Fantasy: Challenging the Tropes

Fantasy Map of Clichea by Sarithus

Wow. It certainly has been a rocky few months. From the publication of my first novel at the end of April to the publication of another – much shorter – one during the middle of June, and yet further into failed attempts to deliver on promises on weekly blog posts and more publications. I have learnt that writing is unpredictable. Never chained by schedules (even my detailed promo schedule).

But, I may or may not have mentioned a new venture of mine in previous posts. To remind you (or inform you), this venture is into the boundless world of fantasy. Like other popular fiction genres such as romance, historical fiction, mystery, and thrillers, fantasy is a saturated one. And, with the advent of self-publishing, even more so.

I must admit though, I am riding on the wave of the supposed successes of the self-publishing industry. That is, trying, and like a novice to surfing, failing – not out of any fault of mine. Like the saturation of genres, the industry of self-publishing is saturated. But that is not all that is saturated. Gone are the days in the late modern period when authors were few and libraries were scarce. Nowadays, libraries – public and personal – are so common. As are books in general – literature itself is saturated.

This saturation, and my poor navigation of the industry – listening to none of the advice on promotion – has resulted in this rocky journey. Nevertheless, as always, it is exciting. Now, I shall not make any promises here. I have noticed that I am far too eager to make promises in my posts and newsletters. And, I rarely meet them. Well, I’m done with that.

The Problem

Nevertheless, I am excited to talk about this today. I have already made it clear – I hate the classic fantasy tropes. To remedy this, I shall be joining the far rarer breed of fantasy authors challenging them. That is certainly an unsaturated market. Two birds with one stone. Now, I can’t give too much away. Not only would they be spoilers but they may feed my irrational fear of another author stealing my ideas. That would be killing my two birds with one stone.

But, as always, I can’t keep mum. Fundamentally, fantasy is a reflection of the real history of the world. Unfortunately, it has all too often been the case that fantasy authors distort this history much like Europeans always have. In their world, Europe is the centre. Like few other authors before me, I want to remind readers that there is a world beyond Europe. That is not to detract from the successes and critical acclaim attributed to fantasy authors: J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, and David Eddings among my favourites. They have truly gone beyond what is possible for the ordinary author. The many languages penned by Tolkien is testament to that.

The One Ring Inscription in Black Speech (Fantasy Language)
The One Ring Inscription in Black Speech

They are who I aspire to. But I also aspire to show colonialism. I aspire to show slavery. I aspire to show racism. I aspire to show that Christianity and the West is not the norm – not with the plethora of inspiration from the East, from Africa, from Hinduism, from Islam, and so much more. As always, I cannot give too many spoilers away. This has constrained me in my Behind the Scenes of The Monk’s Curse posts.

Unveiling…

What I can say is that there are three continents. One unspoiled. One reflecting Europe. One reflecting the victims of Europe. There are a few gods. A complex ontology. And this faith has direct reflections in its world. There are other worlds – also unspoiled. There is magic. There are different levels of this magic. Each is accessible only to those worthy, wise, or otherwise experienced. These forms of magic not only emerge from the existing magical systems of fantasy but from the real history of magic in paganism and Wicca. There are complex political systems and histories – after all, every nation has a history. Why then should fantasy locations be constrained to only whatever detail serves the plot? There are nations which shun heteronormativity.

I shall not go on. Perhaps this challenge is insurmountable. Perhaps not. But it is certainly not made easier by my desire to develop languages for my world – perhaps an exercise years in the making. What I can say is that despite this seeming insurmountable challenge, what I have thus far explored has been like a playground. Creating worlds is certainly more interesting than creating characters and plots to fit the real world. Hopefully, this will reveal a piece that goes beyond the saturation of its markets. After all, is that not the mark of artistic beauty? Certainly in the present day.


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Problematic Fantasy – and reality – Tropes

In my previous post on the problematic villains of fantasy, I promised another rant. Well, actually a few. But here is the first one. As anyone familiar with fantasy, or specifically epic or high fantasy, knows, there are classic tropes which make the plot lines of fantasies so unoriginal. My post on villains only confirms this.

But the problem goes more deeper than that. Unfortunately, fantasy worlds often reflect the real world. This in itself is a problem. How can fantasy have any claim to being fantasy if it is not – for most fantasies are effectively allegories? Now I am not criticising the masters of fantasy – nor the master of masters: J.R.R. Tolkien. No, I love them. I love Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and the blatant copy of those – David Eddings’ Belgariad and Mallorean.

I love immersing myself in these fantastical worlds. But the problem comes in when one is so immersed that the line between reality and fantasy is blurred. And this is too often the case. In fact, most readers don’t even realise it.

To unpack this, let me elaborate on the tropes of fantasy. This is simple to do. Fair skinned and beautiful good versus darker skinned and ugly evil. Good west versus evil east. Highly civilised west versus barbaric east. I could go and on. But the fact remains that the maps of worlds like Middle Earth and David Eddings’ sagas too often reflect the problems of the real world – civilised west and barbaric east. The other tropes fit this almost perfectly.

Let us not forget Game of Thrones. It also reflects the above, all the while making it abundantly clear that the east is a place of mystery and barbarity. Slavery is abundant in the east? Reality check! Europeans invented slavery!!! The hordes of Dothraki?? That is a blatant misappropriation of the Golden Horde of the descendants of Genghis Khan. And in portraying them as savage people only skilled in horsemanship plays on the classic belief that Genghis Khan was only effective in savagery and not in his actual civilisation. Oh, and the treatment of characters of colour on the TV show is pathetic. I could see the racial hatred on the faces of the Westerosi in Winterfell as the foreign queen marched in with her coloured warriors. Don’t even get me started on the painting of Arya Stark as the Columbus of the world of Game of Thrones. What is west of Westeros? Well, who knows? It is probably a place that has never deserved the attention of the advanced races of Westeros who were too focussed on the barbaric east. It is in the name. Nothing is deemed worthy of being considered west of Westeros because it simply doesn’t matter. Well, let us leave it to Columbus to ‘discover’ the new world.

I could go on and on. Even Rick Riordan makes it plain that the location of Mount Olympus is wherever Western Civilisation is. What about Eastern Civilisation? What about the fact that some of the most sophisticated cultures, ancient civilisations, and advanced scientific discoveries like the number zero and the system of numbers all sprung from the East?

As I said, I could go on and on. And I can tell you this, my views are inflammatory. No one likes to read these kind of things. But it is a topic which needs discussion. Why are most fantasy worlds based on medieval Europe? Medieval Asia and Africa were far more civilised places. Why are most fantasy worlds predominantly featuring white characters?? Many people say that people of colour do not belong in these fantasies because the fantasies are based on medieval Europe. Well, news flash, the Europeans have traded with people of colour for eons. People were not isolated in their worlds that is depicted in fantasy and period dramas. Well, perhaps only the natives of America were. But even they could not keep their identity. Because Columbus was too stupid to know where he was, he called them Indians. Also why do you think their (European) food is so bland? Because the only Eastern spice that they could handle was salt and pepper. Oh, and for those who say colonisation brought civilisation, let me remind you that colonisation was the expansion of slavery and religion. The Europeans had no care for the natives. If they had, well, Africa would not be where it is today. The Europeans did not share their civilisation. They took new lands and practised civilisation while only allowing the natives to watch. Oh, and before I forget, the means that Europeans used to conquer lands was acquired from the East. Gun powder and ammunition.

For too long people of colour have been inferior to white people in real life and in fiction. I have even been told that my culture has contributed nothing to science. You would think that these civilised people would at least have scruples. Well, they don’t. For all their civilisation, they lack humanity. So, who should the villains in fantasy be? The ones who have humanity or the ones who lack it? That question needs no answer. At least not for anyone who has the attribute of rationality.

The Problem with Modern Villains

So this is another one of my impassioned rants. And expect another one in the next few days. So, today is my short exclamation of discontent with villains gracing the stories of the 20th and 21st centuries.

I won’t beat around the bush. First, let me list these villains to which I refer. Sauron, Torak, Voldemort, Thanos, The Night King.

As any geek, dork or nerd should know, Sauron is the overarching antagonist of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings world of Middle Earth. Of course few people have dared to criticise the great J.R.R. Tolkien. Neither shall I. Only, his villain is so problematic to the world of fantasy, at least in the legacy it has left behind. In creating Sauron, he created the archetypal ‘Dark Lord’ who has no good in him and who meets a satisfying death – one that is reflective of his power. Rather than dying as any person should, he crumbles.

If I remember correctly, so does Torak, the Dragon God of the Angaraks in David Eddings’ world of the Belgariad and Mallorean (edit: Torak does not crumble. His body remains intact. His death is also human as he realises and laments the fact that he is loved by none. His death is even mourned by the good Gods, his brothers. For all of David Eddings’ appropriation of J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy tropes, this is where he deserves applause). So does Voldemort, at least in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. So does Thanos at the end of Avengers: Endgame. So does The Night King of Game of Thrones’ Season 8.

Here is the problem. These stories have dehumanised their villains, setting the precedent for creating unrealistic stories where the villains have no humanity. This is contrary to the reality of villains, even Hitler himself. Okay, shouldn’t a fictional villain have fictional characteristics? Well of course. No one is calling for their powers to be stripped off them. And yet it remains a firm principle that fantasy worlds are inevitably based on the real world. Looking at every one of the stories above, there are all many uncanny reflections of the real world. Such are stories.

But these villains disappoint the fundamental substance of any story – that it should be relatable to its audience. Villains are made to be great. To be dark. To be powerful. And to meet deaths that are certainly not deaths that their victims would meet.

So on Voldemort, even though the movies made a royal mess of his death (books are better than their film adaptations!!), J.K. Rowling put is astutely when she gave Voldemort a human death in the books and when she said that there are no completely good and completely evil people in this world – we all have light and dark in us.

And yet the majority of stories fail to portray this. Their villains are almost godly in their evil, detached from humanity and thus unrelatable. In my opinion, as villains are mortal, they should be burdened with the same aspects of mortality that burdens protagonists. The best villain is one that the reader or watcher may slightly agree with. Black Panther did this perfectly with Killmonger. So did Avengers: Infinity War. But ultimately, Thanos was the perfect villain – so immortal that his death had to be that cliched disintegration.

So this is my issue. Villains should meet mortal deaths. And, they should at least have some good in them. Otherwise, we slip into the further problematic cliches of the fantasy world that I will speak to in a post next week. This is why, in The Monk’s Curse, I made a compelling past for my villain – one that makes a reader almost pity him even as he commits murder. As the world of fantasy parallels reality, so should its villains.