Thoughts on Writing Fantasy

I really like the fantasy genre. Out of all the interests in my life, I think it’s my love for fantasy that’s had the biggest influence. My mom reading me the Hobbit is one of my earliest and most influential memories. It was a fantasy video game that got me into writing stories of my own, which set me on the path where writing became a thing I wanted to do. It’s even how I ended up meeting my wife; I mentioned that I was running a Dungeons & Dragons game, she asked to join and that was how it all started for us.

I’ll note that every time I say fantasy here, I really mean the entire fantasy genre, not just the idea of thinking about pretend stuff, but “fantasy genre” is tiresome to type out.

Anyway, fantasy is important to me. It’s something I look forward to sharing with my son when he’s older, even though I’m emotionally preparing myself for the possibility that someday he’ll want a football and a pair of skis instead of a Crown Royal bag filled with dice.

My first major writing project was a novel I started when I was about fourteen(ish). It mostly stands as a testament to how much I was enthralled with R. A. Salvatore at the time; you’ve got fifteen page long swordfights, for example. There’s also a romance plotline that reflects how the largest influence on my understanding of romance was the Star Wars movies, and not in a good way.

After that book, I sketched out some ideas for a sequel and a prequel. The sequel actually ended up getting pretty far in a first draft (I think around 60,000 words) but eventually I lost steam and the years started to pile up without much progress. In 2008, I learned about NaNoWriMo and in 2009, I wrote my first successful NaNo project, 50,000 words which eventually became the novel Unrepentantwhich you can read right here on this very website if you so desire. In fact, I had so much energy going through November 2008 that I kept writing every day even after the month was over and eventually ended up with a 120,000 word first draft.

Unfortunately, after that first shot of adrenaline, I think NaNoWriMo started to become more of a distraction than a help. I spent 2010 writing and rewriting Unrepentant and I was making pretty good progress, but then November rolled around and it was time to start another NaNo novel. The rules strongly encourage you to start a new novel instead of working on an existing project to give yourself the creative freedom to write quickly, so I started a prequel called the Fey Queen. I worked on that long enough to win the month, then it was back to Unrepentant. That was 2010. In 2011, I started a sequel to Unrepentant called Angel’s Descent. For some reason, perhaps a holdover from my first ventures into writing, I really had a thing for the writing pattern of novel > prequel > sequel.

You can see the pattern that started to emerge. I would spend most of the year working off and on, only to start a new project each November. After my three forays in an urban fantasy-esque romance, I tried cyberpunk, then a frankly bizarre attempt at a murder mystery, then back to cyberpunk for a sequel. Each of these hit 50,000 words for the NaNo goal, but then I would shelve them because each one would require extensive work to go from a NaNo draft to something resembling an actual draft. I think I planned to build up this pile of half-done jobs, pick the ones I liked best, then finish and polish those up.

By the time Unrepentant was in a draft I considered decent, I realized it had been almost eight years since I’d started working on it and frankly, I didn’t really know why I still was. The religious nature of a story about fallen angels, the devil, the Apocalypse; that’s interesting, but it’s also not really me. I don’t have much to say on religious themes much these days. I was just working on the story because that’s what I’d put so much time into working on.

And man, if I didn’t think I had much to say about a religious-themed urban fantasy, I don’t know what the hell I was doing trying cyberpunk or murder mystery, even if it was “murder mystery, but with snakes!”

I think that’s what made me realize it was time to come back home to writing fantasy. It’s what I spend the most time thinking about and frankly, it’s where I have the most to say in terms of story and world. And that’s how we got to Dinomancer, which is as you might have guessed, “fantasy, but with dinosaurs.” Because I love dinosaurs and I know a lot about them, and when I started this one, I didn’t know the late Victor Milan was going to do his own dinosaur fantasy series (I’ve avoided reading it to avoid cross pollination of ideas). But even after learning about it, I figured dinosaur fantasy is large enough to have more than one (or two, or five, or whatever) novels about it.

One thing that was great about working on a fantasy world for my novel was that I could talk to my wife about my ideas in a way that I couldn’t when it came to our D&D campaign, since she was a player in that campaign and I didn’t want to spoil the stories. A lot of those discussions got me thinking about some Big Concept ideas that ended up going into the framework of my dinosaur story, and some of which I think are pretty interesting.

One of the most influential blog posts I ever read was also the one I wanted more than anything to refute. In 2011, author David Brin wrote a post called Pining for Feudalism that basically set my mind on fire. Brin presents an argument against many of the classic fantasy tropes; really, more of a denunciation against all of Romanticism, which of course is where the modern fantasy genre is firmly situated. Chief among his complaints are the tropes of “hidden knowledge” as represented by wizards and elves, and the glorification of aristocracy.

And damn it, you know . . . Brin’s right. There’s a lot in the fantasy genre that’s, well . . . problematic. Try explaining to someone who’s even the tiniest bit woke why the drow mythos isn’t horribly racist; to wit, the evil elves are banished beneath the earth and cursed with dark skin, to reflect their dark hearts (even though living in a lightless world should have made them lily-white albinos). You can still tell great stories with these tropes and dark elves remain some of my favorite stories to this day . . . but there’s baggage there.

And while it’s tempting to just say, eh, fuck it, the whole genre’s busted, toss it out, science fiction is better anyway, I’m not willing to go that far. For me, this felt like an opportunity, even though it would take a while for the seeds to germinate. When I came back to the idea that I wanted to do a fantasy novel, I thought a lot about some of Brin’s objections and what I wanted to say about the issues.

Eventually, I settled on two “Big Concepts” that I wanted to explore, and while there are many others (such as the aforementioned racism), these were two that inspired me to realize I had something to say.

The “Glorification of Aristocracy” Problem: fantasy is filled with kings and lords and knights and other people who derive their power from their lineage. The restoration of the monarchy is typically seen as a good thing, or even the only way to bring about a golden age. Basically, the idea is that lineage is what makes heroes heroic and feudalism is awesome.

There are precious few democracies in fantasy fiction, but plenty of “rightful kings” who should rule, who deserve to rule, and often them not ruling leads to widespread disaster. But even if the story isn’t a “Return of the King” scenario, the nobles are frequently the best, brightest, and most interesting people.

Most of us like to pretend we’d be part of this group; we fantasize (hah) about which House we’d be in Game of Thrones. There are very few stories that glorify the struggle of the commoner, or even talk about it most of the time.

The “Magical Inheritance” Problem: The Jedi and their midichlorians, which are “the tiny microscopic organisms living in your blood that communicate the will of the Force.” Or how about “Yer a wizard, Harry.”

Most protagonists in fantasy are born with some special attribute derived from who their parents were. The Jedi and the wizards of Harry Potter are the most obvious examples, but there are many, and while this isn’t limited to the fantasy genre, I think fantasy is the most brazen about celebrating it.

Basically, even though your special powers might require study or effort to develop, you were fundamentally born with traits that others don’t have and if you didn’t inherit whatever “the gift” is, there’s nothing you can do about it. In Star Wars, you can’t just study the Force to become a Jedi, you have to be born “Force Sensitive.” It doesn’t matter how much of a heroic journey Han Solo had, he’s never going to pick up a lightsaber.

In Harry Potter, although children born to normal parents can learn magic, you can also be a squib, which is someone who was born to wizards but cannot use magic no matter how much they study.

In my next post, I’ll talk about how I approached the first problem, “Glorification of Aristocracy” in writing the world of Dinomancer.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Writing Fantasy

  1. I had not heard of Brin’s critique of the genre, but I am not surprised it exists. About a year or two ago, I started having a kind of crisis of faith on similar lines, including HOW much our favorite games rely on themes like Might Makes Right, and If We Kill Them, We Can Take Their Stuff (because NPCs aren’t really “people” are they? They’re just in the way.)

    I (rationalized?) it as a kind of zeitgeist, heavily baked into the entire genre… which, like you, I grew up loving and still love, and which, like you, began with my earliest memory being my mother reading me The Hobbit (British edition, since I have a few years on you!). I expect the lure of the genre will be something that people 100 years from now will look back on with the same headshaking “Didn’t they seeeee?” dismay that we look back on our own past: the self-satisfied colonialism, the racism, the sexism, and all the other culture-shifts that have happened in between.

    I wish you well with the effort to write around and beyond the standard tropes. I look forward to (I hope) being able to read the results. When even Tomi Ayedemi (Children of Blood and Bone), writing innovative and creative fantasy, relies on a genetic “specialness” every bit as overt as Harry’s wizarding ability, it is going to be a challenging journey (albeit one fully worth pursuing).

    1. Oh yeah, “Might Makes Right” is another good one. I was listening to a stream from Pat Rothfuss and he mentioned how, even though D&D was his first RPG, it won’t be the one he’ll introduce his kids to, because it’s mostly about combat. Even though you CAN play it as a game about diplomacy and interaction, most of the rules are geared towards violence, which suggests that the fighting is what really matters. It really got me thinking.

      Although I definitely struggled with it for a while (how can I enjoy something that is based on these terrible themes), I’m at a good place with it now. I don’t share Brin’s “chuck the whole thing out the window” attitude; I just appreciate that he really got me thinking. And hopefully that will lead to creating some interesting stories as a result of asking these kinds of questions.

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