Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Manifesto on Fantasy

Don’t get me wrong, I really do like fantasy. What I can’t stand is the way nearly all fantasy today is portrayed: long unpronounceable names of places that don’t exist, epic struggles between kings that never ruled, courtly intrigue with impossibly beautiful princesses, and the struggles of brooding exiled princes. Here’s a sample of what I’m saying:

Upon the plains of Xe’tatha, King Chertarand with his ten-thousand gleaming knights of Temtiniel met Gar-huul the Emperor of Darkeness and blah-blah, blah-blah, blah-blah…

The narration lurches on, flinging the reader into a pedantic history lesson that I’ll never remember a week or two after I’ve read the last page and put the book down. To make it all more palatable the novel comes with handsome cover-art and a nicely-drawn map.

Tolkien never wrote like that.

Let me be clear. He wrote plenty about places that don’t exist and people that never lived, but the difference was that he didn’t start out throwing a bunch of imaginary history at the reader. Also, his main characters weren’t kings, or socially repressed princesses, or orphaned princes destined to save the world. They were normal guys, like you and me.

Well, actually, they were hobbits—but that’s my point, exactly. Hobbits are a metaphor for ordinary people going face to face with a quest that was impossibly huge. Tolkien made Frodo, Merry, Pippin, and Sam likeable underdogs in one fell swoop. To invite his readers in, Tolkien doesn’t try to impress them or her with epic grandeur, either. He saves that for the end, and begins Lord of the Rings begins on a much more comfortable note:

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

The Fellowship of the Ring

J. R. R. Tolkien

See? No gleaming swords, no scaly dragons, no ravens fluttering over the rusting armor and whitened bones spread upon some forgotten battlefield. All that stuff is in Tolkien’s writing—don’t mistake what I’m saying. He just starts out on a much lighter voice.

Which brings me to my real point: voice in fantasy.

Why is it that fantasy authors have such a hard time with this? They have no problem emulating the rest of Tolkien’s shtick, but when it comes to voice, they just don’t get it. The world has enough history lessons, I don’t need to supplement my life with imaginary ones.

Here are some examples of what I’m looking for:

Harry Potter was a highly unusual boy in many ways. For one thing, he hated the summer holidays more than any other time of year. For another, he really wanted to do his homework but was forced to do it in secret, in the dead of night. And he also happened to be a wizard.

Harry Potter, and the Prisoner of Azkaban

J. K. Rowling

Here’s another:

Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.
If you’re reading this because you think you might be one, my advice is: close this book right now. Believe whatever lie your mom or dad told you about your birth, and try to lead a normal life.

Percy Jackson and the Olypians, The Lightning thief

Rick Riordan

“But Tom, really!” you say. “These are all YA or middle-grade novels—kid’s books!”

Dude, do you think LotR was a kid’s book?

Let’s try something more mature, then:

My name is Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. Conjure by it at your own risk. I'm a wizard. I work out of an office in midtown Chicago. As far as I know, I'm the only openly practicing professional wizard in the country. You can find me in the yellow pages, under 'Wizards'. Believe it or not, I'm the only one there…

You'd be surprised how many people call just to ask me if I'm serious. But then, if you'd seen the things I'd seen, if you knew half of what I knew, you'd wonder how anyone could not think I was serious.

Storm Front, Book One of the Dresden Files

Jim Butcher

This isn’t about openings, and it’s not about first lines—it’s about voice. It’s about balancing the serious, epic side of fantasy with levity. Rowling was a master at this, which is why Harry Potter can be so dark and serious, yet have moments where you laugh your head off. Jim Butcher is an expert at pulling this off, as well.

Other writers are free to write whatever they want, and I hope they keep on doing it, too. As for me, I will take the path less-traveled.

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