Is Fantasy Fiction Too Safe?

fantasy booksThe last dozen fantasy books I’ve read would be classified as epic fantasy. Some kind of hero or heroine goes on a quest, or there are world-spanning conflicts between kings and queens.

I guess you’re expecting me to say, “Ugh, I’m so sick of epic fantasy.” Actually, no. I quite enjoy these kinds of stories for the most part, and have done so for around twenty years or more.

However, I found myself in a bit of a quandary recently when I thought, “I’d like to read something a bit different in tone, structure, and scope.” So I started looking through my collection of books. Admittedly lots of fantasy.

That said, the last three books I’ve read would be considered a Western, alternate history, and cyberpunk. Not a lick of fantasy in sight. From someone who almost exclusively reads and writes fantasy, I became worried. “Oh no. Am I leaving fantasy behind?” Of course not. It’s perfectly fine and even encouraged by most writers to read outside your own genre.

A question kept nagging me, though. For a genre as limitless as fantasy, why do I feel like I need to escape the genre to get something completely different? Could it be that fantasy is one of the safest genres out there? Is safe a bad word?

Why Fantasy Writers Might Try to Crack the Genre Open

1. Fantasy is a limitless genre

Think of something right now. Let your imagination really run wild. Think back to when you were a child and you made sketches of monsters or dreamed up imaginary friends.

There was nothing binding you, right? I’m curious as to why as adults this sort of chaotic, limitless imagination gets filtered out. I don’t know much about psychology, but I’m sure society’s constraints effect it. Perhaps an influx of newer and shinier technology?

In any case, fantasy is the only genre in fiction that is only limited by your imagination. No tricky physics or reality to deal with. Of course things still need to make sense in the context of your world, but if you say “Well, in my world, mushroom people rule humanity with a mushy fist” then I’ll say, “Cool.” If you make me believe this, then it can work. I haven’t seen much mushroom people noir, Western, or literary fiction out there (although I might read it).

So why do epic and urban fantasy, established sub-genres, mostly top the sales rankings? Why is Cheetah Wizard and the Mushroom Mafia languishing in obscurity? I’ll get to that later.

2. The potential exodus of readers to Young Adult fiction

I’ve heard that some of the best fantasy that exists is being done in YA. Why is it that YA is allowed to bend and twist the genre, but actual fantasy stays true to certain styles of storytelling? Is it because YA readers are more open to fiction that pushes boundaries? Maybe.

I don’t read YA, but I’ve been thinking of exploring it more and more. I’ll never leave fantasy behind, but I’m curious how many readers have because they’re looking for something that breaks the mold and defies conventional storytelling.

Nothing says you can’t read and write both traditional fantasy yarns and more daring fantasy fiction, right? I mean, I hope to do so.

3. The ability of new writers to immediately distinguish themselves

This is a topic that has two sides. If a new writer comes blazing out of the gate with some insane fantasy story that breaks all sorts of molds and turns the genre on its head, it can go one of two ways: it sets future trends or it is ignored for being too inaccessible to the public.

I would say that YA dystopian novels have become all the rage because of The Hunger Games. No one was really writing this kind of stuff (outside of Japan anyway) before, but now it’s picked up steam as a viable sub-genre. Most of the time when I hear about exciting new authors in fantasy, they’re writers of the latest epic fantasy series. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s rare to hear about fantasy fiction that really pushes the definition outside of writers like Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke, China Miéville and others.

Is this to say all new writers should not write epic or urban fantasy? No again. Please keep writing it. But it may be a missed opportunity for brand new writers to get a leg up on the competition. Of course good stories will almost always rise to the top, but anything to market yourself better can give a distinct advantage.

I can’t really address this issue without examining the other side of the argument.

Why Fantasy Writers Prefer to Play it Safe

1. It’s easier to meet reader expectations

If I say that I wrote an epic fantasy, certain images may jump into your mind: dragons, elves, global conflicts, assassinations, heroes, and the like.

While no epic fantasy is created the same, readers pretty much know what they’re getting when they pick up a new epic fantasy series. Readers like fantasy that’s like fantasy that they like (huh?) For instance, if I say that I like George R.R. Martin, you may have several recommendations right off hand. If I say that I like Robert Jordan, you may have a different set of recommendations.

The statement, “I like really daring fantasy” may draw blank looks. “Well, what’s your definition of daring?” I might answer, “I don’t know, something that really pushes the boundaries.” In this case, it’s easier to give people something they know they want rather than something more idealistic.

I write and read epic fantasy. Have I said that yet? However, for me I’d like to explore different possibilities as well. I mean, I don’t know if I like writing something until I write it.

2. The fear of being ignored

Writers have egos. Sometimes very fragile ones. If someone writes a fantasy story about a flying squirrel assassin living in Paris during the French Revolution and it doesn’t catch on, then he might just give up writing altogether.

If someone reads epic fantasy and says, “Oh, I like that” she’ll most likely want to write it as well. Like a ballerina seeing Swan Lake as a child or an aspiring computer programmer meeting Bill Gates, people want to emulate their idols. The idea of going rogue as a beginning writer may be scary. There are already so many other issues to worry about.

3. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

If it works, it works. Epic and urban fantasy tend to sell the best so that’s what people read and write. Why flip a genre on its head if it’s already working?

Some may say that the “grimdark” writers, such as Joe Abercrombie, took epic fantasy, “gritted” it up, and made it more appealing to those tired of the status quo. They took existing tropes and subverted them, thereby making the genre feel fresher. Perhaps this is the cycle of fantasy writing. Slight adjustments to existing ideas are better than overhauling the whole enchilada.

So in closing, is the genre being too tightly confined or is safe better?

I’ll leave that up to you, fellow lovers of fantasy.

In defense of established sub-genres, my own personal library is full of epic fantasy. I kept saying this throughout the article for a reason. Certainly there is room for more and more epic fantasy in the world. This doesn’t mean I want it to stop. I just want to see more writers try to truly push the limits of a limitless genre.

It could be a huge opportunity, especially for self-published authors, to create trends in fantasy, instead of traditionally published books being the go-to places to find what is currently hot. Self-published authors have the unique chance to try more daring kinds of fantasy without editors telling them it isn’t marketable.

With more and more self-published writers attempting to find their place in a crowded market, the next trend is theirs to make if they’re willing to take the risk. Is it worth it? Maybe not, but for me I’d like to see fantasy reach its full potential as a genre where anything (and I mean anything) can happen.

So what are your thoughts? Do you think fantasy writing is too safe? Which writers do you feel took huge risks that ultimately have paid off?

Leave your comments below!

For discussion of all things fantasy-related, check out Philip Overby’s Fantasy Free-for-All.

Philip Overby

Philip Overby is a nomadic warrior, indiscriminate troll slayer, undead unicorn enthusiast, former indie wrestler, and lover of all things fantasy. His Splatter Elf short story "The Unicorn-Eater" is now available on Amazon. He lives in Kawasaki, Japan.
Avatar

Latest posts by Philip Overby (see all)

64
Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Karen Funk Blocher
Guest
Karen Funk Blocher

I find most of my fantasy in the YA section, and have done so since before Harry Potter. There’s more of it, there’s a variety, and several of my favorite writers (e.g. Patricia C. Wrede) work in the YA Fantasy genre. Yes, it does seem more varied than adult fantasy, but also I think that fantasy pairs well with your basic Bildungsroman. Teenager on the cusp of adulthood enters a magical world, by puberty, discovery, education or some other change in their lives.

As for me, I have a hidden royalty, sort-of-quest coming of age novel, so there are definitely some well-worn tropes there. But there’s no world-threatening evil, no dragons or unicorns, elves or dwarves, vampires or zombies. I’ve got a unique creature and other stuff going on that I think takes it, if not out of the epic fantasy genre, at least into relatively unexplored paths within it.

OneESC
Guest
OneESC

mythicscribes define safe?

KMWeiland
Guest
KMWeiland

Philip_Overby Loved it – and totally agree with you. Fantasy writers should be daring!

ES_Wesley
Guest
ES_Wesley

elizabethscraig my most recent manuscript is YA fantasy, and yes, it’s largely because I wanted freedom from the tropes.

PatHarris
Guest
PatHarris

Philip_Overby Mike Cairns It’s true labels are important – vital – for finding the types of books one likes to read and for sales. My only concern with labels is from the writing end of things – that they not confine the writer when characteristics of another genre need to meld into one’s epic. Horror elements are “bleeding into” one section of the fantasy/scifi novel I’m working on.

I don’t think I’d like to be labelled a “grimdark” author, but I’ve got to admit, that is one “totally cool” sounding term.

I very much appreciate the comments on this post. Good food for thought. Thanks again, Philip.

CiaraBallintyne1
Guest
CiaraBallintyne1

Philip_Overby I just like happy endings. The First Law trilogy had the kind of ending I could find in real life. OK, sure, that made it ‘realistic’ but funnily enough I’m not reading ‘fantasy’ for its ‘realism’ LOL. I want to see the good guy win, and I want to see the bad guy’s bum kicked. At the end of the First Law trilogy I felt like none of the characters had really changed (and the one who had was going to spend the rest of his life being dictated to by a less than good magus…).

Mike Cairns
Guest
Mike Cairns

Hi Philip
Great post, a good one for starting conversations. 
I’ve got to return to the labels argument, sorry 🙂
I think Epic Fantasy is successful, in part, due to the satisfying of expectations of the readers. As someone in the comments mentioned, they didn’t enjoy Abercrombie because it was too gritty. I love his stuff, but I think the sub-genre label grimdark is necessary, because I couldn’t put it in the same mind-space as Magician, or the Dragonlance trilogy!
So, as far as Epic fantasy goes, I want authors to keep writing what i recognise as Epic fantasy, because when i pick up the book, I have a clear expectation of what’s inside. 
Having said all that, I couldn’t agree more with you in terms of trying to be freer and more creative within the larger fantasy genre. For myself, my Assembly Trilogy feels a bit like a comic in prose form, featuring magic, super-heroes, aliens; pretty much all the stuff i like reading about. So, as with others in the comments, I’m mashing genres together. The rise in self-publishing is definitely making this a more viable option, and I think (hope) the readers are out there for it. 
For me, Erikson is the most creative, exciting author in the fantasy genre at the moment, both in terms of content and style. 
Thanks again Philip and all the commenters 🙂
Mike

CiaraBallintyne1
Guest
CiaraBallintyne1

stephenspower I’m undecided if GoT is epic fantasy or not. It depends what’s coming down from the north. But yes, generally speaking, based on what I know so far, it’s not typically ‘epic’ fantasy.

CiaraBallintyne1
Guest
CiaraBallintyne1

Check out The Daedalus Incident by Michael Martinez for something a bit different and genre-bending. I call it a sci-fi/fantasy mash-up, and it’s the most original novel in the spec fic genre I read last year.
I personally don’t enjoy Abercrombie. It’s TOO gritty. If I want that level of grit, I’ll read the news.

stephenspower
Guest
stephenspower

Philip_Overby stephenspower  So what are the things about epic fantasy that you’d like to see done differently? What frustrates you? What’s obvious? If you could list 5-10 aspects, maybe commentators could come up some new variations or point out books where things are done differently.

By example, let me add that a few years ago, when I was choosing my annual reading theme, I decided to do fantasy because I hadn’t been reading much of late besides Temeraire (which I devoured) and my regular rereadings of Tolkein. I asked my friends for a reading list with one stipulation: no blood-fated pig keepers who are prophesied to find a fabled weapon they use to destroy an ancient evil and so save the world for authoritarian feudalism. Which is my problem with most epic fantasy. I got a ton of great suggestions, although not all epic fantasy. And despite the pig keeper crack, I did choose myself to finally read all the Prydaine books.

Philip_Overby
Guest
Philip_Overby

Brett_Crumley Thanks, Brett! Please share your thoughts if you can!

PatHarris
Guest
PatHarris

stephenspower PatHarrisTermiteWriterPhilip_Overby 
Stephenspower, I was simply referring to introducing a new xene into the story, preferably one that’s never been created before. I.e. first contact, when the existing xene meets the new one. Like in Star Trek when the Vulcans first landed on Earth and met the humans.  It gives me a chance to be creative – sometimes wildly so. 😉

stephenspower
Guest
stephenspower

“In defense of established sub-genres, my own personal library is full of epic fantasy. I kept saying this throughout the article for a reason. Certainly there is room for more and more epic fantasy in the world. This doesn’t mean I want it to stop. I just want to see more writers try to truly push the limits of a limitless genre.”

So here’s my question: Why did you buy each epic fantasy, in particular why id you buy each instead of something else? That’s the answer to your question. 

In addition, at what point does epic fantasy seek to be epic fantasy? How many tweaks can you make before it’s something else? 

BTW, I wouldn’t call GoT epic fantasy. It’s only epic in length.

stephenspower
Guest
stephenspower

PatHarris TermiteWriter Philip_Overby  Please elaborate on what you mean by “first contact.” Thx. It’s a compelling phrase.

JRCowell02
Guest
JRCowell02

mythicscribes
Bt on the writing side, as a “new” writer, marketing doesnt concern me so much as writing wt I’d love 2 read. Cliches rnt it

AnneL
Member
AnneL

Philip_Overby KuokMinghui  So FWIW, I wrote this blog post on “conventionality” a while ago: http://anneleonardbooks.com/?p=217

PatHarris
Guest
PatHarris

TermiteWriter PatHarrisPhilip_Overby 
Thanks for your comment, TW. Actually, I mix genres, too. I write Fantasy/SciFi, and as I mentioned, I’m tossing in a bit of horror in my current WIP. I enjoy writing the “first contact” part of the stories, too. My works are more character driven than magic driven, tho there is magic in them. Thanks for the link. I’ll check it out.

KuokMinghui
Guest
KuokMinghui

Philip_Overby KuokMinghui  You might need to elaborate further on self-limitation(s). For me, a writer’s stability lies in the prose/style and nothing more.

Scott Spotson
Guest
Scott Spotson

Philip_Overby Scott Spotson  Thanks Philip!  Yeah, younger readers seem to strongly identify with the modern world, i.e. where smartphones and web browsers rule!  Also I think female readers don’t want to go back to the days were women were considered inferior…

TermiteWriter
Guest
TermiteWriter

PatHarris Philip_Overby I really dislike labels.  I write a very mixed genre – part literary fiction, part science fiction, part fantasy, part epic (in the broader sense of resembling the Greek and medieval epics), part off-world adventure, part first-contact story.  Fantasy is much broader than simply the use of magic as the motivating factor in a constructed world setting.  You might like to read my blog post Definibng Fantasy according to TermiteWriter http://termitespeaker.blogspot.com/2013/10/defining-fantasy-according-to.html

PatHarris
Guest
PatHarris

Philip_Overby PatHarris 
Okay, this is stretching me. So, are you saying the foundation of the genre could be/should be altered or shifted? And if so, wouldn’t it just be considered another “sub-genre”? (Oh, how we love labels.)

What about writing from an alternate world view? I write faith-based fantasy, which is a BIG stretch for some readers. As are dragons in the same story with spaceships, and swords with phasers.

Or is it more the standard “good guy vs. bad guy, good guy nearly dies, but magically wins” formula that you would like to see change–at least occasionally? It’s more and more common to “blend” negative characteristics into the so-called “good guy,” and visa versa.

I guess I’m having a hard time visualizing how it could still be “epic” fantasy without the “epic.” But I’m all for “pushing the envelope.” Unfortunately, to some that simply means adding more violence, vulgarity and sex.

PatHarris
Guest
PatHarris

Philip_Overby PatHarrisLike William Gibson? Edgy, not for everybody, but definitely a visionary?

KLMcKinley
Guest
KLMcKinley

Please do! It’s totally worth it.

KuokMinghui
Guest
KuokMinghui

The problem with every genre is this: there will always be a good number of variations and trope subversion abound. Genre is something with the fixed boundary, we can’t do anything about that.
What worries me though is that as an amateur writer, I do discover many fantasy writers going along the “tried and tested” pragmatism. While I agree this is all about getting the fundamentals right, seeing basics as absolute will beget writers like Paolini and Meyer. Authors who will grab momentary attention and nothing else.
As a writer, I do feel that we all are victims of stability and caution. A lot has been said on a global dearth of creativity, put two and two together and you’ll get the correct answer.
One good example is Tolkien. His works surrounding Arda and Middle Earth were so absurdly successful, they ended up creating an equally absurd legacy 90% of us are guilty of.
What I’m trying to say this-How much tried and tested formula is enough? Fear of failure will only create ordinary people out of the finest talents, mistakes define a great person no matter how ordinary.
For me, I tend to go along with my instincts and whatever comes up to mind. In a very weird sense, my current work is a mash up of modern day lingo, actual mythology, and high fantasy narration. Would I dare hope for anything? No. But at least I know the learning process will be worth it so long a professional author is willing/stupid enough to tutor me.

PatHarris
Guest
PatHarris

I love the tried and true formula, but I do add twists to my series. My characters live in a high tech future, even the elves, dragons and sorcerers. For the second book I’m adding in some horror. But I agree that a well told story will work, even if one strictly adheres to the formula. The Lord of the Rings will never grow old to me.

MarshaAMoore
Guest
MarshaAMoore

After just writing a 5-part epic fantasy series, I’m eager to try a new path and bend some fantasy ideas that have been percolating in my mind in the subgenre of magical realism. I imagine after a few books to spread my wings in new territories, I’ll head back to epic with fresh eyes. It’s so comfortable to immerse in a lush, magical world.

Ninlil
Guest
Ninlil

The Alterran Legacy Series (Colony Earth, Khamlok, and soon-to-be-released Resurrection) is epic fantasy based upon the Sumerian gods and why they chose to nurture Earth civilization. It doesn’t follow the usual epic fantasy formula.

Scott Spotson
Guest
Scott Spotson

Hi, I also am wary of epic fantasy novels that have a good side and a bad side, and involves medieval times or prior to it, and involve long walks, and a weapon of choice (i.e. a sword, battleaxe, or whatever, preferably adorned with magic powers!)  

While there are good ones out there, I think The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia series covered that genre pretty well. 

I wrote The Four Kings, which consists of urban fantasy, and it takes place in today’s world, and involves politics and economics as well!  So I agree, it is nice to add a twist to it, and one way is to bring fantasy to our every day world so it seems quite relevant to younger readers who have grown up with the Internet.

ALB2012
Member
ALB2012

Mine is dark fantasy romance, but there are aspects of epic fantasy, elves, wizards and grand adventures. Yet the sensuality of it and the blurred lines of good and bad are there. I think fantasy is such a wide genre, anything is possible but I think you are right, many people stick to what they know and what, perhaps, is safe. Of course there is a place for this but also for the more…imaginative work.

KLMcKinley
Guest
KLMcKinley

I grew up reading many genres.  NK Jemisin is a great Fantasy writer who is very outside the box. I am reading the last book in her Inheritance Trilogy. Her characters do not fit into the traditional mold of big-Nordic-looking-guys-with-flowing hair and her stories do not end with the protagonist  “riding off into the sunset” in the traditional way. I love it. It’s refreshing and her world-building is beautiful.

gethinmojo
Guest
gethinmojo

I agree, Epic Fantasy
has lived in a black-and-white, good vs. evil cul-de-sac for far too
long. Unfortunately, the widespread popularity of Lotr and GoT ensure
they will stay in the ‘safe little playground’ all the longer,
because it sells, and because it is a ‘known quantity’.

While most of us
die-hard Epic-fans have learnt all the tropes, and need genuine
creativity to get our fix, the rest of the world is only just
catching up. I had a break from Epic after Kate Eliott’s Crown of
Stars achieved finely-honed blandness, only starting again after
finding Erikkson’s Malazan books and R,Scott Bakker’s Prince of
Nothing series. The ‘grimdark’ style of books trade on historical
accuracy and detail to paint the usual fantasy in deeper tones,
though still in the same rut.

I fear fantasy is doomed to churn out the same infantilized surface-froth, having forgotten Morcock and Lang’s work, and that is down to the
market. The legacy publishers get nervous when a book strays from ‘known quantity’ to ‘wtf!?’ Some readers dislike the ‘new’ and ‘different’, and will only buy the stuff they like and know. Indie-authors, desperate for the oxygen of publicity, simply HAVE
to write multi-book Epic to get noticed …

The trailblazers do
exist, but just like anything, they take a lot of looking to find.

(My undiscovered gem
suggestion has to be Michael Scott Rohan’s Winter of the World
series. The only Epic I’ve reread more than twice.)

Jayelinj
Guest
Jayelinj

Antonio del Drago  im writing a line crossing fantasy myself. I feel some of the twist i have will suprise alot of people

TermiteWriter
Guest
TermiteWriter

Ever read epic fantasy lived by extraterrestrial intelligent termites?  You want a different slant – that’s a good one.  In my series The Labors of Ki’shto’ba Huge-Head a termite Champion (a stand in for Hercules) and its Twelve Companions relives many Earth myths – the Trojan War and many Greek other myths like some of the Labors of Herculer, a descent into the Underworld, etc.,  to say nothing of medieval legends like The Song of Roland and Beowulf,  Give the first three volumes a try if you want a different take on epic fantasy. (They are on sale through Wednesday, btw.)

Philip Overby
Guest
Philip Overby

Can anyone offer any ideas of what you would consider more daring fantasy fiction that pushes boundaries? Or what traditional fantasy yarn really entertained you despite treading familiar ground?

Antonio del Drago
Admin
Antonio del Drago

Philip_Overby  I can’t wait for your novel to be finished, Phil.  It sounds amazing.

This site uses XenWord.