On GRRM, Rothfuss, and forcing creativity

A recurring phenomenon in fantasy-related spaces on the internet these days is a collective whine over two famous authors: George R.R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss. If you are at all familiar with fantasy, you have probably heard of their work.

George R.R. Martin, popularly known as GRRM, has written the as of yet unfinished epic series A Song of Ice and Fire, known to most people as the books behind the HBO tv series Game of Thrones.

Patrick Rothfuss is the author of the as of yet unfinished epic trilogy The Kingkiller Chronicles, starting with The Name of the Wind. Even though Rothfuss is not (yet) as famous as GRRM, he signed a contract last year to have his books converted to television format under Lin Manuel Miranda, which means it’s just a matter of time before he, too, is brought into the limelight.

You may have already spotted the common denominator: both series are unfinished. And to many people, this is the issue.

Martin began writing A Game of Thrones, the first book of his series, in 1991. It was published in 1996. He had planned a trilogy, but realised the story was bigger than he had first thought, and now he estimates the number of books in the final series will be seven. The latest book, #5, A Dance of Dragons, was published in 2011.

Rothfuss spent 15 years writing The Name of the Wind before it was published in 2007. The second book in the trilogy, The Wise Man’s Fear, was published in 2011.

It’s been seven years.

Yes, it has. I’m sure it’s as unpleasant to them as it is to you.

No, actually, that’s a lie.

I imagine this is a lot more unpleasant to George and Patrick than it is to their average reader.

How does the delay of their upcoming books, GRRM’s The Winds of Winter and Rothfuss’ Doors of Stone, affect your daily life?

There are two stories in the back of your mind that you don’t know the ending of.

So? Does that keep you awake at night? Does it give you anxiety? Keep you from performing well at work? No?

 

Patrick Rothfuss made the mistake after his first book was released, to say that all three books were already written. Fans (‘fans’, hah!) have held that against him ever since.

I’m sure he meant it at the time, but do you remember those 15 years he took writing the first book? Most of that time, he spent learning how to tell a good story. Tension, conflict, story structure. He had to create new characters and introduce new problems along Kvothe’s rambling journey to make it interesting and, in the end, a rewarding read.

My guess is, the draft he had of the third book back in 2007 when his first book was released, needed the same treatment.

And what’s happened since? He released another book, The Wise Man’s Fear, in 2011, which has been criticised, and rightly so, for having no real conflict. It’s a meandering tale that doesn’t precisely lead anywhere. Kvothe gets a few more experiences and learns a few more tricks, but in the end, there’s no main conflict. We don’t even get any hint as to what king Kvothe will kill — a deed that apparently warrants naming the whole series for it.

Still, people love the books, both the first and the second one. I do, too. Both have sold amazingly well and been well received by fans all over the world.

Rothfuss is successful.

What, then, causes his delay?

Well, what if he realised, somewhere along the way, that his third book isn’t the epic finale it needs to be in order to do justice to his first and second book?

What if he realised it’s not good enough, and he’s been reworking the storyline, rewriting, rethinking, remaking the whole book ever since?

 

George R.R. Martin let his fans know some time ago that he was down to ‘only’ 3000 pages of content for his sixth book. His goal for the finished product is 800 pages.

Do you know what the process looks like when you have to cut your story by more than two thirds? Cutting, revising, killing your darlings?

You may have to take out scenes, even whole chapters, if they aren’t absolutely crucial to the storyline. Dialogue, story, conflict, and background that you poured your heart into, that fills out the world and fleshes out the characters. All of it: out, out, out.

You may have to take characters out or merge them. How do you decide which character to keep and which to throw out? Does the character you keep have the right personality to do the job of the other characters, too? Without being diagnosed with split personality disorder, that is. If not, you have to change even that one you still have, effectively removing two or more characters and replacing them with a whole new one that’s capable of doing everything the others did.

Cutting all these things you spent endless hours creating is a painful process. The point is to strip the story down to its bare bones. To only keep the core: the most essential bits.

You’re supposed to leave the heart of the story in there, but sometimes it feels like the heart is exactly what you’re taking out. It’s painful and many writers hate it, me included. Sometimes I’d rather let a short story sit in my drawer and rot, than go over it with the knife.

I can imagine George doesn’t exactly rejoice over the work he has ahead of him.

The television adaption of A Song of Ice and Fire diverged from the books in Series 5, based on the fifth book. Minor changes had been made before, but that is when it became obvious to those who had read the books that the HBO series was headed in a different direction.

Series 6 has since aired, without any sign of book 6 being released. How much will the TV series and the books share, and how much will deviate? We don’t know.

Perhaps good old George has lost interest in his books now that his story is being told through a different medium? Why tell a story twice, after all? Why take the knife to your beloved words when people are already happy with what they watched on telly?

 

And to this, add performance anxiety.

I don’t have to tell you GRRM is successful. When you have a show on HBO, people know who you are. Patrick’s Kingkiller Chronicle is about to become a show on Showtime. Their previous work has set the expectations high. People want nothing less than the very best from these two legends of their own time.

But what does this do to one’s creativity?

I know a lot about performance anxiety. In my latter school years, I went to my school’s music programme. For three years I had about 50% traditional courses. Maths, Swedish, English, history, etcetera — you know the drill. The other 50% were music courses.

But I didn’t quite fit in. What my classmates found easy, I struggled with. The things I found easy and fun, the others considered to be of little importance in the greater scheme of things. Being good at musical theory and analysis isn’t worth a whole lot to 17-year-olds. It doesn’t take you very far in the music business, either.

I only just made it through to graduation. The last year, at age 18, I suffered panic attacks and full-on fight-or-flight mode during band practice. I caught myself trying to calculate which exit was closest: the door or the open window. We were on the second floor. The window didn’t have a fire escape. My fear-stricken brain didn’t care. Thankfully, I never gave in.

That was almost two decades ago. To this day, I cannot play or sing when other people hear me. I don’t even enjoy it when I’m alone. It’s too deeply tangled in with anxiety. I’m my own worst judge and enemy.

What if a writer suffers from the same performance anxiety in relation to their work?

What if George and Patrick are afraid of failing their readers? What if their success has not improved their confidence, but sabotaged it?

Patrick Rothfuss has already shared his struggles with mental health issues. His father’s illness and death last year took a heavy toll on Patrick. And to quote this brilliant interview he did:

 ‘You write with your head. You could break your leg and then still write. But if, say, your dog has fucking died, that’s in your head. If your relationship is a mess. If you have a mood disorder (which, statistically, you’re six to ten times more likely to have if you’re a writer). If you have either diagnosed or undiagnosed depression, or any of the myriad host of things that can legit go chemically wrong in your brain.’

Mental health issues generally don’t aid your creativity. They don’t increase your productivity. The myth of the suffering artist needs to die.

The average reader probably doesn’t know how incredibly hard — or indeed, impossible — it is to create something under these circumstances. You don’t even need to be in fight-or-flight mode to end up sitting there staring at a blank page. Or, perhaps more likely, you’ll leave that scary blank page and do something else to stop the feeling of guilt. There’s laundry to be done. The car needs a wash, the lawn needs mowing. Maybe clean the bathroom while you’re at it. No chore is too dirty or too heavy or too small. Mend that hole in your old work jeans. And when did you last dust those decorative plates your grandmother gave you before she died?

Eventually you run out of chores — even the stupid and redundant ones — and the blank page still sits there, taunting you.

‘Creativity is intelligence having fun.’

Perhaps, occasionally, an artist has enough ideas to carry them through some tough times, but broadly speaking, the quote above (author unknown) is more right than wrong.

Creative people need to feel safe. We need to eat, we need to sleep, we need to breathe the air outside sometimes.

And we need to have fun.

You cannot force someone to love you, and you cannot force the words, the stories, the dreams, to come to you.

We need to love what we do, not despise it or fear it.

Don’t you think George and Patrick want to get their books published, too? You need only browse through the comments of any article they post, or that is posted about them, to see the abuse they’re getting for not putting out the desired material. Do you think they enjoy interacting with their so-called fans? Don’t you think, if they could get out of their current predicament in a quick and easy way, they would?

The only reason I see that they haven’t already, is that they can’t.

So, to any reader who can see beyond their own entitlement to the well-being of the person behind the books they so crave:

Stop and ask yourself what George and Patrick could be going through, day after day, while you sit there with a bookshelf full of books, a Kindle full of e-books, accounts on Netflix, HBO, Hulu and Showtime, and complain in yet another comment section that their next book isn’t out.

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Elitist Asshattery

Sometimes, I just can’t keep my mouth shut. Or my hands off the keyboard. Elitist Asshattery* is one of the things that do that to me.

So, you ask, what is Elitist Asshattery?

Well. You can find Elitist Asshats in most writers’ groups. They pretend to be normal people with a reasonable level of empathy and understanding for their fellow writer, but they aren’t. They’re douchebags with an unhealthy obsession with grammar, spelling, and punctuation. And they make no exception for people who haven’t had access to the same level of education as they have; nor for those who struggle with neurological challenges such as dyslexia.

Before you jump to conclusions about what I’m really saying, let’s be clear:

No, poorly edited books usually don’t sell very well. And yes, you want your finished product to be as perfect as can be.

But —

The people I label Elitist Asshats don’t limit their criticism to the finished product. They attack writers who share their first, tentative efforts at a craft they’ve been told all their life they’ll never be good at. Elitist Asshats say – yes, I’ve recently come across people that actually do say this – that people with dyslexia have no business writing. They make comparisons to people with no legs running marathons. (Which, by the way, some people do.)

Elitist Asshats seem to look no further than to the surface – to what the writing looks like. If it’s riddled with spelling errors and missing punctuation, they theorise, the story must be awful.

But you know what?

There’s a difference between writing and storytelling. In my opinion, any fiction writer worth their salt should be aiming to be a storyteller first and foremost. And storytelling – though a craft that takes skill to do well – is not the same thing as putting letters on a page.

Storytellers have been around for ages. Storytellers gave us our folk tales. Storytellers built the foundations of most religions. You don’t have to read and write flawlessly to be able to tell a story.

Quite the contrary – through most of history, the knowledge of humankind has been preserved only in oral tradition. By storytellers, back when reading and writing were rare skills – sometimes even forbidden to the common people.

To think that people can’t tell good stories just because they lack the quality education the western world’s middle class take for granted, or because they have a brain that’s wired differently, is to ignore generations upon generations’ worth of folklore and tradition.

The brothers Grimm, for example, did in no way come up with the fairy tales we all grew up with. They merely recorded folk tales in their research about the German language. The Grimm brothers could read and write, but the people who told the tales they wrote down generally could not.

Refusing to see the deeper qualities in writing just because it may have spelling errors in it is narrow-minded and not just a little classist and/or ableist.

I’m in no way suggesting that people try to sell their books unedited, with all the typos still in there. But there are resources available to most writers that will even the playing field. Spell check software, beta readers, editors.

There is absolutely no valid reason a person with poor spelling skills cannot write books.

Besides, speaking as someone who’s always had an easy time learning theory, I find that sometimes I’m so stuck in my square, right angle thinking, I have a hard time coming up with anything new. I just regurgitate the same old tropes and settings I’ve been fed all my life.

I do believe there are those who get so caught up in how things ‘should be’ written, they forget how to write. So perhaps the people who have never done things quite like the teachers expected are the ones most capable of creating something truly unique?

But be that as it may – I will always stand up for those of my writer friends who write despite challenges such as dyslexia or a lack of education.

Elitist Asshats, on the other hand, I will never endorse. In my opinion, story will always go before grammar.

 

* I’m mixing English accents here, and I do apologise, but it’s for the effect. ‘Ass’ is a decidedly American word: the British equivalent is ‘arse’. But ‘asshat’ has a ring to it that ‘arsehat’ ultimately lacks. So in the case of the word ‘asshat’, I’m afraid ‘arse’ will have to give way to its American sibling.

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Nordic folklore

In an earlier post, I wrote about scrutinising the tropes of the fantasy genre. Now that I’ve done that, one way I can move beyond tired concepts is to look for inspiration from different interpretations of, for example, fantastic creatures.

Tolkien famously came up with his own take on elves and the dwarves — figures that have been present in one shape or another in many European folklore traditions, long before Tolkien made the elves beautiful and the dwarves wide-shouldered and bearded.

But who were these beings originally, and can we draw on that source to come up with new, fresh ideas on fantasy?

Authors like J.K. Rowling, Patrick Rothfuss and Naomi Novik (to mention a few) have done just that. J.K. Rowling took the legends of witches and wizards and brought them into the 20th century. She discarded Tolkien’s idea about tall, ethereal elves and went back to the old tales about shy and gnarly little creatures.

Patrick Rothfuss explored the old Celtic myths about fairies and put his own spin on the Fae realm, its inhabitants and laws of nature. Naomi Novik, of Lithuanian and Polish descent, drew on her grandmother’s tales from Eastern Europe to create her own interpretation of the Baba Jaga legend, cursed forests and powerful wizards in her book Uprooted.

Näcken

Näcken, Ernst Josephson,
1905

As a teenager, I realised I had grown up with remarkably few books about the brothers Grimm’s German fairytales, and all the more books about the legends and superstition of the old days of Sweden and Norway. Thus, I may be better suited than many other Swedes to write about creatures most of the English-speaking world has never heard of.

But the question is: Do I want to?

How do you translate the names of these legendary beings into English without losing their identity? Näcken (The Nix) is a male figure, usually seen sitting naked in waterfalls playing the fiddle till your heart breaks.

Tradition says women (presumably straight ones) are prone to falling in love with him, while men (also presumably straight individuals) desire to learn his musical skills. Both genders lose their heads and fall prey to the supernatural predator. But the name, Näcken, holds so much more than the translation can convey. To be ‘näck’ translates to being in the nude. ‘Näcken’ is both a name and a descriptor.

Näcken can shape-shift, too, and transform into a horse. Some people state he’s white as snow; others say he’s black as night. Regardless, his name in this shape is Bäckahästen. It means ‘Brook Horse’, but the name ‘Bäckahästen’ also has sounds in common with the name ‘Näcken’, which always seemed important to me as a child. Using the names ‘The Nix’ and ‘The Brook Horse’ just doesn’t deliver the same punch.

Furthermore, we have creatures like the alv or alf (elf), but also the älva, sharing the same etymological root but referring to vastly different creatures. The alv was male — a smallish, mischievous trickster — while the älva was a female fae-like being, half transparent and usually only seen in groups, dancing in mist.

Norwegian lore has Kvernknarren, which translates to ‘The Mill Creak’ — and yes, that is ‘creak’ as in making a creaky sound. The Mill Creak was a large creature living in the millwheel, making funny creaking noises and trying to trick small children to fall into its maws.

Troll

Askeladden and the Troll,
Theodor Kittelsen

Norway is a country of coastlines, fjords and islands. They have plenty of tales related to the sea. One of the most famous sea monsters is Draugen, who is an undead human-like figure with rotting strips of meat hanging from his exposed bones.

According to the old tales, he would sometimes show up in storms — either in a boat with torn sails or in half a boat. His appearance would be a premonition of death. In some stories, he would even rise from the depths to pull fishermen off their boats. These poor men would never be seen again. ‘Draug’ is the modern Icelandic word for ‘ghost’, but in Old Norse, it could mean any kind of undead person — often in their physical body, intact or decayed.

Perhaps the most famous creature from the Scandinavian folklore is, of course, the troll. Tall and small, smart and dumb, human-like and monster-like, they come in all flavours depending on the story. The one we’re most familiar with is the mountain troll: large and dumb and with moss for hair, it turns to stone if the sun’s rays touch it.

I do, however, also like the types of trolls who look almost exactly like humans and live in mountain halls almost exactly like human dwellings. They are found in tales such as those about bytingar — troll children exchanged for human ones so that the troll mother could raise a human child instead of a troll child, granting her status and power in the troll society. The troll raised among humans, on the other hand, would often grow up to be a vile person, quick to anger and harbouring ill will towards both humans and beasts.

These characters and more are rich sources of inspiration and ideas for fantasy tales if one only wants to go down that route. And that is indeed the question I’m pondering.

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Going ‘political’

So it turns out I’ve found a soapbox. Some things are just too stupid not to address. *clears throat*

It’s interesting, really, what counts as political these days. Apparently, writing books* and making films about any other kind of human being than just one demographical group, is political. Seeing how this group is very small compared to the other one, which is comprised of all the other categories of humans on this planet, I find it more than odd.

The group in question? Oh, it’s the straight, white, fully abled, cis male. (Cis is a latin prefix meaning “on this side of”. Cis male means someone who was born with a male body and identifies as a man.) You may argue that heterosexuals are not a minority in the world, and neither are cisgender people, or males. And no, they aren’t. Heterosexual people are in a majority to homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, demisexual people and people of other sexual orientations. Transgender people, whether they are male-to-female, female-to-male, genderqueer, intersex or any other named or unnamed gender on the spectrum, are also a minority compared to cisgender people.

Regarding the male bit, the binary man is in a slight majority to the binary woman. The official statistics claim there are 101 men for every 100 women. These data aren’t likely to have taken gender spectrum factors into accountance, but they give a clue as to what the average ratio may be.

Also, we can probably agree that generally speaking, there are probably more fully abled people in the world, than there are disabled ones, even counting invisible disabilities like dyslexia, ADHD, anxiety disorders, and other neurological and/or mental health-related issues.

But then we arrive at the skin colour bit, and this is where things become interesting. White people only make up roughly 18% of the global human population. (Yeah, global. That includes countries like India and China and the whole African and South American continents. No, white people being a minority of the global population doesn’t mean white privilege doesn’t exist in your country.) From these 18% white people, now subtract [white] women, [white] transgender people, [white] non-straight men and [white] disabled men. I haven’t done the maths, lacking reliable data on several categories as well as the overlap between them, but just deducting the half that is — generally speaking — women, takes us down to approximately 9%.

Is is reasonable that writing about characters outside of this group is considered a political statement? Does it make sense that acknowledging the existence of more than 91% of the global human population counts as “promoting a political agenda”?

I think not. I will not buy into this “politicalness”. I’m writing diversity. I’m writing non-white characters and non-western cultures. I’m questioning and sometimes simply disregarding the binary, heteronormative templates. I’m writing disability and I’m writing mental health issues. This isn’t political — it’s plain, common decency.

 

*) I apologise for linking to a blog owned by a straight, white cis male, but maybe other straight, white cis males will listen to him, even though they won’t listen to the people he and I are talking about. I’m also guessing writers outside of this limited demographical group of straight, white cis men don’t receive this kind of shitstorm for writing diversity — simply because their work isn’t considered mainstream enough to be paid any attention. Which, again, is a symptom of this same old problem. Round and round we go.

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Fantasy: Outside the box

I’ve read that as a writer with a blog, I should blog about content rather than the writing process itself, unless I’m aiming to provide support and directions for other writers.
Being a newly hatched and wide-eyed writer myself, I have no business telling other people how to do this stuff, so obviously I’m not going to provide much writerly advice, (she said, and wrote the post below. Hah.)

But here’s the thing.

I write mostly fantasy. Not urban fantasy, but imaginary world fantasy. And, frankly, my experience is that fantasy content and the writing process are closely entwined in this genre.

Content is world-building. World-building is a part of the writing process. Content is writing process.

So I’m occasionally going to write about the weird mix they create, starting with this post.
So. The box.
We’re all familiar with the box. ‘You gotta think outside the box.’ In writing terms, that doesn’t mean just thinking outside the box, but also writing outside the box, plotting outside the box, and — last but not least — worldbuilding outside the box.

To some people, thinking outside the box is easy. They seem to live and breathe outside boxes. Entrepreneurs and inventors, they are likely to call themselves. Sometimes they ‘just’ take an established concept and apply it in new ways. Other times, they come up with completely new ideas.

Some artists are incredibly good at leaving that box behind, too. I can, sort of, see the world from their point of view, but I’m not sure I like it where they are. Sponges and clothes hangers just don’t make the kind of art I like to surround myself with, and consequently, I prefer the familiar settings of the old plain box to the trippy journey offered in that direction.

To people who don’t identify as entrepreneurs or artists, this kind of thinking can be hard. I vaguely remember reading an article about how many uses grown-ups could come up with for a certain item, and how many uses children could come up with for the same thing. (Anybody knows of the study I’m referring to? I can’t find it now.) The data were quite saddening. Where the kids could find over a hundred uses for an everyday item like a colander, adults could only find ten to 15. As we grow up, we lose our ability to think outside the box.

In 1968 a man named George Land was building a test for NASA, designing it to measure creativity in order to help with the selection process of inventors and engineers. When developing the test, he found that 98% of five-year-olds scored as highly creative. In ten-year-olds, the number had gone down to an alarming 30%. Fifteen-year-olds, 12%, and adults, well — this isn’t even funny. In adults, the amount of participants who scored as highly creative was 2%. 

The reason for this is debatable. Some would argue that we are taught not to be creative; that the educational system is designed to quell creativity and inhibit free thinking. Others believe it’s just the course of nature. Our brains develop, our experiences tell us what we could expect from the world around us, and together, they make our thought processes stay firmly in those tracks. My guess is, the truth is a combination of the two.

Hey, hey, hey, I don’t mean conspiracy theories now. I just mean that kids are taught to be quiet, sit still and listen, instead of run and play and build spaceships from wooden sticks, hula hoops and old underwear. If they get too creative with their homework, their book gets a taste of the red pen. I still remember being punished with red markings for my clever puns and funny illustrations drawn in the margins. Then, the next day in class, the kid gets a task that includes being creative on demand. “Be creative now, little one, or you will see the red pen in your book again.” But they are only ever allowed to be creative in the appropriate way, that adults have decided on. That way, they gradually forget how to build spaceships out of underwear, and learn that creativity only involves paper, crayons, scissors and glue.

As a person with an interest in language, I also believe in the theory that our words shape our ideas and our perception of the world around us. Studies of old manuscripts and other sources from ancient cultures suggest that people didn’t perceive the colour blue until three or four thousand years ago, and they also didn’t have a word for it. One of the theories is that they didn’t see it because they didn’t have a word for it. Because there was no word describing it, they simply didn’t notice its existence, but rather thought of it as a shade of green, lilac or just ‘no colour’.

But enough of that. Back to the box. Why do we want to get out of the box, and how do we do it?

Sometimes it seems that thinking outside the box is a goal in itself. As if it was a sign of a successful person and something that sifts the wheat from the chaff among the people in question. But just like strange clothes hanger art doesn’t interest me, the creative and unconventional thinking of people unconstrained by the limitations of habits, expectations and intended purposes, isn’t for everyone. So why do we want to break out of the box?

Well, there are many boxes in our lives. There are boxes for everything, really. For cooking, for socialising, for planning a garden, for dressing. And even though we might want to keep wearing our socks on our feet, we may occasionally enjoy a new combination of seasoning in our cooking, or even a whole new meal, the likes of which we have never dreamed of before.

When it comes to writing, the box is basically a collection of concepts so commonly used, they have become cliché. Cliché is familiar, it’s predictable, it’s boring. We’ve seen it too many times before, and we know how it’s going to end. Usually, we can even tell what the road there is going to look like.

Thinking outside of the box as a writer is essential if you want to interest your reader. Presenting clever solutions or unexpected situations will make the reader want to stay with the story and keep turning the pages to find out what will happen next. Even if they may guess how the book is going to end, they can’t know for sure how it’s going to get there, and they want to find out.

When it comes to fantasy, in particular, there are a few more things I think should be questioned, but we’ll get to that later.

To escape the box, we first have to establish what the box is. This is important whether you are an app developer, a problem-solving engineer, a clothes designer or a writer. What is the expected route? What has been done before? What old habits do we want to break free from?

The box isn’t always easy to sketch up. You think you have a notion, but the more you learn, the more you find that you were way off. You didn’t know the extent of what you didn’t know. So what we can deduce from this, is: we need a certain amount of knowledge about the subject in order to line up the shape of the box.

When we have done this, we have to break free from all those old ideas and habits. Yeah, it’s easier said than done.

The fantasy box

Let’s look at the common fantasy box. We can start with worldbuilding.
The box is:

  • Days, months, years the same length as on Earth.
  • Hours, minutes and seconds used for measuring time.
  • One sun and one moon.
  • Humans being one of the main races.
  • Main character is human.
  • Earth-like flora and fauna with added fantasy spice in the shape of—
  • —typical mythological animals, like unicorns and dragons.
  • Binary sex/gender types.

The reason I’m objecting to these standards is simply: they are getting old. Fantasy is fantastic. You are creating a whole new world, so why make it the same as the ones we already know? Sci-fi writers have no problems creating worlds with twin suns, different year lengths, or even inhabited moons. But most fantasy writers only ever stretch as far as adding more moons to the night sky.

You could have any animal you could ever conjure up in a fantasy world fauna, so why have horses, dogs, cats, sheep and cattle? I loved the movie Avatar, with the blue striped, tree-dwelling humanoids, not because it’s a realistic depiction of space colonisation (it’s not) or a likely guess at alien life forms (it’s not) or even because it isn’t problematic (it is problematic) — but — because it is a fantasy world with fantastic animals, plants and entities. They didn’t create an Earth #2, they came up with something different.

This is the reason that much of my fantasy isn’t pure fantasy, but rather a crossover between fantasy and sci-fi. Carbon-based life forms? Yes, maybe. Or they could be silicon-based. Should I have one sun, two suns, or maybe five suns in my next solar system? Is the main character a humanoid or an intelligent canine species? Why not an aquatic serpent with powerful magic? Hermaphrodites with no social gender roles, or a species with a reproductive system requiring three different individuals in order to combine an optimal genetic setup for its offspring?
When I can truly create anything I like, why stay with Earth’s old concepts — or even worse, standards specific to our current Western civilisation?

Anyway. If we dig deeper into the fantasy genre, we find storyline tropes. Some examples are:

  • Main character is an orphan
  • Main character is The Chosen One
  • A prophecy foretells the fate of the world/the development of story
  • Good and evil are black and white forces running the world

There are some other clichés and traps I could mention as well, like the bearded wizard mentor, the ‘medieval Europe’ setting (which is really not actual medieval Europe), the uniformity of whole races or species in both appearance and personality, unlimited magic systems, invincible knights or warriors taking on dozens of enemies without getting so much as a nosebleed…
I could go on, but I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. All these things make up the core of the fantasy box. This is what we want to get away from.

So how can we avoid these old, worn defaults?

What have I done in my stories? Some examples are:

  • Days, months, years different lengths than Earth’s.
  • Other units for measuring time.
  • Two or more suns, two or more moons.
  • Main character is a humanoid, but not a human.
  • Main character isn’t a humanoid.
  • A flora and fauna foreign to us.
  • Typical fantasy creatures tweaked and made different.
  • Non-binary sex/gender types and non-binary reproduction methods.

Also, you could make your character blind, deaf, missing limbs, or otherwise disabled. Why not try your skills with portraying neurodiversity or mental health issues? A chronic illness that is not life-threatening and/or a plot focus point?

Is your character white, in a land populated by white people? Try just changing the colour or their skin, the shape of their eyes, nose, or mouth. It doesn’t change their personalities – I promise you. If you change different characters in different ways, you avoid the ‘homogenous race’ cliché as well, as a bonus. If you like, you could change the culture, too.

You could also give your character a loving family; make them just an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances; make things happen the normal way instead of in a pre-destined way; and create characters — even antagonists — who are people, shaped by experiences, filled with memories and wishes and pain and bitterness and happiness and love.

Now, I don’t always step away from all of these clichés. My main character in one of my WIPs is an orphan. But she also has a loving adoptive father, who will support her no matter what, until the end of time. Sometimes you need to go with what you deem is best for your particular story, even if it means embracing a cliché. But when you do that, you might want to take a look at the rest of your story, and see if you can find a different place to break free of expectations, to make up for it.

Happy creating!

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