The 10 Commandments of New Fantasy (Part 1)

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The other day, I read a post over at SFSignal.com which was entitled What’s Wrong with Epic Fantasy. I’ve been pondering this question in my own brain for a while now and was a little disappointed that they beat me to it. Also, they had a panel of fantasy writers weigh in and on the whole, I felt they had a pretty pertinent discussion about some things which are going on right now within the genre. However, it seemed that many of these panelists came to the conclusion that: Nothing is wrong with Fantasy Literature but people’s tastes have moved away from certain tropes and authors might do well to do the same.

I’d say that’s reasonable.

But it doesn’t tell the whole story. The main issues I have been dealing with recently still felt un-addressed. So I will address them here in a list because . . . list posts get more views! (Even God knows that).

*Note: I’ve noticed the following items in nearly every stretch of Fantasy I’ve explored. These crimes are committed (everyday) by authors large and small. Some have big names and considerable reputations; others are just learning to make their way in this world. Some of the novels these crimes permeate will be carried through history as the pinnacle of their art, while others will never hear mention in the most obscure of reading lists. But these 10 are out there, and I wish they would stop!

Oh Yea. This guy.
Oh Yea. This guy.

1) Thou Shalt Not Use Simple Misspellings to Imitate Actual Etymology

This is really starting to get to me. Please do not write a Fantasy that takes place in another world which is really just the same as our world (a couple centuries ago) and then try to cover up that fact by adding or subtracting some letters in simple words like bird, or lizard, or tree, or . . . you get my drift (notice I’ve not written byrde or lizarde, or worse dryfte). If you actually study Medieval history, and your story is actually set in Medieval Europe, I won’t hold it against you if you use some REAL Medieval words. But please do so sparingly, and mostly in dialogue.

If not, I will have a sour taste in my mouth and start flashing back to my 400 lvl Chaucer class (I think I must have PTCD!) After which I will promptly stop reading your novel and throw it off a clyffe!

See it isn’t fun. Don’t do it. Let’s move on.

2) Thou Shalt Not Use Simple Misspellings to Imitate Actual Etymology of Names!

Ok. I guess we haven’t really moved on (sorry). However, I feel this same technique is used all the time when dealing with names. Mostly,  I feel authors do this to invoke certain character traits which are widely associated with whoever the character is supposed to resemble. We do this, so that we don’t have to write scenes where the character actually resembles his namesake.

  • Example: If I write about a character named Sudaj, we might think it pretty obvious that this character will be a villain, or at the very least, betray someone.

Now if I pick up on the fact that this character’s name is just Judas spelled backwards, I might not be all that disappointed when he betrays a main character. My expectations are met and I’ve seen it coming since we were first introduced so I’m not really upset but I am bored. You might get clever, and reverse the roles. Have Sudaj (aka Judas) get betrayed by the very savior he was expecting to destroy (double irony) and throw in some sympathy for the poor devil and I’m no longer bored. I just wish you’d come up with an original name. What I don’t want you to do, is give your character the name Sudaj and then construct him as a perfect representation of James Bond with armor instead of a tux. What’s the connection? There isn’t one and I’m mostly feeling used.

Put time into your names and be decisive. Once you have decided, commit and sell it. Don’t skimp on the name because it’s hard. Trust me. I used to spend hours trying to figure out what to name my game saves in Crash Bandicoot and I was only allowed to use three letters! Talk about agony. But I was never dissatisfied.

Magic Missle3) Thou Shalt Not Expect Me to Automatically Know Your Magic System!

Many authors write fantastic magic systems which are incredible, awe inspiring, and magnificent. Those same authors often write magic systems which are as complicated as they are any of those other descriptors. Do NOT expect me to know all of the intricacies of your system right off the bat. You start throwing around terms like Arrow-of-the-Just and Magic Missle, you better show me what those are. Fantasy has a great many standards which are used over, and over again. I’m OK if you use these standards in your writing but come at me as if I’ve never heard of them before. A) It will likely inspire your creative faculties and produce a product that, while based off standards which have preceded it, will ultimately be unique and pleasurable to read & B) It may actually be my first encounter with this brand of magic.

At a conference I attended recently, a panel of authors discussed the merits of what is essentially ‘System Immersion’. Basically, you write no exposition about your system of magic (the panel was for Sci-fi writers so it was focused on tech but essentially the same idea) and just allow the reader to figure out the system through events taking place and some vague names which all your characters seem to already know. In my mind, it’s comparable to the Walking Dead. Everybody knows that Walkers are zombies even though no one ever says the word zombie. We can see what they are, we don’t need to be told. In theory, I like this but in practice, I see it accomplished infrequently. Most of the time, we have the names of actions (or bits of magic) and no representations of what they mean. And because it’s magic, it gets even more convoluted because it’s abstract to begin with.

It’s a tough line to walk. I think you’re best option is just to set up some good scenes that demonstrate your system and then slip in the exposition in doses. That would be my plan.

4) Thou Shalt always think through thy magic system!

Just let that header marinate. If you’re still having trouble, read #3 again.

5) Thou Shalt Not Name Drop Like Sir Namecelot, son of Dropcelot who is King of Appendix B!

Don’t come up with exhaustive family trees just because you feel like you have to. Epic Fantasy can still be ‘Epic!’ in a room full of strangers where no one is related to anyone else. Unless it is vital to you’re plot that I know your character is related to another character, I don’t care. (I’m think like Luke and Leia here. That detail was pretty vital!)   

—Intermission—

Those are my first 5 commandments of New Fantasy. We’ll go over the other five in another post. I’m getting tired. Goodbye for now!

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