Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Dear Fantasy: It's Not Me, It's Your (Lack Of) Setting

Posted by: Veronica Scott
From Author Pat Kirby:

I've fallen out of love with epic fantasy. To some extent, also urban fantasy, because the embittered, ass-kicking woman who is estranged from her family, and has more issues than a magazine just isn't blowing my metaphorical skirt up anymore. The thing is, a quick glance at my Goodreads account reveals that I am still reading fantasy, or at least novels with a significant speculative fiction element. But gone are the days when I would devour tome after tome of McGuffin-driven quests, featuring earnest young farm boys with Luke Skywalker-esque destinies. And it's not just a gender issue, since similar plotlines featuring the rare female heroine usually don't do it for me, either.

It would be easy to blame the problem on time. As in, a whole lot of it has elapsed since I've been born and consequently, "been there, read the hell out of it" describes my attitude to most plots.

Except, I totally dig tropes, stereotypes, and well-worn narrative elements. I'm a big believer in the idea that there aren't any new stories, and I've got no quarrel with "derivative." Love derivative; done right, it's like crack, or Oreo cookies.

So what gives?

The issue is that it takes more than an otherworldly setting to sell me on a story. Because I've seen just about every variation of magical land, extraordinary creature, weapon of destiny, etc.

For all their exhaustive world building, I find that some epics have a poorly developed sense of place. I mean, yeah, these stories contains words, piled on words, and more words, some of them quite pretty, devoted to describing the author's shiny new land. Flora, fauna, culture, etc.

For all that meticulous detail, however, it doesn't feel like the characters really live there.

Unlike, say, characters in many mystery novels. For example, the novels penned by the late Tony Hillerman. Hillerman's novels are vibrant with the colors, textures and flavors of life in the desert southwest, in particular, the lands of the Navajo Nation. He was writing as someone who had an inside track into the good, bad, and ugly of the landscape and culture of the region. As opposed to a tourist who gawps at the majestic mesas and buys cheap, knock-off Kokopellis and coyote-howling-at-the-moon chachkes sold in souvenir shops. He saw New Mexico and Arizona as you see the place where you live.  And his experiences and perceptions were filtered through his characters, grounding them and their setting firmly in my mind. The settings aren't just described; they are described through the characters' eyes. In turn, the novels' settings shape and deepen the characterization.

Some fantasy novels, on the other hand, read like a travel guide to a mystical land. Great detail, with handy info, like which inns serve the best ale, and yet, rather superficial. The settings are like painted backdrops in a stage production, set up to hide stuff backstage and give the audience a vague sense of place. And, why not? Often that spare set design is just the ticket. In. A. Stage. Production.

Fantasy novel? Not so much.

I guess what I'm saying is that if the author of Big Fantasy Epic wants me to click Buy, he or she needs to give me the same intimate sense of place that I find in a good contemporary mystery novel. Honestly? I don't need to know a detailed history of the gods or the founding of the current dynasty. Especially, not as an info-dump in a prologue (insert teenage eye roll). If, however, your novel begins with the protagonist ranting about the idiotic practice of banning the sale of swords on Tuesdays in your land of make believe, I'm sold. Because that's that kind of stuff real people do. Everywhere.

So, what about you, folks? Any genre or genre trope that makes you want to jab red hot needles in your eyes? Conversely, what do you love?

1 comment:

  1. This! Usually, I love fantasy, especially if it has a romance waiting for me inside. However, I tried reading one a while back and, in spite of all the detail the author gave, *none* of it mattered to the story. None.

    As for what I love, it's too long a list for a comment. :) Though, I do have a fondness for the Iron Woobie trope.


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