Many fantasies have wars in them. Many have quests. Many combine both, so that the protagonist, after going on a journey to find the Crown of Whatever, wins the Battle of Wherever and takes the throne.
One thing I think a lot of authors miss is that war is not a requirement. If you suck at writing war, you don’t need to write a fantasy with war in it. But it’s an assumption that trips people up because it manages to sneak into a lot of authors’ conceptions as something very basic, the same way I’m convinced that the idea of kings and a ragtag traveling band and inns sneak into conceptions of the world before most fantasists start building it.
Don’t want to research ten different varieties of swords, concentrate hard to write action sequences that are both exciting and well-described, polish your war as best you can, and then still have people tell you that you got such-and-such detail wrong, that the actions scenes are too vanilla or too gory, or that you should have done everything differently? Kick those conceptions out. No need for them.
1) Urban other-world fantasy. Part of the promise of urban fantasy is that it supposedly puts the presence of magic right here in our own universe and lets people react to it, but another (large, should be larger) part is that the elves or vampires or whatever then get to fool around with our own complicated technology and history. Perhaps they have even played an important role in developing it.
Now, granted, I don’t think urban fantasies always do this, and sometimes they wind up reading more like bland fantasy epics than they mean to. But I said a lot of that already in the urban fantasy rant, so I won’t repeat this here. What I want people to think about is constructing urban fantasy that’s set in another world.
Why can’t a fantasist develop a city with the same kind of attention to detail that normally goes into the creation of a whole fantasy world, or an urban fantasy author’s research of the city and country they’re writing about? Perhaps magic has replaced technology. Perhaps their history is similar to ours, but different at certain turning points. Perhaps the inhabitants of this city have lived quite well for x number of years, and suddenly they’re getting new immigrants that they can’t quite place. (I always wanted to see what would happen if humans simply moved, quietly, into elven cities and squatted there, instead of being expelled by Ye Olde Elven Border Guards).
I quite often feel I don’t know a fantasy setting well because it’s broad, but not deep. The author has spent so much effort naming places and drawing maps and trying to figure out the course of rivers that only a little attention has gone into each individual city or country. And when the author’s object is a whirlwind tour, I might only have a few chapters to learn a place’s name and essential characteristics before I’m whisked away again.
Try setting your entire story in just one city, and not having it be besieged or conquered in a war. I will concede that it could have riots. Different mentality than open war anyway, most of the time.
2) The creation plot. This might take some pulling-off, but hell, you’re writing fantasy, right? You know the impulse to create.
Take an artist hero or heroine and write about them creating their grand project. This artist could be a mage. She could practice something that nobody has ever heard of on Earth. He could do something that combines research and originality—perhaps you learn some details about smithing and then make up others, creating a new art.
There are very, very few artist heroes in fantasy, of any kind. There’s Guy Gavriel Kay’s Crispin, a mosaicist, one of the main characters in the Sarantine Mosaic duology. There’s Steven Brust’s Greg, the painter hero of The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars (which is Weird). I’ve read a few bard characters, but almost inevitably the focus shifts to only the magical part of their music, making them mages who just happen to sing spells instead of singers with another talent. There are some heroes who start out as scribes, but wind up as fighters. Whatever the hero is “meant” to do at first is probably only a blind, because the author is determined to get that war started!
Why shouldn’t the focus of a fantasy novel be the growth of a mosaic, the reversal of a painting, the frustration when a mage-smith executes the final spell and things fall apart and she then has to figure out what went wrong? It could still involve violence. Most creation does. It would just be a different kind of violence, perhaps mostly the throw-things-at-the-wall kind. And, hey, in a fantasy world, the forces of creation might be much more literal.
3) Political fantasy. Another rare beast. Most fantasy novels do use politics, but confine them to the court intrigues from which the war breaks out, or which run parallel to the war, or which the noble characters get up to whenever the author leaves them alone for one minute because what else would nobles do? Pure political fantasy, especially one in which people manage to defer war by politics, doesn’t come across the table often.
“Diplomacy is war by other means.” Then show diplomats being warriors. There’s little of this, either. There are slimy ambassadors a-plenty in fantasy, but you know they’re going to fail, because the author must have her battles. (Even poorly-described, unnecessary, vicious little battles in which people do stupid things like sacrifice the high ground and blab their plans to the opposite side are better than no battles at all, the mantra seems to run). Show one who is working in tension-fraught circumstances and really doesn’t want to fail, because, I know this is wild, war might possibly cost more than ten thousand of the bad guys and one or two expendable heroic sidekicks.
One common message of fantasy, by now tarnished with overuse, is that war is horrible and should not be glorified. Really? Then show your characters trying a little harder to avoid it. Most fantasy protagonists run towards it with open arms.
4) “I-am-so-goddamned-cool!” stories. Here’s a good use for superpowered fantasy protagonists, the ones who could take down demons in their sleep and are the most powerful mages in the world, no question, and have personally chatted with several gods. Instead of making them angsty stereotypes or so perfect the reader has no option but to wish sudden savage death on them, make them characters who are really goddamn cool.
This takes a certain skill. You have to know where the line is. If the character comes across as arrogant, you’ve crossed it. If the character, instead of showing off how cool he is, just tells the reader about it for chapters, or has other characters tell the reader about it, you’ve crossed it. (Hello, Kushiel’s Chosen). You have to be willing to affect a certain nonchalant attitude about it and fill the character with the same nonchalance. Yes, he did indeed just take down a god, not because the world’s going to crown him king for it or because it was necessary to win some war, but because that’s what he does. He’s a gladiator who wrestles gods for fun. Yay!
This also takes a certain amount—no, an enormous amount—of guts. This is one kind of story that a lot of people hate because they want some seriousness, and at a basic level this story has to refuse to be serious. There may be Lo, the Deep and Important Issues working under the surface, but there’s also a desire to have fun working under the surface. A very, very fast pace works great for this. A comedy works great for this. (While many fantasies follow a sort of comic structure, in the old sense of the word, their pace is often glacially slow, which is death to this sort of story). A story that seems all breezy and light on the surface works great for this.
Some heroes who remind me of this:
Vlad Taltos (obviously), assassin and mob boss and pimp and sorcerer and witch and guy smarter than you.
Drake Maijstral (at least in the first three books, by Walter Jon Williams), who is an Allowed Burglar in a science fiction future where aliens have conquered the earth but are very polite about it. His targets keep coming up with “unbreakable” ways to secure their wealth, and Drake keeps getting through them. Then he ransoms their wealth back to them.
To a certain extent, Zelazny’s Corwin of Amber, who attempts to fight a war but doesn’t do such a hot job of it despite being immortal, and winds up at the end of the series in a rather different position than he seemed to be heading for at the beginning.
Glen Cook’s Garrett, who is a war veteran but does not actually fight in a war in any of his books, because he’s too busy being a Chandler homage.
(It occurs to me that most of the examples coming to mind are male. Surely there are some female ones).
5) Metaphysical fantasy. I’ve thought of several names for this kind and discarded them all, so this was the one I wound up with. By this, I mean a fantasy in which a quest for answers may take place, but it remains a quest for answers, not the “quest for answers plus the great golden orb that’s capable of saving the world.” And the answers reveal something about the fantasy world’s spiritual/magical/metaphysical structure.
I suspect one reason that this isn’t often written is, again, war= plot. But just think how much conflict there is in someone popping up inconveniently on the dominant belief system’s doorstep spouting a different point-of-view! And, no, it doesn’t have to turn into a religious war. Not all the religious conflicts in history did. For one thing, you might have a dominant belief system that doesn’t want to use violence. For another, it might not be religious, just something else that happens to quietly shake up the universe as the characters know it. For another, perhaps the new belief system appears full-grown and equal in power to the dominant one. They’d probably approach it carefully.
Also, this requires a different kind of structure entirely from the war plot. Philosophical debate will have to be part of it, and the author will need to know, or learn, how to write it in such a way that the fantasy isn’t filled with long boring conversations. Given the number of those that clutter fantasy already, I suspect it will be one thing some authors have to unlearn.
I’m a firm believer in the doctrine that anything can be written excitingly, including academic debates, if you do it right. It just needs time, and learning, and trying. War is certainly a conflict mover, and quests for answers tend to be done to serve a war or quest plot and in one standard way, but that can change. Because I’m forever pushing Carol Berg anyway, I’ll mention it again: the Rai-kirah saga has some of this. It does also include war, but the main character, on learning the terrible secret that he didn’t have any idea about, does not, repeat not, charge off and try to battle the people who kept it secret. He tries to help the sufferers instead.
That’s another thing, too, you know. So you reveal this great and terrible secret, or the underlying truth about the metaphysics of the world. How do people respond? It wouldn’t always be with violence.
I deliberately didn’t mention romance or mystery in there, because those were the two that immediately sprang to mind. I wanted more difficult ones. There is so, so much that can be done.