Tag Archives: Fantasy

The Evolution of Fantasy

Fantasy as a genre has its origins in the myths and legends of ancient times.  These myths are often seen as primitive man’s attempts to explain the unexplainable.  Yet in modern times, we have explainations for almost everything… so why the interest in such things?  Personally, I think it is some attempt by us to recreate some of the mystery.  Some people turn to tabloids and conspiracy theories to spin wild tales… and the more mentally stable of us look to spin wild stories in other worlds.  But… I digress.  For this entry, I’ll go into a brief history of the genre of fantasy, talk a bit about some of the current trends of Epic Fantasy I’ve seen as a reader and a writer, and then write a bit about where I see the genre is headed.  I’ll also recommend some authors whose works I think are worthy of checking out.

The first ‘real’ fantasy authors included Rudyard Kipling and Edgar Rice Burroughs who pioneered the field.  Tolkien and Robert E Howard’s many stories broadened it and yet opened it out into two very different areas.   Tolkien’s works gained more wide-stream attention, for a number of reasons, but Robert Howard’s various works still maintain a substantial following.  Other authors like C.S. Lewis and Lloyd Alexander also had their parts.  These earlier authors often featured themes of good versus evil and heroes whose journeys and quests caused profound changes upon their worlds.  The overall themes and concepts tended to be heroes doing good things (or in the case of Conan, living by a barbarian code) as well as the tendency to reject technology and industrialism.  This was the general theme for the more popular and lasting epic and high fantasy for a while.  This changed somewhat with authors like Terry Brooks and David Eddings, who wrote less idealized stories, and more morally ambiguous characters.  Terry Goodkind, George RR Martin, Harry Turtledove and Robert Jordan led the way in the 1990’s with a host of epic fantasy series.  Fantasy became mainstream almost overnight, and the current round of epic fantasy began.  These authors virtually cast the mold for the ‘ideal’ Epic Fantasy series, with overnight blockbusters that continue to sell twenty plus years later.

That leads us into the current setting for Epic Fantasy, with my topic being about the current trends.  The changes brought on by the surge in readership in the 1990’s is still seen.  Authors like George RR Martin continue to sell books in the millions, have TV shows or movies, and have a massive fan base.  Their writing often includes morally ambiguous characters, convoluted plots, and severe, often drastic consequences for the characters as a consequence of their actions.  The pioneers of these types of books are often extremely proficient at both storytelling and manipulation of the reader’s emotions.  A disturbing trend, as I see it, is flood of books and authors who are not up to those standards.  The Epic Fantasy surge has led to dozens of series that come across as formulaic or rote.  There are a wide variety that follows the Campbellian Monomyth to the letter.  They have the main character on the Hero’s Journey.  They have the love interest.  They have the morally ambiguous companion/guide.  They have the mentor.  These stories check off all of the boxes, but they lack the passion and creativity of their predecessors.  Some authors have tried to replace that passion with grittiness or realism.  They often use anti-heroes or simply use lesser villains as the heroes (which can work, if done well) who turn the theme still darker and more ponderous.  In the rush to make money, fantasy has become exactly what we seek to avoid in real life: boring.  Other writers have sought to do something new or bold by changing the rules: fantasy worlds without magic or magic systems that work in some new or innovative way.  Yet I think in the roots, Fantasy started as escapism, a rejection of the world, if only for a short time, and a means to explore the imagination.  The trend of books that I’ve seen are book after book churned out by the big publishing houses, each looking for that next Robert Jordan or George RR Martin.  To me, at least as a reader, that gets old.  Fantasy, by its nature, is something that thrives on new and interesting, which is one reason we’ve seen the shift to urban fantasy around the turn of the century and more recently the expansion of steampunk.  Epic Fantasy has become too dark and too boring to be the inspiration to imagination it once was.

So what do I see in the future of epic fantasy?  As a genre, I think it hasn’t changed enough in recent times.  I think that new authors and new ideas will soon force it to change.   Evolution is a natural thing and something that will help that evolution along is the self-publishing market.  The variety of books that have become available means that new ideas and new blood is bound to shake things up.  Traditional publishing has stuck to what worked (which makes sense, they’re in the business of making money), but individuals, if they want to stand out, can’t afford to do that.  As a whole, I think we’ll see a lot of new ideas and concepts and hopefully some big changes overall in the market.

As a reference, here’s some authors and their books, both old and new, that are worth looking into for Epic Fantasy:

Robert Howard’s Conan series

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings

David Eddings’ Belgariad

Terry Brooks’s Sword of Shannara

Ryk Spoor’s Phoenix Rising

Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time

Lloyd Alexander’s Prydan series

David Weber’s Oath of Swords

Books and Authors I Recommend

I’m an avid reader, and something that I’ll freely admit is that I’m always looking for a new author or three to try out.   I have rather eclectic tastes, but I thought I’d write a bit about what authors I’m currently reading and what authors I recommend.  I’ll break it down by genre, because otherwise this would just become a long list, and who wants that?  This is just a broad overview and by no means covers everything off my shelves. 

Fantasy:

The obvious here is Tolkien.  The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are well known.  Less well known are some of his shorter fiction.  Farmer Giles of Ham is an excellent short novel, and often overlooked.  I’d also recommend David Eddings with two of his series: The Belgariad and the Elenium.  Both series are long enough to provide plenty of entertainment.  Raymond Feist’s Midkemia series (starting with Magician) is another good read, though it can be difficult to discern what order to read some of the books.  Ryk Spoor’s Phoenix Rising is a more recent entry, and one of the few recently published fantasy stories that I could really get into.  Excellent characterization, amazing setting, tough decisions and good fighting evil are all blended together into an excellent story.

Urban Fantasy:

There’s a variety of urban fantasy, some of it very violent, some not so much.  Mercedes Lackey’s SERRAted Edge series combines race cars with elves and some more classic fantasy elements as well as renn faires and dragons.  It’s highly entertaining and mostly PG, so a good read for kids.  Larry Correia’s Grimnoir Chronicles and his Monster Hunter series are both brilliant.  Both series contain lots of humor, over the top action, and an excellent knowledge of firearms and combat techniques.  John Ringo’s Princess of Wands is another excellent urban fantasy, with the twist that it’s a church-going soccer mom who’s fighting demons and necromancers.  Wen Spencer writes an excellent series of elves and parallel dimensions with Tinker and the rest of her Elfhome series.

Science Fiction:

The general area of science fiction is hard for me to nail down.  I’m drawn to the classics, if I’m recommending to a new reader.  Robert Heinlein’s works: Citizen of the Galaxy, The Moon is A Harsh Mistress, Orphans of the Sky, and The Menace from Earth are all excellent.  Frank Herbert’s Dune is definitely worth a read, though so popular in media that most readers of SF have already read it.  Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series is a good read.    More recently, Eric Flint and Ryk Spoor’s Boundary is excellent science fiction.    Sarah Hoyt writes some very good science fiction with the Darkship Renegades, with a lot of excellent social and political commentary.

Military Science Fiction

This is my main area of interest at the moment, and unlikely to change any time soon.  Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, of course, takes pride of precedence.   David Weber has written a host of amazing science fiction books, especially his Honor Harrington series, but also his Imperium of Man series which starts with Mutineer’s Moon.  He’s also written several standalone books such as The Apocalypse Troll and Out of the Dark which are very good.  John Ringo is massively prolific, with a number of excellent series.  A Hymn Before Battle is an excellent near-future novel that starts a great series.   A bit of warning, the series currently ends in a cliff hanger with no final books to close it out in sight.  John Ringo’s team up with Travis Taylor in the Voyages of the Space Bubble series starts with Into the Looking Glass.  The series is excellent with lots of humor, great science, and tons of action.  Mike Shephard’s Kris Longknife series is another fun read, with a main character that has grown and developed over time.  David Drake has a number of excellent series, with Hammers Slammers being his most well known.  Another excellent new author is Leo Champion, whose Legion series has some serious combat and excellent overall story arc.

General Fiction

I’ll be honest, I don’t read a lot of general fiction, and most of what I do read tends to edge towards the ‘techie’ or military spectrum anyway.   Tom Clancy’s Hunt for Red October is excellent, as is Without Remorse, Executive Orders, and Patriot Games.  Also good is Larry Correia and Mike Kupari’s Dead Six and Swords of Exodus, both military genre, though with elements of what I consider fantasy.  Tom Kratman’s Countdown series is excellent in that regard as well, though rather grim at times.

Classics

I’ll be honest, I’m a sucker for some of the classics of literature.  Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island and Swiss Family Robinson are all excellent reads, especially for children.  Mark Twain has a host of good stuff.  Almost everything by Jules Verne is absolutely excellent.

Conclusion:

I’m certain I’m missing an author or two here or there, and I know I’ve left out some books by different authors.  Still, if you’re anything like me, I highly recommend these authors and series.  Next week I’ll try to cover each genre, what I like and what I don’t, what themes I’m seeing as a reader and what I want to work on as a writer.

Building Strong Characters

One of my goals for writing characters is to develop them to the point that they feel real to the reader. Story can be interesting, but strong characters are what the reader ends up caring about. An excellent character will keep a reader coming back, again and again… and the victories and defeats of those characters are what bring out the most emotion in the reader. Flat characters are a crime that few authors can redeem themselves from. Flat characters are boring, trite, and often cliché. So how does one develop strong characters?

Strong characters feel like real people, sometimes more real that people we might interact with or deal with on a daily basis (trust me, I’ve had roommates with less personality than Master Harper Robinton from Anne McCaffery’s Pern series or Polgara from David Eddings’ Belgariad). What exactly does feeling real entail, though? I define it by several areas. First off, they typically have some defining character traits. Second, strong characters have a history, a place where they come from. Third, they have a morality (or lack thereof) that is coherent and based upon their origins. Fourth, strong characters experience joy, anger, love, and heartache just like real people. Last and most important strong characters make decisions based off of their emotions, experiences, and morality.

Character traits are often what define a character to the reader at first glance. These are often the most memorable things about them, and are often the things that pop into mind. Han Solo was a cocky and self centered rogue (he shot first!). Doc, from ‘Back to the Future’, was absent minded and excitable. Character traits are often established early on, typically in the first time the reader meets the character. It helps to make these traits memorable, as a writer, because this makes the character stand out in their mind more. Traits, however, are just a starting point. They create a character that has some resonance to them, but if that isn’t followed through, the character will seem hollow. A hollow character might be better than a flat one, but it robs the reader of the pay off of emotions as the character fails to grow over time and their experiences.

History and past play a huge role in our lives as people. It should be no less important for characters. As a writer, often I develop characters based off of the setting and their place in it. From the society and their place in it, I can develop what things they will find important, what their areas of expertise and knowledge might be. A character raised in the slums of a dystopian future might well view morality through a different lens than your typical 21st Century American. Beyond there, I typically dive into family (or lack thereof), which is often more important than society, and indeed, can alter things significantly. That same character raised in the slums might be the son of a missionary, who grew up treating the sick and injured…. Suddenly he might not be the callus killer. Throw in some life events, such as the death of his mother or the discovery that he was adopted and his adoptive parents never told him. These experiences change who he is, and will have effects upon how he acts.

Morality is often based upon the experiences of people. Morally upright characters can be vastly complicated or totally boring, whereas morally bankrupt characters can be highly entertaining or nauseating. Part of this is perspective and experience. A character who has a twisted sense of morals because of hi s experiences is understandable. He or she may frustrate a reader, but the moral code they follow will at least make sense. The same follows for a character with a comprehensive and solid code of ethics. What will drive me as a reader absolutely crazy is when there is a character whose morality doesn’t make sense. Characters who are bad because it’s cool or fun or the honorable street urchin are anomalies… and unless an author has a legitimate reason why, they quickly become an irritation. Even worse are characters with no defined or inconsistent morality. A character who will shoot a man in the back in one scene and yet fights an honorable duel in another would be incoherent without some background or logic behind his actions. A writer has a burden to show the reasoning and logic behind the characters’ decisions.

Emotion is the next crucial part of a strong character. A character who doesn’t experience emotion is boring, regardless of how many explosions or how interesting the setting might be. One of the best examples of this is from the movie Red Sonya. The main character’s sister — her only surviving family – dies in her arms in the opening part of the movie. Red Sonya then says something to the effect of “This is terrible, drops her sister’s corpse, and stalks off to exact her revenge. For a close knit family, the death of a family member is a powerfully emotional event. This event was supposed to drive Red Sonya to exact her revenge. This isn’t to say that the character should have fallen to pieces, but some small signs can go a long way to establishing the emotional toll of such an event. An excellent positive example of this is from Saving Private Ryan, where Tom Hank’s character, after the Invasion of Normandy, goes to open a canteen and his hands are shaking so much as to make it nearly impossible. This shows that, despite his calm demeanor, he is barely holding it together, and mostly doing so for his men. A show of such emotional turmoil and yet strength immediately establishes his character as someone who feels real. Later on, when he makes decisions for his men, you can see that emotional turmoil is there behind those decisions, at war with his moral code and his defining character traits.

The last crucial part of strong characters is the decisions they make and, as a writer, ensuring those decisions are in line with the character. A character who makes decisions out of line with his morality, emotions and experiences is not a strong character. A character who has his emotions and experiences at odds with his morality is complex and interesting. Difficult decisions are what life is about, and the important decisions are always complex. An important thing to note here is that sometimes the characters don’t make the right decisions. Sometimes their morality or emotions or experiences drive them to make the wrong decision. In those cases, it is often a flaw, sometimes a tragic flaw. This should not be the norm, in my opinion. Authors like George R. Martin make their living by having characters make bad decisions on an almost constant basis. Don’t get me wrong, it’s interesting reading, but as a reader, it frustrates me to the point that I give up. Good people make bad decisions sometimes, it happens in real life, and it happens in stories. Bad people make good decisions too, sometimes, which I find far more interesting.

The decisions that characters make often define them. These cause new experiences and produce new emotions that in turn, drive character growth and development. And the next step past making a strong character is to make that character grow as he progresses through the story. That’s a topic for another day. In the meantime, what is a strong character that you really liked and what were their defining traits?

Remembering September 11, 2001

I started to post something rather trivial about books that have affected my writing, and I realized I really should write something about September 11, this being the day and all. For those only interested in writing, well, this is mostly me rambling about my impressions of the effect on society and a bit on me.

For some background, I was there in New York when it happened. I was in college, right across the Long Island Sound, playing a computer game and waiting to go to class. I still remember the guy who came past my room and told me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. At the time, I thought he was joking with me. Even so, I followed him down to the waterfront area of my campus. I could see the tower (yes, only one at that point) from there, on the steps of the chapel. I could see the column of smoke from that one and the ruins of the first tower. And I saw the second tower fall.
There was a crowd of us, midshipmen, all wondering what was going on. We didn’t know who had done it, we didn’t know why. We didn’t know about the plane that crashed into the Pentagon or the other one, Flight 93 where the passengers fought back. We were kids, confused, worried, and a little angry that someone had attacked us.

These were things we all, as Americans, felt and learned as time went on. And for those few days and weeks afterwards, we mourned our dead and started our recovery. The event itself wrought profound changes on our society. There was fear and uncertainty, and that caused a shift in what many people were willing to accept in the name of security. This can be seen in everything from TSA, to the PATRIOT Act, and even in the current NSA scandals.

American society has become more risk adverse. This can be seen in politics, our economy, our decline in space exploration, and even clothing trends. It can also, I’d argue, be seen in some of the literature written since. There’s been a shift in American SF, away from the big dreams and vast panoramas of classic SF and towards darker and grittier stories. There have been many more novels about empires in decline or simply futures where humanity never leaves Earth, where the science doesn’t support it and our society has turned inwards. In fantasy, the genre has also grown darker, and either magic has faded out or it is something that corrupts. The reemergence of the antihero and the morally ambiguity of heroes and their choices is another aspect. Right and wrong seems less clear and our world is more frightening; so the unknown and mysterious has become something frightening too.

There are any number of arguments as to why society has taken this turn, but I think in some respects most of them come back to September 11th. Everything from the politicians who stir up further uncertainty to appear strong to the increasing use of ‘retro’ clothing fads to the continuing struggle with the economy… these are products of our own uncertainty as a society. It’s almost the equivalent of societal PTSD… which is ridiculous. In giving into our uncertainties, we fail to properly honor those who lost their lives that day. They would not want us to live in fear. That’s what the terrorist scum who attacked our country wanted.

We have to continue to live life, to dream big and to have confidence that we are strong. We have not yet even begun to test ourselves. We are the country that put man on the moon, created rock and roll, and invented the airplane. America is founded on the idea of big risks leading to big results. That aspect of pioneering is what led to our success in the first place. We are, as a people, drawn to risk, drawn to big dreams. And I would argue, if we let uncertainty and fear take that away, we will lose the very thing that makes us so great.

Of Dragons and Cons

I’ve just returned from my fourth Dragon*Con. As always, it’s been an experience. Dragon*Con is, in my opinion, a very unique genre convention. One thing that always hits me is the size. Five years ago, it was around twenty thousand people and spread over four hotels. This year they had five hotels and a convention center, and while numbers aren’t yet completed, I’d estimate over fifty thousand people, much like last year. They have a number of big events that occur throughout the time, to include musical concerts, film stars and directors, and of course, massive costume contests.Image

 

All the same, Dragon*Con has a very small feel to it, in some aspects. The writing panels are typically in small side rooms away from the main corridors. The is the same for the reading panels and other similar subgenre ‘tracks’. More popular events might require long lines and a bit of a wait to get in (and you’re not allowed to form a line prior to one hour before an event), but depending on your interests, someone might spend the entire time in small rooms away from the crowds.

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I have to admit, I have a certain level of nostalgia about Dragon*Con. It was my first convention, and I went there by myself, not really knowing anyone. I spent most of those four days wandering around in something of a daze and feeling a bit like a lonely ping-pong ball that needed a break. I’ve since developed some connections and have met a few people. Would I recommend Dragon*Con to others as their first? Not really, especially if they’re going it alone. It’s very easy to be quickly overwhelmed by the sheer number of events to attend. I’ve seen plenty of people who looked like zombies by day three, burned out from trying to see everything. Also, there are easier ways to see the same things in other cons. Local conventions can be talked down on, but they often offer the same things, if smaller in scale. The important thing, in my opinion, is going with some kind of idea of what you want to see and pacing yourself. You won’t see much of Dragon*Con from the hospital if you collapse from exhaustion.

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Still, I like Dragon*Con. It’s big, it’s loud, and there’s always something to do. Unlike events such as Comic Con, it’s not commercialized and is still mostly fan driven and organized. Will I attend next year? I plan on it. There’s nothing quite like it.Image