Fantasy Tropes: What are they good for?*

Tropes

Fantasy fiction is rife with tropes. We’ve all bemoaned the most overused: dark lords, ancient prophecies, faux-medieval Europe,  quests, magic blades, and so on.  Some argue that the existence and over-reliance of these tropes is more good than bad, in that it allows them to be tweaked or twisted. Joe Abercrombie, for example, plays with the quest trope in The First Law Trilogy, just as China Mieville deconstructs the chosen one in Unlondon. As good as those books are, however, they can’t make up for the plethora of write-by-numbers books out there.

The above tropes are well documented. But there are a few that drive me crazy that aren’t often mentioned. I’ll list them below.

 

 

 

Alcohol

How it is:

From the exotic deserts of the south to the cold winter lands of the north, fantasy countries have ubiquitous amounts of beer and wine, if not spirits.  Drinking copious amounts of it always equates to being manly and masculine. Every culture has taverns that serve it, usually frothy and in a tankard.

Alcoholism, even in fantasy, also seems to have become the standard character flaw for otherwise skilled characters.

Alternatives:

From kava in Fiji, to baby mice wine of China, from fermented mare’s milk of the steppes to fermented reindeer piss of Finalnd, there are a lot of real world alternatives to the barley and grapes used throughout the fantasy worlds. When world-building, behaviorally changing substances could certainly branch out a bit, especially in worlds with magic.

Moreover, in many cultures alcohol is used ceremonially or spiritually rather than to be quaffed in pints in pubs and inns. In addition to the ingredients, the purpose of alcohol in fantasy books seems far too uniform. It would be great to see D&D like inns fade entirely from the fantasy lexicon.


Language

How it is:
For a long-time, fantasy was written in a Tolkien-esque faux-medieval parlance. Over time, it has relaxed, which isn’t a bad thing, but these days the pendulum has swung about as far as it can the other direction. Fantasy and historical fiction both these days has characters speaking with modern parlance and 21st century idioms. It’s not quite a case of fantastical noble elves saying “OMG….Like totally squee” but honestly it’s close.
Too many characters quipping like action-movie stars and also the shortening of names into nicknames are also too uniform to my eyes.
Alternatives:

Languages, idioms especially, are cultural. It would be great to see not just all cultures speaking the same but to have their own language constructions. Some writers do this (Patrick Rothfuss comes to mind, as does Ursula K. LeGuin) but language as a vehicle of culture is a seriously underutilized aspect of world-building. Furthermore, modern euphemisms and language construction really breaks immersion and there’s no reason for it other than laziness.


Kingdoms & Princesses

How it is: 

This one isn’t as prevalent, but the default setting of fantasy fiction is all too often a kingdom. This is a subset of the medievalist devotion that still permeates the genre. It’s almost as though we can’t picture things like matriarchies or royal systems without familial based nobility…even though they existed around the world well into the middle ages.

Worse I think is the Royal point-of-view character. Of course, Tolkien had his share of nobles but wisely he chose the everyman Hobbits as the caretakers of his POV. Even today I read way too many books where the main characters are either royal, noble, or related to them. (There are exceptions–James Blaylock’s The Elfin Ship has a cheesemonger as main character, for instance.)

Alternatives

For the kingdoms, all it takes is some light world-building. Why not have faux-medieval socialism, democracy, republics, or anarchism? Fantasy worlds are a great place to explore these, or to create new systems of government.

Howard Zinn is not a perfect historian, but at least he helped shift history away from stories of rich white men and their wars. I’d love to see some/more of that in fantasy–more tales of the 99%. People who aren’t heirs to thrones, good with swords, or capable of world-shattering magic. (China Mieville kind of does this in the Scar: Bellis Coldwine is nothing more than a linguist–but every other character is Dragon Ball Z level of powerful so I’m not sure if it counts.)


Marriage

How it is: 

Fantasy has a lot of different places to live. Kingdoms and dutchies, cities run by wizards, hamlets owned by heroes, swamps and forests and steppes and jade jungles too.

In nearly all of them, men marry women in a monogamous ceremony because of love. (Except sometimes for princesses, who are supposed to marry for duty, but this is usually avoided.) Things like dowry and fertility and polygamy, polyamory, open relationships and so on and so on hardly ever enter the picture.

Alternatives:

Not only is this blind to both current cultural diversity (arranged marriages currently account for over half of all marriages in the world today) but also to historical antecedent. Which is not irrelevant seeing as how the setting is almost always pre-modern.

Books like Stranger in a Strange Land show how interesting it can be to explore these issues, but even then it is contrasted with the dominant cultural paradigm of engagement rings and wedding vows.

These are fantastical worlds where a wealth of societies and customs could exist. 20th century western wedding ideals are a cop-out, or at least a wasted opportunity.


Money

How it is: 
What does the wizard spend to buy his potions? How does the barbarian purchase a new sword? What do kings and peasants alike lust after?
Gold of course. Which exists the same, across all the countries in the world. Even going to new lands, there is no conversion, no mention of any kind of central mint.
Alternatives:

Barter seems to exist only in post-apocalyptic societies. It’s hard for us, living in the heart of the neo-liberal paradigm, to even imagine societies that are free from money.  At the very least, different lands should or could use different currency. In fact, coin images as political propaganda is an interesting part of history/numismatics and one that could be used to good effect in fantasy fiction.

Converting money at the borders, something modern travelers go through each time they enter a country, is something that could lead to intrigue and adventure.

Also, why is it always gold (or other precious metals)? In our world, everything from turnips to giant stones to feathers have been used currency. Fantasy writers can really up their games here.


Pets

How it is: 

Most cultures have pets, which are usually cats or dogs, or something similar. Dogs are loyal and cute; seemingly they domesticated in their magic world the exact same way as they did in our mundane one.

Alternatives:

Countries where animals haven’t been domesticated or aren’t kept as pets. Lands where dogs are scary or don’t exist or do but aren’t loyal buddies. Places where because of magic, humans never needed to domesticate animals at all.


Prudish Ways

How it is: 

In fantasy books, having sex is usually bad, especially for female characters. Adults blush and look away at nudity. There is a puritanical undertone to all this. This is true of characters ranging from Rand Al’thor to Geralt of Rivia.

Alternatives:

Contrary to what American ways tell you, nudity isn’t inherently sexualized. But in fantasy novels, all too often nudity is a shorthand for promiscuity, which itself shorthand for moral failings. Or at best, shameless nudity is an indicator of the noble savage.

I don’t personally want a lot of sex scenes in fantasy books, because frankly they’re just as boring and gratuitous as action scenes. But it sure would be great to have characters from a diverse background of cultures and societies not all share uptight judgement of sex or teen boy shyness of nudity.

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All of the above tropes are variations of one idea of course. What I’m hoping for is a building block to fantasy societies that is thought out and constructed from the ground up. Not just a fantasy world where all the inhabitants happen to share our customs and morals (and those who don’t are often antagonists). There are exceptions but I’d love to see them become the rule–there is no better genre than fantasy in which to really explore the human experience. Fantasy is fine as escapism, but falls far short of what it could be–rather than simple redressing stories about princes at war, we need what Ursula K. Leguin called  “realists of a larger reality.” Or in Picasso’s terms: “…the lie that enables us to realize the truth.” However you look at it, modern fantasy is plagued by tropes that really limit what it can achieve.

 

 

 

 *Absolutely nothing, as you very well know.

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Back on the Chain Gang

Over the last year(ish), I finished a novel, self-published a book of short stories and have been developing RPG material but my short story output really shrank down to nothing.

But in the last month I wrote a new Lovecraftian story and finished a Post-Apocalyptic story I began 6 years ago and put aside. That second story relies on a twist hinted at in the below picture, but the less said about it, the better.

che marley

I’m not actually sure how good either of the stories are, but it does feel nice to have them finished. Next up, finish working on RPG module Black Blade of the Demon King and then try to finish one of the two novels I’ve started. It’s going to be a busy summer.

Furthering Appendix N

I have to admit that although I played D&D a lot[1] back in the day that I never really knew about the famous Appendix N. Part of that is we were playing AD&D 2nd edition and part of that is I was always a player in TSR games[2].

But also I think as responsible nerds we had just accidentally read most of the list. I admit I still have yet to read Margaret St. Clair or Manley Wade Wellman, but we were pretty deep into Leiber, de Camp, Moorcock, Burroughs etc[3]. The one exception from the immediate influences was Jack Vance, whom I’ve only started reading relatively recently. Vance is fucking awesome, but I personally hate how his magic has become codified into spellbooks and daily memorizations. Magic shouldn’t be mundane. Magic shouldn’t’ be math.

Anyway, my guess is that Appendix N is valuable because it was small enough to be manageable, so many people grew up on it, and it wasn’t just a list of best-sellers but had some variety. It’s hard to remember now, but in a pre-Internet era, it wasn’t easy to get recommendations. Now we have too much to read, too many games to play; far too much information at our hands. It’s a nice obstacle to have, but it is (or can often be) a bit of a problem.

So I propose my own supplemental list to Appendix N, consisting of recent books, which I’ll define as having been published in this century. (Which leaves out the area between 1975-2000, which excludes some wonderful authors indeed.[4] I’m also not limiting my list strictly to high fantasy, as I think most RPGS can support the breadth of the speculative fiction milieu.

Disclaimer time. I read a lot, but I’ve never read particularly for this purpose and I’m sure I have a lot of blind spots. If you question an inclusion or exclusion, please let me know in the comments. Like the original Appendix N, this isn’t a comprehensive list but rather a place to discover works you may enjoy. (And unlike Appendix N, this isn’t actually accompanying anything so it’s really a list of books that gamers may enjoy[5]

While Gygax didn’t justify his inclusions, I’ll try to add a sentence fragment to each entry to explain why I included it. There’s no particular order to this list and when I list the first book in series the rest of the books probably get a default recommendation too.

Appendix N Augmentation

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch Lovable rapscallions in fantasy Venice.

Everything by China Mieville, but especially the Bas Lag untrilogy. More ideas in one book than most writers have in a lifetime.

Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones There are others, but for me this is the best medieval Arabian fantasy around today

The Horns of Ruin by Tim Akers Clerics and magic and intrigue and ancient civilizations oh my

The 5th Season by NK Jemisin Her books are all a bit too YA for me, but there is world-building and cool volcano magic aplenty here.

The Last City by Nina D’Aleo How can any gamer resist a book billed as “Bladerunner meets Perdido Street Station”?

The Dervish House by Ian McDonald Nanotech in near-future Istanbul

The Croning by Laird Barron Possibly the best bit of cosmic horror since old HPL himself

Nights of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton Fantasy world with superheroes…

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi  Biopunk, Shadowrun-esque with genetically engineered elephants providing energy to the cities

The Road by Cormac McCarthy Bleak, grey, depressing, grey, bleary, grey and so good

Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko Cool urban fantasy in Moskva-written in the late 90s but I think not translated into English until the 2000s

Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan Flintlock fantasy–perfect for those RPGs set in 17th century Europe

The Dragon’s Path by Daniel Abraham High fantasy for adults

Red Country by Joe Abercrombie Western Fantasy, two great tastes together at last and in my opinion his finest work

Oryx and Crate by Margaret Atwood Dystopian biopunk starts slowly but is thought-provoking and gameable

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold All the drama, intrigue, and tension of a fantasy trilogy in one efficient novel

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer Pretty much a Trail of Cthulhu campaign in novel form.

Tales of Dunk & Egg by GRR Martin. Cheating because the first one came out in 1998, but these are far more focused and fun than ASoIaF, like Lieber writing in Westeros

Children of Hurin by Prof. Tolkien Ha! Cheating, I know. But seriously read this again. Or better yet, listen to Christopher Lee read it to you


 

[1] My high school went to something called block scheduling my senior year and we had a free 1.5 hours every day called Focus. It was meant to be used for studying or homework or some shit, but let’s just say that we played enough D&D that I got my cleric Jorlan to level 20 in Dark Sun. I don’t think I’ve ever even got another character as high as level 5 in any game, ever.

[2] In case you’re wondering, Hobie ran Star Wars, Earthdawn and Buck Rogers, Wind ran Rifts and Kara-Tur and TMNT and a bunch of other stuff, Oreon ran Werewolf, and I ran Elric. We weren’t cool enough to play MERP with the older kids.

[3]  It was admittedly high school and I still thought David Eddings wrote great dialogue and the Death Gate Cycle was the bomb  so I’m not claiming much of anything other than possession of a library card.

[4] This is beyond the scope of this modest blog post, but writers like Frank Herbert, Ursula K. LeGuin, Tim Powers, Guy Gavriel Kay, Fred Saberhagen, William Gibson, and Steven Brust belong in any discussion of RPG related material. On the other hand, these writers are all highly successful and don’t necessarily need additional attention.

[5] Although  I won’t list books like those of Patrick Rothfuss or Suzanna Clark, for instance. Even though I quite like their stuff, I don’t think they do anything new or interesting enough to warrant inclusion.