Has Fantasy Gotten Better?

Today, Mr NW gives his opinion on the changes in fantasy writing styles over the years. You can find the previous instalment, where Mr NW discusses the “coolness” of science fiction here

Fantasy used to be given a bad rap for many reasons. People would say it lacked interesting characters or character development, that it lacked strong female leads, that there were far too many uses of magic and old dudes as solutions and deus ex machina. As much as it hurts me to say, these people were often right – at least when it comes to old fashioned fantasy. People often say that modern fantasy is better – but is it?

When fantasy was a budding genre, it was more about the awe and mystery of the world. The world-building was therefore the most important part. Characters would wander throughout the lands fighting dragons and evil lords with a perfect moral outlook on everything and not a hint of a personality. Any personality that did begin to shine through would be either one dimensional or disappear quicker than a fart in the wind. If we think back to the father (or possibly grandfather now) of modern fantasy, Mr. J. R. R. Tolkien, we think of Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits, epic battles and magic. Now, I love Tolkien’s books, but I also think it would fair to say that they lack characters with interesting personalities and they are most definitely a sausage-fest (think of Bilbo and the thirteen Dwarves).

Sausages

A sausage-fest

Your personality in Middle Earth is defined by your race. If you are an Elf, you will wander serenely from room to room knowing everything there is to know. If you are an Orc, you will scramble about snarling and spitting and hating everything. There is no Orc who must overcome his troubled past to become a contributing member of society while being ostracized for being transgender. Don’t get me wrong, his books are works of genius, but they are more about what happens to the characters and where they go than it is about the characters themselves.

Fantasy was often guilty of using mysterious old dudes to explain everything as a way for the author to impart necessary details. Never-mind that the conversations often seem out of place and often contain information that would be ridiculous for the other characters not to know. It can often result in tedious information dumping as well. This usually gets mixed in with magic or some item, both being suitably mysterious, so that any issues along the way can be easily resolved. Anything can happen if the magic and item have no defined rules or use: “Arrrghhhh there are a million monsters over there and the evil lord Cockbutt is just behind us!” and then “all good bro, I got dis sword from the old dude which is gonna cast bolts of lightning cos I now understand what love is.” The well known fantasy author Brandon Sanderson famously said  “An author’s 2F901C48-AF40-4346-AF45-9960E3774D99ability to solve conflict satisfactorily with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.” Brandon is well known for interesting and unique magic systems with defined rules such as allomancy in his Mistborn series. While this detracts from the mystery and awe one might feel for the magic, it does make the use of it during conflict seem somehow more authentic and believable.

Move forward a few years and you’ll find the landscape of fantasy has changed. World-building is more of a backdrop and is no longer the centerpiece. We have worlds with more strict and strange uses of magic and we have morally grey characters that feel like real beings that are subject to the drawbacks of human nature. We have women playing major roles and kicking butt rather than just standing on the sidelines. Think Brandon Sanderson, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, Mark Lawrence, Pat Rothfuss, George R. R. Martin, Luke Scull, Peter V. Brett, Trudi Cavanan, Robin Hobb, David Hair…I could keep going – the real list would be quite extensive! You’ll find people saying they hate or love characters from these books but you would be hard put to find people that say they are boring.

Thorns

The highly polarizing Jorg Ancrath from Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

So does this mean fantasy is getting better?

I am not always so sure. Sometimes I like to read fantasy to escape this world into a wondorous place where I can travel over mountains and into caves and discover mysterious magic without the complications of human personalities (that I have to deal with on a daily basis already!). I think this is what attracted people to these books in the first place. They actually liked it for all the reasons others shunned it. Other times, I love getting stuck into books with characters that feel real and with dirty politics. I read all types of fantasy and the book I choose on any given evening will depend entirely on the mood that I am in.

Have you noticed a change in the style of fantasy writing? Are there some books that you are more drawn to than others?

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33 thoughts on “Has Fantasy Gotten Better?

  1. I think fantasy has *changed* to better suit the majority of people who read it. Sadly, I don’t see that as much of a good thing. While I definitely like the fact that tomes can now sell [Brent Weeks would NEVER have sold in the 80’s], I don’t like that characters like Jorge even exist as the main character.

    I would say that Fantasy has changed for the better from a literary standpoint. But in every other way, I think it has become just as morally diluted and corrupt as our society and that is not a good thing.

    Great post for discussion…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Mrs NW here – Thanks for getting the discussion started, Bookstooge.

      Prince of Thorns was actually supposed to be my next assigned reading but I gave up about 20 pages in.

      My question on all of this is, is the change being driven by publishers or writers? I know someone who submitted a manuscript and the publishers thought it was great, but said they were only taking laugh out loud funny not black humour. I wonder how much is influenced from that side of things. I guess publishing is a fairly low margin business these days and driven by what will sell, hence the “mainstreaming”.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Prince of Thorns is what turned me into an avowed Mark Lawrence hater. I’ve heard good things about his Red Sister series though, so that might change.

        I think readers are ultimately responsible. But as for the writer/publisher, I’m going with the writers. Mainly because with so many ways to publish, writers aren’t limited to a publishing house anymore. So they can write whatever they want…

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I read fantasy mostly for this: “to escape this world into a wondorous place where I can travel over mountains and into caves and discover mysterious magic without the complications of human personalities”.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I was always more of a SF reader and only read a little Fantasy as a teen (I think my atheist, pro-science outlook made me a little wary) but then again I was a fan of comic superheroes and they’re essentially fantasy heroes plonked in modern scenarios. I read Anne McCaffrey’s White Dragon and it was OK, but the number of characters, dragons and locations drove me mad. Similarly, I only read Tolkien when I heard that they were going to be making the films. Again, generally OK, although with some tedious passages. Very reminiscent of The Iliad and The Odyssey.
    The thing that really made me interested in the possibilities of fantasy was Pratchett’s Discworld. It deliberately took the piss, especially in the early books, but with a certain amount of warmth. What’s noticeable from about ten or so books in is that the magic declines (the Wizards of Unseen University seem to go to great lengths to avoid using it) and the characters and storylines bloom. Chapter 2 of The Shepherd’s Crown was the most emotional thing I’ve read in years (almost welling up just thinking about it).
    So, these days I do read a bit of Fantasy but mostly by D Wallace Peach, because she keeps the magic to a minimum, sets up a cool scenario with great characters (who feel real) and tells a fantastic story. Totally recommend Sunwielder and her recent Rose Shield series. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks for the recommendations. It’s funny how careful authors need to be about their magic. I think the same can be said for SF as well at times though as technology (the SF equivalent of fantasy magic) can become a fix-all solution. Good SF writers will usually create plausible technologies with realistic limitations though and I don’t come across the problem nearly as much in SF.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m not sure that dwelling on the male dominated world of fantasy in the case of J.R.R. Tolkien is fair given his historical context? Given his experience of fighting in World War I and then teaching in an absolutely male dominated Oxford- he is very much a product of his time. Even so, he way he writes about Eowyn is fascinating, considering that in her character he basically gives back a chance of life to the Arthurian Elaine of Astolat.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re completely right of course. I have the advantage of looking at Tolkien’s work from a modern perspective and his writing is certainly a product of the time. I think the changes we see in writing likely reflect some of the changes we’ve had in attitudes and society.

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  5. I’m an old school SF fan, and I hate the way the SF shelves in the bookshop are increasingly dominated by great slabs of swords’n’sorcery, usually endless volumes of exactly the same stuff by the same author, like they’re paid by the meter. And the covers really are astonishingly awful – like SF covers were in about 1968. Yech.

    Terry Pratchett’s withering response to J K Rowling’s assertion that she wasn’t writing fantasy is worth Googling. The problem with Rowling is that she’s so leaden: the children’s response to the discovery of a dragon is not ‘wow! A dragon!’ , but ‘dragons are against school rules’. Magic as GCSE coursework. They are fantasy in that they’re as thick as doorstops and choc full of chosen ones and dark lords, but compared to A Wizard of Earthsea, they never take flight. Philip Pullman was lucky, marketingwise, to get what is clearly a ‘fantasy’ series listed as a children’s book and thus allowed into the hallowed ground of serious proper books at the front of the bookshop.
    I’m not that keen on pure fantasy (all that dragonrider crap), but China Mieville’s is sometimes palatable, when he remembers to give characters a character, M John Harrison’s Viriconium series (some call it anti-fantasy) extraordinary, Mervyn Peake’s one of my favourite writers in any genre, and Terry Pratchett’s ‘Going Postal’ was the most enjoyable thing I read lately.

    It strikes me that what is important in literature is actually having something interesting to say and being able to say it well. The genre, really, is just scenery.
    I’ve read across all sorts in my time and I have to admit that I do have a special place in my heart for fantasy and science fiction, though it’s probably not something I’d bang a drum about at a dinner party because of the mis-conceptions and associations with the genres. I’ve tried reading several worthy books on worthy subjects and been bored to tears by some, essentially because while the authour is pretty damn clever, they’re crap at writing. Or vice versa. For all the technical flair of Nabokov, I’ve never been gripped by a word he’s had to say. The Fantasy Masterworks series has some excellent stuff, including the first two novels of Jonathan Carroll, The Land of Laughs and Voice of Our Shadow. His third book, Bones of the Moon is even better, I think, though I read one his later novels and wasn’t so impressed. Another magic realist novel that is much underrated is Robert Irwin’s The Arabian Nightmare, which, like Bones of the Moon, is about dreaming. Then there’s the brilliant horror writer Ramsey Campbell, who deserves to be read by non-horror fans – really, he writes psychological thrillers, and is one of the best prose-writers I know. And for a reference book, John Clute and John Grant’s Encyclopedia of SF and Fantasy (both volumes) is wonderful, rich in ideas and obscure references, the sort of book you can browse in for hours.

    There is plenty of SF of real literary quality, just as in any other genre of fiction, including fantasy. Of course, there is also plenty of dross, but then that’s also true of any other genre. Mind you, this adage does not apply to “bitter and twisted middle-aged middle-class metropolitan author writing endlessly about his own mid-life crisis” novels, as 100% of these seem to be crap, but nobody will admit that these are also “genre” fiction, “Grumpy-Old-Man-Lit” comparable to “Chick-Lit”. However, some of it sells, some of it sells VERY well, people read it and enjoy it. A good proportion of genre fiction does exactly what it is intended to do — a quick easy unchallenging read that entertains, feeds the imagination and helps you kick back at lunchtime after a hard morning in the office. Broadly speaking no harm is done to the end reader, but the harm is done at the bookshop end for your serious SF reader who has to dig deeper beyond the 3 for 2s to find new quality fiction, genre or otherwise.

    SF = Speculative Fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment, Manuel. Lots of food for thought in there. It’s great to hear from other people like yourself who are clearly passionate about fantasy and science fiction. That’s one of the reasons we started this blog – as you say bringing the subject up at a dinner party never goes well. Bookshops here barely stock anything worth reading, only the most mainstream of publications. A lot won’t even have a dedicated science fiction and fantasy section anymore. It’s a real shame.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, Shannara… I’m reading the second one at the moment and struggling a wee bit. I was tempted to use it as a shining example of the old dude and magic item combo in my article. I haven’t read The Liar’s Key but I have read the first one, Prince of Fools, which was great. Love the fact that Mark Lawrence didn’t shy away from making the main character a coward!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The MC is pretty nuanced. I don’t think he’s a coward, no matter how much he says he is. I think he just doesn’t desire honor for fighting. He’d rather just be loved as a prince.

        Both are pretty good.

        Congrats on getting through Shannara 1. I couldn’t.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. You listed many of my favorite authors!! I loved Tolkien as a teenager, but grew out of the elves, dwarves, and wizards rather quickly. The grimdark fantasy (those authors that you listed) are quite popular, but the work is relatively dark with flawed characters. They’re not for all readers. Sanderson has some of the best magic systems that I’ve come across, primarily because they’re so rule-based (they almost feel scientific) and I love that. Fantasy authors would be wise, IMHO, to learn his rules. Mystborn is a fabulous example. So, yeah, I think it’s gotten better as a rule. 😀

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Sounds like we have similar taste! I always marvel at Sanderson’s ability to come up with new and interesting magic systems and worlds. Pat Rothfuss tries to make the best of both worlds – he has the Sympathy with the strict rules but then leaves Naming and things like Alchemy as mysterious.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We do have similar tastes. It’s fun fan-girling over your posts. 🙂 Sanderson teaches a writing class at Brigham Young (it’s on Youtube) and he goes into some detail about magic systems. I’ve watched it several times and learn something new with each pass. He really is a master at it.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I agree with so many of your points!

    I love LotR, and refer back to it often in my blog, but I will freely admit to enjoying the films more because they explore the characters and their relationships better. Upon rereading the books after watching the films, I was surprised at how two dimensional the characters truly were.

    And I absolutely agree with your preference of fantasy depending on your mood! For the most part, I love the kind of fantasy being produced now, with complicated characters. Im not one who needs a magic system that is thoroughly explained and understandable, I like the mystery of the kind of magic that’s just there and gets used. But sometimes it’s nice to pick up an old style fantasy just for an easy, comforting read

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Very interesting post! Given me so much to ponder! Personally, I would hazard a guess and say that I don’t think fantasy’s gotten better or worse. I don’t really prescribe to linear progressions in standard of art in general and in my personal experience I’ve read great and terrible early examples of fantasy and the same is true of contemporary examples. Taste and appetite changes all the time- which accounts for a more vested interest in different types of protagonists (like anti-heroes) or more complex magic systems (like Sanderson). One thing that I can especially appreciate about modern fantasy is the cacophony of styles used for modern fantasy- I believe Bookstooge talked about different publishing houses being available- and I definitely think that’s a marked difference, since a lot of older fantasy (in my opinion) seemed to be limited to one particular type of prose (whereas now I would say someone like Rothfuss is hugely different to the style of, say, the Stephen King’s of the world) Sorry if I’m rambling- this has just made me think a lot!

    Liked by 3 people

  9. It’s okay, we love rambling – it’s what we are interested in! I agree with your point regarding linear progressions on a book-by-book basis, however I think you can look at trends on a higher level over larger time-scales (like decades). I think there are many reasons for the changes in appetite and taste that you pointed out. Somehow I doubt that Prince of Thorns would have sold as well in 1950!

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  10. I’m not much of a high fantasy reader, although I have been trying to get more into the genre as of late, but I do think that, for me at least, it has gotten better. I tend to go for more character driven books instead of books with very heavy world building. If I can’t relate to the characters and care for their wellbeing then the rest of the book seems pointless, however grand of epic in plot and world building. I tried to read The Hobbit and was bored out of my mind so I just left it, and yet I loved A Song of Ice and Fire this far (I’m still not done with the series) Still, it’s all really just a matter of taste and opinion. It also depends on the society of the time and what we consider acceptable. There are a log of books published today that would never have been published 50 years ago, not because they aren’t good but because it simply wasn’t what people wanted to read or it wasn’t a norm.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Mrs NW here – So glad I’m not the only one that got bored reading The Hobbit. There was a lot of walking around. I’m quite keen to read A Song of Ice and Fire – are they easy to get into? What did you love about them?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. What I love more about the series are the characters. I love each of their personal stories and all of the things they have to endure to become who they are. I also like how flawed and complex each of them is, it really is a character driven story. As for them being easy to get into to, that depends. Once you start getting the hang of the characters it’s easy to keep going.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. I want to say that fantasy is much better now. Authors and writers are trying to break the molds of Elf=good, Orc=bad. I read a series (I believe it is called ORCS) and it was all about Orcs. The story was very compelling and although the Orcs were mercenaries, they had a lot going on with characters that you grew to love.

    Also lately when fantasy meets the gaming world, games such as Skyrim and Dragon Age put elves for example, in a really dark place. The elves in these worlds are, for no better words, shit heads.

    So the molds are breaking apart which is great. Also more equality with gender as there are girl adventurers that are not in distress. Although stories such as explore, go kill dragon, find magical sword mold are still good, I like the way that fantasy is heading.

    And I read somewhere that Tolkien was very offended once when someone compared LOTR to a sausage fest party. But we all love J.R.R. and his stuff or at least appreciate it.

    /thumbs up

    Liked by 1 person

  12. First off, Brandon Sanderson is an absolute gift. He makes you care about his characters. His world building literally transports your mind to another realm. And his system of magic, like you said, if well thought out.

    That said, I would like to say that I think that Tolkien was still a phenomenal writer. True, his characters weren’t very three dimensional, but in his case they didn’t need to be. Tolkien was writing books more along the lines of a traditional fairy tale or a Noordic or a Biblical epic than he was a modern novel. So all that has to be taken into consideration. In short, he wasn’t working on his own novels so much as he was his own mythologies. And his work is beautiful and poetic. Even The Hobbit is a charming little book that’s beautifully written, despite lack of characterization.

    On the other hand, I do agree that there are a lot of bad fantasy novels, particularly back in the day. One series that comes to my mind is from the 1980s. It’s a series entitled The Belgeriad, and it starts with “Pawn of Prophecy.” The series is by David Eddings, and boy is it awful. He tries to give his characters personality, but they all seem flat regardless. The world doesn’t feel all that interesting, and the story just feels so cliche, as cliche as some of the fantasy movies of the time.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Hello! A first-time reader of your blog here!

    As much as I love fantasy, and as much as I write it, I feel I’m too far behind on what modern fantasy is like. 😦 I have a few go-to authors, but I rarely venture out of my comfort zone. I think it’s because I have this stereotype that most fantasy texts suck – which I know is contradictory, since I’m a fantasy writer myself!

    Then again, I feel that it is extremely fruitful for fantasy writers to delve into non-fiction. My writing certainly got much better after I broadened my horizons. So maybe it’s time to break out of my self-imposed fantasy lit shell?

    Liked by 1 person

  14. In the late 70s and early 80s I think mainstream fantasy was more interesting than is given credit sometimes. There were quite a few chosen ones floating around, and not a few evil gods and dark lords, but there were also lost Riddlemasters, feuding Weyr leaders, and morose Melnibonians dotting the landscape. Glen Cook started the Black Company in the 80s.

    I think the genre expanded, and readers who had grown up with escapist fun and light versus dark, or who had missed some of the complexities of the books they had read as kids and teens, wanted to make it more ‘real’, and wrote their stories in part kicking against what they had read and loved themselves. This is a natural evolution in a genre or art form: the archetypes get established, variants created, then the archetypes themselves are challenged and deconstructed, before being reborn anew. or discarded entirely. Let’s hope the latter does not happen!

    In the late 80s I started writing my first grown up book, inspired by my university classes, Watchmen and the Dark Knight. By the standards of its time it would have been very grim in outlook with a classic tortured hero who doesn’t succeed in what he wants to do by the end of the story. By today’s grimdark standards, it would be pretty weak tea. The boundaries that existed when I started writing have been pushed very far indeed. Jorg is a classic example.

    I suspect there will be a shiny happy people moment again in fantasy, when the vogue returns to heroic tales with chivalrous protagonists, but with some modern twists, and deeper characterisation, to be sure. The reborn phase of ‘rediscovering’ the archetypes that drove fantasy in the first place, reimagined (I hate that word) for a new generation. I have a few ideas in that direction, but given my current commitments, I am sure I will arrive 3-5 years late to that party! Such is life!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Today’s grimdark to me (Mrs NW – not a huge fanasty reader) seems very reactionary. Like instead of a subtle shift to more real characters, a huge swing towards being as polarising as possible. I agree that in time the middle ground will be more favoured. Better late than never to the party, right?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Mrs NW! I think the push toward polarising characters is part of testing the boundaries of the genre, and is probably entirely natural as part of a process whereby authors look (consciously or not) for something ‘new’ to say. Going to extremes is certainly one way to be new, for a while, but you can get into an arms race of shock and the grotesque, which, if not tied to anything deeper in terms of storytelling and characterisation ends up running dry or becoming empty, like the glut of bad slasher movies nobody paid much attention to by the late 80s because the shock of the formula had worn off pretty quickly from its late 70s early 80s heyday. It didn’t take that long (1996) for the parody of Scream to arrive! The genre moved on, and cannibalised itself – which led to reboots of the originals, and so the cycle started anew!

        So I think it is part of the evolution of the fantasy genre, and a way to map out new territory in broad brushstrokes, which other writers can then investigate in more detail if they wish. I was always grim by inclination, but not in a body-horror/testing moral extremes kind of way that is now being explored. I’m currently writing what I think will be my grim-darkest novel, which has as its protagonist an unrepentant killer who lives in a forsaken society, where he and his peers have been literally penned up and left for dead, so for him it is a survival mechanism. In the end it is about family, secrets, love, and sacrifice, in very bloody clothing and with a healthy dose of paranoia thrown in. What is important to me is exploring why he acts as he does, and to show his evolution from someone completely closed off emotionally to a person who can maybe put other people’s needs first, which is incredibly difficult for him. That and what has shaped his society and his story, and to face down the challenge of making such a character remotely sympathetic as a lead, given some of his extreme actions. I think I’m managing it, but it will be up to the readers to decide!

        As for that party – when I finally show up I’ll bring the replacement beer supply, with a spash of old-fashioned heroism thrown in! I do so want to write my Tolkienesque tribute trilogy, with a few wrinkles, of course (goblins as the victims of dwarven hubris, for example), but my current story arc means it will be some time before that can see the light of day! And it might not even be next up on deck anyway – I have another epic cycle which could be viewed as a long drawn out example of how bullying can seem harmless to those who do it, until it leads to the destruction of everything they love. Or something. And there are sirens involved. It’s a thing. I’m going on. Thank you for your thoughtful reply!

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