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 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 Draykon 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… 😉