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, Ernst Josephson,
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 most 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.
Askeladden and the Troll,
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.
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.