Ten Things I Want to See More of in Fantasy Literature

Consider this a call for suggestions. While I do my best to catch up on reading, covering both classics and new material, I can’t be everywhere at once. And between my own writing and editing I don’t have a lot of time to scour the internet…

So: ten things I’d like to see more of in fantasy literature (some I’ve already mentioned but hey, if they’re still irking me, they’re worth mentioning again!).

  1. Gender bending. Why not? If I read one more fantasy novel with a deviant/evil homosexual character I might actually light it on fire. I mean, come on people. Fantasy is the most forgiving of all genres, and yet we’re still conforming to antiquated notions about sex, sexuality, and gender? Shame, shame!
  2. Women heroes that don’t suck. This is still an issue. Or if the women are heroes, they either resort to sex or violence to get what they want. Or they depend on a man for power. Or they are looking for a man’s approval. How about a woman just being plain smart? Or skilled? How about a woman with kids instead of some moody, love-stricken maven?
  3. Animals other than dragons. I’ve written about this before. And I like dragons, really, I promise I do. But it’s swords and sorcery, not dragons and sorcery.
  4. Creatures other than, say, vampires and zombies. It’s high time we give the less-known werewolves, manticores and minotaurs their turn, wouldn’t you say? Or at least if you choose the vampire/zombie type story, write them well. And please stray from sexy, cute, and/or sparkly.
  5. Really gritty battle. Fights that draw blood, that incapacitate, that leave scars mentally and physically. Even on heroes. Even on wizards. But not to the point of innards flying all over the place.
  6. Risks other than the Bad Guys Winning. Yes, I know that one of the comforts of the fantasy genre is the notion of good vs. evil, the light vs. the dark, and all that jazz. But hasn’t that been done to death? Aren’t we beyond that at this point? Readers need to be challenged, and as much as I love the old regime like Tolkien and his ilk, that model just doesn’t hold in our world anymore. Give me the gritty gray area!
  7. Realistic dialogue. Sure, writing dialogue in a fantasy world is tough. They’re probably not even speaking something remotely English. But the stiff, heightened, and often laughingly archaic language just cheapens the whole thing and often comes in the way of good writing. Chill out, use contractions, and make it readable!
  8. Settings that don’t look like England. Okay, I’m guilty as charged, but well, you know. Though I’m currently writing a story in a very Britain-esque world, I am hungering for something sweeping and foreign. A fantasy in a rain forest, or the steppes, or the Serengeti.
  9. Intriguing cultures. Not cultures based on real cultures. Not even necessarily human cultures. I want whacked out weird and above all, convincing cultures. Down to the food, the gesticulations, and the customs. Yes, I’m in a demanding mood. Why do you ask?
  10. Stories that make me cry. Epic and fantasy go hand in hand for me. But if the story doesn’t move me, is predictable, and leaves me scratching my head or checking to see if I missed something, it feels like one hell of a waste of time. And these days I don’t have that time to waste!

So how about you? Any fantasy genre gripes? Or good reading suggestions?

  • http://elizaw.wordpress.com elizaw

    How about heroic characters that don’t go about toting twenty-first century ideology? When the villains are historically correct and your heroes are time traveling ‘sensitive’ sorts… This drives me crazy.

    I was actually getting a post ready about heroines that impress me– they’re really, really hard to find in any genre. I had to take my examples from movies. In fact, anyone who’s trying to pass off a woman as a badass usually makes her a hero-copy with boobs… not a trace of femininity left intact. Why is it that we can’t have a woman be a real character, with real attributes?

    • http://www.aldersgatecycle.com Natania

      @elizaw Definitely. It’s hard to separate our mindset from the mindset of our characters, and I struggle with this too. Right now I’m working on a project that has a whole lot less gray area than anything I’ve written before, and I’m finding myself a bit frustrated with the niceness of some of the characters. But I do also tend to inflect my opinions on them, and occasionally this ends up being really artificial feeling.

      As to women, yes: my biggest gripe of all, save likely #1. It’s not just the whole hero-copy with boobs” slant that gets to me, it’s not explaining it. (Or explaining it by saying she was abused, raped, or whatever by a man, and then becamethat man.) I just don’t buy the backstories most of the time. Not to mention so many of these books have one or maybe two women. How about a handful? How about a variety of intriguing women, all with different backgrounds and strengths? Just like we do so often with men?

  • http://trepanatus.blogspot.com/ Liam

    Although I don’t do a lot of fantasy reading per se (the closest I come is steampunk and Lovecraftian weirdness), you have a good list here that could apply to a few different genres. The dialog question is big — it’s one of the reasons that as a historian I approach historical novels with a dark sense of foreboding (that and the related question of mindset that Elizaw brought up). It’s like the pompous pseudo-English accent amateur actors use in community theater productions of Shakespeare — It’s way too obvious and evokes plastic swords and cardboard backgrounds.

    I like how Scorcese dealt with the problem in the Last Tempatation of Christ. All the Jews sounded like they came from Brooklyn and all the Romans had English accents.

    • http://www.aldersgatecycle.com Natania

      @Liam Yes yes! I think this is the primary reason that I stray from dialect in general, especially the “upper class” and “lower class” British type. Just have the reader figure it out, or do it in a way that isn’t rife with artifice. It’s one of the reasons I stay away from historical novels as a whole, and generally cringe reading too much dialect in fantasy novels. In a film you are free to interpret, and I think that’s what made Scorcese unique; however, overextending the dialogue in a novel just comes off as a) difficult to read and b) forced.

      • http://mariadkins.com Mari

        When I first started Midnight, I was going to write the dialogue in dialect. Then I lived in Harlan County three more years. What I learned was that in that tiny corner of the world, if you stand still in the middle of Wal-Mart or Don’s SuperSaver, you can pick out which end of the county, even which holler someone is from just by listening to him speak. So that idea went straight out the window. We won’t even begin to detail how problematic putting any Kentucky accent on paper is …

  • http://ken-schneyer.livejournal.com Ken Schneyer

    I agree with most of this.

    Interestingly, ## 1, 2, 8 and 9 are often different versions of a failure of the imagination, if we assume that the author is a Western, straight, white male. That is, the author fails successfully to imagine and embody times/places/characters that aren’t him/his own.

    #2 (or the “hero-copy with boobs” problem), in the case of a female author, is a much more interesting problem. One could spend all day, I suppose, weaving “false consciousness” theories about that.

    The problem elizaw identifies may, ultimately, be insoluble. It’s all well and good for historians to admonish us not to engage in “presentism,” but readers (especially since about 1970) have been inclined to dismiss / be offended by characters whose attitudes deviate too far from their own. The casual racism, sexism, antisemitism etc. that you would find in pretty much any realistic European character from — well, pretty much any time before now — is a turn-off to a huge group of readers. Mary Renault’s Bagoas may be the darling of those who yearn for sympathetic gay characters, but his attitudes towards women (realistic for the period) make a lots of readers throw the book down. Main characters / heroes, we keep being told, must be “sympathetic”, must give the reader a hook. One needs to be a much better writer than I am to have the reader sympathize with, much less like, a protagonist s/he’s going to find fundamentally offensive. I think we live in a comparatively intolerant era that way. Thus Sam Raimi’s Hercules becomes Mister Let’s-All-Get-Along, which couldn’t be further from the tower of rage we see in the myth.

    As for how characters speak: They are going to speak either in a manner that the reader recognizes, or a manner she doesn’t. If the former, then you’re going to signal to the reader certain cultural tropes and shortcuts that may help (or hurt) the impression you’re trying to create. Inevitably that’s going to be “false,” if you’re really trying to be somewhere/sometime far away. If the latter, then the reader may have no antecedents with which to work, and won’t get the jokes (or understand the pathos) of what is being said until 100 pages into the book. Viddy well, little Alex.

    On the other hand, judicious use of philology may be helpful. One could, for example, write dialogue in which every word uttered by the characters was of Anglo-Saxon (rather than Romance) origin, or where you never used words longer than (or shorter than) a certain number of syllables, or where aliteration is key (as in the case of Middle English poetry). One could use only words that have a stem in Indo-European (e.g., never use the word “sea” or “ocean” or any synonym for it). One could limit or alter one’s grammatical constructions so that certain tenses, cases or persons were never used. (My favorite example is Robert Silverberg’s A Time of Changes, in which no one ever uses the first person singular except as profanity.)

    Well, okay, now I’ve talked myself out of it. Having dwelled on it, I now think that you can create a sense of being somewhere else using dialogue without resorting either to tired old cliches or modern signals. Must go out and try it…

    • http://www.aldersgatecycle.com Natania

      @Ken You’re right: it’s no easy fix. And it’s complicated. And readers are resistant to the challenge. But as our world has changed, so too can the minds of readers. But a great deal of it does have to do with publishers, and what sells…

      The language issue is tricky. I’ve tossed books for being both too “fake” sounding and too 20th century sounding. As well I’ve tossed books for just being inconsistent! I mean, once I read an Elizabethan-era novel where people were saying, “Sure, okay.” Just grated on me. The closest I’ve ever come is having to find a pronoun for people who were neither male nor female–I ended up looking to Middle English to find something.

      I certainly admire writers who work to create a total feeling of another language. It just sometimes can come in the way of the actual story, which in my mind anyway, is the most important part of the whole book. :)

  • http://www.madamerubies.com Heather

    Great post. I have wondered about the England thing myself.

  • qorvus

    My biggest irk with fantasy is that it almost always seems to be set in a medieval European time frame and hasn’t changed from that for thousands of years – as a history geek that really grates.

    Oddly enough a lot of the points you’ve raised I’ve tried to avoid in my writing and world.

    2) I’m not a woman, so obviously I find it easier to write about men, but I do have three women heroes that aren’t sex-crazed, violent, moody man chasers or man haters. Fairly normal. Okay – perhaps not so normal, otherwise they wouldn’t be heroes :P But they are intelligent and skilled in their fields.

    3) Okay, I have dragons. Its hard not to. But they are not standard dragons, looking more like winged versions of Thorny Devil lizards and they are barely ever seen, keeping way in teh background.

    4) Werewolves. Check. Minotaurs. Bigger check. Both figure prominently. Zombies, not at all. Vampires, sort of – but the race that stands in for them also fills in for the elves. Elves are evil. Yup, the elves are evil in my setting while minotaurs, werewolves and goblins/hobgoblins, normally on the side of evil, are the good guys.

    5) Check. People die, even main characters (but main characters need to go out in style) . They also don’t win every fight, and even in winning fights many are wounded.

    6) Okay, the good vs evil stuff is there, but it is background stuff that most characters are unaware of and really impedes on events in the world. There are wars fought over land, power, trade and not because one side is evil and the other is good – there are even wars where the nominally good side looses.

    7) A lot of dialogue I use is much as I speak – Word tells me off all the time for it not being ‘correct’ grammar either. Of course it does vary a bit between characters – some are prone to the more proper modes of speech while others say whatever.

    8) There is nothing that really looks like The Shire in my setting. There is a lot of desert and arid land around, there is hill country and snowy regions and a wide gamut of others, but nothing that really leaps out and says good old misty England

    9) Some groups have elements of real world cultures I will admit, and those mostly human, and even then are more often than not a combination, while others are fairly unique.

    10) I’ll let you know when I actually finish something.

    • http://www.aldersgatecycle.com Natania

      @qorvus Wow! Good work. Sounds like something I’d like to read! But unfortunately I’m not sure if people want to see change. As in many genres, readers get very comfortable. You need only browse the SF/F section at any local book store to see that bikini-clad barbarian princesses still sell books, and innovation isn’t exactly the name of the game. It’s one of the reasons I often defect to the Victorian/steampunk side of things. But it looks like you’re on the right track, anyway!

  • http://saltprophet.blogspot.com/ Todd

    I really like this post.

    Regarding number 2(oh, that doesn’t sound right): In graduate school, I took a course on Feminist Science Fiction. I didn’t really know it was a feminist course until we started, but it was a rich, rich experience. Here a few titles from the course that may feed your need. They rock:

    He, She and It by Marge Piercy
    The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri S. Tepper
    Bloodchild by Octavia Butler
    Wildseed by Octavia Butler
    “The Women Men Don’t See” by Henry Tiptree, Jr.
    China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh

    Numbers 6,7,8,9: Perdido Street Station by China Mieville——This novel is original.

    As for stories that are touching (I don’t weep on my books that much. Must maintain macho facade), Orson Scott Card knows how to strike one’s core. I recently read a story in Maps in the Mirror titled, “Unaccompanied Sonata.” Beautiful, beautiful story.

    Thanks for stirring my brain!

  • qorvus

    I have to believe that people want something different and not always the same cheap, derivative knockoffs, otherwise I’d go mad.

    Of course then you see drek like Twilight and Eragon out there and despair.

  • Sarah

    I’ve been working on a story for years, on and off. I started at about 14 and my plot was little more than every cliche about a fantasy world smooshed together and poorly formatted. i wrote two chapters and an outline and then developed a social life. My book went on a shelf. Now, half a decade later, i have about 18 varied plots, new characters, settings… Its essentially an whole new story now, but the characters are developing, and the plot is intriguing. Its different. The names are the only real constant left. I have been on a quest for overdone plot and character aspects, and morphing my story to build beyond that. So far, its going well, and I am excited to see it done. Its as though the story is its own conscious being, growing as I do, but using me only as a conveyance.