I want to find deeper understanding of fantasy literature, because I want to be able to write it well myself.
Yesterday, I quested my way to a local Barnes & Noble for a prowl through the SF/Fantasy section. Normally, I don’t find these places conducive to research. Sub-genres blur into each other, high fantasy butting up against horror and hardcore SF. But in their favour they’re littered with fragrant fewmets.
You can learn a lot about the market from reading blurbs. Blurbs, I discovered, reveal the tracks of the snark. They narrate trends in the fantasy market.
After reading more blurbs than any mortal should read in a days several definite trends did emerge, not all of them encouraging. I’ll touch on some of these in more detail over the next few posts. For now, I want to offer what appears to the archetypal fantasy plot these days.
Remember madlibs? Those wonderful stories with words left out, to be filled in at the reader’s leisure? Here’s a fanlib, with suggestions how a novelist might complete it. Welcome to the archetype.
An attractive young [elf, dwarf, vampire] lives a fairly normal life in [Valhalla, Mayberry, Sweden]. But [he, she, it] has been chosen by [destiny, prophecy, bad luck], and discovers that [he, she, it] has special power[s], the [Sight, Skill, Proclivity]. The local authorities [recognize, reject, stupidly don’t consider] that [he, she, it] alone can [save the world, reunite the estranged Peoples, reform health care] and stop the evil [Dark Lord, Otherworlders, Film Critics] from bashing their way through the [Portal, Artefact, Textbook] and cover the lands in a [first, second, third] darkness. If evil triumphs, it will destroy the [way of life, loved ones, health coverage] of the protagonist. It’s up to [he, she, it] to save whatever it is needs saving, and [learn some life-lessons, make some strange friends, get laid] along the way.
- If this protagonist is male, he will be reluctant to save anything, blundering his way through the first couple books until horrible tragedies force him to grow up and become Conan Skywalker, to the delight of middle-aged women everywhere.
- If this protagonist is female, she will defy the world and its insistence on misunderstanding her, rise to the occasion with aplomb, crusading the cause of equality with the greatest of ease and a few meltdowns, to the delight of junior high boys everywhere.
- If this protagonist is genderless, you’re probably reading an I, Robot spinoff. Don’t panic—it will discover that it has feelings, too. Or at least free will. To the delight of washing machines everywhere. Long live the revolution!
This, it seems, forms the substance of much modern fantasy. As a story arc, it’s not that bad. Though I’m not ready to admit it should be genre-defining. The quest isn’t just about the archetype. This is just where we start. The quest asks, where can we go from here? What else can be said? Where else can fantasy take us?
The quest springs from my conviction that there are stories out there worth telling, there are words out there worth speaking. If this snark turns out to be a boojum, so be it. We’ll simply vanish in the midst of the words we’re trying to say.