7 Things I Hate About Fantasy Novels
I love speculative fiction of all types. (Except paranormal romance and most urban fantasy, both of which I loathe with a disturbing passion.) Some of the best stories, characters, ideas and yes, ‘literary’ writing are to be found in the works of Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke, among many many others. Ender’s Game absolutely blew me away the first time I read it, and when I was younger I wouldn’t touch anything that didn’t feature some sort of mythological being brought to life. There are, however, some things about the genre (is speculative fiction a ‘genre’?) that annoy the crap out of me, and most of them are firmly in the domain of the ‘fantasy’ end of the spectrum.
If the following list moves you to start a ‘Science Fiction vs. Fantasy’ flamewar in the comments…well, go ahead, actually. That sounds kind of entertaining.
#7: The focus on nobility. All right, I can see why people do this. In the kind of society that most fantasy novels are set in, the king or queen is unquestionably the one with the most power and the most ability to act on that power. Sure, it might not make sense in terms of actual history, where kings and queens certainly couldn’t go dicking around in the countryside looking for magic artifacts every three months, but in the land of fiction it makes sense. I get that.
It doesn’t mean I have to like it, though. I always find it very difficult to empathize with a fictional example of the nobility, for the simple reason that I’ve never had the same worldview as them. Outside of the elaborate fantasies constructed by my raging ego, I don’t live in a world where I hold the lives of thousands of people in my hands, or where I can move entire armies against my enemies with a single command (as much as I’d like to be able to sometime). Any writer who’s going to bring me into that kind of character’s head is going to need to do a damn good job of it, and most fantasy author’s I’ve read just weren’t up to the task. Sure, I might have enjoyed their books for other reasons, but I never really felt connected to the core cast. (George R.R. Martin is the exception here, just as he is in so many things.)
Unfortunately, characters of noble birth will probably always be a staple of the fantasy genre due to the near-ubiquitous medieval Europe settings. Which brings me on to my next pet peeve…
#6: The near-ubiquitous medieval Europe settings. Before somebody jumps down my throat, I’m well aware that not all fantasy books are set in Pseudoshire, Arcadia. But I still think way too many of them are.
What’s that, fantasy author? Your epic story of epic kings is set in a pastoral land inhabited by short mountain people, beautiful forest people, and strangely bland people-people? Thanks, but I’d rather not read yet more poorly disguised Lord of the Rings fanfiction. Actually, now that I think about it, I’d rather not read Lord of the Rings either.
Do me a favor: go and get an Atlas, or a globe, or Google Maps, or something that displays a reasonably accurate depiction of what the Earth looks like. Got it? Okay, now throw it out the window. (Er…unless you’re using Google Maps, in which case I guess you could just close the window.) This is fantasy we’re talking about, people. You don’t need every location in your fictional world to correspond neatly with something that exists in real life. I’m not saying that every fantasy novel should be filled with terrain so outlandish that nobody will be able to picture it, but at the very least, please don’t ape real places and real countries unless you’re certain you can pull it off. Which segues nicely to my next point (let’s see how long I can keep this up)…
#5 The Obvious Ethnic Stand-In. Also known as the Fantasy Counterpart Culture, only mine tosses race into the mix for added controversy. It’s difficult to come up with a believable culture completely from scratch, which is why so many authors use bits and pieces from real cultures in order to lend authenticity to their creations. There comes a point, however, when the resemblance starts to get a bit too strong, and that point is when your brownish-skinned people with narrow eyes and Japanese names start describing their rigidly honor-based society that features a colorful pantheon of minor and major deities. Unless your story is set in some sort of weird multiverse, it might behoove you to vary things a bit more than that.
Even worse are authors who seem to think that people who look Asian have to correspond to modern (and Western) Asian stereotypes, or that fantasy people with dark skin all have to live in tribal societies in a desert. They don’t, and if you bungle things here you’re going to look at least mildly racist on top of everything else.
#4: Absolute Good vs. Ultimate Evil. I’ll explain this one with an example from the Wikipedia page for Robert Jordan’s inexplicably popular Wheel of Time series:
The Creator imprisoned its antithesis, Shai’tan, at the moment of creation, sealing him away from the Wheel. However, in a time called the Age of Legends, an Aes Sedai experiment inadvertently breached the Dark One‘s prison, allowing his influence to seep back into the world.
In The Wheel of Time books, Verin Sedai says the Dark One is the “embodiment of paradox and chaos, destroyer of reason and logic, breaker of balance, the unmaker of order, and the opponent of the Creator.” Shai’tan (Arabic word for ‘Adversary’, related to Satan) is the godlike figure of the creatures of darkness.
‘Shai’tan’? Wow, that’s subtle. Those of you haven’t read the book will probably not be surprised to learn the The Creator has almost no presence in story – he’s implied to be doing something vague in the background, but unlike the ‘Dark One’ (blergh) he never seems to communicate with anybody or even act directly on the world. Yes, I get that it’s awesome to have some farmboy discover that only he can stop Mr. Evil, but you know what would be even more awesome? If Mr. Good actually got up off his ass and did something for once. This isn’t an issue of whether or not The Creator exists, since he (or it, or whatever) is the only thing stopping Mr. Evil from escaping from his can and killing everybody. There just seems to be this pervasive idea that evil gods should explode onto the scene with much fanfare and sulfur, while good gods should float in the ether and maybe give the main characters visions every now and then. (I could start making some point about monotheism here, but I’m not going to because that would be boring.) If the evil god is sealed away but still capable of taking over the world, why can’t the good god be similarly powerful? Wouldn’t it make more sense for our hero-farmboys to release the good god and have him deliver some righteous ass-kicking, rather than try to kill something orders of magnitude more powerful than themselves on their own?
Related to all of this is the common idea in fantasy novels that there must be a grand battle of absolute good and ultimate evil. The main characters, although they may make mistakes or have to work against their own consciences, are almost always certain that what they’re doing is totally right. There is never any hint that their conception of Mr. Evil might just be clouded by their culture’s prejudices, or that Mr. Good, seemingly impotent though he may be, is just manipulating everybody to fulfill his own goals. If this was how the real world worked, there would be exactly two religions: the Good One and the Bad One, which people would join based solely on how much of a dick they liked to be.
Here’s an idea: toss out the omnipresent systems of right and wrong and have fantasy heroes struggle in a world that seems to have no solid moral reference points, just like people in the real world.
#3: Always Chaotic Evil. Do I really have to explain why I hate this one? You know all about it already: some species, race or other group is always irredeemably evil. There are almost never any exceptions to this. Very often they will even brag about how evil they are, even though almost nobody in the history of the world has ever actually described themselves as ‘evil’ unless they were insane. If things are very bad, they will dress in black and live in big pointy fortresses and murder children for fun. If things are even worse, they will have some name for themselves that positively screams ‘I’m about to kill you” (‘The Forsaken’ springs to mind) and will speak in a language that just ‘sounds evil’. (Actually, Harry Potter is pretty bad about this, now that I think about it.)
I could understand this if the species in question was simply alien to us, and thus considered ‘good’ what we might see as unspeakably cruel or evil, but that’s almost never how it works. More often, they’re fully aware of whatever objective morality that governs their particular fantasy universe, and actually mold their identity around the fact that they fall way over on the ‘dark’ side of the spectrum. This, of course, gives our heroes a good excuse to slaughter them in their hundreds over the course of the novel(s).
#2: Never-Ending Series Syndrome. (I’m going to pick on WoT again here, because I just hate those goddamn books.)
The Wheel of Time series currently consists of eleven published books, all of which are well over 200,000 words long. Hell, some of them are close to twice that. The last volume is now being split into three books, presumably because Brandon Sanderson’s contract stipulated that he must have at least one of the characters say or do something stupid enough to derail the plot every three paragraphs. (Those of you who have read the books will know exactly what I’m talking about here.) If your story takes that long to tell, something has gone wrong.
I can understand why writers, readers and especially publishers love a long-running series, but I’ve always felt that it allowed for some mild…excess, shall we say. Subplots breed like rabbits because the writer knows he can always ignore some of them for entire books if he needs to (I’m looking at you yet again, Robert Jordan) and characters proliferate way beyond what’s necessary to get to the end of the story. I have yet to read a book that convinced me it’s a good idea to dump an entire extended family into an already complex story, especially if every single member of that family ends up creating a fractal-like nightmare of parallel storylines.
A closely related problem to all of this is Universal Character Immortality, but I’m not going to go there for now because it would mean hitting on WoT again, and I’m already going to do that in the next entry. (For the record, I actually did enjoy the series until the whole ‘strong women dominate men’ theme got so pervasive that I thought I was reading very long-winded erotica.)
#1: Prophecies. Oh, how I loathe them. I could write a doctoral thesis on how much I hate prophecies as plot devices.
I actually wouldn’t mind them so much if they were handled well, but very often they’re not. Take our literary punching bag for the evening, the Wheel of Time series. Almost every event in the series happens because of an ancient prophecy, one which is literally inescapable. There are numerous points throughout the series where the characters (all ten billion of them) are literally incapable of choosing to act in a certain way, because doing so would go against what Destiny has proscribed for them. Do I have to point out that this sucks all of the tension out of the story?
For example, we know from the beginning that Rand Al’Thor, the savior (or possibly destroyer) of the world, will not die before close to the end of the series. He starts out as the main character, but there quickly comes a point where things could easily continue without him…except they actually couldn’t, because then The Prophecy wouldn’t be fulfilled. We know that he can’t die, which means that every confrontation he has with the legions of evil are always going to end the same way – with him winning. The only question mark over his fate is whether he’ll save the world or give in to his encroaching madness and destroy it, and even then you can be pretty sure that he isn’t going to go nuts and blast away the planet’s atmosphere in the middle of book 5 of 14. Nothing kills interest in a character faster than knowing that he or she will definitely do A, B, C and D before they die, and in the Wheel of Time virtually every major character has such a checklist to work through.
Prophecies (or prophetic dreams, or magical-artifact induced trips to the future…) also seem to inevitably lead to clumsy writing. These things always seem to take the form of ‘cryptic’ (cough) poems or songs, which means we get treated to crap like this:
Twice dawns the day when his blood is shed.
Once for mourning, once for birth.
Red on black, the Dragon’s blood stains the rock of Shayol Ghul.
In the Pit of Doom shall his blood free men from the Shadow. (Source)
The first time I tried reading the series, I started skipping the poem-prophecies once I realized they weren’t going to go away. The story still made perfect sense. 1+1=…?
Thus ends my needlessly confrontational list of pet peeves. Feel free to tell me what makes you mad enough to throw a book across the room in the comments section. But before I go, and in the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that I’m currently writing a fantasy novel involving a medieval Europe-ish setting, at least two noble main characters, a ‘Lord of Darkness’ type character and a prophecy (which, in my defense, I’m trying to be creative with). It just goes to show, some things are popular for a reason. And also that I’m a massive hypocrit, but then you probably already heard about that.