No Dragons, Dwarves/Elves, or Dreams/Prophecies: Access Denied

posted in: Fantasy, Writing | 0
Something I continually encounter when telling people I’m a writer and they ask, “What do you write?”, is I have this sense that they have preconceived ideas when I answer, “Fantasy”.  I can see it in their eyes.  “Oh, so dragons, elves and magic.”  Not a question but a definite statement.  To which I silently in my head respond, “I should have said fiction…”

I don’t blame people for this assumption.  I get it.  All you have to do is look at the main cultural references we have in our society.  Lords of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, and most recent, Game of Thrones.  These big ones have set the stage and have planted the seeds one would expect from fantasy.  (Wizards, dragons, and elves, oh my!)

Unfortunately, I do not have the means or assignment to correct people on how vast and wide the fantasy genre has come since Tolkien laid the modern foundation.  I wish I could have that job, trust me! (King of Correction!  Hear me!)  Alas, I do not have that honorable title, but thankfully, I have a blog and I can voice my knowledge and experience in the genre to better help people who may not be big nerds like myself.

Three tropes or elements you will not find in my writing: dragons, dwarves/elves, or dreams/prophecies.

I’m going to dissect each of these somewhat quickly.  These are not tropes like my previous blog posts on magic but rather ones I have intentionally avoided because I choose not to employ their function in any of my stories.  None of these are intrinsically overdone in the genre and I often enjoy them when done in a new way in the books I read.

Magical creatures and or races in the traditional sense simply do not play any significant role in the worlds I’ve created.  If you’ve read any of the series I recommended in my fantasy reader’s guide post, then you know that I have a preference for worlds and stories that read more “human” in nature.  This does not mean there are not other kinds of races in these books (Stephen Eriksons Malazan series is chalk full of different races that are awesomely imagined) but there’s a bit more creativity and imagination involved.  For myself, I’ve created races that seem familiar to the reader but in the end are their own.

I’m actually not big on books or stories involving dragons as major characters and/or plot elements.  There are plenty out there but I’ve truly never been a fan.  Smaug in my mind is one of the best examples of a dragon in fantasy.  Robert Jordan does not use dragons but actually calls his savior-of-the-world main character, The Dragon, which I really liked because it called to the fantasy element instead of including it in the Wheel of Time series.

Dreams and prophecies are elements I have avoided on purpose.  I could easily throw these into the narrative of the Ravanguard series but I consciously did not because I did not like the idea of using them as a crutch, which I think some series utilize to that advantage.  These are seemingly always used as a means of foreshadowing and installing the hero as the savior to all mankind (again, a bit overdone in the genre).  I prefer to use foreshadowing without these because I find that it’s more difficult and a challenge.

George R.R. Martin actually does this very well despite his use of dreams and prophecies.  He explores foreshadowing by use of language and visuals, which is what I have tried to emulate in my own way.  In fact, if I were ever to use dreams or prophecies as a literary device, I’d probably try to do it in a way that has not been done before.

For anyone who is looking forward to reading my stories, I hope this is helpful and lays out what to expect or in this case “not expect”.  Fantasy is not restricted to these few common/popular elements.  If that’s what you like, there’s plenty of options out there!  Trust me.  The vast coffer that is the fantasy genre overflows with different worlds and subgenres that have their own mix of devoted fans.  Sometimes, I wish there was another way to describe what I write but my use of limited technology, magic and swords kind of puts me in the barrel.  That’s probably why enjoy the genre so much: it’s not constricted but goes as far as the writer’s imagination can stretch.

Call to Action: I admit, there is one series of books that involve dragons that I am interested in reading.  Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series is an alternate history fantasy that has dragons in the Napoleonic Wars.  That just sounds like a fun read.  If you’ve read it, let me know what you think!  If not, then it may be worth exploring.

Kill the Cliché, Twist the Trope: Magical MacGuffin

posted in: Fantasy, Writing | 2

There are conventions in fantasy literature that we know well, maybe to a lesser degree if you’re not an avid fan or reader, but you can recognize them with ease.  You can be reading/watching a story unfold, snap your fingers and say, “That’s so and so in this story…” or “I bet that’s what’s needed to solve…”  How?  Why?  Because you’ve seen it done so much, your brain does its magic and the dots are connected, always aware and finding the patterns.  These conventions that are easy to call are often clichés or tropes.

I relied too heavily on these clichés/tropes when I first dabbled in the genre and to be honest, it was good because it helped me understand and know what I wanted to avoid later in my journey as a writer.  For today’s post, I’m going to explore another one (don’t be surprised if this becomes a monthly post-type by the way).

The Magical MacGuffin.  What’s this?  Well, it’s the One Ring in Lord of the Rings, the Holy Grail pursued by Indiana Jones or King Arthur, and/or most recently, any of the Infinity Stones in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  A MacGuffin in literary terms is a plot device pursued by the protagonist to form the basis of the plot.  Now, these devices don’t always have to be magical.  You could literally take any story (from a book, play, tv show or film) and find the MacGuffin.  It could be a goal, dream, desire, object, idea, etc.  All of these fill the role.  Honestly, I don’t have a problem with the device as a whole but in fantasy, it is (in my opinion) a cliché/trope worth avoiding.

In the second book I wrote (one that has been shelved for the time being), I actually tried to take this trope and twist it.  I asked the question, “What if the magical objects in the world suddenly quit working, forcing the societies that relied on them to deal with the resulting conflicts that would naturally ensue?”  A malfunction of the MacGuffin if you will.  Now, this is an idea worth exploring and I may still do it to a degree but on a lesser scale.  Maybe a standalone novel…  There are elements in that world that I created and quite like a lot and don’t completely want to abandon.  Hmmmmm…  Yep, you’ve read it here first.  I may have just realized I do in fact have another story to put in my queue!

Back to the topic.  I struggle to get behind the idea of a Magical MacGuffin because its played out in fantasy.  Tolkien did it the best with the One Ring.  We have a magical item that is in fact filled with the evil of the main antagonist who wants it back.  The goal of the protagonists is to take that item to the only place where it can be destroyed (which happens to be in the most dangerous place in Middle Earth) all the while having to avoid its influence and the desire of others who want to claim it for themselves.  It’s actually a very good device used by Tolkien and plays better in the story as an item to destroy rather than attain.  Kudos to the master!

What we see since then is a lot of stories that drive the plot forward with magical items being the end goal (a sword, crown, horn, bowl, knickknack or patty whack).  Once attained, it usually gives the hero the power to overcome the evil one.  There are usually obstacles that bring lessons learned and help the character grow but for me, both as a reader and writer, to form an entire plot on the magical device, just doesn’t hold my attention.  When looking for new books to read, I actually check to see if the synopsis includes a Magical MacGuffin.  If so, I set it aside.

Thankfully, there is a wave happening in fantasy literature that doesn’t rely on this particular device.  Maybe there are magical items in the world but they are not the bones to hold everything up.  In my Ravanguard series, there are things that could be considered magical but play no major significance to the overall conflict.  I do introduce something that may look the part in the early chapters but as you read, you realize I’ve twisted the expectation of the convention.  The story centers around the three main point of views and their inner struggles to cope with a world that is turned onto its side.  They must rely on themselves and those they trust in order to survive.

I should be clear and say I’m not opposed to a Magical MacGuffin entirely in a story so long as there is a twist or subversion.  Let there be a price to pay in order to use it.  The One Ring actually does this.  Using it makes the wielder dependent and a slave to it.  That’s good!  To compare, consider the Goblet of Fire in the fourth Harry Potter book.  It’s a magical item that is the goal to attain.  Why?  Harry has to because he’s in the contest but what else?  I won’t spoil the book or movie but at least there’s a twist at the end that does extend the overall saga as a whole.  This is also good!

Maybe you prefer this convention for whatever the reason.  Not a bad thing.  We’re just different and have different tastes, which is great, fine and dandy.  Hopefully, that won’t keep you from reading my books (Ha!).  Happy reading!

Call to Action: Do you prefer Magical MacGuffin’s in stories?  If so, share them with me!  I’m always curious to read other people’s preferences and opinions.  Are there any that have been twisted and subverted that you enjoyed?

Vilest Villainy Vowed to Venture

posted in: Writing | 0

(Alliteration is king.  I’m a big fan of the play on words and I hope you all enjoy them as much as I do.)

Villains.  The great antagonist exploration.  There’s a problem–or to say it better: a cliché–in fiction when it comes to the opposing force of the hero.  It’s more commonly found in epic fantasy but I’m sure it exists in other genres as well.  This cliché postulates that the villain/bad guy that brings forth the main conflict in the story is evil for the sake of evil.

Examples of this would be the White Witch (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), Sauron (The Lord of the Rings), and in any other work that calls this force by any number of fear-inducing monikers (The Evil One, Chaos, Hades, etc.).

The problem with this practice (it’s not so commonly used today due to its overuse and relying on, hence becoming a cliché) is that it cheapens the story.  I struggled to understand this in the beginning because I was subjected to the ethereal essence of a dominating figure in the books I read.  This is probably my biggest gripe with fantasy nowadays (aside from the use of other clichés i.e., farm boy chosen one, damsel in distress, etc.).

How does this go away?  Well, for each writer, they have to write their own story.  My opinion won’t dictate a change across the board (I’m not that self-centered.  Remember, just a proud punk) but I can make sure I don’t fall into this myself.  For me, I look at antagonists who bleed and make choices based on beliefs/desires; those are the ones who better suit my stories.

There are many examples of this but one that I continually go to whenever I think of a truly terrifying antagonist is the Joker portrayed in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight”.  The late Heath Ledger created a character–not just a villain–that was more than what we the audience expected.  I still remember sitting in that small theater in my hometown and processing what I had just watched while the credits climbed the screen.

Years later, I’ve come to think of antagonists in a very different light.  An all evil character that rests behind a wall until it can regain its form or strength is a distant threat.  Underlings are forced to bring minimal conflict to the hero until the “end” where the big bad is at full strength and the final battle takes place.  This usually involves the hero possessing some kind of knowledge, magic, or item that solely has the ability or helps to destroy the evil one.

We all know this story right?  It’s nothing new.  For me, it’s refreshing to come across an antagonist who subverts the expected.  Put me in the mind and position of an antagonist who can be crazy, self-centered and brutal but lead me through the pages in which I get a glimpse into their soul.  No one is evil for the sake of evil.  All figures in history we would label under that term became that way for a variety of reasons.

Choice is key.  An antagonist that makes choices based on their desires, needs and/or wants is far more compelling to me as a reader and writer.  It’s funny but I’m actually unhappy when I come across a villain that doesn’t meet this expectation.  I was very disappointed in Benedict Cumberbatch’s (come on, isn’t that just one of the funniest names to say out loud?!  Rolls off the tongue) portrayal as Khan in Star Trek.  I just wanted more.  Go watch No Country For Old Men and Skyfall and in those films you get amazing villains portrayed by the amazing Javier Bardem.

I know these are all film examples but I believe these are more accessible than throwing out names of literary villains that I’m not sure would be as well known.  Oh!  I thought of one.  Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes is a great literary (and film) example.  There you go, readers.  All of these are antagonists that are more than the great evil one.  They are flesh and blood.  These are the truly terrifying villains because I cannot determine what they want or will do to get their desires met.  Sauron?  Yeah, he wants to destroy everything that is good.  Sure, I’ll be rooting for the heroes to defeat him but you always knew where he was because he was trapped in his “cell” and I could not expect him to arrive at a moment’s notice.

I hope all this makes sense.  As always, this is my perspective and something I’ve learned for myself as a writer.  A truly terrifying antagonist is one who’s motives may not always be clear and their actions can surprise from one page to another.

Call to Action: Pretty simple one for today.  Watch the link provided to get a great list of villain clichés: