Welcome to 2016! I was going to write something meaningful for this occasion, but frankly, I've got too much family holiday insanity going on to take the time to be properly sentimental and philosophical, so I won't re-say what everyone else is probably already saying. (Let go of the old, embrace the new, etc.)
I'm taking a break from my Moonstone updates this week to bring you something that has been germinating for a while: my top 5 pet peeves about fantasy. Enjoy!
1. Bad guys are ugly.
One day, I had the good fortune to overhear my brother (then about 5) play Lord of the Rings with himself.
“We need to cross that bridge! Hurry, the orcs are coming! Pew, pew! Ah, one shot me!”
Then, crouching, he held this pep talk with his imaginary allies.
“We need to shoot the orcs, ‘cause they’re bad guys. How will you know which ones are the bad guys? ‘Cause they’re ugly.”
After I recovered from my conniptions of mirth, I realized that my brother had put into words one of Hollywood’s greatest fallacies: good guys are attractive, bad guys are ugly. But I knew that reality did not match that paradigm. Some of the kindest people I know are not very attractive, and some of the most attractive people I know can be downright bad.
Wouldn’t it be something if the hordes of the bad guy—and the bad guy himself—are not mindless drones or visually disturbing creatures, but people who look, well, normal? Wouldn’t it be incredible if the main villain is someone who is exceptionally good-looking and even understandable, who is not mwahaha-ing but instead offering frighteningly lucid reasons for his atrocities, whose most potent evil is his ability to mess with your mind and expectations and make you like him?
Did you know that, prior to World War Two, Adolf Hitler was considered one of the most attractive men of his time? Did you know he had thousands of screaming female fans who would have swooned to spend a night with him? As appalling as this is, it’s true, and it’s how the world actually works. Sometimes the most horrific killers occupy the most attractive bodies.
It would be nice if the fantasy genre acknowledged that truth more often.
2. Female warriors don't wear enough clothing.
On August 15, 2015, I posted this on my author Facebook page.
I got more responses from that one post than from any of my other posts. Obviously, I hit a nerve. Here's a sampling of the responses. Austin's comment made me laugh.
3. The story is culturally unbelievable.
Nothing frosts me more than a girl who supposedly grew up in a repressive feudal society, who somehow has the attitude of a twenty-first century American. This independent, feminist attitude is not characteristic of the attitudes of the myriad of societies in real-life history and really makes no sense in the context of sword-and-sorcery fantasy.
Fantasies that merely reflect Western cultural norms miss tremendous opportunities to build a new world, to develop a rich and unique culture, and to truly live out what fantasy, as a genre, was born to do. Let’s not simply relocate modern America into some remote fantasy setting. Let’s rebuild the whole world.
This is why a knowledge of history is so useful to the fantasy author. No lie—I actually study historical sources when I write my fantasies. How did women and men interact in a particular society and time? What were their rights and roles? How did one treat the existing authorities and laws? What were the politics of the age? What was the current technology?
4. If you're old, you're only a mentor.
This is the unspoken rule of fantasy: You can’t save the world after sixty. That’s the rule. You can train the next world-saving punk, but you? You’re relegated to the role of mentor. And your apprentice will probably defy you, get in trouble, then somehow manage to save the world anyway, so your work as a mentor wasn’t all that critical. Plus, you’ll probably die before your apprentice has finished his/her training anyway, leaving them to follow a path of self-discovery in your absence.
Seniors can be main characters in detective fiction—think Miss Marple—but in fantasy, they’re always side characters. Think Obi-Wan Kenobi.
The one exception I can recall would be Gandalf. He actually has a pretty important role, but his dexterity is astonishingly similar to that of a younger man. He can ride a horse all day without fatigue, engage in desperate sword battles, and more. There is simply no way to make a character realistically old and heroically athletic simultaneously.
I’d like to change that. Wouldn’t it be fun if the elderly main character makes up in craft and wisdom what he lacks in activity? Wouldn’t it be new if the side character was the young person? Now that would be an intriguing story!
5. Fantasy includes few parents.
When I took a course on children’s literature in college, one chapter of my textbook pointed out that a shift occurred sometime in the twentieth century, a shift in which fiction no longer centered on the family as a whole, but emancipated the children of the family and found creative ways to explain the parents’ absence. It’s astonishing how many fantasy stories are populated by orphans, kids of mysterious parentage, kids with incarcerated or ill parents…
I think we’ve lost something from that. Yes, those stories better reflect our modern culture in which divorce and other situations contribute to a rift between child and parent. But I also think those stories contributed to the modern idea that kids can survive without their parents.
And they can’t. In the absence of parents, children necessitate someone else becoming a surrogate parent—a teacher, a friend, the old lady down the street. Parents, in real life, are necessary.
I think parents still have a place in fantasy. That’s why I’m seriously considering writing a series of short stories based around a star-faring family. Think Firefly meets Lost in Space meets Indiana Jones. I think family fantasy can be every bit as edgy and exciting and inventive as single-kid-running-around-the-fantasy-realm-all-by-his-lonesome-self fantasy. And I’m going to prove it.
So there it is: my fantasy pet peeves. What are your fantasy pet peeves?
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