1) “Grand” or “splendid” fantasy. I haven’t found a straightforward high fantasy that’s satisfied me in a long time. The books I do like that have a superficial resemblance to the genre are most often historically based (like Kay and Martin), or have a twist to them, like satire or prophecies that don’t work or settings that aren’t European. I’ve also read several high fantasies that have different settings and deep characters, yet slavishly follow the “put the king on the throne/defeat the Evil” plot. I am a leeeetle tired of this. A bit.
Yet high fantasy also has things I don’t want to surrender, like deep passion and a tremendous sense of pageantry and the right to have things that affect the whole world and not just one town if they wanna. I see no reason why these should be indissolubly united with tired-ass plots, just because the “high” label is suspect and the “epic” one, which gets slapped on every long fantasy series, no better.
So, I want grand fantasy instead. Give me sweeping passion. Give me intense characters who catch the reader up in them and make their whole world shake. Give me loving descriptions of scenery like you’re never going to get on Earth, including crystal dragons rising out of the center of clear mountain lakes. Give me a fantasy that has permission not just to be gray and rust-red—the problem I’m encountering in trying to read Mieville and other fantasists who are “gritty”—but deep green, and gold, and purple, and azure, and silver.
And unite it with a new kind of plot, just as grand and epic and sweeping as the traditional high fantasy one, but without the tired conventions.
This is where I think transformative fantasy would work really well. Tear your world apart with an immense change, and see what happens. Have titanic consequences sweeping over the land. But don’t dim and dull the effect of those consequences, and especially don’t insist that everything will go back to normal once the right heir is found. Don’t link the change to the rising of an ancient evil. Make it new, and lasting enough that everyone, absolutely everyone, is going to be affected.
What would happen if people suddenly received irrefutable proof of an afterlife—one that was different from their traditional picture? What would happen if magic altered its nature overnight, or a long-stable economic or political pattern had its base taken away, or the gates between all worlds opened? What would happen if all the characters in every work of art suddenly became real?
I coo just thinking about this. I would love them. I still get a lift of my heart when I read the initial description of a high fantasy plot, before the author mentions the abused protagonist who will turn out to be the secret heir of powerful magic and the key to turning back the ancient evil. I want to see fantasies where that lift of the heart could go on.
2) Characters dealing with cultural inheritance. One specific reason that I detest high fantasy plots so much is that they deal so exclusively with personal inheritance. The only important thing happening in the whole world is this character learning that he can turn into a dragon and that his parents were not who he thought they were. And then he goes and saves the day, and of course that heals every wound in the world, or makes them—especially if they’re wounds to peasants—not matter.
Personal inheritance plots limit the options available for your storytelling, and I think they’ve fallen into a rut because associated with so many specific high fantasy conventions. I also think they lead too easily to the sense, fatal for a breathing fantasy world, that no one really lives there but your protagonist. If he’s the only one whose inheritance matters, why blather on about the past history of cultural groups? His family is where most writers should concentrate instead, since they’re so busy elevating and praising them anyway.
But cultural inheritance, such as ideas and beliefs and prejudices and institutions (whee, institutions!) and ways of coping with dangerous magic and politics and national animosities and the legacy of slavery and and and and and…
These have so many advantages that I think I’m only beginning to name them. They’re not as strongly associated with any particular fantasy plot as personal inheritance is with high fantasy, so there’s less chance of falling into a rut. They’re more varied, and they often tie into each other—hello, world-building. They envelop more people, lessening the stubborn focus on one individual that often leads fantasists to make that one individual the answer to every prophecy and prayer in his world, or, alternatively, to give the sense that only his problems matter. And coping with a cultural inheritance would deepen the characterization of the protagonist, bring him into contact with more people, face him with problems he’s probably not used to facing alone, make the ethical dilemmas stickier—it’s a lot harder to just say “King Eric smash!” when the world is a web of interconnected problems—and increase the allowance of qualities like compassion and foresight, which are often sadly lacking next to “spunk” and skill at swordplay.
3) Religious syncretism. No more boring/mechanized/monotheistic/male-domi
I love religious study, perhaps because I am fascinated with why people believe what they believe, and how those attitudes change and influence others’. I would love to see a fantasy religion in which it’s possible to get tangled in fantastic minutiae, to discover the secret roots of a dominant religion (without just assuming that there’s some central secret group that has preserved The Truth™ while the rest of the world forgot it), to see the way in which religion on the borderlands shifts and changes and dissolves. This can be so complicated, with truths and half-truths intermingling. This can give full scope to human rationality, human ingenuity, and human fucking-crazy-who-would-believe-that-shit?-ness. And it gives people something to argue about. Religion can and will drive forward debates at one end of the spectrum and wars at the other.
Want, want, want, want, want.
4) Really rigorously-worked-out alternative histories. I don’t read a whole lot of alternative history, because most of them strike me as codes:
“What would happen if the South won the Civil War?” The writer replaces, after the initial change, one term from our own world with its correspondent, like the continuing existence of slavery. There is no attempt to talk about what a United States without a Reconstruction would be like, how it would affect the Presidential succession, how the South would relate to Mexico, what would happen to the new Western states that hadn’t become part of the Union yet, whether this would affect the U.S’s acquisition of Alaska, whether there would have been any Spanish-American War and what would have happened with the Caribbean and the Philippines if there wasn’t, and on and on and on. Change one, you change the rest.
Trace the consequences through as many permutations as you can. Doubtless, there’s always going to be something missing, and history buffs would probably be happy to tell you so. But don’t change the world according to some code. It reminds me of people inventing another language who create what’s essentially a relexification of English, where every English word gets replaced by some one-to-one correspondent. That’s not a living language, and an alternative history predicated on the idea that just one battle would effect just one change is not a living world.
5) More complex family relationships. A child’s relationship to his parents is the keystone to a lot of fantasies. The most common are bildungsromans where the child grows up and becomes an adult, often breaking free of his parents. Sometimes the child is kidnapped instead and the parent searches for him, usually coming to realize how much he loves his child in the process.
Those can still be done well, but authors often wind up turning to the same lessons in the end: Children Need Independence. Love Your Children. Children Are Worth More Than Money Or (Parental) Independence. Child Abuse Is Bad.
The bald axiomatic lessons are tough for me to swallow. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be interested in seeing more family interaction. But this time, what about writing it from a different point-of-view?
What is the mother’s viewpoint on this newly chosen/destined child dashing off into danger? If she comes along with her son to war, what will she observe, do, think, feel? The nature of the plot might not permit as much battle action without obvious plot devices—having the mother overhear every single enemy general’s conversation is too transparent—but that will just force the person who writes it to learn a new course of plotting. And while the “lessons” that the mother and child learn may be as axiomatic in the end, the fact that they’re coming from an adult viewpoint will make this a different kind of bildungsroman.
There’s no sense in stopping there. Could you write a novel focused on a relationship between sisters, other than the common cliché of one of them being evil and the other good? What about two sisters who survive, due to unknown magical forces, an attack when very young and are never able to make anyone else understand what they experienced? Their experience is going to bond them and provide a central point of reference that they don’t share outside that bond. What about having sisters whose magic depends on each other? That kills dead right there the notion of them facing each other across a battlefield and flinging fireballs. It makes talk, compromise, cooperation, peacemaking necessary.
What about a relationship between brothers, one that isn’t just “big brother rescues little brother” or the good one/bad one? Especially in a large family with several sons, not every brotherly relationship is going to be the same, and one brother may have deep issues with another who thinks they get on just fine together. And if one of them does tag along after Older Brother, say into the middle of a warzone, that extra dose of protectiveness is going to take on a worrisome edge—particularly if the little brother does stupid things that are treated as stupid things with sharp-edged consequences, rather than the heroism that just happens to save the day.
An extended family offers you even more opportunities. So does a dynasty. Just chop away the immediate assumption that there has to be powerful magic or a Destiny, and that the only people that matter in the family are those who inherited the powerful magic or Destiny. And add in bastards, half-siblings, ghostly deceased relatives, rivalries and jealousies and, y’know, relationships that are two-sided instead of just Evil Cousin is jealous of Cousin of Shining Good, and you’re going to get enough material, again, to drive plenty of plots.
6) Empire looked at critically. An empire that goes out and colonizes other countries is different than a kingdom that does not. In particular, it’s not going to be an unmitigated good for either the imperial citizens or the people in the countries they’re conquering. More to the point, a lot of the complications that come piling in once the author thinks about something other than “Who is going to be Emperor?” are ones that would be especially beneficial to fantasy.
Think about borderlands. The borderlands of an empire that spans seas and continents are going to be much more diverse and wider than the borders of a kingdom with an empty wasteland on the east, a hostile kingdom to the west, and sea on the south and north. What happens in those borderlands? How are they different? How are they going to react to each other? Consider that in the early Spanish Empire in the Americas, it could take months on months to get to a place like New Mexico in the most remote outposts. That’s an incredibly long time for messages and decisions to wait, and important things could happen faster than anyone could report them.
Think about hybridization. This could be literal—surely some of the imperial citizens are having children with some of the new subjects—or it could be psychological. How does someone who’s lived equal amounts of time in the imperial capital and in the viceroyalty on the other side of the sea consider himself? I suppose he could have gone completely native or be completely and fanatically loyal to the empire, but why go to boring black-and-white extremes? What about someone who’s been told all his life that he’s an imperial citizen, but thinks of this “outpost” as his home? What if the empire shifts the center of its business or financial concerns, and a place that was previously out-of-the-way and quiet becomes bustling?
And then consider what it’s going to take to get the empire out of there, if there’s a rebellion, and what will happen afterwards. Traces of imperial culture are hardly going to dry up like berries in the sun. Their language is going to stay; it may be the only official language to conduct business and government in, if the native tongues of the region are only spoken by small, diverse groups of people. Their attitudes will remain, since cultural beliefs take a far longer time to die than soldiers and are much tougher to kill. I assume that imperial buildings and artwork will still be there, too, and if the empire’s done a thorough enough job, there might not be old ones to replace them even if they are pulled down. The new nation/country/kingdom/place will be struggling with the old perceptions and baggage, while at the same time drifting bereft of military, financial, and cultural support that they may have received from the empire. Everything will reel.
I’m astonished that no one does more with this. It’s so rich. You could write the story of an empire from birth to death and not get everything.
*purrs* I am in a happy burbly mood now, which makes for a good one to go teach my last class in.