Epic Fantasy needs to explore Epic Ideas

A Dribble of Ink has a great post up about epic fantasy.  The G., from Nerds of  a Feather, Flock Together, dives into the perceived  conservative strain that is claimed to plague epic fantasy. This conservatism is natural in the structure of epic fantasy. The genre has certain tropes of structure that inherently define it. But this structure, with its journey and great epic struggle on top of a fantastical second-worlds setting, does not demand similarly conservative takes on perceived social norms.

In fact, I’d suggest it is the area most ripe for new storytelling. Epic fantasy has a role to play in exploring creative and deep looks into how society and individuals can exist. It is the very existence of new rules, of a second-world that only needs to conform to its own internal consistencies, that allows epic fantasy to break those societal tropes. Mr G. stresses the value of the possible impossible (magic) :

What’s more, epic fantasy worlds are by definition places where the unreal becomes real. Sometimes there are dragons in the mountains, or elves, orcs and gnomes living amongst us. Occasionally there are malevolent gods who want to come back to rule; more often there are malevolent sorcerers who wield god-like powers and seek to do the same. Nearly always there are powers beyond the control of regular folks, though some gifted or enterprising young types might learn to master them. These are, by definition and in name, fantastic spaces where magic and metaphysics render the impossible possible. Epic fantasy worlds do selectively borrow from real world histories, mythologies and cultural norms, but they are rarely comprehensive or terribly accurate in those borrowings. The ideal aim is for authenticity and internal consistency, because realism is pretty much off the table.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the a) invented nature of epic fantasy worlds; b) heterogeneity of what falls under the epic fantasy rubric; and c) presence of user-definable systems of magic, metaphysics and the otherwise made-up would, taken together, also encourage authors to adopt a speculative perspective on social arrangements. Yet somehow keep going back to the same old medieval European settings and patriarchal, ethnocentric and heteronormative assumptions of how societies “should” look like.

As he continues to say, while acknowledging that there is nothing inherently wrong with euro-centric epic fantasy, that there is more to explore.  He is right to note how “Nora Jemisin, Doug Hulick, Saladin Ahmed and Elizabeth Bear signal that epic fantasy has discovered that worlds beyond the geographic, mythological and sociological borders of alt-Europe can be just as, and often more, compelling than the stuff we’re used to. Scott Lynch, Catherine Valente, Kate Elliott, Trudi Canavan, Daniel Abraham—these authors and others like them are effectively using the medium to ask complex questions about human nature.”

These are the types of authors and stories that will help expand the genre of epic fantasy and keep it vibrant into the future. The grand romantic tradition of epic fantasy is ripe for deep and complex storytelling. It can morph and change and twist into anything the imagination can conjure. The time is ripe for more epic fantasies to escape the clutches of gender and power norms, to explore new ways for a society to develop, to explore how such changes would alter a civilization. It is time to explore new ways for societies to resolve conflicts at the epic scale and to resolve power struggles. Epic fantasy has all the structure to tell powerful and compelling stories.  By mining the full possibilities of existence, outside the trappings of human prejudice and ingrained structural normas (along side magic and the impossible), these stories are capable of exploring all kinds of exciting possibilities, ones that can more keenly reflect and look back at ourselves.

In many ways, epic fantasy is still in its infancy, and that is a good sign. It shows that there is more to explore, there are new stories to tell, there are new readers and there are new writers. Let’s hope they dream some more, and imagine new worlds and new heroes, ones that will surprise us and make us laugh and love and cry and then, ponder what it all means.

Fantasy Names, Character and Complexity (redux)

Names sit within a fantasy novel differently then most other fiction.  Standard contemporary names are familiar to our ears.  When we read them, they are easily remembered and our mind simply flows over them.

“Sally.”

A mutter.

“Wake up now, Sally.”

A louder mutter: leeme lone.

He shook her harder.

“Wake up.  You got to wake up!”

Charlie.

Charlie’s voice.  Calling her.  For how long?

Sally swam up out of sleep.

The Stand, Steven King.

The opening moments of The Stand fix the names of the characters quickly into our minds.  Sally and Charlie are names we are familiar with, names that we do not need to read.  We see them and remember them easily.

When this is applied to fantasy fiction, it sometimes becomes a challenge to retain the glue that makes the reader remember an important name.   One common trope is simply using western names, perhaps adjusting the spelling. Jon Snow and Richard Raul stick in your memory.

Yet, often the fantasy writer wants a name that is unique to their world and their vision, the co-opting of western names is too familiar. Names such as Gandalf and Belgarad and Elric and Conan all place us in a different world, a place other than the earth we know. By their sheer difference and unfamiliarity they set us firmly inside the imagined world of the author.

Creating unique names that feel firmly grounded inside a story can be a real challenge, one that is sometimes won in many different ways.  Simplicity is often most effective for names the reader will continuously encounter. If a name is difficult to pronounce it can easily draw focus towards the spelling and pronunciation, pulling the reader out of the story.  That said, these difficult names can be effective when used sparingly and appropriately.

As main character names, Elric and Moonglum are similar to Eric and Mathew (or, in the case of Moonglum, even more similar to a two name contraction such as Bobby-Jo).  Once a reader has seen them a few times, they are easy to read, pronounce and remember.  You can read those names on every third line and they become invisible, sinking deep into the prose.   At the same time Moorcock has gods with names like Nnuuurrrr’c’c, which are extremely difficult and would get annoying to read on every page.  But as the name of a god that is infrequently used in the text, it gives character and history to an imagined world.

I’m not sure if I have a point here, but if I do, it has something to do with difficult, unpronounceable names for major characters that I need to remember, as well as too much similarity in names.  A simple name like Jon or Fitz can be great and give your character an instant hold on the reader.  But sometimes I see too many names along side those.  If a story has Brandon and Brant and Miss Brannel and the town of Branfort and the local drink is Brandy, I will quickly become confused and frustrated.  A little variety goes a long way, as well as some level of readability.  I can at least read Brandon and Brant in my head and pronounce them, but consistently trying to skip over the names R’Kath’in’Th and Hihyuyuiuaylly will quickly turn my head to mush.  Those names have their place, as Moorcock does so well, but their place they do have.

To end, here are a few of my favorite names in fantasy.

  • Aragorn – JRRT
  • Fitz – Robin Hobb
  • Serra Diora and Jewel – Michelle West
  • Rhapsody – Elizebeth Hayden
  • Randall Flagg – Steven King
  • Xabbu! – Tad Williams
  • Silk – David Eddings
  • Elric – Michael Moorcock

Those are just a few, off the top of my head for no reason.  I am sure there are more great names out there; some more reading and I’ll find those Jewel’s.

(this is legacy post, heavily edited and reprinted because I love this topic!)

Redemption Within The Good-Evil Binary.

The role of redemption in the story of humanity is foundational. It goes back to original sin and before. Humanity is inherently flawed. Nobody is perfect. In post-lapsarian man all are sinners. Redemptive struggle is the constant drive to better ones self, to realize that ones life is imperfect and existence is defined by a constant quest to do better.

Yet, too often this nuance is thrown aside for the easy binary of good versus evil. This is seen constantly in fantasy and supernatural fiction. The vampires or demons are simply evil at their core. They have no chance of redemption. Their very existence itself is evil and should be snuffed out without remorse.  In this model, the villain does not need to actually commit any evil act.  On Buffy, The Vampire Slayer the vampires have no soul and are simply evil.  Buffy destroys vampires who have simply risen from the grave, before they have even pulled themselves out of the ground.

This is a simplistic way to place the human (good) character in a place of righteousness in doling out violence. It removes any moral responsibility from the human protagonist to actually understand the “other.” The vampire has no soul, nothing more needs to be understood.  It is simply their “nature” to do evil.

So how does man’s ability for redemption come into play when man commits evil. If man is not by “nature” evil, but is evaluated on the acts he commits how is he allowed redemption. The vampire has no moral choice in committing evil (in the binary good versus evil paradigm). The human who commits an evil act does so with full command over his decision. Yet, we allow for redemption in man. We strive to see those who have made mistakes repent their actions and attempt to atone for their sins. This is the complex, nuanced struggle of man for over a millennia.

It seems to me that, too often, fantasy (Sauron is simply evil) and urban fantasy/supernatural (vampires are simply evil) not only removes any possibility for redemption, but actually removes any responsibility for evil from the moral decision making of such villains. They are shallow, flat villains without complex motivations. Their decisions need not be evaluated or understood. The protagonist human is by definition good, regardless of motives simply because he is the binary opposite of evil.

Yet man is not the binary good. Man is fallen, he is flawed, he is constantly seeking redemption. His motivations are encircled by greed, lust, anger and pride. By placing man against a binary evil it places man as the binary good and too often removes any reflection on humanity through this clean delineation. It diminishes the breadth of story telling by removing the constant redemptive struggle of humanity. It denies any reflective evaluation of humanity and the moral agency within which evil acts occur.

%d bloggers like this: