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Non-Epic Fantasy

 – by Peter Thomson

I have been reading fantasy for over fifty years (and writing it for two), and I still do not know what  defines the genre. After all, there’s the magical realism (it has magic!) pioneered by Miguel Asturias (Nobel Prize winner) and made a best seller by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (also Nobel Prize winner), epic fantasy, Gothic fantasy (Mervyn Peake), urban fantasy, fantasy whodunnits (Glen Cook’s Garret PI series) … I could go on, and on. My own effort currently ranks something like #115,751 in the fantasy category at Amazon, so it’s obviously enormously popular to write as well as read.

Browsing through the on-line slush piles (did I mention I’m a fast reader?), the great bulk of fantasy  seems to fall towards the ‘epic’ end of the spectrum. The fate of the world, or at the very least a substantial kingdom, hinges on our hero’s or heroine’s efforts. The advice to writers is that the creation of dramatic tension is essential and most writers seem to have decided that nothing beats tense like the possibility of an an unending reign of darkness.

But do readers really read the Lord of the Rings to find out if Sauron is defeated? If the derivative art (pictures and music as well as imitations) Tolkien has spawned are an indication, probably not. They read to walk the streets of Minas Tirith, talk with ents, linger in Lothlorien as elvish harps play through the night. Or, as it might be, fight tyrannosaurs and dark magics. In  a word, escape.

One way to give the reader this escape – to show them a world they would like to visit, is to lower the stakes. This has several advantages. It allows for a slower pace if desired, gives more scope to explore the scenery and for whimsy, grace-notes and interesting diversions. After all, a world with dragons surely has a lot of other interesting things. The mission is still there, still central, but not so dominant. It more easily allows sequels that are not just re-hashes (hello Belgariad follow-ons) and generates side-stories and spin-offs. If you save the world in book 1, what’s left to do?

Examples might be Jack Vance’s stories of the Dying Earth and Lawrence Watt-Evans’  Ethshar series. Vance evokes a world of melancholy, caprice, the accumulation at the end of time of all sorts of oddities. The stakes are there, but are not of enormous consequence. Will Cugel the Clever obtain his revenge? Will Liane the Wayfarer evade Chun the Unavoidable? (Spoiler: no in both cases). In Ethshar, will Valder find a way to rid himself of a misenchanted sword? Will Emmis have a better future as native guide to the Vondish ambassador?

This works best if the background is evoked rather than described, and if it fits together. Avoiding a data dump is standard good advice. Fitting together – having a reasonably coherent picture that the reader can build up in her mind over the course of the plot from a series of passing remarks – is harder. Maybe this is why so many writers go for the epic – it’s easier to charge straight over the holes and inconsistencies. If the world is to be truly interesting, the characters shouldn’t think like modern westerners nor like medieval stereotypes. They should reflect the world they live in. Magic (or active gods or dragons or whatever) surely alters a lot of things.

In my case I could draw on a few decades of role-playing with inventive, over-argumentative people and a lifetime of reading history. Historians tend to assume that people had a good (to them) reason for whatever they did and the job is to explain that. Believe me, it helps to have a lot of case studies of the reasonable (to them) but totally weird (to us) to draw on.

In Tales of the Wild magic is a universal force, used for cooking and lighting and keeping the bank secure, drawn on by humans, animals, plants and the land itself. People go about their business, take a gap year, connive, plot, seek to evade taxes. Some themes I want to explore fit naturally: the land rejects – forcefully – exploitation; equality between men and women is easy to envisage and portray, the bad guys can be more nuanced and their motivations more comprehensible. Above all, I can take the time to entertain. Non-epic fantasy is an under-rated sub-genre and writing it a good way to stand out from the crowd of worlds that need saving on a daily basis.

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