Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Fantasy as Fantasy

I’ve mentioned this before I’m sure. There has been a big push for “gritty realism” in fantasy over the last two decades, regardless of whether it is historical or urban. The more traditional “hero’s quest” being abandoned for greater ambiguity that critics call depth. I’ve never been able to understand that because, after all, it’s fantasy, and fantasy is like daydreaming. Does anyone daydream about a miserable world filled with awful people where the dreamer themself is also despicable?

One of the arguments made in favor of realism is that audiences are tired of the same old thing, but that doesn’t work for me. Music is almost always made up of melodies, beats, and rhythm, but few prefer music without these tired old tropes. Oddly enough, I never get tired of melodies, beats and rhythms because there are an infinite number of them possible, and because the alternative is noise.

I’ve also heard that realism is better because the characters are more believable, more like real people. This comes up a lot. “Good” characters suffer and succumb to corruption, greed, lust, hate, jealousy. The result is that there are no heroes, because in real life there are no heroes—no people who are genuinely good, or who manage to resist temptation or overcome adversity to win. No happily-ever-after. In real life, should a person appear to do something great, then we all know there must be a flaw. Drugs were used. Kids were beaten. Tests were cheated. It has to be this way because heroes don’t exist, and so why should they in our literature? Even if it is fantasy, there are limits to what people can be expected to believe in. Dragons? sure. Ghosts, vampires, werewolves? absolutely, but a wholly good person with the courage to stand up for what is right without an ulterior motive? That’s ridiculous.

Is this what society has come to? Is this how people see the world? I don’t, which only leads me to think that the ambiguity and cynicism is actually less realistic, not more.

Even if the world is as awful as this sounds, why the desire to read about other worlds that are just the same? Personally I have to agree with the quote from the movie Secondhand Lions, written by Tim McCanlies:

Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most. That people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and I want you to remember this, that love... true love never dies. You remember that, boy. You remember that. Doesn't matter if it's true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in.

Recently a friend read the above quote and his response was: So people should just lie to themselves?

If this is the kind of reaction we have today, then there is little wonder that even our fictitious worlds are jaded. Seems to me that if we give up on heroes in our fantasies, or on societies that are worth saving, then how can we ever expect to find them in the real world? Great things begin with an idea, but if our imaginary think-tanks are no more than a reflection of real life, what’s the point?


  1. I love that quote from Second Hand Lions ... brought tears to my eyes (again).

    "... because those are the things worth believing in."


  2. I have a different take on the flawed jaded hero. But then again, I think about things in a slightly different way (as always). I dont want to read about someone that starts out perfect. A person with nothing to overcome, who is going to defeat the ultimate evil because of destiny. Not because its boring (although it is) but because I have absolutely nothing in common with that person.

    A individual born as a farmboy, but is the secret decedent to the thrown, who goes on some adventure, always doing the right thing, etc. Who alive can relate to that person?

    Just as you cant have a character who is evil for evils sake, you cant have a character who is good for goodness sake.

    There needs to be a reason. And giving that individual flaws, not only makes him more human, since everyone has flaws, but it gives him depth. It gives him something to overcome and that makes him inspiring. It makes your reader think, hey that guy used to be a drug addict, but now he is running for congress, and not because he thinks it will make him rich, or because he secretly desires the fame, but because he had a moment that made him realize he can use all of this bad in his life to do good. To make a change.

    I think that is what inspires hope in modern readers. Good can always triumph over evil, but good has to be believable, and no one is perfect.

    by the way, was the friend that asked if people should just lie to themselves Paul. Cause you know my thoughts on that.

  3. Amen, indeed. This is sadly what is wrong with much of our genre. There are still a few authors out there writing inspirational epics (such as Terry Brooks and Brandon Sanderson), but too many have gone with this gritty realism. Tolkien linked fantasy with escape, saying that you would forgive a man in a prison for dreaming of wide open spaces. It seems that fantasy these days is becoming more like being in prison and dreaming of dungeons.

  4. Thanks for your post William and Jon.

    No Sara not Paul. And I agree with you that characters need flaws as often overcoming flaws is what makes heroes. I merely object to an aversion to heroes.

  5. I think your comparison between Fantasy and Music is slightly flawed. If we were to take the melodies, beats, and rhythm from music and translate it to books I think it would be more like words, paragraphs, and punctuation. All music/stories have them, they are the underlying structure of how the craft is made.

    What's changing here is the tone. The Rap/Fantasy is getting grittier, more ghetto sounding. The Pop Singers are getting sleasier and more glittered up, with more outlandish costumes.

    That's what is happening with Fantasy, as well as TV shows and movies. It's all in what your readership/listenership wants.

    It's not to say that old-school Jazz is dead, as far as I know, it's alive and well, just not the largest segment of the market. You can still buy that sort of music nowadays and people are still making it. People are still wanting it.

    It's nice though to have the options. I have personally enjoyed most of the changes to the Fantasy genre, but it does wear on me after too much. That's why it's nice to pick up something lighter and refreshing like what you write, or delve into some lighter Middle-grade Fantasy.

    Options are great, and with more targeted advertising to seek out your specific audience I think writing out of the mainstream can still be a very viable option since you don't need a huge number of fans to support an artist nowadays.

  6. Michael, I think what its coming down to is that the definition of a Hero is changing, modern readers are not adverse to a hero. However, they are adverse to a hero that is so heroic that they cannot relate to said hero.

    I think people still want hero's they just dont want to be told there hero's are actually hero's.

    They want to see good characters do bad things for good reasons, to justify the potential bad things they have done for good reasons. They want to see that same character overcome that "bad thing" and do good things for good reasons because well, they want to think everything is okay.

    However, perhaps I am misunderstanding, I do not think I have read anything recently where there was no "hero". Perhaps the closest I have come was Margret Atwood's "Oryx and Crake".

    There was no clear hero, but there was a character who despite his muddling about did the best he could in a bad situation.

    I guess my question for you, is why is it not okay to have a bad guy be bad for no reason, but have a good guy be good for no reason.

    The bad guy cant do the wrong thing just cause its wrong, than your good guy cant do the right thing just cause its right.

    Can good exist without evil?

  7. Tom, actually there are some jazz, new age, and classical in which the intent is to avoid the typical melody, beat and rhythm. So "music" can be created without them. Notes, bars, movements would be the words, paragraphs and sentences. Similar schools of thought exist in the art world where the need to be different is paramount. (still I grant you it isn't a great analogy.)

    My point was that denouncing something as fundamental as the traditional fantasy story merely because it is similar to other stories seems strange since popular music has been the same for centuries allowing for variations in style. You appear to suggest that gritty is a style difference, but I see it as something more fundamental. 

    Still I agree variety is a good thing. And this post is is not intended to eradicate gritty fantasy, but in response to the belittling of the traditional as worthless or less realistic, which I would disagree with.

    Sara, "why is it Not okay for the bad guy to do something wrong without a  reason, but it is okay for the good guy to do something right without a reason?" 

    Because the reason is implied. Imagine you are walking down a street with a friend and the person before you drops a scarf. If your friend stops them to return the scarf you don't ask why. You know. But if the same friend passing a child slaps the child across the face, you would  likely inquire what was wrong with them.

    And the question isn't can good exist without evil, but rather can good be evil?


  8. Damnit Sulivan, I am going to be late to the bar cause I'm busy arguing with you online. Just see that I am right already.

    Your example (of picking up the scarf) would work, if it was at all relevant. Returning someones dropped scarf is an example of doing the right thing, not an example of someone being heroic. Unless of course they faced some sort of consequence and did it anyway. What is the danger of returning a scarf? Where is the peril? What is the risk? Its the risk that makes someone doing something heroic.

    Your right, I wouldn't need an explanation for someone picking up a scarf and returning it to the owner. I would however like an explanation if a friend of mine, happened to jump on an armed gunman to prevent a robbery, especially if the gunman was bigger.

    And I do not see that many arguments for fiction where the main character doesn't do the right thing, especially when it would cost that character absolutely nothing.

  9. Like anything else, the genre is cyclical. I'd compare the trends fantasy is going through today with "New Wave" science fiction of the 1960s. There, science fiction became grittier, less about epic plots and more about introspection. It was a direct response (rebellion) to the Campbell-era where the stories were generally optimistic in outlook.

    And these trends absolutely reflect the society in which they take place. Which means it is a vicious cycle of what readers want and what writers will write to fill that need. And--just as happened in the Golden Age and the New Wave--once that niche has been saturated, someone will come along and say, everyone is writing these gritty fantasies, I'm going to write something light and optimistic. And they will have just enough talent to make the bestseller list and at that point, the pendulum will swing back the other way while authors try to ride the coattails of that success.

    This is the publishing industry over the last 75 years, especially science fiction and fantasy; and to a lesser extent horror. (Romance too, I'd gather, but I don't have experience with that genre to say for certain.)

  10. Heroic actions often occur despite limitations like fear or character flaws like greed. Often, what makes characters heroic, or compelling, is overcoming those inclinations. If someone is truly and purely good, doing the right thing is simple. Perhaps there is a price to pay, but a truly good person pays it willingly. Perhaps too willingly. They are confident that they are doing the right thing, all the time, every time. Is that interesting? Is that kind of person common?

    In my opinion, much of the current trend towards dark or gritty fantasy, stems from a reaction against the bumbling boy and girl protagonists of Tolkien or Eddings or C.S. Lewis. A generation read those books as children, but we have grown up. Life experience has left us searching for heroes other than hobbits or British school children following lions around.

    Perhaps that makes us jaded. Perhaps we are drawn to echoes of ourselves, or our current life experiences, in our fantasy stories. Perhaps real life monsters have required our escapes to be more complex.

    I still dust off The Lord of the Rings every once in a while. But I read it with different eyes than when I was twelve. That does not mean that I no longer believe in the good in people, or that lying is wrong, or that the strong have a responsibility to defend the weak. I still believe in those things.

    But I am not a bumbling boy any longer. My monsters have grown. And if I am supposed to be a hero, I have my doubts about winning the fight with the dragons out there.

  11. Jamie,
    I completely agree. In the world of movies there was a long trend of gritty films made in the late sixties and through most of the seventies. The anti-hero of the Eastwood movies, the mafia films, and the Vietnam war movies, not to mention the occasional Midnight Cowboy, or Ordinary People.

    As a kid growing up in that age I could never understand my mother's fond memories of movies houses as most all films left me feeling miserable. Then in 1977 I saw Star Wars and walked out that's a movie.

    Nowadays few recall, but it did not get great reviews. The weekend it debuted I remember reading in the Detroit News that it was a throw back to an earlier time, that it was just a pile of tired cliches, that was overly simple and had no depth--but it was fun.

    But soon after the pendulum swung back.

    I guess, I just feel I'm back in the seventies again as far as fantasy novels are concerned.

  12. Sara,

    Just to be picky. Your question was: "I guess my question for you, is why is it not okay to have a bad guy be bad for no reason, but have a good guy be good for no reason."

    You say nothing of the good guy having to be heroic, or take a risk.

    But that does speak to your question. Most acts of goodness do not carry with them risk because society approves of them, but most acts of badness do carry risks because society does not approve. So the reason why a bad character has to have his motivations explained is because he is taking a risk, and usually that requires a significant reason.

  13. Long time Lurker here, but would like to throw my hat in the ring. I have seen you touch on this a few times, but I think you are coming at it from the wrong angle.

    Let’s take George RR Martin here for example (since you have mentioned him before). His Character Jaime, kills a king he was sworn to protect. He is considered "evil" by everyone, including the reader. Well, you come to find out later, the King planned to burn down the city (he ruled over) and all its inhabitants. I think this type of novel does a much better job of asking the question "what is evil?". Traditional fantasy comes in with a pre-conceived notion of what evil/good is...though I am not sure it is so easily defined.

    Was dropping THE bomb on Hiroshima evil? Is "serving" your God evil? Is invading a foreign land evil? Well, it all depends on context and perspective.

    I think I read a GRRM quote once that said something like "the human heart in conflict with itself is the only thing to write about". I think that statement works for any form of literature.

    I think Fantasy is getting a lot more credibility these days because good and evil are being treating in the same respect as history books (in terms of perspective), not religious books (where it is pre-defined).

    But like Tom said, life is better with choices (or is it?!? many studies say otherwise...)

  14. Take an example from your last post: "Telling a reader everything is not only boring, but insulting. Most people don’t like being talked down to."

    I think that is where people are being turned off by traditional fantasy. The are being told exactly who is good and who is evil. And what actions are good and evil. I want to read about their motivations, and see their actions...and decide for myself. That is much more engaging.

  15. Personally I love a great classic good vs evil epic fantasy, and I always will. However, I do think that a different approach to fantasy can be refreshing. The author that first comes to mind is Joe Abercrombie, who is also probably one of my top 10 favorite authors. No one is a hero in his books, but the characters are all amazing, and at times I almost liked them more because of their flaws. Also, I generally like more visceral blood and guts action in my books, which he has plenty of. Even if I look at your books, Royce and Hadrian aren't the normal heroes we see in fantasy (especially Royce), but I love both of them. One thing I like about your characters, is that even though they bad and stupid things, they have good intentions at heart.

    So I really just want the author to have complete free reign, to either embrace fantasy tropes or take the genre in a completely new generation. If the book is written well, I'm sure I'll love reading it either way.

  16. This is a topic that is absolutely in the forefront of my mind right at this moment. I just read a fantasy book (no names) from a gifted author whose series has just turned so dark, so bleak, that reading the book left me feeling bleak.

    That's not why I read fantasy.

    I am the first to admit that as a fantasy reader since the late 70's, there are too many overused story lines with cut and paste characters.

    But, I think that characters can have depth or even be gritty without being vulgar or vile. Heroes can have flaws while still having an abundance of redeeming qualities.

    We know a little of Royce's background. He wasn't always and Boyscout and he is often tempted to fall back to his old ways. He is still conflicted which is part of what gives him some depth, but he is still likeable to the reader.

    I think a lot of authors have fallen into the "shock value" and "dark" trap these days. It's not better than it was pre-1996 when every character was a scullery boy destined to be king or orphaned girl who had huge, untapped magical powers. The trap might have changed, but it's still a trap.

    The world does need heroes. Fantasy worlds do need heroes. Fiction in general needs heroes. They don't have to be perfect and they can have flaws, just like in "real life". It takes more skill from an author, I think, to give a character depth and internal conflict without resorting to what passes as "gritty" these days.

    I'll use my own metaphor. I don't mind "foul language" or touchy subjects in the stand up comedians I like. I do, however, recognize that the comics who can work "clean" and still be hilarious are more skilled than the ones who use vulgarity as a crutch.

    When enough "dark and gritty" books come out, and fantasy fans get tired of being depressed, the pendulum will swing back the other way. I think. I hope.


  17. BigZ and Splitter,


    Some extremes have been drawn from my post -- probably because I suck at writing. Although I have discovered the virtues of posting controversial topics. I get lots of posts and even reposts! I should do this more often.

    Despite the possibility of ruining my new found fame, I never meant to suggest that gritty fantasy has no place in this world and should be hunted down and erased. Nor did I mean to suggest that characters should be perfectly flawless (although I can see why some took from my post as I actually used the word in a negative sentence.) Those who have read my work such as Splitter realize, that isn't what I was driving at.

    But Splitter I think summed it up fairly well, in that there is overkill. Some folks obviously like worlds that are bleak and miserable beyond what I feel is realistic, but my primary point was that I took exception to the proponents of "gritty" all too often denouncing the traditional hero story as unrealistic, or in some way amateurish, or lacking in value. That a story must be filled with ethically bankrupt characters to be considered good, or realistic, or to have quality. And I personally just don't see that as being anywhere near true. And I suppose I'll stop complaining about dark and gritty fantasy, when supporters of such stop denouncing the classic style as nothing more than worthless cliches.

  18. After reading this, I'm looking forward to reading your books even more.

    Can't wait for that first omnibus to come out.

  19. I for one am a big fan of the kind of fiction you're talking about and that you write. I find it refreshing and it's what I look for in fiction. I think it's why I fell in love with Nathan Lowell's sci fi novels, and why I love your books. I'm glad there's a wide spectrum in fantasy though, like you said variety is a good thing.

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