeing fantasy settings based on that particular age any time soon. The european medieval period, and its equivalents from the rest of the world, provides a nice balance between technology and superstition, giving room in quite a natural way to magical devices. Most common people of those days truly feared the unknown, and even didn't try to understand it. They accepted it just the way it seemed to be, misterious and dangerous.​

    Are there themes or stories that you find hard or impossible to tell in the fantasy genre?

    I'm tempted to say no in a broad manner, but then I could argue that any story requiring some scientifical (or just full and comprehensive) explanations would fare badly as a fantasy fiction. To keep a mistery alive, you must keep people wondering about it; when you explain it, the mistery is annihilated. Beyond that particularity, I don't think there's any limit for the fantasy genre thematically wise.​
  3. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    For you, what gives to the fantasy genre it's vibe?

    The opportunity to explore, discover and learn about people, things and places that don’t or can’t exist in our world.
    Sci-fi likes to ponder in the fields of physics, astronomy, biology and engineering. Fantasy likes to ponder in the fields of anthropology, mythology and philosophy. With plenty of overlap.

    Do you find the medieval settings overused (or even misused!) in the fantasy genre?

    Yeah but I also find it annoying when people try really hard to avoid it for the sake of originality. So I think I’m just impossible to please in that area.

    Are there themes or stories that you find hard or impossible to tell in the fantasy genre?

    No, I think the problem I have is some themes, conventions and types of stories are kind of the default or overused and that kind of pushes out all the kinds of stories that could be told.

    When I started my current story, I told myself that there was never going to be a moment where a guy rides a horse through a forest. Because that happens in almost every fantasy story. And it kind of amazed me how starting from that mild stupid subversion ended-up having a ripple effect on my setting and story.

    In fact, everything “typical fantasy” that I tried to avoid were very subtle things that pop-up in fantasy and no one really notices. I avoided having any character motivated by revenge, I avoided wanton violence, I avoided having war as a major plot point, I kept all the action in one city.
    So on paper, my story is about a wizard going on a quest to kill a dragon but changing those little details that most people don’t think about really gave the story a different flavor without straying far from the core of the genre, I think.
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  4. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    For you, what gives to the fantasy genre its vibe?

    The fact that my answer works so well, for me, with the answers already given in this thread is surprising and reassuring.

    I would say there's this external-internal dynamic, in which the external features of the world seem utterly beyond the control of the main characters and yet the characters themselves have a sort of freedom that is beyond the control of those external features.

    Sauron vs Frodo. One is an uncontrollable just-the-way-it-is feature of the world (Sauron), and the other is a character who, facing that external reality, has a singular freedom that allows him to meet it mano a mano, so to speak.

    In GoT, the uncontrollable feature is a little more subtle. It's humanity-in-general and what becomes of this general humanity when power coalesces into the hands of a handful of powerful families. Plus, it's the Night King who more directly symbolizes this uncontrollable nature. The free actors are the characters who are trying to navigate this set of circumstances—although with GoT, there is some blur at the margins that might lead us to ask whether Cersei, for instance, is merely a product and agent of that uncontrollable reality or a truly free agent. Nonetheless, it's this push-pull dynamic that I find addressed so often in fantasy stories.

    This dynamic can be found in other genres, but the way it is presented and handled seems different in fantasy. The uncontrollable nature doesn't need to be explored, dissected, and fully understood by the characters or readers. In other words, it never needs to become controlled. (A theory I have had: the desire to know and understand is a desire to control or at least gain considerable influence over what is known and understood. Thus, science is basically an attempt to gain some measure of control over our environment.) Of course, in fantasy new understanding can happen; but it more often reinforces this sense of the wild, uncontrollable, awesome and perhaps frightful external reality opposed to the characters. The focus, in any case, is usually on the characters themselves: what they must become in order to overcome. (Alternatively sometimes: what they must do to overcome.) Usually, there is a very intimate focus, a microcosm, so that we don't need to know the nature of the entire world in the fantasy tale but only the most immediate details affecting, influencing, and motivating the characters.

    Do you find the medieval settings overused (or even misused!) in the fantasy genre?


    I'm actually one of those readers who is quite content with familiar medieval settings. I've in fact been perturbed by some of the present day fist-shaking criticism of medieval environments. Yes, other worlds based on unusual or less-used cultures are wonderful when they work. But I don't think avoiding using those is somehow a mark against a story.

    I do wish that the medieval settings were richer, sometimes. I want those settings to feel real and not merely token.

    Are there themes or stories that you find hard or impossible to tell in the fantasy genre?

    Personally? Everything. Heh.

    Is this question seeking a more abstract, philosophical response? I.e., are there themes or stories that simply can't be told in the fantasy genre? I would probably be forced to answer that question with a yes. For instance, a biographical novel about Jeff Bezos would probably be impossible to tell in the fantasy genre. I mean, a truly biographical novel. You could always do historical fantasy, alternative history, or even thinly veiled allegorical fantasy concerning the rise and eventual fall of Jeff Bezos. But those wouldn't be the same thing as a biographical novel.
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  5. Malik

    Malik Auror

    For you, what gives to the fantasy genre its vibe?

    This comes down to a sticking point I have with a lot of self-published novels in general, but indie fantasy in particular, and it involves the definition of a novel.

    A novel is a book-length fictional story that comments on real-world affairs through literary devices: theme, subtext, metaphor, allegory, imagery, and so forth.

    What makes fantasy work, for me, is exactly that: the freedom the writer has to create worlds, stories, plotlines, characters, relationships, social structures, even races, that comment on our current society. Fantasy can do this in a way that literally no other genre can. This is why I write fantasy.

    When an author is just telling me a story about this amazing thing that happened once OMG it was so cool it happened to my D&D group and it's all in this book, and there's no commentary, no allegory, no subtext, no what this really means is, that's where fantasy loses its vibe. This is also, arguably, where a novel ceases to become a novel, and becomes a novel-length book, which is not the same thing.

    90-95% of indie fantasy that I've read in the past five years, really, since I've become an indie author, is guilty of this. Most of the time, these books are just stories. Good stories, many of them; good stories with fantasy trappings, but one-dimensional, flat stories. Worldbuilding for the sake of cool. Elves because the authors wants to write about elves. Adventures for the sake of action or to show how much the author knows about one particular thing; I'm looking at you, GameLit. And hey, Billionaire Alpha Shifter Navy SEAL Reverse-Harem PNR? Yeah, I know you're behind the couch. You snuck in here without a bottle and you're eating all the shrimp. Either come to grips with the contingencies of your rhetoric or call an Uber.

    The reason this literary stuff is important and yes, you have to learn the hell out of it, is that the climax of a novel is the moment of confluence between the text and the subtext. The climax is not simply the crux of the story. If you have no clear subtext, you don't have a climax; you have a rise in action, which is not remotely the same thing. Without a climax, you don't have a novel. You have a novel-length story.

    Fantasy's ability to create concrete allegorical and thematic structures out of whole cloth is unparalleled by any other genre. That's what gives fantasy its vibe. That's why I write fantasy. I have very specific commentary on the state of the world that I want to relay as broadly as possible. I now have tens of thousands of readers and man, do I have shit to say.

    My first series covers a few key points I felt strongly about when I started the series--the increasing obsolescence of the warrior caste in modern society; the disconnect that arises when a leader has a disparate and alien intellectual history from the people they're responsible for; and a sandbox for my professional theories about crisis triggers and escalatory behaviors of intractable conflicts in developing nations.

    My second series will cover ethical concerns over resource exploitation and neo-colonialism under the guise of nation-building and civil-military operations; intersectionality issues in modern-day Special Operations Forces (the hurdles facing women seeking combat roles; the struggles of LBGTQ+ troops serving openly; racism; ableism; much more); and the social and emotional impacts of the ongoing American reframing of tribalism as viewed through a half-Blackfeet POC who went to war for a country other than his own.

    This is what my novels are about. The fighting and sex are the stories. I love fighting; I love sex. I love writing fantasy because I can say all this stuff and wrap it in flying horses, swordfights, and elf tits. Next question.

    Do you find the medieval settings overused (or even misused!) in the fantasy genre?

    Again, it depends what they are and how they're used. They need to make sense, and they need to provide commentary. When they don't add anything to the story, and they're clearly there just to provide a backdrop, then yes, they're overused/misused.

    Are there themes or stories that you find hard or impossible to tell in the fantasy genre?

    No. Again, that's what I love about writing fantasy. Whatever thematic issues you want to explore, you have the freedom to create an ecosystem that emphasizes your point. No other genre does that. SF kind of does if you cock your head a certain way and squint at it, but the rules can be much more rigid.
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  6. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    I’m very deeply opposed to the idea that there is some kind of inherent virtue in social commentary. I think when commentary or politics or allegory becomes the point, then the novel becomes propaganda rather than art.

    This is why I tend to prefer fantasy over sci-fi. Sci-fi is interested in current events, contemporary mores and sociopolitical commentary. I think that fantasy has the advantage of moving far away from our society and culture to concern itself with the universal and mystical.

    So I would like to add to my answer that a big part of the fantasy vibe is how far it can willingly remove itself from our world to present something new.
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  7. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    There's a place for stories with a message (theme, subtext, allegory), but I hold there is also a place for plain old romance or adventure or mystery. These can come with dollops of wisdom, wry observations, mordant wit, or in general aim lower than profound pronouncements. I'm not at all mocking Malik, who probably knows four ways to rub me out right through the screen <g>. I'm just arguing that there's more of a range between a "mere" story and fine fantasy.

    I'm also willing to grant that writing a story that does have a message is arguably more difficult to write and likely to endure better than a "mere" story. At the other end of the stick, a story with a point to it doesn't have to degenerate to the level of propaganda. The best of them don't. They give us insights into the human condition ... even when not dealing with humans.

    But there's another kind of magic here, the kind that transpires between story and reader. The story itself may or may not have this or that to say, but somehow readers themselves manage to find messages in there. They are moved, inspired, warned, enlightened, sometimes in ways not even envisioned by the writer. To paraphrase the old saying, authors often do more than they intend. That magic fascinates me. I write in part in hopes of witnessing it some day.
  8. For you, what gives to the fantasy genre its vibe?

    For me the story simply has to have some element of the fantastical or strange. I struggle with keeping interest in a lot of stories set in really out-there, never-before-seen fantasy worlds because those worlds seem, to me, to often be built at the expense of depth of character and story. One of my favorite books, A Green and Ancient Light, has only one fantasy character who's integral to the story but far from magical or in any way powerful. It's main setting is inspired by a real physical location from our world, although the time, setting/surroundings of the book are left vague. That one character, vital to the story, is enough. It's mesmerizing without a lot of flashy magic or heavy doses of the fantastic but, to me, it's as much fantasy as any other book in the genre.

    Do you find the medieval settings overused (or even misused!) in the fantasy genre?

    I think the Medieval setting is used so often because of its familiarity to readers. From Shakespeare or the Arthurian legends on down, we have become used to that setting in literature (though Victorian must rank right there in other genres). It makes for a rich, grand setting for any story. It helps that, as you mentioned, the period accepts and entertains superstition, magic, witches, class struggle, hardship etc etc readily suited for working the fantastic and the quest/conflict of kingdoms into the story without a lot of explanation needed. Its a bonus that an author can drop a few choice words associated with the middle ages into their story and they help conjure an entire world in a reader's head, one they have some familiarity with, without needing to paint the entire picture so much from the ground up.

    Are there themes or stories that you find hard or impossible to tell in the fantasy genre?

    No, I believe almost any story can be told in/with a fantasy setting.
  9. Toby Johnson

    Toby Johnson Minstrel

    the rich colours, and the over describing of areas in the book
  10. Insolent Lad

    Insolent Lad Maester

    A sense of wonder. That's what fantasy has always meant for me. Good fantasy evokes that sense of wonder.
  11. Gurkhal

    Gurkhal Auror

    For you, what gives to the fantasy genre its vibe?

    The sense of the unwalked ground. That I don't know what's going to happen and that things can suprise me and still keep momentum. And when writing, the freedom it gives the author in regards to events beyond the strictly personal.

    Do you find the medieval settings overused (or even misused!) in the fantasy genre?

    Not really. I did before when I was younger but not any longer.

    Are there themes or stories that you find hard or impossible to tell in the fantasy genre?

    Not really. Although to me a story needs to be able to happen in RL, if you strip away all the fantastical elements, and focus on character interaction and relations for me to like it.
  12. Pen&Paper

    Pen&Paper New Member

    I like fantasy genre because for the most part it’s low tech.

    no cell phones, computers, no high powered guns etc. I love the old-fashioned.
  13. Aldarion

    Aldarion Inkling

    My answers:

    What gives the fantasy genre its vibe?

    It is primarily a) magic and b) premodern values and aesthetics. To me, something like Warhammer 40 000 is very definitely a fantasy, for those two reasons, despite the fact that most people would classify it as science fiction (I have a blog post about that coming up tomorrow).

    Another important element is mystery. There should be legends, the unexplored, the unknown - magic should be magical and not something with clearly understood technical rules; it is fine to say "just because". There should be legends, mythology, sense of unknown but also of history - something that Tolkien pulled off so well in Middle Earth.

    Do you find the medieval settings overused or even misused in the fantasy genre?

    Overused... perhaps not, but that is subjective as I love all things medieval. But misused... oooh boy. I could probably count the proper medieval settings on the fingers of one hand; most, and most popular, medieval settings - ASoIaF especially - are basically modern society liberally mixed with humanist prejudices and then given a medieval veneer.

    Are there themes or stories that you find hard or impossible to tell in the fantasy genre?

    No. Anything that can be told in other genres can be told in the fantasy genre. Lord of the Rings is actually among best examples of World War One military literature, just to give one example.
  14. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Sage

    Another thread I've come late to. But never mind... :)

    What gives the fantasy genre its vibe?

    For me, its that sense of wonder when I start reading a story. To quote Ray Bradbury " 'It is good to renew one's wonder,' said the philosopher. 'Space travel has again made children of us all.' " Thats the opening lines of The Martian Chronicles, but for me it applies to any good book no matter what genre its written in.

    I want to start reading and be drawn into the world and its characters, I want to wonder what will happen and how it will happen. I want that tingle, that sense of excitement, tension and anticipation that you get when you're about to try something new for the first time. For me, that sense of wonder is the essence, and its something I think is essential if we're to get our children to read and love books.

    And that is also why I detest the idea that a "good" book must have some message or underlying commentary on society and/or people. That was something my school teachers said, and they made us analyse some books to death. For me that has forever ruined those books - I can't go back to them. Its also something I see here in Sweden: there is a distressing tendency amongst many "serious" authors and critics to look down on stories and books that don't have a message or commentary. They forget that our job as authors is first and foremost to entertain our readers, because otherwise our readers won't buy our books and we don't make then make a living.

    Do you find the medieval settings overused or even misused in the fantasy genre?

    No. The problems that exist with that sort of setting can be very simply put down to lazy authors. Done properly - and written well - such settings are as good as any other. But, too many authors just take the typical medieval European type of setting and make a series of implicit assumptions about it. They forget that in reality medieval society was every bit as complex as modern society.

    That doesn't mean you need to describe it in detail, but as the author you do need to know how your society works. An interesting example (from SF) is Harry Harrison's first book about the Stainless Steel Rat. In it he spends three or four lines saying that the hero (the Rat) has some papers describing him as a bank courier carrying cash and then explaining why that is needed in that star system of the future. In those three or four lines he manages to not only decscribe the need for cash but also explain the economics and implicitly the politics in that star system. In short he creates the whole setting and makes it plausible and understandable to the reader.

    Another shining example would be CS Lewis' A Horse and His Boy. Thats a medieval setting too, but not a European one. Lewis managed to describe the whole of Calormen, its politics, its economy and its people over the course of a only a few chapters, without it ever being obvious he was doing so. It was simply a natural part of the story he was telling.

    And its this sort of thing I find is missing from very many medieval fantasy settings.

    Are there themes or stories that you find hard or impossible to tell in the fantasy genre?

    No. Technology may have changed, but human nature hasn't.

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