Tag Archives: fantasy

When Fantasy is Self-Indulgent

Note: This should’ve gone up Friday. In fact, it would’ve gone up Friday – was all ready to go up Friday – when my computer experienced internet connectivity issues. So, you get to enjoy it today instead!

A major part of writing fantasy is world-building – everyone agrees about that. What’s the point of setting your plot on another world, if everything that happens could’ve occurred in the very city you live in without anyone blinking an eyelash? Characters have to act in a realistic other world, a world that is somehow different than the world we live in.* This is the fun part of fantasy, but also one of its pitfalls.

And not just the realistic part. It’s tough to think up another world all on your own, and not even Tolkien’s world is without its flaws (Tolkien, by the way, admitted once or twice that the geography of Middle Earth was sadly unrealistic). Another pitfall is, after putting all your effort into dreaming up a wonderful alternate reality, you want people to know how much thought you put into it.

Shown their work” is one name for this, and don’t get me wrong, this can be done well. But everyone’s heard of historical novels where characters spend pages explaining the political situation of their time to each other, just so the reader knows how much effort the author put into this. And, you know, the exact same thing can be done in fantasy novels, and is definitely one of the reasons non-fantasy readers find them boring. Because there is usually a LOT of back story about the setting, characters and society that somehow has to get across.

I’ve certainly got the feeling before, while reading fantasy novels recommended to me as “good,” that these particular characters are chasing this particular MacGuffin into this particular country, just so the author can show off the fact he/she actually INVENTED another country/society/setting in their fantasy world. That their world has breadth and depth, just like the real world. But in reality, those scenes could be cut from the book and the only result would be that the plot would move along a little faster.

Or, the feeling that a particular fantasy series is going on forever because the author wants to explore the outer edges of his world, while the reader would be perfectly satisfied for the plot to just get on, already!

In these cases, the reader feels like the world was created far more for the author’s own pleasure than for the readers’. That we are just being dragged into a very long trip into someone else’s imagination – someone who is very proud of their imagination, and thinks the sheer scope and force of their imagination will convince everyone else it’s good too. When, in reality, the story is lost behind dense layers of self-indulgence.

I’m speaking here as a reader and not a writer, obviously. I know it’s a tricky balance, getting out everything you need to say in a story without destroying the illusion by saying too much.

Anyway, I’d just like to point out at the end, instead of listing off every terrible fantasy book out there (which would really just be tearing other authors down, rather than saying anything useful), one author who does not fall into this pitfall. You can pick up any of her books and feel the full force of disorientation of falling into a fully realized world in the first chapter. Very little is carefully explained, but none of it feels like it was hurriedly thought up at the last minute. She’s done her world-building, but she doesn’t tediously show it off.

I’m talking about Diana Wynne Jones here, of course.

According to her, the reason she doesn’t feel this urge to precisely describe every aspect of her world-building is because she spent so much of her career writing for children. In her own words, here’s a brilliant quote that explains why this is:

 “When I was asked if I’d like to try my hand at an adult novel, I most joyfully agreed… I found myself thinking as I wrote, “These poor adults are never going to understand this; I must explain it to them twice more and then remind them again later in different terms.” Now this is something I never have to think when I write for younger readers. Children are used to making an effort to understand… I can rely on this. I can make my plots for them as complex as I please, and yet I know I never have to explain them more than once (or twice at the very most). And here I was, writing for people of fifteen and over, assuming that the people who read, say, Fire and Hemlock last year have now given up using their brains.”

 This is, perhaps, why I have such trouble finding new fantasy books to read, despite my love of the genre. I don’t mind if every little detail isn’t explained – as long as there’s enough details for me to put things together. I don’t need every book to be a doorstopper. So I often find myself reading children’s fantasy, and I’m not ashamed of it. I still hold out the hope, though, that I’ll find more fantasy novels that I truly enjoy.

* I recognize many fantasy novels are set in our world, but by this sentence I mean in those novels our world has to be our world but different, for it to truly be a fantasy novel. You know, like in Harry Potter, where wizards and witches live hidden under our very noses. And so on. In this case, using our world as a setting is using it as more of an alternate fantasy version of our world.

** After complaining about the above at length, I realize it’s almost hypocritical of me to still love Lord of the Rings. But I’m willing to make an exception for Lord of the Rings. Because it’s – well, it’s Lord of the Rings.

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Unicorns in the Streets: What is Genre, Anyway?

by Erin Stevenson O’Connor, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

J.K. Rowling just released her latest book yesterday, and surprise, surprise, it is not about wizards. Or magic. Or unicorns. She has firmly departed her old stomping grounds of children’s fantasy, and forayed into what might be called contemporary adult fiction. Which got me thinking – why do we draw such hard and fast lines between different types of writing, anyway?

No Fantasy in Realism

“I had a lot of real-world material in me, believe you me,” Rowling is quoted as saying. “The thing about fantasy—there are certain things you just don’t do in fantasy.” She makes it sound like the gulf between realism and fantasy is wide and impassable. But looking back over a history of literature, it doesn’t appear that there was always such a hard line between fantasy and realistic stories. The Iliad depicts a drawn-out conflict between two war-like groups, a situation that would’ve been somewhat familiar to people at the time. Yet fantastic elements such as the interference of gods and Achilles battling with a river are added without a second thought. In medieval literature, knights go off to fight dragons and mythical creatures, as well as more mundane enemies. Beowulf slays a dragon. King Arthur pulls a sword out of a stone. MacBeth consults with witches. The line between the realistic and the fantastic seems to be very blurry – perhaps to the point of not existing at all.

(To be fair, what we know as a ‘novel’ was not invented till about the 17th century either. The Iliad, for example, was an epic poem and certainly not a novel. The same for Beowulf.)

Of course, part of the reason for this was that for historical peoples, the world was a mysterious place and mostly unknown. There really might’ve been dragons beyond the next hill, but you didn’t really know because you’d never gone there. In our modern times, we’ve lost that sense of wonder when we gained the ability to circumnavigate the world in hours, and map DNA down to the very last detail. Fantastic creatures such as unicorns and dragons just don’t belong in our everyday life, or even our typical imaginations. They are only acceptable sectioned off behind a little label called ‘Fantasy,’ with the understanding that ‘Fantasy’ and ‘Realism’ are very different things.

But Really, Why Genre?

I think it’s because we, as humans, like to know what to expect in stories. Not to know every detail, of course, but to be able to predict general outlines. If it’s a fantasy novel, it’s going to have magic, some kind of Dark Lord, and yes, maybe unicorns. If it’s a mystery novel, it’s going to have a murder – and probably someone who’s wrongfully accused, a detective of some sort, and a second murder that raises the stakes of the case. The readers know a bit of what to expect beforehand, so while hopefully the plot will keep them at the edge of their seats, they are still entering a comfortable world where events happen according to unspoken rules. A nice contrast to the randomness of reality.

And genre conventions do go back a long way. The ancient Greeks didn’t have novels like we do, but they did divide their plays into two types: comedy and tragedy. The audience knew to expect different things in each one. Shakespeare also had comedies, tragedies and histories (slightly different from what the Greek meanings of those words were). Of course, not all Shakespeare plays fit into the categories assigned to them, proving that while genre is a useful concept, it does not solve all problems across the board. Creators want freedom to subvert conventions, including the conventions of genres.

So there you have it. When J.K. Rowling announced her latest book was ‘adult realism,’ she (and her publishers) were signalling exactly what kind of audience they expected to buy the book. Genre is a useful tool for letting the reader know what to expect, but the categories are not the hard and fast categories we like to think of them as. Writers like to break rules, and more than that, categories and styles of literature have changed over the years.

But does this mean a unicorn could never walk down the main streets of New York, and still be called ‘realistic’? Maybe not nowadays, but who can say about the future?

Note: I missed my Quotables post this Monday – it just completely got lost in the shuffle. Unfortunately I have a bit of a busy semester ahead of me, so once in a while I may resort to only posting once a week. If a post doesn’t go up, rest assured I have not forgotten about my blog! I just have not managed to juggle my priorities well enough. I hope this will not happen often. 🙂 

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Filed under On Writing, The Iliad

A Chat in the Library: Chapter 30B (Why Polly?)

Hello all! This post was previously Chapter 30B, but has now been removed. But don’t despair! Why Polly? will soon be available in its entirety on Amazon.

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Confrontation Continued: Chapter 29B (Why Polly?)

Hello all! This post was previously Chapter 29B, but has now been removed. But don’t despair! Why Polly? will soon be available in its entirety on Amazon.

 

(My previous version of this post contained this note of thanks: Thank you to all who’ve been reading this, especially all those who’ve stuck with me all the way to Chapter 29! We’re getting quite close to the end now, so let me say I am amazed by your dedication and comments of appreciation. I’m glad to hear from anyone likes to read this story!)

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Confrontation: Chapter 29A (Why Polly?)

Hello all! This post was previously Chapter 29A, but has now been removed. But don’t despair! Why Polly? will soon be available in its entirety on Amazon.

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The Jadess Waits: Chapter 28 (Why Polly?)

Hello all! This post was previously Chapter 28, but has now been removed. But don’t despair! Why Polly? will soon be available in its entirety on Amazon.

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How to Find the Jadess: Chapter 27B (Why Polly?)

Hello all! This post was previously Chapter 27B, but has now been removed. But don’t despair! Why Polly? will soon be available in its entirety on Amazon.

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Mirror, Mirror: Chapter 27A (Why Polly?)

Hello all! This post was previously Chapter 27A, but has now been removed. But don’t despair! Why Polly? will soon be available in its entirety on Amazon.

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My Answer for the Rajah: Chapter 26B (Why Polly?)

Hello all! This post was previously Chapter 26B, but has now been removed. But don’t despair! Why Polly? will soon be available in its entirety on Amazon.

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“What Am I Going to Do?”: Chapter 26A (Why Polly?)

Hello all! This post was previously Chapter 26A, but has now been removed. But don’t despair! Why Polly? will soon be available in its entirety on Amazon.

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