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Existential Writing Genre Crisis

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The problem with writing Fantasy is there are certain things that are expected, certain things that are so ingrained into the Genre that they have become fnords. We see them, we expect them, we complain when they are not there, but they have dictated our writing and expectation of writing down to the very core of the genre.

1. The Map

Every fantasy book worth the paper it's printed on has a map in it. Craggy mountains, fluffy forests, rivers running around. The interesting thing is that many of these maps pay no attention to basic tenets of geography (mountain effect rainfall and prevailing winds indicate that there are not going to be dense forests on both sides of those soaring mountains).

2. Billy's Trip to School

You can totally expect the characters to visit almost every location on the map, often in a horrible meandering fashion. If a location isn't visited directly, there will be something from that place, or a story will touch it. We need to go to Mordor, but first we are going to travel to Planet X, time travel back to the 1920s, then steal a boat in Leningrad, then we will walk through the Outer Zone and then catch the red eye flight to Mount Doom.

The expression goes that it's the voyage and not the destination. Except that this is fantasy literature and while there is certainly self discovery along the way, the ultimate objective of the Lord of the Rings is getting rid of a magic ring, not a walking tour of Mordor while exploring their feelings and growing not only as a person, but as a healthy loving couple. At the end of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Repair, the main characters weren't on a mission to destroy a demonic motorcycle hellbent on causing the Zombie Apocalypse.

3. I'm a Farm Boy and That's Okay

The main character is invariably a farmer. Luke Skywalker was a moisture farmer, Rand al'Thor was a shepherd, Richard Cypher was a woodland's guide, etc. Everyone starts as a poor, humble agriculturist. Which while from a historical perspective makes sense (95%+ of the population was engaged in agriculturalism) it doesn't make sense from a modern perspective (2-5% currently involved in agriculturalism). The disconnect from farming today is so profound in the Industrialized First World that things like petting zoos and field trips to farms are novel experiences.

4. The Evil Rich Bad Guy

While it is hard to be a villain and be dirt poor, most of your villains are either going to be filthy stinking rich, nobility, or on a different economic level, aka Sauron. If there is a rich merchant, he will be evil, an untrustworthy side swapping mercenary. The barons and counts are going to be corrupt and dukes and kings are either themselves evil, incompetent, or apathetic. There is an underlying feeling that wealth is like power, corrupting.

The Following Elements MUST be present in some form or fashion:

And that is the existential crisis.

Scaramanga! The Man with 3 nipples!

re: #1 yea, true true. But still the maps rock  :)

re: #2 Ahhahahahahahaha...i was accused of this horrid gm crime many many moons ago by my players.


Me: (pulls out map proudly)
Players: (groan)
Me: why aren't you asking me about all these weird and "cool" geographic locations on this here map I made for the new campaign?!
Players: because as soon as you pulled out a map, that you have been no doubt scribbling up for weeks, we knew that we'd end up in and on *every* square inch of this world, before its all said and done anyway.

re: #3: Agreed of course, but I would say that is more of an "old cliche". Last few decades at least I think that most good fantasy literature has gotten away from the whole butcher's apprentice, sword-in-the-stone, prophesied to save-the-world thing. So I don't know, it almost seems to me that calling out the farmer cliche is...cliche?

re: #4: Interesting points! Yeah, dirt-poor evil genius villains just don't resonate do they? However, to play devil's advocate, there is something to be said about vast wealth and how it changes the brain---oh nevermind, i won't go there. Poor bad guys just aren't scary. Rich bad guy is not afraid to "get arrested" to use just one goofy example. He has 68 lawyers at $300/hour each, who will have him out in 1/2 hour, no matter what he did. Poor-ass bad guy is deathly afraid to get arrested on the other hand. Hard to be intimidated by him. Put another way, there are just as many and probably more poor bad guys, but we never hear about them, because they usually don't get far  :lol:

On a side note, my current villain in the game I'm half hazardly running isn't rich, isn't a noble, and isn't some uberly powerful magi aka Sauron. He is just some crazed cultist that supplanted his mentor/ superiors by sheer luck and has gained power through others. A tragic villain to be sure but one I find enjoyable because he does desperate things which seem to be worse than preplanned and calculating. He doesn't stay and fight to lose, he sends his minions and runs. Possibly causing his current defeat but he is annoyingly reoccurring and the players find him a horrible evil villain that seems to stop at nothing to complete his devious and evil plots and machinaitons. Which if truth be told are more trial and error. Like a group of CSI agents trying to stop a cold, calculating teenager. He has just enough intelligence to be dangerous, and enough flock to his calling to be an ever growing thorn in their side. It seems to work.

#1: I think the maps are necessary insofar as they explain where everyone's going all the time, but I fully agree with the natural terrain problem. Some fantasy worlds want to have every landscape possible, and they jam it all into an area they size of Europe or smaller. We need simplified terrains, smaller areas, instead of these massive, sprawling geographies. Rather than jamming every possible climate into a map, why not have a smaller, detailed area to focus on, with two or three climates that can be explored in detail? You could make a Carolina-sized kingdom and have at least three distinct areas with a diversity of weather conditions.

#2: See above.

#3: My corollary would be that, if they're not a poor farmer, they're a rich noble. It does follow a general medieval/feudal structure, which is where most fantasy worlds are set.

#4: I don't think this is the only villain trope, though it's heavily used. There's also the Barbarian Lord invading with his savage army, the Corrupt Bishop who hides his evil works behind his faith, or - as Mourngrymn pointed out - the Mad Cultist. Ally tropes are just as bad: the Rogue Bandit with a Heart of Gold, the Attractive Female Who Bucks Patriarchy, etc. Is this crisis, or merely the archetypes of the human experience?

I agree with many of the points you raised, but that does not make a book with a map inherently bad, nor does making your villain a rich, evil guy make him unbelievable or uninteresting.  Take a look at Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy for an example.  It has a map, but the characters don't go everywhere on it, and the main villain is the Supreme Overlord of the World, with more money and power than anyone has ever gathered in one place before.  Hell, he's just known as the Lord Ruler.  But this is a FANTASTIC book, even though it violates 1, 4 and to some extent 3 (the humble beginnings part, not the agriculture part).  What makes it work is that the author recognized the tropes that fantasy is known for and found ways to play with them.

Just remember: Tropes Are Tools, and are not inherently good or bad.


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