My final semester of college, I took a creative writing portfolio class. For my portfolio, I worked on a monster of a fantasy novel that has been the bane of my existence since December 24, 1997: Fledgling’s Prerogative. As a matter of fact, I’d also attempted a short story of this epic (key word: attempt) and had it work-shopped in my advanced fiction course. The downside of writing and work-shopping fantasy is the audience. If you present fantasy to people who don’t read or understand the genre, the feedback you receive may not be the most helpful.
Case in point, for both the short story and the first chapters presented of Fledging’s Prerogative, I got the advice that I should make the world more “exotic,” because fantasy worlds (ie, stories not written on Earth) are always exotic looking worlds.
I fully blame Hollywood for this. Movies like Avatar and The Neverending Story give audiences these preconceived notions of what fantasy should look like. Cinema can cheat with special effects to create these exotic worlds. But is it really necessary? Would movies like Stardust, Lord of the Rings, or Eragon have been less effective if they’d been set in more exotic settings? Stardust was a character driven novel with enough creativity that a strange looking world was unnecessary. LOTR…well, that’s the father of all fantasy epics.
The thing about fantasy is…it’s all made up! It’s a story that revolves around myth and magic. In other words, the writer can create it anyway that they deem fit… So long as, of course, it works. If an exotic landscape takes away from the story, then keep the world mundane looking. For example, my fantasy novel Hope’s Shadow is set in a world that looks a lot like ours because, although it’s set in a different world, I intended for it to parallel the European Inquisitions. If I’d gone around adding flying bison or strange hair tentacles that attach to trees and animals… Honestly, there was no reason for it. The world of Hope’s Shadow was “exotic” enough just by the addition of the fey creatures, such as the dryads and naiads.
The problem with being a fantasy author is that no one seems to really understand the genre, except for the fans. We’re seen as D&D playing nerds (I actually quite enjoy playing D&D, though I haven’t in years), our genre is mocked, and every time I mention that I’m a writer, the person is interested until I mention that I write fantasy. Then you can see them shut down, suddenly disinterested.
It doesn’t help any that zombies, vampires, and werewolves, creatures that, with some exceptions, really should remain in the horror genre where they belong, are currently overrunning the genre. (Although, to be fair, fantasy and horror do have a tendency to occasionally overlap. Same with horror and sci-fi. There’s a reason why the three genres are lumped together, sadly.) Traditional swords and sorcery fantasy struggles beneath the plethora of vampire authors and Tolkien copycats. It’s a daunting task to find really original, creative fantasy. Not that it’s not out there; it is. But the genre has become so popular for it’s vampires and werewolves (God damn you, Stephanie Myers! Yeah, you know what I’m talking about!) that it seems (not necessarily the truth, just the appearance of the truth) that publishers only want to publish what is popular, what sells… Which is more vampire/werewolf/zombie crap.
Thankfully, there are enough really good authors out there still producing quality fantasy (Patrick Rothfuss, Jim Butcher, George RR Martin, Laura Resnick, Anne Bishop…just to name a few) that the genre isn’t lost. In fact, Patrick Rothfuss has, deservingly so, become an almost overnight success, his first novel becoming a best seller, his second as well. I’d berate him for not writing faster, only… Have you seen how long The Wise Man’s Fear is? It’s HUMONGOUS!
The thing is, fantasy isn’t exactly the easiest of genres to write. Especially if you create your own world to write about. Sci-fi goes into this category as well. (In fact, I think sci-fi is harder. In any case, I can’t write it to save my life!) Tom Clancy once said, “The difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.” For fantasy (and sci-fi), this is even more the case. Fantasy writers have to draw their audience into their world, and they can’t rely upon suspended belief (well, they can, but I wouldn’t recommend it) to do that for them. Want your magic to be believed? Give it rules. Want people to believe your dragons breathe fire? Show (no, don’t explain! That will bore the readers) them how. Want your cultures to seem plausible? Do your research and create rules. Want your peasant to become a hero? Stop kidding yourself, then do your research and figure out how that would even be remotely possible, then make it happen. Want your made-up language to be taken seriously? Take a note from Tolkien, study linguistics, and for the love of God, don’t just use an earth-based foreign language.
Fantasy doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Hell, writing doesn’t get the respect it deserves, but that’s for a different time. It’s not easy. And a quick fix to make it seem more real should not – I stress, SHOULD NOT- be to make the world look more exotic. If you want to make your world exotic, like Avatar, and if you can make it work, go for it. (Be prepared for a heap of extra work, though!) But know that what really makes a world different doesn’t rely on the setting. It’s the strange cultures, it’s the magic and how it works, it’s the creatures, it’s the characters and how they solve their problems, it’s the problems and villains that they face. It’s the story. And unless the focus of the story is the world (which, arguably, is the case for Avatar), remember that there are other details that require your attention than that your world doesn’t look earth-like (really? No, seriously. Back to the class I took. They all thought the world looked too much like Earth. Even though it’s set on floating islands… That, apparently, wasn’t enough.)
In conclusion, if you write fantasy or sci-fi, remember this. Don’t work shop with people who don’t understand/read that genre. And if you do, and they tell you that the world isn’t “exotic” enough… Hand them a copy of Twilight, cut your losses, and never listen to them again.And on that note, I am going to go console myself in some good old-fashioned fantasy.