Last week, I brought to you Part 1 of my extensive listicle (bleh) on things I’d like to see more in fantasy fiction. It included class variation, ethnic and cultural diversity, and basic research. I didn’t mean to prattle on so long for each item, but I did, turning this post into a monster that had to be split in two.
So here’s Part 2.
3. Explanation of how magic works
I just finished a book that I wanted to love. Truly I did. It was original and well-researched. But the magic in it was quite confusing because I couldn’t really suss out how it was done. The hero discovers the ability to turn himself invisible. Okay… how? There was no description of him learning it or concentrating on it. The book doesn’t describe, say, his toes disappearing, then his legs; or transparency overcoming his whole body. There’s no explanation for how his clothes vanish with him – which would work well if he had the ability to just make people fail to notice him. He just… goes invisible.
A story involving magic should explain how magic works. Is it a force in nature, like electricity or magnetism, that can be harnessed by people? Is it a gift one is born with, like singing? Is magic like a martial art, requiring extreme diligence and precision? Not one story treats magic the same, so the writer ought to set down rules for their magic system pretty early on.
The image above comes from a series that does a great job of explaining magic: Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series. It’s best described, perhaps, as the difference between pure discordant noise, and well-practised music. Free Magic is like noise – an uncontrolled, chaotic force. It’s typically used by immoral entities or people. Then there’s a system for controlling that magic, known as the Charter. Learning to use Charter magic, like playing music, can involve years of meticulous study. It’s a detailed, internally-consistent magic system that feels like a natural part of the world of the series, and at no point does Nix baldly state, ‘She used her magic.’
2. Monsters and animals
While working on The Celestial Kris, I’ve discovered so many weird creatures and spirits in Malaysian and Dayak folklore. And something I find truly astounding is that, before encountering them in my research, I’d never heard of them.
Real life is full of astounding variation in every class of animal, plant and fungus, yet in fantasy, we tend to see the same handful of creatures from English or Ancient Greek folklore. So this item on the list is really a two-parter. I’d most like to see new fantasy creatures, invented by the author or discovered in the less-explored mythologies of the world.
And I’m not against dragons (or gryphons, or what-have-you), but I want to see something original done with them.
What’s the morphology of dragons, in this story? Is it based on crocodiles, pterodactyls, goannas, frill-necked lizards… or just a couple of pictures of other people’s ideas of dragons? Are dragons endomorphs – able to generate their own body heat, like most mammals? Are they ectomorphs, like snakes and lizards, reliant on the sun to warm up? Or are they mesomorphs, like echidnas, sharks and many dinosaurs, which can/could do a bit of both? Where do they fit in the natural history of the story’s world? What’s the bone structure of their wings compared to their forepaws, since both these structures contain the same basic set of bones?
Could you give them wings like a bat, with forepaws built in? Perhaps their wings are actually a membrane between the front and back legs? Did magic affect their evolution somehow, so that they ended up with four forelimbs?
What about preferred climate? What about prey animals – how have they adapted to being hunted from the air? Would deer, through natural selection, develop hide patterns that camouflage them from above? Would all the large mammals in the area develop nocturnal habits, since a dragon might not be able to warm itself adequately at night? How does fire-breathing work? Is it actually a form of burning venom, like the secretions sprayed by certain beetles? Does its spit contain a reactive compound (like iron sulphide) that ignites when it comes into contact with oxygen?
It might seem like petty nitpicking, particularly considering this is fantasy. But I’m always super impressed when writers account for these little details and find a somewhat logical way of depicting them. It’s certainly more interesting than just saying ‘a long, glittering blue dragon’ and assuming I know everything about them already.
And speaking of dragons…
1. J R R Tolkien can eat a bag of listicles.
Yes. I am a fantasy fan who doesn’t like Tolkien’s work. I find his pacing too slow, his language too coddling, his ideals too conservative, his worldbuilding anodyne, his sense of humour annoying, his plots rambling and his influence altogether far too widespread!
I usually don’t denigrate storytellers by name here, because it makes me feel guilty and kind of paranoid, but this one was unavoidable. And, if I’m honest, it’s not the terminally boring LoTR series and spinoffs themselves that I despise – it’s more the fact that they’ve spawned so many imitators. I reckon far too many authors end up doing what New Weird author China Mieville calls ‘playing in Tolkien’s sandpit.’
I’m going to expand a bit on Items 2 and 5 of this piece, concerning monsters and races, because I think it’s misguided worship of Tolkien that is partly to blame for holding fantasy back in these areas.
Somewhere along the line, ‘elf, halfling (hobbit), dwarf, human, goblin, orc’ seems to have become what some people thought fantasy was ‘supposed’ to be about. It’s a shame, because if writers who admire Tolkien returned to the Scandinavian folklore from which he drew his inspiration, they’d find all sorts of interesting fantastical peoples that haven’t been done a hundred thousand times by other storytellers.
Heck, here’s a couple from Scandinavia that Tolkien didn’t use! The hulder or huldrekall is a race of seductive elves found in the folklore of Iceland, Norway and Sweden. They’re beautiful from the front, but they have fox or cow tails, and their hollow backs show rotting wood or flesh. And instead of Tolkienian trolls, why not look a little further south, at the trolls of Denmark? They’re usually smaller, gentler, more in touch with nature, and there are a couple of different kinds. My favourite is the Slattenlangpatte – literally ‘saggy-long-bosoms’ – a nude, stream-loving troll named for, well, what do you think? She is a kind of troll-witch, and can only bear daughters, so relies on human men to breed. She doesn’t want anyone to go hungry, and will give her milk freely. What might a heroine learn from this motherly creature? How might a hero deal with the Slattenlangpatte’s attentions?
To me, it seems silly to stick to the same handful of creatures just because of a misguided belief that Tolkien established some kind of standard template. There are so many places around the world to search for inspiration. Or, here’s a thought: it’s fantasy! Make something up!
And while we’re at it, let’s please kill the trope of entire races of ‘ugly and warlike’ enemies composed of males of fighting age. Orcs may be the corrupted results of magical experimentation on humans and elves, but not all of their imitators come into the world in the same manner. Where are the women of the ‘enemy race’? Their children? Their elderly? An entire species, particularly if they’re sapient, shouldn’t be described by only a single personality trait. And we should be looking pretty closely at any author who tries to characterise an entire race as an enemy.
So there they are: the six things I’d like to see more of in fantasy fiction. Anything to add? Pipe up in the comments!