Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Fantasy Writing

I have read a lot of fantasy novels, and there are some irritating things that crop up again and again. Thanks to Andrea for suggesting this post!

Ten Annoying Conventions of Fantasy Writing

1. The Apostrophe Rampant

"As Ro'bath rode down into the city of We'a'lan, he paused for a moment to reflect on the frailty of life, but was jolted from his revelrie by a passing wagon of rowdy Ja'rethian sailors."

I appreciate that a) apostrophes are tempting little buggers and b) one cannot call the hero of one's fantasy epic Robert, but come on. The apostrophe has a purpose, it isn't just something you chuck in when you want to make your elf sound more exotic. Rampant Apostrophying is borderline acceptable when it's a place name like 'Ba'aleth' and if you didn't use the apostrophe readers would have to stop every time you mentioned the town and furrow their brow because of the endless 'Baaaaaaaaa...' going on in their heads but come on, people. Surely we do not need an apostrophe in every proper noun you are going to use. Imagine if we did that in real life. "My name is All'y, and I live in Pa'Panui. Tomorrow, I will go to work in Cathe'Dral Square." Also, why apostrophes? Why not hyphens, or semi-colons, or tildes? Why is the apostrophe so seductive? Why?

2. The Significant Inn

"Around nightfall, Ro'bath and his weary band stopped at a roadside inn for the night. As they sat in the dining room, Ro'bath noticed a stranger sitting alone at a table in the corner, hood pulled up over his eyes..."

SPOILER: SOMETHING ALWAYS HAPPENS AT THE INN. If I ever come across an inn in real life you can bet your ass I am not going to stay there because one of the following things will happen: a) my horses will be stolen during the night; b) a party of soldiers will drop by; c) I will meet a significant stranger; d) the inn will be burnt to the ground and later in the story I will come across its smouldering remains, which will serve as a reminder of the terrible evil etc.

3. Don't Ride That Horse!

"Ro'bath saddled up his tame dothraki and prepared for the day ahead. The squat, shaggy beast's endurance more than made up for its bad temper."

Because heaven forbid that we could actually ride horses, unless we are knights in which case an exception can be made. I read a fantasy novel once where the primary mode of transport was the 'zorse.' It wasn't the zebra/horse cross that Science has made, but what it was was never explained. It was just assumed that we would know about the zorse. (Also, the plural was 'zorse' as well, which was annoying.) If the animal is described it seems to be a shaggy mountain animal blah blah YOUR ANIMAL IS FUCKING BORING JUST RIDE A HORSE, RO'BATH. This also goes for weaponry. No-one uses a sword. They use a pra'nart, or a vidalt, or, if they really have to, a 'blade.'

4. The Hermit Wizard

"Ro'bath kicked the final soldier's body into the gutter and reached down a hand to steady the frail old man. The homeless man's grip was surprisingly strong for someone of his advanced years, and Ro'bath was surprised to see that his eyes were a clear, penetrating blue."

Oh, yeah. You're an all-powerful wizard. You're going to live on the streets like a homeless person. Sure. Sure you are. THIS IS JUST UNREALISTIC. Actually while I'm on this point wizards in general are unrealistic. They don't exist. Get over it. Move on. I hear vampires are very 'now.'

5. Surprise! I'm a God!

"As Ro'bath stood before the fountain, the legendary blade in his hands, he felt the power surge suddenly through him and in an instant it was as if the whole cosmos was laid out before his eyes. He knew, suddenly and irrevocably, that this was his destiny."

Sorry to get the story of Ro'bath all out of order, but it is such a big yawn when the protagonist turns out to have been a god/god-in-waiting/son of a god all along. Maybe fantasy writers think that if, at the end, their main character just settles down and sells zorse hides for a living, the audience will be disappointed. Personally I am more disappointed when oh, he's been a god all along, I guess that sure explains a lot, I just thought he was really lucky. Thanks for clearing that up.

6. Swearing in Made-Up Languages

"As Ro'bath bent over to inspect his dothraki mount's shoe, a zwelty flying overhead let go a load of stinking dung. "Bort!" said Ro'bath, "this is a clean tunic!""

I don't get it. Everyone is speaking English. Everyone is using English idiom. And everyone is swearing in Vermouthian? I read a book once - it may have been the 'zorse' book, I don't remember - where the swear of choice was 'klat.' Every time something went down all the characters said 'klat.' And 'klatting.' It was completely distracting and kind of stupid, like a mother who says "f...f...fudge!" all the time. If you're committed enough to have your characters swear, at least allow them the dignity of using the effer.

7. Endless Nobility

"Ro'bath stood overlooking the Ce'Nedran peaks. He sighed as he looked at the vast wilderness spread out before him, and thought once more of his homeland and of this huge, pointless quest which he had taken upon himself. Could he ever succeed?"

Where is the part where Ro'bath and his friend, Ti'na'a'dran, bicker about how best to cook the dead zorse? Where is the part where Ro'bath gets too fat for his armour? Where is the part where Ro'bath descends into a huge inner monologue about the shape of his eyebrows?

8. Bam! Politics!

"Ro'bath arrived in the town of Me'tiana only to remember that here, it was impossible to park your zorse in anything less than five feet of Me'tianan hay and that, consquently, he was going to have to spend the afternoon searching the town hall for the correct official."

Yeah, I know, sometimes political people are necessary evils for plot purposes, but sometimes it reads like the author has gone "Ooh, that bit with the talking swan was quite OTT, maybe I should chuck in some red tape so that everyone remembers the protagonist is a real person in a real world. Let's have him walk around for a while, note the futility of politics, and maybe have a fling/make an unimportant friend. Also, I will get to write a scene with a royal banquet in it. I wonder, what will everyone wear?"

9. Obligatory Scenes: We're On A Boat!

"Ro'bath left the Royal Banquet and got on a boat. The captain was grizzled, and quite possibly a retired pirate. But oh, he was so lovable."

Your fantasy novel has gotta have at least one royal banquet. Also, your characters need to spend a chunk of the novel - no less than a sixth, but no more than a quarter - on a boat. No-one knows why. That's just the way it is.

10. Racing Profiling - Dude! That's not cool

No matter how supposedly liberal the society, there are four groups which are always unfairly racially profiled in fantasy novels. Here they are.

1. Dragons or, as I like to think of them, caricatures of librarians. Most are old, some are grumpy, and all are wise and probably the last of their kind. Fantasy writers have a real knack for turning a dragon into something really fucking boring. (Nothing personal, librarians.)

2. Elves. Elves are kind of like the Swedish - uniformly beautiful, with good bone structure and an air of melancholy. Also, they are fantastic architects.

3. Dwarves. Dwarves are like Australians! Tough, loyal, grubby little buggers who get the job done, as long as you don't ask what they cuddle up to for warmth during the cold season.

4. Orcs. Orcs are the most maligned race in all of fantasy writing, ever. They are always portrayed as stupid, violent, and easily led. I'm not going to say which racial group they should be paralled with. I will just say that it's going to be a klatting long time before Middle-Earth elects a half-Orcish president.

Feel free to add your own.


Holly said...

HAHAH! I don't read fantasy, but this post still amused me, especially the first one! I remember arriving at Fa'a Airport in Tahiti and being really confused about the apostrophe in the name, having never encountered one before! :P I was like "WTF!? Is this a typo!?"

Judearoo said...

That sense of heavy destiny perfuming the entire book, sheesh.

Also what's with all the high thigh boots? Doesnt it ever get warm and sweaty in fantasy world?

Oh and the main character always some fluffy weird pet - some sort of cross between a dog and a mogwai.

All this said, I quite like fantasy.

Sandy said...

Haha! I have read a lot (perhaps too many) of fantasy novels and as a result recognize all the conventions that you mention.
Hence, I have decided to make the current novel I am writing 'un-conventional'. Let me just go and cross out the parts that are conventional.
Oh dear, I believe I am left with nothing. ;)

otherworldlyone said...


If it isn't the f-bomb, it doesn't count.

There are always mysterious woods with mysterious woodland creatures. Because everyone knows that trees are the most mysterious things ever. Except for maybe zorse.

a cat of impossible colour said...

HAHAHAHA! 'Dwarfs are like Australians' had me spluttering my coffee.

I would add

1) Leather. Everyone wears great lashings of leather all the tim - leather pants, leather weskits and oddkins and bodkins - and yet it never shrinks in an embarrassing way or makes people all sweaty.

2) Having a Connection With Nature. The main character always respects mother earth and talks to the trees and knows that Mysterious Things Walk in the Woods (thanks, otherworldlyone). You never get a main character stamping on lizards and chopping down trees willy-nilly, and that would be refreshing.

3) Sudden bits of Old English in an otherwise relatively colloquial book. "Nay! I will not."

4) Weird sentences. "Three days did they linger there in that tent."

I think Discworld pinpoints and parodies about every fantasy trope in the metaphorical book. And that is just one of the reasons I love Terry Pratchett.

a cat of impossible colour said...

Apologies for typo - 'tim' should be 'time'. Although I would like to see a fantasy hero called Tim. Or Brian. Or Murray.

Tennyson ee Hemingway said...

When I read Racing Profiling, I thought that, all of a sudden, we were talking about the Melbourne Cup. Then I saw it obviously was supposed to be Racial Profiling. Silly me. And I cuddle up to a very nice, very soft pillow at night. Quite a wooly one as it happens.

Gary said...

Everyone always forgets about Goblins. And Trolls. Or Pixies. And the Welsh.

Good Topic. What gets me is the timeline of the adventure. Find object, rescue prisoner, join circus, kill monster and it takes 435 pages to get there and then 3 paragraphs to get home.

I would have thought and I may be wrong but if you take the same route home, are you not going to meet some of the pissed off survivors.

Yet if you take a different route, maybe you get lost, find an all new circus\monster\object? Or at least figure out you didn’t like the prisoner you rescued and dumped them off at a local tavern.


How come the Biddies’ right-hand thingee can have a change of heart and give up on his rampaging ways. Yet the Heroes 2nd in command never stops and thinks that burning down a village and making off with the livestock looks like a lot of fun because he is sick of eating porridge.

Don’t even get me started on inter-races sex.

a cat of impossible colour said...

Gary makes an excellent point about the Journey Home - that hadn't occurred to me. Perhaps they walk to their Destination and then catch a bus home, thus avoiding all the stuff that made it a nightmare to get there? Rather like I do when going into town.

Anonymous said...

Hi there, it's Anonymous, all recovered from my dire birthday. This Fiction Generator is well worth a look.

Brooke said...

I haven't read a lot of fantasy (LOTR is about as far as it goes with me), but LOL in general! Especially the racial profiling lol

I don't know if this is why fantasy writers use them, but in a lot of polynesian languages, an apostrophe is used to represent the 'glottal stop' sound (say Hawai'i; that sound between the 'i's is a glottal stop. I always read apostrophes in fantasy names as glottal stops. Because I am a great big ling nerd :P

Charlie said...

Love this list. Although I love fantasy books still.

Renée said...

i had to take a break at number 7 due to tears rolling down my cheeks and the desire to "savour the funiness" so so true.