Avoiding Fantasy Stereotypes
...And Sometimes Not
Saturday, January 27, 2018
Welcome to Season 4! I'm sorry I was away so long. This week I'll be continuing my discussion on The Curious Tale's complicated relationships with stereotypes in fantasy. If you haven't done so already, I recommend you start by reading Part 1. Here, I'm going to jump right back into the discussion of The Curious Tale's complex relationships with stereotypes in fantasy.
The Four Central Apprehensions of Fantasy
The one reminder I'll offer is that fantasy has at least four major preoccupations. From most important to least they are: wish-fulfillment, philosophy (especially but not limited to social commentary), entertainment (including escapism), and reaction to (including mimicry of) existing stories. Not every work of fantasy serves all four purposes, but at least one and usually several of these are virtually always present.
Last time I discussed the fourth of these, reaction to existing stories, and also analyzed epic fantasy in some detail with respect to its conceptual framework and its relationship with its infamous stereotypes. This week I'll discuss an issue that touches on two more of these apprehensions.
Dissociation: The Heart of Degeneracy
One of the most problematic notions in all of storytelling is the one which states that, to be interesting, a plot event must be extraordinary and even melodramatic. This leads to a parasitically high inflation rate of action where stories have to continually outdo themselves in terms of outlandish battles, duels, threats to the world, stupendous pomp, and so forth, on the grounds that supposedly the audience needs increasingly greater stimulation to remain interested. Such a shame, because the premise isn't true: Quite ordinary events can be perfectly dramatic and extremely compelling. Yet note the words, "can be."
Usually when I harp on this point, I talk about the importance of good storytelling—pacing and so forth. But here I'm going to talk about something else: Stuff is more interesting when you already know something about it. This is a revelatory premise, and I'll be discussing it for the rest of this article.
There are basically two ways to arouse a human's attention: Shock them with some kind of simulated danger or thrill that stimulates their excitement—which, in the aggregate, really does require the action to endlessly outdo itself—or engage with them on something they're already interested in. Storytelling often chooses the former, which isn't intrinsically wrong—I think it has its place, especially when considering the life cycles of genres and generations—but it typically does so while simultaneously neglecting the other mode of getting attention—a neglect which I think is wrong.
Yet I understand why it happens this way.
A couple of years ago I read a novel from the 1950s about one of the last sailing ships in the dawning age of steam. Roughly a quarter of the book was simply descriptions of the physical appearance and operation of the ship. I loved this. I ate it up. The book as a whole isn't great, or even good, but its depictions of sailing a rigged ship are outstanding, and they are outstanding because they are authentic—so far as my landlubbing ass could tell (an important caveat that'll come up later)—and therefore they were to me absolutely enthralling illustrations, because I take an interest in such subjects.
You may remember my Curious Tale Saturdays miniseries a while back featuring a tour of the sandship Dread Fury. I had to cut it short after ten weeks because there was no end in sight; I'd only made it about halfway through the ship and had barely scratched the surface. And this was despite me being incredibly spare with the details! If passion were my only limit I could have talked for ages just about specific rooms aboard the ship. Instead, I eventually cut the entire miniseries short because I knew not everyone is interested in such things, and it was sapping up the space in this feature. One of the central strengths of Curious Tale Saturdays is that the topic of the week is wide open; thus to dwell on one narrow thing for over two months with no end in sight seemed to me to be a show of poor hospitality and an inefficient use of the venue.
So far I've only discussed ships, but, if you look thoughtfully you can see a conflict taking shape here: Are the details of ordinary life generally compelling, or aren't they?
You can guess which side I stand on personally. I have said it before: If you remember one thing about The Curious Tale, remember that Relance itself is the story. The worldbuilding—the in-depth look at the people, cultures, societies, technologies, and natural wonders of Relance—is an endless fountain of interest and captivation for those who are inclined to care about such things.
If you go back and read The Lord of the Rings, you can see that Tolkien understood this implicitly. He allots a great deal of space to such details, to the point of doing mercy to the reader by cordoning some of it off into optional appendices. Sometimes I picture him as Archimedes, with the Roman centurion looming upon him for the kill: "No! Do not disturb my appendices! Accckkk!"
Compare that with what contemporary epic fantasy usually is: devoid of depth and detail, and devoid of realism of the sort that can say with authenticity, "This is how it really was." No thought is given to "how it really was," because the storyteller doesn't give their own fantasy world enough credit in the first place to have that depth of authenticity, and, in any case, is all-consumed by the need to develop yet another superfluous, formulaic conflict of good versus evil. Under the faulty ideology of making stories concise and fast-paced—a psychosis of impatience that now afflicts our entire culture—fantasy storytelling has all but abandoned its sprawling powers of detailed examination. Do you remember that six-minute scene from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the one with no dialogue at all, where the little shuttle flies toward the Enterprise, then alongside the Enterprise, then around the front of the Enterprise, and then over the top of the Enterprise, and down the neck of the Enterprise, then around the back of the Enterprise, and then alongside the Enterprise for a second time (!), all in real-time, before finally, at last, docking? That could never happen in a Hollywood blockbuster today. Very shortly after this scene is another scene where Kirk speaks of the urgency of their mission. Critics today would find that sort of irony too much to bear. The story takes itself too seriously, they would say. You would be forgiven for assuming, given that Trek fans care about this starship so much, that they'd be delighted for a six-minute beauty shot of its every detail. And many were. But here's the thing: Many fans were not delighted by this. Many critics certainly were not. And the historical consensus today is that it was a dull, plodding movie that aspired to greatness but lacked haste and humanity. Yet I think it was the most human of all the Star Trek films to date, because it was the only one that showed the Enterprise for what it really is: a home, where people live and work. Alongside the exterior visuals were many depictions of the ship's internal operations. A great deal of Star Trek canon was established in this film! Those who complain that the film lacked humanity mean they wanted to see more of the (also delightful) schmoozing between Kirk and company. But "lacking humanity" is an inaccurate criticism. Any story that shows us the characters' physical community is doing some deep worldbuilding—for those who are willing and able to see it. Does this remind you of Tolkien's relentless attention to the physical embodiments of the places we visit in The Lord of the Rings? It should! It's exactly the same premise: Here is a fictional world illustrated in such detail that you could veritably step into it for yourself as though it were real. Contrast this with the most dependable blockbuster of our day: superhero action films: They scream fake, not because of the supernatural powers of the characters, but because there's no depth at all. There's no world there.
I said above, "a fountain of interest and captivation for those who are inclined to care about such things." That's the twist. So many people are not inclined, because they just don't have the preexisting interest in whatever's being showcased. And fair enough! Not everyone is required to be passionate about everything—about, say, gardening, or whiskey, or model trains. And this doesn't require active hostility, either—or even indifference! You can be positive about something without being passionate about it. You can admire Beethoven without having the patience to actually listen to his music, just like you can enjoy Star Trek without actually wanting to know about the Federation or its starships. So it is with traditional fantasy: You can admire the medievalist world it evokes, without actually wanting to get to know that world beyond a Disneyland-esque veneer. And "you" can do this not only when you're part of the audience for the story, but also when you're the storyteller yourself.
It's a lot easier to stimulate an audience's attention—and many a storyteller's—by appealing to emergencies and explosive events—thereby tapping into our evolutionary survival wiring—than it is to come up with a particular topic of interest that the audience will all share and proceed to get wonky with them on it. In epic fantasy, then, many readers can readily be invested in a good, solid battle, for example, but comparatively few readers are going to be on the edge of their seat when it comes to, say, sandship architecture. (And, since many storytellers are wired this way themselves, preferring to go for flash over passion, there are fewer stories in the first place that offer deep worlds and nerdish delvings into the details thereof.) I personally find this astonishing, because I love sandship architecture. But change it to a topic I don't care about, like, say, fantasy football, and I get it. I know what it feels like to not care. I can get into a movie that's ostensibly about fantasy football provided that that's not actually what the story is about. So there you go, and as the author of a fantasy series myself I have to be mindful of maintaining people's interest unless I have a strong need not to.
I'll talk more next week about what balance I strive for between passion versus flash in my work, but, for now, the next question we have to consider is: Why is this? Getting away from rarefied topics like sandship architecture, and generalizing to the details of daily life—in which we nearly all participate—why are so many people uninterested? After all...the details of life are life, just as the story of Relance is Relance. And when it comes to people's widespread interest in the stereotypical medievalist tropes of epic fantasy, why aren't more people fascinated with those details? We can't live in a medieval world ourselves...so why aren't people itching to know more about medieval-era practices for husbandry or cooking or thatching? Instead of delving into these curious details, most storytellers just stick it all together like a mindless pastiche, leading to ludicrous distortions of history that almost nobody notices are ludicrous, like the burning torches of in the daytime, or roofs where the thatching is only a couple inches thick, or bows that are always strung, or the routine cutting of ropes rather than untying them in order to loose something, or horses that can gallop as far as the plot requires without ever needing food, water, rest, care, or play. Most of life is in these little details, and our relationships with the physical world around us on a day-to-day basis. Your kitchen says a lot about you; why don't we see more time devoted in stories to illustrating characters' kitchens?
Here's a secret: It's not because people don't want to see the mundane!
I'm going to give the charitable reason here, because the uncharitable reason is weak-mindedness and shallowness of character, and that's a needless end to a fascinating discussion. The charitable reason—and I think the more valid answer overall—is far more interesting:
Could you tell me, without looking it up, what it is that a sailing ship crew actually does?
Probably not, unless you're great at trivia, have Holmesian deductive powers, or happen to take an especial interest in that stuff. And why should you know? When's the last time you or anyone you know served as a crewmember aboard a rigged ship? It's not relevant, and that which lacks some kind of relevance—any kind—is far duller a star in the psyche's sky.
Did you know that the Tennessee Valley Authority, one of the great social marvels of US history, was created because farmers didn't know about the disadvantages of plowing on the straight rather than on the contour? Their practices caused erosion that decimated agricultural productivity across the entire region. In an enormous and enormously well-coordinated act of intervention, the federal government, in association with state and local governments, academia, private enterprise, and cooperative locals, not only constructed the massive hydroelectric dams that we still use today, but educated farmers in completely new farming techniques, and engineered chemicals and machinery to help them revitalize and farm the land. They changed the course of American history in Tennessee—and they did so against the same stiff anti-government closed-mindedness that we know in our politics today. Yet the Roosevelt administration was persistent and the results of the various programs speak for themselves.
That's just the barest summary, and I'm not qualified to bring you much better. My personal knowledge is sorely limited. The whole truth would fill the lifetimes of all those who were caught up in it! There's a story in all of that. Many stories! But today, what do people care of contour farming and hydroelectric dams? There's no reason to know such things, and so people don't. It's not relevant. If only people could be made to see some personal connection, some relevance, I'm certain there'd be something in the sprawling Tennessee Valley Authority tale to interest almost anybody. But that initial connection, that initial sense of relevance, just can't find a foothold in our collective imaginations.
What about kitchens, then? Everyone knows how those work. Well, I would say people don't, really. Where does your food come from? How is it made? How does your microwave work? What processes purify the water that comes out of your tap? Who built your cupboards? How is silverware made? Why are some materials microwaveable and others not, and how can we engineer the former? What considerations went into the design of your food's packaging? What safety considerations go into kitchen design? If you tried to build a kitchen by yourself, without any help or instructions from anywhere, how far would you get—and how could would the result be? Who lived in your kitchen before you did? How did they use it?
Here, I think, is the heart and soul of why epic fantasy is so degenerate: Not only do we not understand the medievalist world; we don't even understand the actual, real world we live in. It's all automated, deliberately engineered for us so that "it just works" and the general public doesn't have to know anything more complicated than pressing a few buttons. In the early days of personal computers, they often used to enclose schematics of the circuit boards, in case you wanted or needed to make modifications. Today the stuff is so sophisticated that much of it can't be modified by human hands. The same goes for your car; once upon a time an ordinary person could have built one from the ground up. Today, the engineering is so much more precise and complex that it dwarfs the manual capabilities of a human being.
We used to intimately understand our physical surroundings, and needed to do so in order to survive. Nowadays, we're so used to our survival being guaranteed that we need signs at the train station not to tell us to step in front of moving trains. We don't need to know how to live because our civilization makes it extremely difficult for us to die of ignorance.
I'm not saying we're stupider than we used to be, or something dumb and oversimplified of that sort. I'm saying that, as a result of economic and technological progress, we have become detached from the "how it works" of the world around us in our everyday lives. Dissociation is the heart of our degeneracy of interest! And this is something fundamental, something that orients us in our physical existence, and to have lost so much of it in our real lives, I think, creates a blindness and disorientation that in turn has an atrophying effect on a central component of our human curiosity, which, then, becomes the major reason (perhaps rivaled to some extent by that uncharitable specter of ignorance and superficiality) why we don't show a more vivacious curiosity in the details of fictional worlds. We've been conditioned as a society that "interesting" stories have lots of action, pomp and spectacle, and high-energy human interactions like joking and yelling, and this paradigm has supplanted, in many people's minds, the relevance and worthiness of a passion for details. We live in a world where everything is fireworks, and nobody needs to know what fireworks are or how to make them.
Many people, perhaps even most people, have carved out exceptions to this in their personal lives—mainly in the form of their hobbies and voluntary communities. Get a bunch of astronomy buffs together and they can go ham on the details that most other people would scarcely be able even to follow, let alone get excited by. Talk about football to a football nerd and they'll get fired up; talk to someone who doesn't care and they'll itch to talk about something different. And there are some people who are really passionate about cooking...because they can see beyond the banality of "press 'chicken' on the microwave." And for most of us this passion is compartmentalized, so that people care deeply about a few things, and don't extend this to a curiosity about the world in general.
So it goes for most subjects: Aside from people who happen to interact with a given subject in their personal lives for reasons of work or other proximity, and from the enthusiasts whose personalities orient them toward a deep knowledge in something, most people are not going to be interested in a given subject (or pastime, hobby, etc.), nor do they conceive of the world in general as something to be curious about.
This degeneracy of course is so much wider-reaching than just in our fantasy storytelling, but it certainly has a huge impact on why fantasy is the way it is. What I perceive here isn't a problem with epic fantasy per se, but a flaw in our culture, and in a sense a flaw in the human condition more broadly: Except for a few subjects where they happen to be enthusiasts, most people just aren't all that interested in the details of everyday life outside their personal experiences, because they are dissociated from those details' contextual weight and significance. Another way of putting it is that you aren't going to care about what you don't know about. And it's self-reinforcing: Proximity to a thing makes you care about it, and caring about it brings you closer to it, while distance from a thing makes you not care about it, and vice versa. This is a fundamental human subculture formation mechanism.
Me, I'm an unusual case. My characteristic generalism also causes me to take an interest in a great many subjects, and in the world in general. My level of expertise in any one area is typically quite limited, but I find all sorts of things interesting nonetheless, and when I was younger I unquestioningly assumed this to be true of virtually everybody. Personal experience has taught me that it isn't—that in fact the opposite is closer to the truth: Very few people take a general interest in things. When it comes to medievalist fantasy, I've learned that most people just don't give a hoot about the details of life that would have been so prominent in a medievalist setting but in our modern world attract virtually no attention at all: cheesemaking techniques, the decoration of beds, mealtime customs, games. (How many real-world medieval games do you know about? How many can you name?)
This brings us back to the problem I mentioned in Part I of this essay: The medievalist world of traditional fantasy is fake, like the town storefronts in an old Western film. Epic fantasy, when unavailed of its power to build a world, is left only with the stereotypical tropes we all recognize so well—the knight, the wizard, the hero, and of course the ingredients of social drama and physical dangers—because that's all that remains when you strip out the cheesemaking and the home dÃ©cor and the architecture of sandships. And it's why epic fantasy is so degenerate.
You can still find some of the real details of the medieval world in our folklore, as vestiges, like the relevance of shoes in Cinderella, which would be odd in a story today, or the fact that Old King Cole "called for his pipe and called for his bowl," which no mainstream fantasy character today would do because no one would see the point or even think to notice that, once upon a time, such possessions were prized and, with sufficient adornment, could be the hallmarks of a king!
Tolkien, too, shared a few of the real details. People gave him a pass on these details—there is a lot of detail in his writing, considering how popular it is—because he was so good at the pageantry of it, and interspersed it with plenty of adventure, and because, in those days, there was still a lingering sense of a personal connection among audience with that old world—a personal relevance. Many people had grown up in homes with dirt floors and no plumbing; gathering customs and celebrations (like Bilbo's birthday party) were highly relatable to the conventions of the day. Simply put the people of sixty years ago could relate fairly well—certainly better than we can today, even these few decades later—to the world Tolkien was depicting. In his day, the customs of the medieval past were that much more similar to those of the present than they are now. The references were that much closer to home. And survival was not so automatic as it is today, and people needed to take better notice of their surroundings. And remember that Tolkien wrote all his works with his heart in the romantic past, aye, but with a clear sense nevertheless of the sensibilities of the time in which he actually lived: the early-middle 20th century. In the '50s through the '70s, The Lord of the Rings had a deeply devoted cult following that survives today; it was this following that sprang out into traditional fantasy as we know it. In contrast, today The Lord of the Rings is as wildly popular as ever, but not in the same way, and with the Jackson films and video games carrying a lot of the weight of maintaining people's interest. Just as the epics of old and The Lord of the Rings itself had been, the LotR films were able to build a bridge from old myths into the fancy of a modern audience. Here, again, the true power of epicness hints itself at us. An epic fantasy story in our time, would have to relate that old medievalist world to us in a way that excites us the way Tolkien excited the mid-20th-century West. But none of the great blockbusters in recent fantasy—Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games—attempted to do this.
Of the four central apprehensions of fantasy that I listed, two are involved in this degeneracy of dissociation: wish-fulfillment, and entertainment. People who create or consume fantasy for these two reasons have a modern-day, real-world precedent for dispensing with the "how it works" and getting right to the sought-after rewards at the end: castles, magic, open countryside, misty forests, quaint taverns. Most often, nitty-gritty details about "how it works" or "how it really was" neither fulfill wishes nor serve to entertain. For many people those elements are simply a chore to get through, because we live in an era where rewards and gratification are decoupled from proficiency and mindfulness. And so they are omitted, and eventually forgotten.
Therefore, here's the second relationship The Curious Tale has with fantasy stereotypes: Without avoiding them per se, it often reverts them out of their stereotypical state by deliberately constructing a lush and plausible world around them. If there's a knight in shining armor, The Curious Tale is often going to attempt to tell you some of the story behind that image: Who is that person? Where are they from? What does that armor look like—what does it really look like? Who made the armor? Was it a great feat for them or something routine? What are the songs that that knight sings? What customs and circumstances led them to wear the armor? And on, and on, and on. Because that's the story. That's The Curious Tale. And I couldn't possibly promise to do tell the whole story every time, with every detail, because it would take billions of pages of text, and, even if I were immortal and had the time, my imagination and knowledge are greatly limited when compared with the full scope of human experience. But nevertheless this depth, this appeal to passion, to how it works, to how things really were (even if the setting here be fictitious)...is one of the pillars of what I am trying to accomplish. This is one of the deepest purposes and motivations for me to write these books.
Stilted Fantasy Language: A Brief Corollary
The worst stereotypes of fantasy aren't the overused iconic tropes. They're the inadvertent mockery of the milieu. The worst of the worst in this regard is the ridiculous farce of elevated language that so much fantasy insists on using. As a writer who depends exclusively on language to tell stories, and who takes a great interest in the English language anyway, it's one of my pet peeves that fantasy-period language is so awful, stilted, and disruptive to the story.
People have this idea that, in an epic fantasy, people speak a certain way. You know what I mean: that elevated, pompous, ridiculously ornate style of anachronistic-sounding speech. Lots of "ye olde shoppe" and "pray thee" and "by the gods" all that bosh. (And don't get me started on the made-up special words to describe key story gimmicks.)
Now, it comes from an honest enough place: English-speaking aristocratic language conventions of the past really were elevated and flowery, and in general English today is at a relatively low point in its overall floweriness. (Though somewhat greater floweriness survives in the Jolly Old.) The difference is that, in the real world, those flowery conventions frequently occupied a context that edified and justified such language as surely as our own language patterns edify and justify themselves today, whereas in fantasy the conventions don't follow any grand design and are there simply to "sound right"—they're a part of that mindless pastiche. But doing this spoils the suspension of disbelief and just ends up making a lot of fantasy speech cringeworthy. And never mind the fact that most of the time this stuff obliviously exists alongside modern-day conventions (a nod either to the modern-day pedigree of the storytellers or to the inclusion of modern tropes alongside the medieval ones) that didn't exist in older times, making matters even worse through juxtaposition.
As a lover of English and someone who has designed an enormous quantity of English language vocabulary for The Curious Tale, this is a significant focus on mine when I think about stereotypes in fantasy. In fact it was an XKCD comic in the summer of 2017, where a university professor says "We ride!" to her students—a phrasing we don't use today unless we're trying to sound fantasyesque—that gave me the idea to write this article in the first place. Tongue-in-cheek, as XKCD was, that stuff is fine and makes a great touchstone for invoking fantasy imagery almost instantaneously. But inside actual works of fantasy, it's problematic to say the least to see language that is simultaneously so stilted and also so oblivious to what language is supposed to do and be. It didn't bother me as a kid, and I'm sure there are many people who don't know any better or do know but don't mind it at all, but, as someone who does know better now, it's awfully goofy and off-putting to me. Can't we attempt sometimes to recreate the genuine article rather than the stilted caricature? I'd like to think there are a few other people out there who, likewise, would appreciate a story where the use of language, just like the physical world, has the ring of authenticity to it.
Then again, I purposely made DeLatia use the word dweeb in the Prelude, so you have to allow that we writers are fickle and particular, and so, whenever we pontificate on generalities as I am doing here, we must be taken with the appropriate salt grains.
Tune in Next Week!
That's all for this week. Next time I'll finish this essay (at last!) by talking more about fantasy stereotypes as they relate to entertainment and wish-fulfillment, which I've only discussed partially so far, and also to philosophy, which I haven't discussed at all. But the most important of all was this week's point about dissociation, and I certainly hope it gives you something to think about.
Until next time, may you find a way or two to reconnect with the world around you. For me, just firing up all the applications it takes to put these articles on the web—Notepad++, Filezilla, and XAMPP—was a wonderful reintroduction of something substantial in my life. I took an unplanned hiatus from this feature right at the Season 3 endpoint, and it has taken me all this time to be able to finally finish this essay (and technically, with a Part 3 coming, I'm not quite there yet). But I have fond memories of my weekly uploads here, and now, at last, by the gods, we ride!
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!