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Kill the King!

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by At Dusk I Reign, Apr 27, 2011.

  1. Fantasy.

    The word itself is evocative, or has become so over the last six decades. No sooner has it been uttered then the mind invokes images of dragons, castles, square-chinned heroes wielding magical swords, amusingly-dim peasants who are so busy spouting home-spun platitudes that they never stop to wonder why, exactly, they're toiling all the hours God sends just so some individual they've never met can attend tourneys and bed the nearest kitchen maid.

    Those three syllables conjure a medieval world.

    They also lie.

    Fantasy, at its best, is a world without end. It's a playground, where fancies are born and wither in the same breath, where mages and machine guns can happily co-exist under one sun. There are no boundaries, no immutable laws which forbid one thing and allow another. It's free.

    At least, it was. Then publishers got thinking. Too broad, they thought. Too unwieldy. We need definitions. And so parameters were set. This, of itself, is no big deal. Except there was a poisonous side-effect: the people who read fantasy (and thereby the people who eventually write it) became selectively blind. They accepted the enclosure around their imaginations, in some cases even helped to build it. For many, many years they collaborated in the construction of a prison, a place whose confines were so distant they could pretend they didn't exist at all.

    But they do. However far away the barriers are located, they oppress. They feed the untruth. They make writers of the fantastic believe that 'fantasy' equals medieval. The walls, in effect, kill the imagination.

    And that's the key word here: imagination. Writing fantasy isn't about conforming, towing the line, wallowing in the mundane. Just the opposite. It's about flying where your wings will take you, searching the soul, excavating the bones of the extraordinary.

    What it should never be about, I contend, is mindlessly doing whatever's been done before. If the world you've created in your mind is medieval because you've thought long and hard about it and that's the best setting then good luck to you. If the world you've created is filled with stereotypes simply because all the books you've read have told you that's what sells, then be ashamed. You're better than that.

    Kill the king. Slaughter his entourage. Set your novel in the early-modern period. Set it in prehistory. Set it in the future. Set it wherever and whenever you want. Just don't believe the lie. It's corrosive, and sooner or later it will destroy the one thing which sets you apart: your ability to dream things others shy from.

    Writing fiction isn't a science. It can't be measured in vials and quantified. It's art, and art surely has no limits.

    Or does it? Has the human imagination finally exhausted itself? Is the fantasy genre destined to forever more pick at the flesh of the dead, rehashing but never innovating?
     
  2. Chilari

    Chilari Staff Moderator

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    Good points, well put. I'd love to see more fantasy novels set in times other than the medieval period. The story I'm writing at the moment is set in a Mediterranean climate (another thing you rarely see in fantasy - usually it's all oak forests and green hills). Another story I have on hold at the moment is set in Anglo-Saxon England (though there's a very specific reason for that - it has a St George and the Dragon element to it). Another one, again on hold, is set in the early modern period with a city-state arrangement similar to those found in northern Italy during the Rennaissance and a royal family who don't really have any real power. Also guns.

    Something set in prehistoric times would also be interesting to see. Prehistory spans an awful lot of time - potentially, you could have a story about a group of hunter-gathers, a main character from a seasonally settled community like that at Lepinski Vir, a story set on the banks fo the Black Sea at the time when domesticated crops and animals are being adopted and the Black Sea itself rises due to a Canadian glacial lake melting the underside of a glacier and draining into the sea (actually happened about 5000BC or something like that - there was a show on the TV here in the UK about a year ago presented by Tony Robinson and with Jago Cooper talking about that bit, which is why I remember it - he teaches at my university). You could have stone age or bronze age peoples, and there are lots of Earth examples to inspire if you're at a loss for those: Mycenean palaces, Etruscans, Minoans. You could base a civilisation on the Aztecs or the bronze age Picts or the early Chinese empire.

    Now I want to create a civilisation based on how the bronze age culture of Britain might have developed if there had been centralised authority and monumentalised structures.
     
  3. Abomination

    Abomination Dreamer

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    I'd read that.

    I think it's the problem of trends. Trends catch on--the medieval, the mysteriously gifted farm boy, the returning king, and of course there has to be a castle--and they tend to stick for a while. You see it in romance, thrillers, sci-fi--you name it. They've all got parameters that many seem to love, but that die-hards are secretly sick of.

    For some reason it seems like fantasy has been in a particularly long rut.

    Do you think this is because the Other Stories aren't being written, or because they are just not being published?

    I'm tempted to believe it's the latter. But if that is the case, then what can writers and readers do about it?
     
  4. All three sound very interesting; at least you're not going for the default setting publishers seem to love so much.

    I think there's plenty of interesting fiction being written, but it never gets the attention it deserves. Small presses are publishing talented authors, but of course they don't have the money to market their wares effectively. I suspect fantasy will go the way of the horror genre: it died a death (pun intended), got rebranded as 'dark fantasy', that didn't work and now it's been rebranded again as 'paranormal romance', presumably to capture some of the Twilight audience. It's all rather depressing...
     
  5. Abomination

    Abomination Dreamer

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    Lol @ the pun.
    Unfortunately, I think fantasy might be rolling its way out of the sword-and-sorcery rut only to fall into a new (and, IMO, even bigger) ditch with the paranormal/urban fantasy.

    Now we have the choice of: gifted farm boy/lost king saves the medieval peasant village OR stunningly beautiful (and moral) vampire/werewolf/demon saves the plane-jane.
    But don't get carried away by the illusion of choice! The same rules apply in both categories: the protagonists are beautiful and powerful, they're "special" among their kind but think that they are not, and they have to fall in love/hook up.

    We've traded one set of boundaries for another.

    But then, what's the difference between having oppressive boundaries and sticking to the tried and true, in other words giving people what they like?

    After all, while I'm no fan of most of the new wave of fantasy, it does seem to be wildly popular.


    Is the only option to flood the desks of agents and publishers with out-of-the-box manuscripts? Think they'll eventually catch on? Or will the slushpile just languish and grow to new heights?
     
  6. Fnord

    Fnord Troubadour

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    I'm far more interested in an Iron Age-styled setting. It's grittier, more brutish, and suits a world where the elder gods took away all the advanced, enlightened people to the next realm before hurling the traitor god at the planet, boiling away the southern seas, and letting the people that remained to scrape out existences in harsh climates and harsh biomes. I enjoyed the "knights galloping resplendent across rolling meadows" thing in others' works, but I'm not so much interested in writing in that way.

    Now if only I could come up with a half-decent plot. :mad:
     
  7. Ophiucha

    Ophiucha Auror

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    These days, we just create more and more subgenres with each book, until every individual novel is its own genre and the entire functionality behind it is forever lost. Urban fantasy - or paranormal romance or whatever it is called that day - and epic fantasy are the two big ones, but we have steampunk, New Weird, elfpunk, Low Fantasy, slipstream, Magic Realism, dieselpunk, science fantasy, oceanpunk, clockpunk, Wuxia, bangsian fantasy, engine punk, decopunk, arcanepunk... really, it's already gotten to a point where half of these terms mean nothing to me, and I am pretty well versed in the nonstandard fantasy fandom.
     
  8. It's a downward spiral, that's for sure. It would be nice to lay all the blame on publishers but they're not really the problem, writers are: too many allow setting to inform imagination, rather than vice versa. If the genre sinks further into the insipid mire it's created for itself it'll be because too few writers are prepared to take risks.

    @ Abomination: there's nothing wrong with giving people what they like - as long as room is made for the important stuff. Unfortunately, those who have an original vision tend to get squeezed out of the market by unimaginative dross. That's business, sure, but it would be nice if real talent was given room to breathe, or if wannabe writers just stopped for a moment and thought seriously about why they want to write in the first place and what they want to say.
     
  9. Donny Bruso

    Donny Bruso Sage

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    I don't think there is any one particular group you can blame for it. Well you could but maybe not accurately. :p
    Is fantasy stuck in a rut? Yes. I think that rut has widened slightly, but perhaps simply at the hands of the stocking clerk at your local bookstore. There is a lot of stuff being shelved in fantasy that I personally feel belongs in romance. I'm sure others have different opinions, but they're wrong. :p
    It's a question of what works, I think. Authors know that a book containing XYZ is more likely to be published, so that's what they write. Publishers look for books containing XYZ, because that's what sells. Readers buy books containing XYZ because it was touted as an awesome book, even though its probably mediocre at best, and so your next cycle begins.
    Look at music. Songwriting hasn't changed dramatically in decades. You get two verses, a bridge, and a repeat of the chorus and you're done. Do some artists do it differently? Yes, with varying degrees of success, but I'd say 95% of music written follows that pattern because they know it works. Writing is no different.
    We get paranoid as hell when it's time to submit a manuscript. What if they don't like it? What if they tell me it sucks? What if they tell me to chop all my fingers off with a meat cleaver to spare their eyes the horror of my work? So we do what we can to ease our way in.

    Personally I write medieval fantasy because that's what I love. Honestly I'd give up all my fancy techno-crap and go live in that time period if I could make it happen. Unfortunately my time travel device hasn't quite gotten all the kinks worked out yet, so I'll be remaining in the present for the forseeable future. Have fun with the temporal mechanics of that one, lol.
     
  10. And there's nothing wrong with that. It's the people who go medieval because they think that's all that fantasy is about who are the problem (admittedly not much of a problem compared to all the horrible things going on in the world, but I do so enjoy a good gripe).:)

    Whatever floats your boat. I prefer living in a world with good dentists and doctors who don't immediately stick a leech on anything more serious than a bruise.:p
     
  11. Donny Bruso

    Donny Bruso Sage

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    Lol I didn't say I was going to trade in what I knew in the process
     
  12. Digital_Fey

    Digital_Fey Troubadour

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    Nicely structured piece, Dusk - it certainly cuts to the heart of the matter.

    I could not agree more. This new trend is even more depressing than the days when I used to stand in bookstores and look for something, anything, that didn't feature a low-born peasant boy fighting the advance of evil and darkness... Sometimes it seems like we're stuck between Eragon, Edward Cullen and a load of pretentious writers who try to break the boundaries of the genre and end up taking themselves way too seriously in the process. Sometimes, though, you end up following some obscure internet trail, or picking something up in a second hand store, and there you have a book that's unique enough to restore your love for fantasy. It just takes a bit of questing, a sharp sword and a good pair of glasses :p
     
  13. *bows* Thank you kindly, Digi.:)

    Some of the best fiction I've read has been found by lolloping down obscure paths, either on the net or in back alleys (I'm only looking for something to read, officer, honest!). There's some trash to be found, but also quite a few gems.
     
  14. sashamerideth

    sashamerideth Maester

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    A student from Britain that I was dating a little while back had brought one of Terry Pratchett's books with her, A hat full of sky I think it was. She got me reading more of his books, and I really like his way of writing fantasy. There are times when it's like he is making fun of fantasy, and makes it ridiculous and funny. I would like to write that way but I am not good at writing funny yet.
     
  15. Chilari

    Chilari Staff Moderator

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    Oh I totally understand that. I've been reading Pratchett for about a decade now, and I have always enjoyed it - I have every Discworld book written, and I greatly admire Pratchett's subtle humour, the way he subverts tropes or lampshades them, and the way he recognises the humour of everyday life and brings that into his world. But I have never been able to be funny. I'm no good at thinking up ways to make people laugh. But I've realised something important recently: trying to be the next Pratchett, or the next anyone else for that matter, is pointless. People will always think of you in such terms if you try to imitate the greatness of someone who has gone before you, even if you surpass them, because they'll still be used as a point of reference: "like X but better/funnier/more modern/etc". If you're not good at writing funny then don't try to write funny. Identify what you are good at and write that. Be your own writer.

    Not that I mean to say that you'll never be good at writing funny; by all means attempt it, because you'll never get good at it if you don't and you never know, you might end up being really good at it once you've found your particular brand of writing funny. But don't decide to write funny because Pratchett does and is successful with it; decide to write funny because you want to bring humour to your worlds.
     
  16. ade625

    ade625 Scribe

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    Another Pratchett mega-fan here. His books occupy a special (long) shelf above my bed. His influence seeped fairly heavily into my early writing style, which I suppose is natural for a new writer with a heavy obsession with one author. After realising that I branched out a fair bit, which hopefully has made me less of a poor Pratchett clone (which is, I agree with Chilari, not so good).

    I've been told that my writing can be humourous, although that can often be unhelpful when trying to write off-kilter epics with a dark core. My advice for writing funny is to absorb funny - read humour novels, watch comedy shows - the more you understand what's funny to you, the better you'll be able to come up with something funny yourself. Although again, as Chilari said, some people absorb huge amounts of comedy, and still can't seem to be funny themselves. I know I personally always mess up jokes in person because of my terrible delivery.

    What was the topic again? :p
     
  17. Hans

    Hans Sage

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    My problem with the "medieval" setting is that it is so loosely defined. Most medieval setings have near to nothing in common with european middle ages.
    I have a world which is strongly leand towards sumerian antiquity. Readers took a glance at it and were all "Oh, you have no electricity, no cars and a king. It's that medieval stuff again." Readers make it very hard to break out of that medieval genre. And it's not for lack of trying.

    On the other hand it's hard for me to find good fantasy books. I don't like vampires and angels (maybe, if you give me some pre Stoker vampires we could talk) and I really loathe the one true hero, often lowly born and with no education that would qualify him to face his fate, destined to save the world. What's with that destination? When you read someone is destined to ... you know how the story will end. In most cases at least. Where is the fun in that?

    So, break out of all prisons. Doesn't matter. Critics and readers will still see you inside them.
     
  18. Derin

    Derin Troubadour

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    Depends how much they like their paycheck.

    We live in an age where online publishing is free, or close to it. The readership is lower because of all the crap that ends up on the net, but there are people who prefer to read online. If publisher filtering is a significant effect, it will go away slowly. People publish things a publisher won't touch online, for free. Readers looking for something new read them and recommend good ones to their friends. New cliches will be embraced and, presumably, accepted as standard by publishers given time.
     
  19. AvengerofOsiris

    AvengerofOsiris Dreamer

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    I respectably disagree with you. Just because a story has castles, dragons and the like, doesn't mean that it's not a great story, or that fantasy is stuck in a rut. Hell, how many cop dramas can people watch, and they're all set in the same "time period" or "setting". I think everyone is putting too much of an emphasis on the setting, rather than the story. I could read an endless number of stories set in Tolkein-esque worlds, as long as the stories are fresh. While I'm not saying that variety isn't needed, I don't mind the Middle Ages setting of many fantasy stories at all.
     
  20. sashamerideth

    sashamerideth Maester

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    The stereotypical fantasy happens in a stylized medieval Europe, typically England or Scotland from my exposure. The ones that break this are quite good, but some that haven't have been good as well. It provides a good expected environment that people are familiar with. Pern is the first that comes to mind, a few medieval cues but different in its own right.

    I have taken a few cues from these stereotypes, but not a lot. I want less magic, no dragons, and more advanced technology / science in my story. I think stereotypes are a good starting point, but an environment for me can be secondary to the human interaction.
     
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