The little black book of fantasy

Over the years, I’ve kept little journals. I’m fond of Moleskines in particular. In one of those, I collected my thoughts on fantasy as a genre, fantasy RPGs, and thoughts on what draws me to it. I looked at my favorite authors and what I find so compelling in their work. They included Michael Moorcock, J.R.R. Tolkien, Gene Wolfe, Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard, George R.R. Martin and a small handful of other influences. It also included some influences from video games. The Fable series is notably influential here.Â

Interestingly, I also discovered something about what I’m doing here on this blog. I kept seeing a theme as I thought about fantasy. I discovered that I defined some of my preferences by what I excluded. That is, I find most fantasy novels, for example, to be utter garbage. I want nothing to do with the mountains of awful artwork that populate game covers or web sites and T-shirts. This is not new to anyone. Many genre fans get pedantic about their breed of favorites. I’m guilty of it as well. But, it helps chisel out a better piece of what I want to create.

From that, I came up with some concepts that I decided are what makes fantasy matter to me:

Question the unquestionable – Chalk this one up to Michael Moorcock, probably my favorite fantasy author. I think he deliberately set out to dismantle silly notions about morality and good and evil in fantasy. I cheer for Elric when he literally slaughters an entire city in one novel. That’s not exactly moral behavior. It’s not good ol’ hero stuff.

Heroes are disturbing or unsettling – Another Moorcock theme, though other authors share it. There’s something slightly awry in the fantasy heroes I’m drawn to. They have dark sides. They aren’t folks that settle down and live life. Maybe that’s exactly why I’m drawn to them.

Humanize by fighting the impossible – Tolkien snuck this one in on most of us. When the Peter Jackson movies came out, an online publication — I think it was Salon.com — ran a long article about the pagan myths of northern Europe and Tolkien. It hit home with me somehow. The idea is that we (we being heroes, that is) are human only to the extent that we choose to face impossible enemies. Failing to do so makes us something like skulking animals full of fear. Beowulf trots off to fight the dragon almost certainly know he’s doomed. Turn up the cheese factor slightly and we get Theoden hollering “Spears shall be shaken, shields shall be splintered, a sword day, a red day ere the sun rises!” in the film version of Return of the King. Ok, slightly cheesy, but it’s easily my favorite moment of that film. He knows he’s dead. Better that then Sauron’s vassal.

Romance is insincere – Gene Wolfe taught me this trick in an unsung novel pair called The Knight and The Wizard, respectively. In The Knight, a teen from modern times finds himself in a fantasy world. It’s an old fantasy author trick, and not the part that grabs me. (I almost didn’t buy it for that reason alone. Don’t worry, Wolfe pulled it off.) He dubs himself Sir Able and goes about volunteering himself for many adventures. We realize that he’s simply willing himself into heroism. He’s not born into anything. He has no title. And, he performs some odd and definitely unheroic deeds.

Nature is horribly alluring – That’s probably not the best language for this idea. It my reaction to Robert E. Howard. His Conan stories are great fun, if a bit dark and troubling in places. But, he portrays such a visceral, murky ancient earth. It’s the idea that far away planes of existence aren’t necessary to both captivate and terrify one in fantasy.

Despite it all, laugh – Ah, this one goes to Leiber, who also ranks very high on my list. Fafhrd and Gray Mouser get themselves into mischief — say in “Ill Met in Lankhmar,” which is likely my favorite short story fantasy or otherwise — only to be blindsided by gruesome tragedy. And, despite their world-treading therapy, they end up drinking and joking away their dark and corrupt surroundings. What else could they do?

Humanity first, fantasy second – George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is the inspiration here. His books are the best “normal” fantasy in years and years. They’re the best because they are about human characters. Note I’m not saying literally human (though most are). I love the books not because there are weird, mysterious icy undead in the north threatening everyone. I love them because I really feel bad for the Hound, and I think Jaime’s an ass … but not that bad after all. And so on. Characters I care about because of their choices and emotional reactions, not because of their fantastic trappings.

Well, there it is. My list of thematic guidelines as I think about fantasy and move to create fantasy stuff.

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