About Imagination, Gadgetry and Avoiding Fantasy Tropes

July 24, 2011 § 27 Comments

So, about eight months ago I set out to write a fantasy novel without any particular plan in mind. I didn’t have a clear idea about what I would write: on the contrary, the fun of it was to put pen to paper and see what happened. I was interested to see what my imagination would produce if I gave it free rein. And that’s why I like to write fantasy: there are no real limits. I can write whatever my imagination can concoct.

I probably had a clearer idea about what I didn’t want to write. I’ve been a big fan of fantasy fiction since I was a child, and I’ve read an awful lot of it. These days that feels like I’ve read the same three stories about a thousand times each. So here are the fantasy tropes I was specifically avoiding:

– Elves, or any obvious derivative thereof;

– Dwarves, or any obvious derivative thereof;

– Any sort of ancient enmity between my obvious elf-and-dwarf-race derivatives;

– Wizards in pointy hats (much as I love pointy hats in themselves);

– The sort of magic that involves throwing fireballs;

– Unicorns of Power (for “unicorns” also read “dragons/gryphons/winged horses/etc”);

– A pseudo-medieval setting;

– An ancient, legendary sword/ring/orb of unthinkable power;

– An orphaned child hero who turns out to be the lost heir to a kingdom;

– A villain who is The Lord of Evil and is (inexplicably) determined to cover the world in Shadow;

– Any kind of prophecy whatsoever.

That sounds harsh. I do have a definite soft spot for all of the above, and I don’t mean to imply that a fantasy book that involves any of the items on my list is not worth reading. Far from it. I simply wanted to do something different.

So how did I do? It turns out that most of the above were pretty easy to avoid. I took a generally nineteenth-century society as a basis for my setting – my characters travel in carriages, have running water and proper bathing facilities – and I have an all human cast (though some of my humans are winged). There are no fireballs, pointy hats or unicorns and there are strictly NO prophecies. I have two protagonists, both female: one suffers, if anything, from an excess of family security rather than the opposite and the other is an entirely stable, high-ranking and powerful woman of 38 (why are so many fantasy heroes/heroines under twenty five, by the way?).

I also avoided the idea that if there’s magic, you can’t have science or technology. When I discussed this on twitter, it was pointed out (quite rightly) that “magic” usually means science that isn’t understood yet; totally true, but my beef with fantasy and sci-fi is that we tend to end up with one extreme or the other. If there’s “magic”, there’s no science, and if there is any form of advanced technology there can’t really be magic. Our fictional alter-egos either understand everything, or nothing. Now me, I am a fan of fanciful gadgetry. I enjoy steampunk, though not exclusively; steam power is terrifically fun but there’s a much broader category of mildly deranged fantasy-themed gadgetry one could imagine. So I did! So far my characters have cameras, elevators, tracking devices and a form of television. I’m looking forward to developing that further in the next book.

I probably had way too much fun with the weird and wonderful creatures and the peculiar places. In this I can see the influence of one of my lifelong favourites, Alice in Wonderland. Why have mundanity when you can have colourful unpredictability? I have characters living in giant mushroom houses and houses on stilts; I have distant worlds that generate a whole new landscape every hour or so; I have a world full of creatures that have never appeared in any zoological reference book save my own; I have madly civilised tea-drinking villains, carnivorous plants and countries Β where it’s always either light or dark, but never both in succession. And yet in spite of all this oddness I can see that the whole thing is utterly steeped in Englishness. I’m speaking of the national rather than the personal.

Ah well. That’s what you get for taking the chains off the imagination and letting it go.

Anyway, in the middle of all this madness there was one trope I utterly failed to avoid. The dragons. They snuck in in spite of my best efforts and took over the whole story. Why was that? I don’t know. The best I can say is that of all the most common fantasy tropes, dragons for some reason have always stayed with me the longest. I didn’t really want to write about dragons, but in the end I find that I don’t mind.

So, the sum total of all this fantasy trope avoidance is, apparently, that I have written a science fiction book instead. So say some of my beta readers. I’m not sure what to make of that, but fair enough: it stands as a work of mixed fantasy and sci-fi and we’ll see what happens. As of now, the newly-named DraykonΒ is awaiting its cover art. There are a couple of formatting problems to iron out (with which, fortunately, I will have help) and a blurb to write (at which I am terrifically bad, so that may take me some time).

Then it’s time to start work on the sequel.

Hey ho. The road goes ever on and on… πŸ˜‰

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§ 27 Responses to About Imagination, Gadgetry and Avoiding Fantasy Tropes

  • Lissa says:

    Well done on finishing everything. Sequels are so much fun! This books sounds a-mazing. I myself managed to avoid everything bar the dreaded prophecy… ah, the prophecy.

    • Charlotte says:

      I suppose the prophecy is so popular because it’s a tremendously convenient and, quite often, powerful device. There’s an undeniable appeal about the idea of pre-destined events, and it allows for some fantastic reluctant-hero characters. These formulas keep coming up because they work, no doubt about it. Are you publishing anything soon?

      • Lissa says:

        The space opera about cyborg prisoners of war and their mutiny will be out in a matter of months, I think. I don’t like to give a deadline because with self-publishing on the cheap, you never know what the date will be. Shortly after that (I hope) will be a collection of paranormal short stories. And then at Christmas time I hope to have a paranormal novella out. All self-published. Thanks for your interest!

      • Charlotte says:

        Ooh I just visited your blog and viewed the cover for your space opera. Very nice! Handy to have the cover done early. I like the placeholder approach. Your agenda is pretty exciting. I’ll look forward to reading some of them fairly soon.

  • writingsprint says:

    Outstanding. Best of luck to you! One thing that helps with this is to look at all the cliches — elves, pointy hats, etc. — and say, “All right. Those were invented hundreds of years ago by someone nothing like me. If I invented a wizard or a supernatural forest creature (aka “elf”), today, what would it look like?” My ‘wizard’ was called a Listener and was more like a cross between a sweaty woodland hunter and a shaman.

    • Charlotte says:

      Writingsprint.. thanks for visiting. That’s a really interesting point. Some of the popular fantasy devices are pretty old-fashioned by now, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – fantasy and history have a lot to do with each other as it is – but I like your approach. Perhaps that’s what I did, without being anywhere near so lucid and conscious about it. Your portrait of a ‘wizard’ sounds pretty original! (And unromantic/unsentimental, which is perhaps refreshing too).

  • blueghoul says:

    I love all the whimsical “Alice in Wonderland” sort of inspired things you mentioned. It sounds like a fantastic premise, at the very least. Your world sounds just so…imaginative, interesting. I’ve tried to avoid most of those tropes and ended up only somewhat successful. Ah, well. At least the cliches are warped, if only by a little bit. Wish you luck with all of it it!

    • Charlotte says:

      Hi blueghoul, thank you for stopping by. I’m glad you like the premise. I loved writing it but it’s hard – actually, impossible – to guess how such things might go down with other people. I’m a huge fan of imaginative and unpredictable worlds myself and I never find enough of that kind of fiction. What kind of a story did you come out with? And thanks for the luck!

      • blueghoul says:

        Ah, anytime! My story (in-progress) is a sort of contemporary YA fantasy. There’re dual realities–this one and the fantasy world. I’m still not very sure what’s going on. I know I hit some of those cliches, though. I don’t think I played any of them straight. They’re all crooked at least a little bit. Hope to figure out what the whole thing’s really “about” in editing, along with learning more about the world as I write, creating more elements, more of those dreamer/acid trip little bits to it. That’s where all the fun’s at. πŸ˜‰

      • Charlotte says:

        It’s been observed by a couple of people that a story can still be excellent even if it employs cliches. That’s entirely fair because there are a lot of ingredients that go into a good story; if you do well at most of the component parts, the story will stand regardless. And twisting cliches can be tremendously fun (both to write and to read). How far along is this wip? If you’re talking of editing it sounds like it’s steaming along. Great πŸ™‚ I had the same feeling in the first draft – not really knowing what was going on – which was seriously fun because it made for some surprises even for me. And you never know what your subconscious can come up with until you give it a chance.

      • blueghoul says:

        Posting here’s a little strange–it won’t let me reply to your latest er…reply. But cliches…for me, it depends. They work for a reason, and if the story’s just plain entertaining, enticing in all the other ingredients of it, like you mentioned, I’m usually more willing to forgive the odd cliche here and there. Definitely hope that the same will apply here. And cliches…I love just tearing them apart. It’s like gender-bending fairytales. Somehow it’s just so, so amusing to read and to write.

        But, um, the WIP’s about 16k in terms of word count. I think of the novel more of as scenes. Out of just about 44, I’ve got 16 done. I think it’s about 1k per scene, give or take. I love reading the stories back after it all, just to see how much my subconscious played into it. Even then, I can miss a lot of implications, but it’s just…sort of lovely to see listen to my sort of crit group relay back their thoughts, how differently they’ve interpreted the same scene. And writing…it’s just the ideas, so raw. Just letting your imagination roam free. Editing, though, editing has its own appeal in reading all that you’ve wrote and finding all the gold beneath the slush. Love it all.

      • Charlotte says:

        Ha, gender-bending fairytales. I’ve been enjoying the recent trend for turning fairytales upside down (Shrek, Hoodwinked, Rapunzel, etc). 16k is a good solid chunk done! It is quite intriguing how differently people interpret the same scene, or the same character; one of the most interesting things about sharing fiction, though like anything it can backfire (you love that scene but someone else reads all sorts of (bad) things into it that you never intended to include, for example. People bring their own baggage to other people’s stories I suppose?). I haven’t personally discovered a love for editing so far, though the final read after the major editing is done is great. That’s when I get the feeling of accomplishment. Anyway, I like the approach of viewing the book as a number of scenes – makes each piece bite-size, easier to keep going that way. Good luck with the rest!

  • DarcKnyt says:

    Wow, you had quite the avoidance agenda, Charlotte! I, not being a huge fan of the genre, don’t follow or know how cliched those things have become from a personal standpoint. But looking at your list, I would probably have agreed you removed any traces of what would make the book “fantasy” to me. So good for you!

    Most of all, congratulations on your completion and progress. Do tell more about your cover art, though. I make my own and have to admit, they’re likely in need of help. I would like to have quality stuff made, but don’t make enough money to throw down hundreds of dollars (pounds, either) for an artist’s work.

    Formatting help is great, isn’t it? Who is helping you? Will you be detailing your process and posting about it? You’ll likely find a broad and eager audience for it if you do, me among them.

    Congratulations again, and I hope to be able to read this story of yours one day soon. πŸ™‚

    • Charlotte says:

      Darc, I suppose it is a pretty long list. One may well ask, in that case, why I persist in reading and writing fantasy at all? As Ebony has just said, a book with all those cliches can still be good; but more importantly, there’s scope for more variety in the fantasy genre, and I love the freedom of it (if one can get past these apparent ‘rules’).

      And thank you! About the cover art, I was lucky here. A friend of my partner’s here in Holland is a freelance fantasy artist and she recently decided to create a fantasy graphic novel. Since English is not her first language, I’ve been helping with the storyline and the dialogue. In return she offered to create a cover for me. I’m in the same boat as you in not having a lot of money to throw at this, so I’m tremendously grateful for this piece of fortune. I will have to look into other options for some of the shorter works I want to publish, though. If I find any good, affordable cover artists I’ll share details on the blog.

      The formatting issue I mostly have to solve is paragraph indentation. The default on the new mobi file that I have looks enormous, but I don’t know how to change it and the instructions on Amazon’s help pages apparently assume a basic knowledge of html that I don’t have. Another friend here is a software developer with at least a passing familiarity with html. He says there is a quick and easy way to fix this. If it turns out to be both effective and simple enough even for me to understand, I will certainly share the magic.

      I can’t predict a publication date at the moment because Elsa (my cover artist) is really busy with the aforementioned graphic novel and I don’t know how long the cover will take. But hopefully it will all be ready to go by the end of the summer!

      • DarcKnyt says:

        Charlotte, I don’t know whether I can be of any benefit, but if you’ll email me the information you currently have from your sources on the paragraph indentation, I can see if there’s anything I can offer to help. With my own eBooks, I used what’s known as an internal style sheet to format the paragraphs into special ones — I have one for the front matter, one for the body text, and I think one for the acknowledgments and dedication pages, if I recall.

        The top of your HTML document has tags for the head and body sections, and if you place a tag which says “style” inside the head tag, you can use Cascading Style Sheet mark up to format the document as you’d like. The mark up for a paragraph would include the first-line indent. I can easily send you the code which you can copy and paste into your document if you’d like. It work fine on mine, no issues.

        Let me know if you’d like.

      • Charlotte says:

        Darc, my excellent friend found a fix for me so the indentation is sorted. However, style sheets sound so very handy-dandy and since I intend to do a lot of this, it’d be good to improve my knowledge. I’d be really grateful for the code, if you don’t mind sharing. Thank you! That’s very kind.

  • Ellie says:

    Oh wow, you really have been busy! I can’t wait to see the cover, and of course by the book! Not normally my thing but seen as you have managed to avoid all of my typical avoidance’s I am hoping we are onto a winner.

    Well done. I am so pleased for you. getting this far is an achievement in itself.

    • Charlotte says:

      Ellie, I can’t wait to see the cover either! I’ve a feeling it will all finally start to seem real once it has cover art; at the moment it’s just a lump of text which only a few people have read. And thank you! It is a bit surreal to be saying I’ll publish something soon. It’s taken so many years to reach this point, I don’t even know how to feel about it.

  • This speaks to me.
    I love family settings. They are a wonderful source of love and security AND conflict all at the same time.

    You still need goals and motivations and strong characters the reader will love. It all comes down to the way you write it as well – you could probably get away with a novel containing all those tropes and it would still be different because of the writer’s skills.

    Or it could be a formulaic mess.

    • Charlotte says:

      Ebony, I agree about family settings (for the most part. Sometimes the family setting degenerates into misery and melodrama and it just becomes unpleasant). I understand the appeal of the penniless orphan conquering the world, but I personally feel jaded with this concept. These days I’m always looking for books that break the boundaries and try something else. You’re perfectly right that a cliche-laden book can still be excellent: it’s more my excess of reading that’s at fault than the books themselves. I have a bad habit for switching off as soon as I read the words ‘prophecy’ or ‘elf’ or ‘Shadow’ in a book blurb, which is ill-advised – I probably miss out on some good reads. How easy it is to become narrow-minded.

  • Even if it does finish as a sci-fi, the important thing is: it’s written πŸ˜€

    • Charlotte says:

      Unassailably true, Michelle! It is what it is: a fully formed and finished novel, irrespective of labels. That’s a great feeling πŸ˜€

      • No labels needed, other than that you are proud of it. Labels are really for publishers, not for readers. Readers tend to go for the general umbrella of a genre. Don’t be afraid to cross genre either. πŸ˜€ I always have the debate with a friend of mine that Star Wars is both fantasy and sci-fi. Think about it πŸ˜€

        (btw: Commander Boudicca MacDaede is over 25. :D)

  • Lara Dunning says:

    Enjoyed your list of what you didn’t want to write. Made me smile. Gave me incentive to get back to editing my fantasy novel.

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