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).
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 ability 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.
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.