Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Fantasy Pet Peeves

This blog is brought to you by "stereotypes".  "Stereotypes":  making unrealistic generalizations since the dawn of human reason.

I've been a fanatic of fantastical worlds for years.  I use "fanatic" loosely because while I love fantasy, I actually haven't read too many fantasy books.  It's shameful, I know.  That being said, I still have some musings about the genre, particularly in relation to Tolkien-esque masterpieces.  I understand how popular it is to mimic Tokien because his books helped revolutionize the fantasy genre.  My musings, therefore, cover certain fantasy stereotypes.  Those are the stories I have grown up to love, but there are some things I dislike.  Here are a few:


I get a little turned off by magic.  It's interesting enough, but magic in terms of the usual fireball or shot of light is just overused.  Every good fantasy has some element of magic in it.  Don't get me wrong.  I'm not trying to discount those stories.  It just gets a little excessive.  If it's fantasy, it has to have magic, right?  I used to think so when I was dogging along as a teenager and young adult.

There are "anything goes" magic systems, which I used to cover in my old writings all the time.  There are also authors who create complex magic systems.  I am still trying to figure out what "magic system" really implies, since I had exclusively limited myself to unrealistically all-powerful mages in the numerous stories of my teenage years.  (Those were dark times indeed!)  All I know is that those systems imply that magic is performed in a number of ways:  incantations, gestures, an act of will.  I recently listened to David Eddings' Pawn of Prophecy: The Belgariad, and magic was described as an act of will.  I have yet to dive into the rest of the trilogy and learn more about it, but I found that bit of information interesting and a pleasant relief from the usual incantations.  Yet that act of will, if left without boundaries, would be a little too beneficial for a sinister antagonist (or protagonist depending on the POV of the story).

I get a little perturbed by that one evil overlord or someone similar.  There is usually that one character, or maybe a few, who seeks to be some omnipotent wizard, desiring the power of the gods.  Other than Raistlin Majere, a character from the Dragonlance series I'm sure many fanatics fantasized about, those characters tend to bore me.  Calling them a cliche doesn't even come close to my mental conception of them.  These humans have one purpose:  seek all the power there is to have.  I guess it makes sense for the narrow-minded to seek some sort of fulfillment, but I shy away from those people.  I need a dynamic character, someone who has more motive than simply conquering the world.  What's the drive behind that desire?

Because of this saturation of magic in fantasy worlds, I wanted to stray from the usual wizards and sorcerers in my own writing.  Instead, I focused on something different.  I thought of magic as being something related not to power to be obtained, but wonder to be experienced.  I don't actually refer to it as being magic.  There's a light versus dark theme based exclusively on God and Satan, heaven and hell, and my story focuses on the people caught in between.  There's nothing extraordinary about that.  It's ordinary, mundane, but those are where the little magical occurrences happen.  Interrupting the plainness are raids and divine acts.  I added a supernatural mix by throwing in ghosts, or souls as I called them, in my first book.  So the magic is there in the divine and supernatural.  It's also in the mystery of times forgotten.  It's that awe and wonder I try to convey in experiences that make up for a lack of wizardry.

Elves, dwarves, goblins, dragons, and the like

The Tolkien elves and dwarves have been mimicked so many times that the some of the general public is growing sick of them...slowly.  I loved the elves in the Lord of the Rings because they seemed ethereal, elegant and beautiful.  At least, that's what the movies portrayed.  What comes to mind when you think of these races?  To me, elves are eternal, elegant, tree-hugging, occasionally stuck up but equally wise fay people.  Dwarves are hard-headed miners and smithies, short and stocky, who dwell in the mountain dwellers.  Then you have goblins:  ugly, evil, tribal, green/yellow/brown wrinkly skinned, dirty, loin cloth wearing hobblers.  Seriously, I just don't picture goblins wearing many clothes, only rough leather/cloth garments.  And dragons...well, dragons are amazing.  I can't really comment on them.

I did see a twist in dwarves when I read Terry Brooks' Sword of Shannara.  Those loved to dwell in forests and couldn't bear being in rocky enclosed places.  They were a joy to read about, and I wanted to learn more about them.  Elves in those books had shorter lives and seemed to be more like men.  I'd like to see more works like that, playing with the usual conception of these races.

When I set out to make my own fantasy world, I ditched those races and centered on men.  Yet the people were of different cultures that had many similarities to elves, goblins, and orcs.  The Elder Faithen people in my second book are almost identical to elves:  perfect, eternal, elegant, forest-dwelling.  I made creatures called skohls that are grey, wrinkly, and tribal, much like goblins.  Malshorthath, or demons, are pictured similarly to evil orcs and trolls, dark-skinned creatures that carry out the will of their evil master.  But despite how similar these people were to elves, goblins, or orcs, I decided to stray from using those terms.  I want my readers to think of something different, to form their own ideas of what the Elder Faithens, skohls or demons might look like.  


I understand that the language I'm reading is a translation from the fantasy world into this one, but I'd appreciate a little variation between modern English cursing and the vulgar language in fantasy worlds.  Truth to tell, English cursing and other slang in fantasy works is a pet peeve of mine, especially if it's used excessively.   I started reading Victor Gischler's Ink Mage the other day, and the first thing that glared at me was a character's explicit statement about wanting to lay with another man's wife.  While the content makes sense, the delivery threw me off.  Whenever I see curse words like that, I see North American white people playing out the parts.  Maybe it's just my own problem, but would it strain the author's brain to come up with some unique slang, or adopt cursing relative to the medieval setting pictured in the book?  I'm not complaining about the entire book.  I've only just read the first chapter and aside from the f-bomb, I like the story.

Aside from the modern vocabulary is the interaction between races without concern with how different speech patterns are across cultures.  Please tell me why elves and dwarves speak the same common speech.  Their cultures may be different, but their speech often doesn't reflect the differences between men, elves and dwarves.  You can't strip culture from language entirely.  There are ways of explaining things in one language that don't cross over fluidly into another.  Different ethnic groups have different ways of thinking, and there are words in some languages that don't exist in others.  Wouldn't that be true for fantasy races like elves and dwarves?  Even an English translation can show some variation.  What if elves had three different words for "leaf" depending on what the season was, or a name for the sound leaves make when the wind rustles them.  Or perhaps a dwarf might describe rocks and minerals in terms of the sound they make when tinkered with.

In any case, I commend authors who take the time to show some variation, and that's exactly what I try to convey in my own writing.  The True Faithen people don't use contractions and express their thoughts in needlessly long sentences.  The Hémonians argue in short fragments and outbursts of random words.  The Elder Faithens don't use simple past tense.  I have yet to create a plausible dialect for the desert dwellers, but considering their isolation from other people groups, it'll be quite different from regular common speech.  In the mix is a handful of curse words.  Sometimes it's a challenge to write, but I enjoy showing differences in language.  That's probably because I have a degree in linguistics.

The use of magic, racial stereotypes and modern English isn't entirely bad, it's just excessive.  I could go on about other stereotypes, but that would make this blog quite long.  These are the glaring three that bug me, and I've explained how I try to somewhat overcome them in the book I'm writing.  What do you think?  Do you notice these things and agree?  Do you disagree?  If you're writing fantasy, do you have a magic system?  What races, creatures or people are involved?  What language(s) do they use?  I'm open to hearing other people's opinions.

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