I love fantasy, I really do but I’m tired of it, tired of how it plays out in novels, books and TV series. I’m tired of the tropes and styles, the clichés and approaches, the worlds and the people. I have read good and bad fantasy, played atrocious games in the genre as well as amazing ones. I’ve written terrible stories and some good ones. More than any other genre, I feel fantasy has reached a stagnation point.
The Oxford English Dictionary has these definitions for Fantasy:
The faculty or activity of imagining impossible or improbable things
A genre of imaginative fiction involving magic and adventure, especially in a setting other than the real world
An idea with no basis in reality
A fanciful mental image, typically one on which a person often dwells and which reflects their conscious or unconscious wishes
Fantasy is to dream and explore the impossible, or the unlikely, the surreal, the fanciful. It’s boundless in potential, and more than any other genre, it can cross over and claim others as part of itself. Take an impossible device created by an ancient civilisation that travelled the stars. It’s a very common trope in Science-Fiction stories, but the concept itself is pure fantasy, same as Time Travel machines. Now take a monstrous creature invading people’s dreams and killing them. A familiar concept you’d tag as Horror, but it’s also fantasy. The same can be said for every fiction genre out there, as they’re all essentially from the author’s imagination, in a made-up world. Thus, they are fantasy.
But if the genre has so much potential, then why do we all just focus on the same stories, creatures and worlds?
When people say Fantasy, most will indubitably think the following: Wizards, Elves, Dwarves and Dragons and when they think of examples it’ll be Tolkien. That is perhaps what the average person defines as fantasy: a pseudo-medieval world with Scandinavian folklore creatures battling each other.
J.R.R. Tolkien was perhaps the first one to take all those elements and put them together in a formula that worked and after that, everyone’s done the same. It’s inevitable. It’s the influence of a big author on the collective consciousness of our society. A similar case in a different genre is Isaac Asimov’s Rules of Robotics. They’re so well-known that almost every other robotic-themed Science Fiction story includes them, because they’ve grown beyond their origin as a plot device and became a genre rule.
In many ways, the ‘traditional’ fantasy races and monsters have become the Rule for Fantasy. Trolls and orcs as bad guys, goblins are shifty, dwarves are greedy and elves are proud and arrogant.
But in adhering to this unspoken rule, we restrict the genre and we rob it of its potential. For one, even basing the world on folk tales and myth, there are millions of stories in the world to draw from. Take Wiedzmin by Andrzej Sapkowski, aka The Witcher, based not on Scandinavian folk but on Slavic for the most part—and yes, it does follow the above rule of fantasy by having the Scandinavian races in it—and adding anachronisms to the Medieval world, drawing from modernity for inspiration and turning the work into something unique, something that stands out from its fantasy peers.
George R.R. Martin limits the scope of his fantasy on the other hand. His work stands out from other fantasy projects in that he eschews most of the elements that make up the aforementioned rule of fantasy. There are other elements that remain, such as dragons, the living dead, miracles and demons. Martin also strays from the rule by making the fantasy elements unimportant for most of the plot. The world-ending catastrophe looms but no one really cares about it, too focused on politics and conquest.
Not only did Terry Pratchett refuse to follow the classic approach, he threw the rules out of the window with Discworld, a universe that is completely insane and just as brilliant. He takes the classic fantasy races and tropes, puts them in a blender and presents you with the results. You can still recognise the elements but it doesn’t feel like he chained or restricted his fantasy. He let it run as wild as he could for as long as possible, and the result is phenomenal.
But for these examples, there are many more that do adhere to the rule and in doing so they create a preconception of what fantasy is.
The Sovereign Stone trilogy attempts to reuse the fantasy elements found in Tolkien’s world, such as Dwarves, Elves and Orcs and a Dark Lord; but while it changes their circumstances—elves are Japanese inspired, Orcs are fishers and Dwarves are nomadic riders—it doesn’t change their behaviour. Elves are still proud, Dwarves are still gruff drunken artisans and Orcs still seem primitive. Their Dark Lord is perhaps one of the most boring villains I’ve ever had the displeasure of reading.
Eragon adheres to the Tolkien approach to a fault, even using similar naming conventions for the Elven and Dwarven tongues. Elves are exceptional and Dwarves live underground. Sound familiar? This series has been accused many times of lack of originality and while I wouldn’t dream of doing the same, I do feel Paolini follows the Tolkien blueprint too closely.
I’m not saying those writers’ stories are bad, not in the least as amazing and distinct stories can be told even within the same framework. What I am saying is that in terms of the genre, by adhering to the rule’s ideal of a world, they unwittingly restrict the concept of fantasy not just in the public’s eye but also in the writing itself.
In fact, the preconception might extend to the publishing industry in general, as the business will look for the familiar elements, as they’re more likely to sell or disregard them completely if the market’s been flooded by similar genre pieces.
But it’s not just Classic fantasy that has been influenced by authors to the point of developing a constricting rule.
The Modern and Future World:
Urban Fantasy—and space fantasy—stands on the line between what is fantasy and what is Science-Fiction (though as we’ve already established, they’re all technically fantasy) depending on which time period the story takes place in.
In the modern world there are mobile phones, computers, GPS, DNA tests and any number of technologies that affect how the supernatural is represented. Are Shapeshifters sick? Is their duality the product of a virus or a symbiotic parasite? Can you capture ghosts in electromagnetic fields? You can see where some Sci-Fi elements can bleed into Urban Fantasy.
This genre, by definition, is one where the events take place primarily within a city. It’s not a new subgenre but its popularity rose considerably in the past twenty years.
It’s hard to pinpoint its most influential writer but one of them is definitely Laurell K. Hamilton and her Anita Blake – Vampire Hunter series. Kim Harrison’s novels can also be listed there as well as ‘late-comers’ Jim Butcher and my favourite, Simon R. Green.
Nevertheless, over the years a rule developed for this subgenre, one that I call the Triumvirate, the three main supernatural character types that form the basis for most of the genre pieces: Vampires, Werewolves and Wizards/Mages/Sorcerers. In many ways they become the modern interpretation of the classic races: the proud vampire, the violent/gruff werewolf and the greedy/power-hungry wizard.
How many genre pieces focus on the relationships between these creatures? How many times have you picked up a book in the genre and see the words Vampire, Werewolf or Mage mentioned in the blurb? How many times have you read them, expecting to see other fantasy elements and come off slightly disappointed because only the Triumvirate seem to exist?
There are common elements in the triumvirate stories that could now be considered cliché: conflict between them and humanity and romance. Vampires are usually placed at the top of the food chain, with Mages as a close second and Werewolves nothing more than tribal barbarians.
If you’ll forgive me for a second, I’ll just say to hell with Vampire romance, it’s not sexy. It’s creepy and necrophilia when you really think about it.
I’m not a published author, but I love this particular subgenre, I love seeing our world in a strange new and very weird light. When I write, I make the triumvirate members part of the world, but not the most important. They are but three elements of bigger worlds, and things don’t revolve around them. They might be even central to the plot of a particular novel, but there are still many more elements present that make the world bigger.
As fantasy is everything you can think of, I go weird and come up with strange new things. Creatures that no one has ever thought of before, or just new takes on old concepts, changing how they work, making them unique once more.
I mentioned Simon R. Green and his works break off from the rule of urban fantasy completely. The Nightside is a fantastical place, with alternate dimensions, super science, gods and demons, angels and elves and insane creatures all living together. The main character is just a PI, with a few superpowers of course, but not wizard, or a vampire or a werewolf.
Laurel K. Hamilton while partly responsible for the trend, does bend the rules by having multiple types of supernaturals show up on an irregular basis.
On the flipside, you have The Southern Vampire Mysteries and its adaptation True Blood. Everything revolves around Vampires and their conflicts with the other types, of which werewolves are the most common and witches come second. There are other creatures but they are all but inconsequential compared to the previous three.
The Dresden Files’ central conflict for about thirteen of its novels was all about Vampires vs Wizards, two global powers trying to destroy each other. Though in the Dresden Files universe, the Fae usually take the Were’s spot as part of the supernatural power triumvirate.
Many writers adhere to the rule almost exclusively, and in doing so their worlds feel small, their fantasy limited, even and especially if the stories they tell are very good, as you’ll undoubtedly feel the wasted potential. Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files is perhaps the exception, as even with a triumvirate and Vampires and Wizard behaviours bordering on the stereotypical, the world feels massive. Good prose and world building can still overcome the chains of the fantasy rules.
Beyond the Written Word
The genre rules and their influence on writers and consumers extend well beyond novels and short stories. Games, be it tabletop or video, also struggle with their Fantasy stories though I feel they have an easier time breaking free from the chains.
But there are still those that fall for it, believing they need to follow it to the letter in order the present believable high fantasy worlds.
Dragon Age, arguably one of the biggest fantasy games out there, adheres to the rule to the letter. The failed Kingdoms of Amalur did the same, just replacing the name Elf with Faerie, as did its direct competitor at the time, The Elder Scrolls. The Legend of Zelda, for as much as I love it, does adhere to the rule as well, just re-skinning the classic elements to fit Hyrule.
Final Fantasy on the other hand has always followed its own path to fantasy. From medieval worlds and demon warlords to high-tech cities with magic, the games are proper fantasy—someone’s imagination running free and wild. The quality of the games might vary greatly, but they properly use the genre.
Dungeons & Dragon is one of the biggest fantasy games in the world, and it adhered to the rule of fantasy so firmly that the Tolkien estate sued them for improper use of their copyright when the game was first starting. And much like J.R.R., D&D has added its own elements to the Rule of Fantasy, influencing other writers.
Mario games are another example of new and strange fantasy, telling the story of a plumber in a strange world with mushroom people and a giant spike-shelled fire-breathing turtle. Dark Souls is akin to The Witcher in that it draws inspiration from other cultures, and Song of Ice and Fire in how it limits the scope of the fantasy to a few elements—demons, dragons and undead for the most part.
TV series like Grimm and Once Upon a Time take existing fantasy elements, folklore and myths and give them a new and fresh spin, creating new stories to replace the old ones. Grimm created hundreds of new species based on the Grimm Fairy Tales, and Once Upon a Time, with all its faults has given new life to a few tired fairy tales.
But perhaps one of the best examples of what writers can accomplish with Fantasy when they break free from the traditional approaches, aka the rules, is Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. If you’ve read the novel, you might wonder why I’m listing it here and it’s because it started as a TV series on the BBC. Neverwhere is an Urban Fantasy marvel, with two separate worlds, London Upper where you and I would walk and explore, and where I’ve travelled to and met interesting people; and London Below, where the outcasts live, those on the fringes of society. London Below is magical, a dank Wonderland. The people in it are the beggars, the homeless, those the upper Londoners ignore. They have their own societies in the world below.
On Urban Fantasy, for me the best example of one such world, where high technology and mysticism mix, is the tabletop game Shadowrun. It adheres to the classic Tolkien fantasy rule with its inhabitants and most of the overall concepts, but they intertwine with a futuristic world and modern scientific concepts and the result is one of the finest Science-Fantasy worlds to date.
Fantasy is everything imaginable. It shouldn’t adhere to any preconceived notion, idea, trope or trend. Fantasy should go as far as possible, to be big and weird and free. Authors need to learn that, to let their minds flow freely, without chaining their fantasy to a set of elements society thinks should be in every fantasy piece. You can choose to follow the blueprint but add enough of yourself to it to make it unique, to break free of the rule instead of shackling your prose to it.
In my case, I go big and weird. I mix and match, drawing inspiration from every myth and legend under the sun and then adding spins to them, from tiny details to completely changing how they behave. I create m own beings, my own legends, my own strange worlds. And if I can do it, some random blogger ranting away, anyone can.
Fantasy is infinite, it has endless potential so don’t chain yourself and it to other people’s rules. Make your own.
Help the genre move on from these stagnant rules.