Time for another of my snobby listicles! (Terrible word. Sounds like testicles. Wish it hadn’t been portmanteaued into sorry existence.)
But enough about etymological balls. Today’s topic is fantasy fiction! These are the six things I’d like to see more often in fantasy.
(A little disclaimer: I’ve left LGBTQIA+on-a-sesame-seed-bun out of this post on purpose. While ‘queerplus’ rights are an important issue, to which I have a personal attachment, I have a couple of reasons for omitting sexuality and gender identity from the list. One is that, in fantasy, queerplus people tend to be exoticised in the manner of a weird magical creature. Another is that most characters’ sexuality or gender identity will typically be about as obvious and as relevant to the story as their dominant hand. If a central character is a lesbian, it will affect how she feels and whom she pursues; if she’s left-handed, it will affect how she fights and writes. But slapping the label ‘GAY’ over a random side-character is tokenism, and honestly I’d like to see less of that. Finally, sexuality in general is rather boring to me; I’d prefer more stories, particularly for young people, in which sex and romance aren’t necessary to the central character’s fulfilment.)
So without further ado, here are the six things I would like to see more in fantasy fiction.
6. Class variety
Ordinary people make up more than 90% of most societies, but you’d never garner this impression from most fantasy novels. There, as in much of history, the glory all belongs to the rich.
I can understand why the tale of a lord or a princess might seem, at first glance, to offer more plot opportunities. Rich people are typically more mobile. Royalty always have to contend with keeping up a public image and avoiding assassination. They have to negotiate alliances that determine the fate of entire countries. Those who can afford martial training, decent armour and several horses have a much better chance of performing great deeds in battle. Aristocrats attend balls, tournaments and grand unveilings, which are always as dramatic as they are glamorous. And, of course, the more one has, the more one has to lose.
Granted, the problems of day-to-day survival do not, in and of themselves, make for a particularly interesting fantasy story. Some authors overcome this by starting out with a plucky turnip farmer’s kid who has NO IDEA that his true father was *gasp!* the beloved king whose son is destined to restore peace to the land! But this itself was a tired trope hundreds of years before the common era, with many Ancient Greek heroes being raised by humble shepherds and the like.
I’d like to see heroes from a wider variety of class backgrounds. Let’s have more protagonists who are merchants or artists, smiths or sailors, executioners, thieves, apothecaries, monks, slaves, maids, seamstresses, hedge-mages or travelling acrobats. Let’s have a turnip farmer’s kid who remembers being a turnip farmer’s kid and despises royalty accordingly.
One series I read fairly recently that did this well was Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders trilogy. The central characters are mostly from a wealthy family of merchants… but their fortunes are failing. As the story progresses, they each decide or are forced into different echelons of society, including monk, slave, pirate, refugee and seal hunter. All of these work environments offered interesting dramatic possibilities. Also, the royal in that series was a bloated, drug-addicted hedonist, who was leader only by his blood. This variety of roles and their associated perils made the world of the story more believable and more interesting.
5. Ethnic and cultural diversity
I’ve been sticking to ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ and steering clear of its televised counterpart, largely because I don’t want to get the similar but diverging plotlines tangled up in my head. I enjoy the plot of the series and the way it presents a feudal fantasy world that has far more in common with actual medieval history.
But that screenshot. Oof. Sea of brown people bowing to the white lady who saved them? Without the context of the rest of the story’s world – the Wildlings, the Martells, Ellaria Sand and so on – that is a troubling image.
It’s strange how green people (such as orcs and goblins) seem to be more common in fantasy than black ones. A lot of what we generally accept as the ‘fantasy races’ – elves, dwarfs and so on – come from European cultures, and so were imagined in their earliest iterations as having a similar complexion to the humans who invented them.
But to put it simply, times have changed.
I’d like to see a wider range of skin tones among human characters.
I’d like to see fantasy writers look further afield than medieval Europe to inspire their fantasy worlds.
And while we’re at it, let’s have a bit more variety in those fantasy races. Dwarfs who aren’t surly miners. Elves who aren’t graceful and angelic. New shapes and sizes of people. This, particularly, was something Pratchett did really well, mainly by taking the mickey out of traditional high fantasy. Instead of referencing earlier fantasy writers, he went right back to the original mythology of elves to create a race of beautiful, cruel predators.
4. Basic research
Very straightforward one. Writing fantasy isn’t an excuse to get simple facts wrong. If small details are off the mark, the reader’s immersion is broken, sometimes to the point of walking away from the book – because if the writer can’t be bothered checking their facts, who should bother to read it?
How big were apples in the 1300s? What kinds of herbs were used as medicine in the Bronze Age? It takes five seconds to Google small details like this. Often, in doing so, a fantasy writer can find out even more interesting facts that add intriguing detail to her work.
Same goes for urban fantasy. I listened to an urban fantasy podcast recently that was quite good, but its research on Mesopotamian mythology was dodgy. They tried to set up the monster Tiamat as a terrifying demon who could be – OMG! – real and still alive! However, the most notable thing about Tiamat’s story is that she’s killed in battle against the great hero Marduk who builds the world from her body: her blood becomes the sea, her weeping eyes create the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and so on. It was pretty clear that the writers of the show used Tiamat as depicted in Dungeons and Dragons (a five-headed serpent) as their inspiration, not the mythological beast (which had only one head but lots of other weird features, including an udder).
I lost much faith in the podcast that day.
That’s all for this week, everyone! See you next Tuesday for Part 2!