Exhibit One: Just… just look at it.
I’m sorry, that was unduly harsh for those of you who came here looking for my honest opinion. So, look, this is going to get a little heated. I make no apologies for that heat, but I need to express a key distinction: I hate the phrase traditional fantasy. I do not hate you if you like it. I do not hate what it generally refers to. I just hate the way it’s often applied. If you are not applying it the way I’m about to describe, it goes without saying that my gripes don’t apply to you.
Okay but seriously, it is really goofy that we have the commonly-accepted phrase “traditional fantasy”. Let us review two helpful definitions:
Tradition. Noun; the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way.
Fantasy. Noun; the faculty or activity of imagining things, especially things that are impossible or improbable.
Because when I think of imagining the impossible, I sure do love to imagine a bunch of dour overweight basement stuffers (kettle, go away, pot’s turn to talk) sitting behind me going, “Akchually, magic is explicitly supposed to be an undefined force external to the caster, and you’re writing it wrong if it’s not totally mysterious.” I understand why, at the most basic level, this has led to some of the things that it has. And if you like those things, good on you. I like many of them myself. I like many of the trappings of swords and sorcery, such as the swords and the sorcery. I just dislike that certain things have been arbitrarily designated as intrinsic ingredients of those things when they really aren’t.
Case One: The weird idea that fantasy stops being fantasy if any of its fantastic elements are actually explained.
All too often, whenever I see an author passionate about fantasy suggest they’d like to make some slight tweaks, and sometimes even when I’ve suggested that just for my own writing I would like to have some more depth and explore things in more detailed fashion, the response has been: “Nah, fantasy has to not explain things.” Excuse you, fucker? Fantasy has to what? Do you have the infinitesimal fascimile of basic critical thinking required to comprehend the full, leering dumbassery crammed into a phrase which amounts to, “The rules say you can’t have rules?”
I’ve even heard this from other writers, but here’s my problem: I LIKE rules sometimes! Rules provide a framework, frameworks provide structure, structure empowers tension and conflict and context and all the elements that actually make any story interesting. Depth fundamentally cannot exist without explanation, and depth is how we both reach new ideas and freshen up the old ones. If we can’t explain things, we can’t write much of anything at all.
Swordfights have been a primary example, and magic has been another. I’ve talked about the first ad nauseum and I’d like to save more yammer about the second for a less-ranty article. Meantime, let me rip off the flesh-mask of professionalism I usually wear and get blunt: I find details cooler than mindless deflections and generic “explanations ruin the fantasy” handwaves.
I find it fucking cooler that a character can train for years, develop a serious understanding of geometry and force and timing and distance, and distill all those things to a technique which anyone can learn and be effective with, than the fantasy default of “Grog hit hard because Grog big.” FUCK GROG. Grog bores the shit out of me. I have seen a million goddamn Grogs. I am sick and goddamn tired of Grogs. You cannot seriously fucking tell me that any of us gain anything by being forced to have the same mindless barbarians fighting the same mindless battles with the same mindless rage. We’ve run out of simple, animalistic adjectives to convey it.
Also, don’t actually fuck Grog. He’s both clumsy and totally lacking in endurance because he’s so unfamiliar with intimacy that the slightest contact sends him straight to maximum. Ever notice how none of those goddamn barbarians ever suffer from the multitude of problems which logically extend from their lifestyle? Don’t even get me started on all the digestive parasites from the poorly-cooked wildlife they consume and the pelts they wear.
Notice how quite suddenly Grog has become more sympathetic, and I sound like a piece of shit for ragging on this poor, lonely guy who’s been forced into a strongman persona by his lifestyle but just needs hugs (and gentle sexual mentorship)? Didn’t take much. And that’s not to say that we don’t get these reinterpretations of Grog, because we absolutely do. I’m using this as an example because it’s easier to lay out in a sentence how expanding on “big dumb barbarian murderbeef” can improve or alter writing than, say, how an in-depth magic system based on the idea that magic is a natural rather than unnatural force, governed by the laws of said forces, could be meshed with a necromancer’s particular brand of Autism-Spectrum Disorder to express part of the character through her magic.
Obviously this is a purely hypothetical example. If not, it might be light spoilers for something.
Actually, let me just gut my own joke and be direct. The quest–a term I use with full consciousness of its loaded nature in a fantasy-deconstruction context, because I am a cleverboi–to innovate on existing high fantasy without completely rewriting it is what got my novel to where it is. I maintain that it is excellent, and will continue to do so until the next time I realize it’s all terrible and revise it while waiting to hear back from an agent. So, at the risk of spoiling some subtext–it’s not that subtle, don’t worry–many of the best moments in that book came from tweaking the formula and developing the tweaks in-depth.
This brings us to Case Two: the insistence that all fantasy must be delineated into highly-specific sub-genres which all have their own set rules.
I’ve often wondered why so few universes include both magic and psionicism. It was discovering a possible answer–while googling why psionics are hated by some D&D groups, of all things!–that pushed me over the edge into this death-spiral of a post. In the process, I stumbled onto an argument I’d previously been unaware of: that fantasy and science fiction usually subsist on magic and psionics respectively because the former embodies humanity and human will at the mercy of or dependent upon external powers they cannot fully comprehend (id est fantasy), and the latter embodies human will’s triumph over the environment.
This was interesting to me because I always perceived magic as the undeserved acquisition of external power based on arbitrary genetics, whereas psionicism seemed to be the undeserved acquisition of internal power based on arbitrary genetics. Of the two, I regard psionicism as more inherently noble since it at least purely revolves around the individual’s own capabilities and, by its nature, forces a greater awareness of their own role in their actions.
I’d actually assert this could just as easily be the reason it’s not as popular with some fantasy readers: a universe of psionics is one with a certain defined meritocracy. The effort’s supposed to come from you, not some external semidivine or divine power which will fix all your self-made problems. I could just as easily argue that science fiction is about the progressive desire to better ourselves so much that the improvement reflects in the world around us, whereas fantasy expresses the regressive human instinct to hunker down and wait for the problem to resolve itself. And I could effortlessly argue that the infinitely-regurgitated “Chosen One” plotline is the epitome of this, in which the universe creates an entity who absolves us of the moral responsibility to use our own agency for good.
I wouldn’t actually pursue this argument because I don’t believe it and it would be pure jackassery even if I did. Guilting people for liking certain elements of a universe is downright childish. Well, you know, unless those elements are overtly racist or otherwise deliberately awful.
Even so, let’s be clear: there’s nothing intrinsically more “fantastical” or more “futuristic” about one or the other. See again: guilting people for liking certain elements of a universe is downright childish. I could just as easily argue that by manipulating energies others do not have access to, a mage is just as thoroughly imposing her will on the environment as a psionic does through his telekinesis. Alternatively, I could argue that considering the ultimate futility of a single human’s agency in a vast universe, magic is far less fantastical than psionicism is!
And I would, because that’s exactly the reason I started bringing psionicism into my work in the first place: that true individual agency and purely-personal power seemed so much rarer and more precious to me in a world dominated by omnipotent gods and continent-busting sorcery than… well, the two things I just mentioned.
But we’re getting sidelined now. I think this is a debate which developed after the fact to explain something that was never planned out in this kind of detail.
For the non-authors among you (who I generally think of as my main audience, but on reflection that’s silly of me): the majority of authors do not write for themes. Often, as we write, we’ll perceive that the story lends itself to certain themes and choose to polish it to help them shine through, but themes are not the starting point.
Personally, I believe the reason psionicism isn’t involved in most high fantasy universes is that Tolkien didn’t include psionicism in The Lord of the Rings. It’s conspicuous to me that the elements determined as most “acceptable” for high fantasy are usually the ones which could most easily fit into The Lord of the Rings. Sans all the psychological stuff, that is–even today, few writers remember what an emphasis Tolkien placed on the dangers of power to its own wielders. Indeed, if there’s a core theme in The Lord of the Rings, it’s about how the quest for external power can pollute a person’s core nature, and that it takes an exceptionally strong will to push past this to create a better world…
Ha! Frodo was a psionic the whole time! Who knew? Yes, I’m being a little too tongue-in-cheek, but in referring back to the patterns set by “the old masters”, many people seem to forget how often said masters played with the formula. Where many after him have created two arbitrary camps, Tolkien saw the potential for conflict in a world filled with external powers set against personal wills.
On the reverse side of my above statements, much of the Ring’s threat expresses itself against the exact kind of Nietzchian will-to-power embodied by psionicism–it’s dangerous precisely because characters don’t like or accept that it’s external to them! Imagine how much trouble you could cause in fantasy just by having a character say, “NO! The magic thing will obey me!” And honestly, whenever someone says that something would conflict with the established feeling of the fantasy genre, I have to ask–isn’t that good? Isn’t that kind of dissonance, wielded correctly, among the most powerful of all a writer’s tricks?
It’s supposed to be. Can you imagine what a compelling, nightmarish story might erupt if seemingly-ordinary people pitted will alone against all these arcane external forces… and succeeded?
This brings us to Case Three: The mere creation, let alone acceptance, of “traditional fantasy” as a concept inevitably hamstrings writers’ attempts to tell varied, well-executed stories, and further steals what chance those works have to be appreciated on their own merits.
Let me drive this home again before going further: the problem is not that fantasy as a genre has an overarching identity, nor even that most stories fall within that identity. That’s how genre works. The problem is that the concept of Traditional Fantasy reduces “quality” to how well a work repeats existing concepts without meaningful variation. I am not saying this prevents excellent stories being told. I am not saying that I myself would be meeting more success if there was no concept of Traditional Fantasy–if anything, I worry that sticking too closely to the formula is my first book’s main weakness!
What I am saying is that tying arguments about a work’s merits to a checklist will inevitably lead silly places. A key point emerges through one piece of feedback I received on earlier drafts of The Necromancer and the Revenant: namely, that the worldbuilding in the first two chapters seemed too top-heavy, which it was, and that one way to solve this with regards to the magic system would be to give the protagonist a mentor character to gradually explain things.
Cool. This would’ve eviscerated a significant aspect of my protagonist as a consciously-ungrounded individual who feels she has no one she can depend on. This isn’t to say this reader didn’t give plenty of good feedback, but it’s conspicuous to me that the best qualitative suggestions I received had the least to do with my book as another entry in the fantasy genre. This was not one of those good suggestions.
So instead I flipped the script and used magically-ignorant characters in the novel as students to whom the protagonist could occasionally explain things, which had the nifty side-effect of emphasizing the protagonist as a frustrated perfectionist lacking a peer who could genuinely help her improve, which then strengthened the romance she develops with said peer when she meets him, which… you get the idea.
This was not a stupendously clever decision on my part. It happened, initially, just because I didn’t want to write another fucking fantasy protagonist with a mentor. I didn’t want to write another character who unjustifiably survived momentous events while far more qualified people died in droves or were passed over completely. I didn’t want to write another bland everyperson. I wanted a complete character from minute one so that I could clearly illustrate that character’s evolution from minute one.
I was astonished to do another editing run just before and after Christmas, having stepped away for two months, and discover that I loved my protagonist (by the standards of Plato rather than Pygmalion). Despite having read through the book twenty times by now, my own creation moved me to tears. It was able to do this because of depth which I only achieved by ignoring the bulk of the fantasy-related writing advice I encountered.
Let’s come back to the advice I got. My reader suggested this to me because it was a workaround commonly used in fantasy. Here’s the problem: it’s a fake workaround. Exposition spouted from a mentor character is no less exposition than the same within the protagonist’s own mind. The text is distinguished mainly by being presented in a different voice or style of speaking–sometimes–and being encased in quotation marks. That’s it. This doesn’t work because it’s superior writing. It works because it’s just more common and therefore readers are less likely to examine it critically.
Going even beyond the protagonist’s interactions with other characters, so much of the story revolves around her repeated attempts to construct an identity of competence and projected authority. By emphasizing her as a competent protagonist, every challenge she encounters becomes a direct attack on her identity. She becomes psychologically under threat even when she’s physically fine. If I made her a standard externally-motivated fantasy protagonist with no prior investment in her own abilities, that element would’ve died on the spot.
This is my story. I’m not saying it’s better than other stories, but it’s at least as good and also different. How many stories like it have fallen apart before they could be written simply because we let “traditional fantasy” shape our advice? How many people have decided that this story or that wasn’t good enough not because it wasn’t actually good enough, but because they were preconditioned to feel anything that differed from their expectations must be bad?
I ultimately solved the worldbuilding density problem by cropping out unnecessary lines and letting a number of things–such as the sexist elements of a particular culture–emerge through subtext. In many places, I simply revised sentence structures for greater efficiency or broke up segments with extra indentations. None of the opening material reads as dense anymore, and many of the details, again, are presented so as to reflect on the characters experiencing them. All these things would have been lost in the blink of an eye if I thought in terms of “this is how we do it in fantasy.”
Unsurprisingly, evaluating writing in simplistic terms produces simplistic results. Some stories, characters, and details benefit from this, and I’d argue this is the real reason that one-note or even joke characters tend to fare better in fantasy: not that readers truly like these characters better, but that without careful execution, complex characters will naturally have more obvious flaws because flaws are a natural part of complex characters. This goes for everything from incorporating technology to new creatures to the often-disastrous attempts to explore cultural and gender differences.
Of course, it doesn’t help that even if authors do manage to perfectly balance all of these things, a sizable subset of readers have been told they should hate the stories because these things are present at all. Here’s a final thought for everyone: the unknowability of magic has long–supposedly–been enshrined in fantasy literature. So has rampant sexism, violence, and the inevitable decay of anything good.
Just because it’s been there from the start doesn’t mean we should keep it.
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