Avoiding Fantasy Stereotypes
...And Sometimes Not
Saturday, February 3, 2018
The Four Central Apprehensions of Fantasy
As I mentioned in previous weeks, 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.
I've already covered the fourth one of those, reaction, in Part 1, and I partially covered wish-fulfillment and entertainment in Part 2. This week I'll be rounding out my coverage.
Entertainment: The Magic of Self-Justification
Even the most deliberate storytellers usually understand that entertainment is self-justifying, and that something which entertains the audience doesn't necessarily need to make internal sense. Even I don't think that absolute adherence to the realism or narrative continuity of one's setting is a good posture. In The Curious Tale to date I've conceived of and in some cases even written drafts of escapades and adventures and other diversions that, while not outright nonsensical, definitely put realism on hold in favor of offering a moment of entertainment—for myself as much as for the reader. (Deliberately violating continuity is a harder pill for me to swallow, but there are many instances where I "neutralize" continuity by introducing something unprecedented, thereby creating new narrative space.) Ironically, this most often comes from my own moments of great excitement that I've wanted to immortalize in text form, like the day in Texas when I was being driven home by my girlfriend and I thought to tilt my head to quite an odd angle as we wound our way through the hills, leading me to experience the feeling that I was flying like a dragon through the valleys. It was incredibly fun, so I took that premise and adapted it into a scene in After The Hero, which exists for no other purpose.
This is a dangerous power. It is, indeed, the great loophole through which so much degeneracy in our fantasy is rationalized: "If people like it, who care's if it's realistic / true to the characters / tonally appropriate?" That's the real magic in fantasy, isn't it? The power to ignore established in-world conventions, break one's own rules, and strip whole worlds of their depth (or omit it in the first place) simply because a few neat action sequences and a couple good fight scenes can entertain most people most of the time.
My ambitions with The Curious Tale are pretty high...maybe they're even a match for my abilities to realize them. Maybe they're more than a match, and I'll have to settle for watering down my visions for the story, or else face dying of old age before I finish the damn thing. I too enjoy entertainment; I too turn to fantasy sometimes for this common reason. That's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade for you. That's Star Wars. These fantasies are not deep. They're entertaining (with a little wish-fulfillment thrown in). They're rich with spectacle, and very artfully composed. If possible, I'd like a little ribbon of that sheer entertainment value to help flavor and texture the Tale. Mate of Song's handful of action sequences—for instance, Afiach's flight by horse from Thanatos, or her terrifying vision in the Red Forest—exist for entertainment value first and foremost, even though they are also carefully woven into the plot and the contexts of the broader ATH storyline.
Getting to the matter of stereotypes, then, when it comes to entertainment value I'm willing to let stereotypes stand in The Curious Tale in their customary forms—or to alter them as needed, for the sake of entertainment. That car ride I mentioned that felt like flying on a dragon...in ATH it really did become an action-packed dragon-ride sequence. That's pretty stereotypical. And Silence's swordfights at the end of Book I...while these do pull some weight in character, plot, and thematic development of the story, the main reason they're there, in the particular forms they take, is because it's a gripping, thrilling action sequence that spans the entire world from end to end. (This brings us to the subject of stereotypes of technique, which I'll discuss later in this essay.)
In a work as large as The Curious Tale, there must be some amount of entertainment. It's too big not to be entertaining; without entertainment it would go unread. And, so, on some level, the need for entertainment intersects with the milieu of medievalist fantasy in a way that demands common tropes and even stereotypes. These I let stand, wherever I need them to. "It's entertaining" may be a dangerous and easily-abused justification, but it's sometimes valid even so. Indeed, notwithstanding our collective pining for a bygone, simpler world, and notwithstanding various political reasons for choosing a setting different from the real world to make social commentary, the reason epic fantasy exists at all is because it offers added entertainment value. Even in low fantasy where the setting is in the real world, the existence of things that aren't actually present in our world broadens the canvas of what action is possible. Dragons, QED.
Wish Fulfillment: Stereotypes from the Ordinary
The greatest preoccupation of fantasy is wish fulfillment. Immortality, youth, love, physical prowess, social status, adventure, wealth, expertise, freedom...these are some of the strongest and most recurrent themes in fantasy. Many of the most earnest fantasy tales are the author's own act of escapism into a world where the shackles of mundane life are null and void. You can be a powerful mage, an invincible swordsmate, an emperor! Many of the commercially produced fantasy tales are also along these same lines, covering the same topics and tropes, with the sole difference being less awkwardness of the author's personal sincerity and more signs of that smarmy corporate tailoring for a mass market. It's no surprise that the stereotypes of wish fulfillment are some of the simplest and most naked in all of fantasy.
Relatively few of these are to be found in The Curious Tale, especially in its modern form, which has been elevated so far above those idle daydreams borne of drudgery. Back in the RPG era, Galavar was a wish-fulfillment stereotype. Today he is a much more complicated and problematized character.
The Curious Tale does contain quite a lot of wish fulfillment on my part, but most of it doesn't venture into the realm of stereotypes, or even common tropes. One vestigial exception would be Silence's incomparable swordsmateship. Female swordsmates are a fantasy staple and even an outright stereotype, given their success ratio, poor armament, and skimpy figures. But of course Silence has a lifetime of training under some of the very best instructors, world-class arms and armor, and is deliberately large—even in her "skinny" era she routinely stands taller and heavier than her (nearly-always) male opponents. Silence herself wonders on more than one occasion how her life would have turned out if she'd been short and slight. Wish-fulfilling, yes—inasmuch as I find powerful females attractive—but there is nothing stereotypical here.
In fact a lot of what Silence does is wish fulfillment for me. For instance, her sex causes her to repeatedly run up against naysayers who think she's a pushover, and I confess to relishing every opportunity to destroy those straw men. (I say "straw men" to be charitable, but as we all know these kinds of people are real and exist in great abundance.) There are entire standalone scenes, already written, borne of that wish. But even something like this doesn't run aground of the stereotypical, as Silence's reactions and words are not those of a straw man feminist, nor are her misogynistic antagonists' actions and words those of straw man misogynists. (You may read the text someday and disagree with the latter, but if so I will simply point you to our real-world history.)
And this, I think, is the central takeaway of stereotypes based on wish fulfillment: The Curious Tale simply doesn't run into them very often, because my wishes are rarely stereotypical. They're either much more esoteric, or among the most universal and basic human urges. And the stereotypes that do come up in this category tend to be extremely narrow, with few ramifications beyond their occurrence.
Ah, but what about wish fulfillment for the audience's benefit, you ask?
I am not that charitable of a writer. =P
Stereotypes of Technique
Stereotypes are not limited to content. There are also stereotypes of technique. This could be an article unto itself, but I won't do that to you, because it would be particularly wonky and we're already on Part 3 besides. Instead, the abridged version: Technical stereotypes are largely subverted or precluded in The Curious Tale:
You won't be able to tell whether you're supposed to be for or against a character (or politico-economic entity) from their dialogue or tone or physical appearance (or business model).
I deliberately avoid the kind of signaling that fantasy storytellers use to indicate which characters will live or die, or what other fates lay in store for them.
The emphasis on political conflict and physical or magical violence as the engine of story progression is quite muted and secondary in The Curious Tale. Politics of course still constitute a huge component of the story, but not in the stereotypical sense that we're going to spend our time looking at the leaders or the movers and shakers. There are a lot of "bystanders" in The Curious Tale, and many of the actual leaders and movers and shakers either have limited screen time or spend a lot of time on screen doing other things.
There is no obligatory romantic dimension to the master plot. While there are many love stories, even among some of the most central characters, they are all separate from the master plot itself.
There is no Hero's Journey. There is no Three-Act Drama.
There is very little of the traditional fantasy filler, and also very little of the traditional fantasy action. Most of the contents of The Curious Tale are simply different; they don't intersect with stereotypical presentations.
The key takeaway here is that my technique as a writer is homegrown and bears little resemblance to the conventions of the fantasy genre.
Philosophy: Matters of Principle
Nowhere is The Curious Tale more deliberate in its relationship with stereotypes than here. Of the four central apprehensions of fantasy, philosophy has been by far the most important one to me personally throughout the entire history of the Tale, even back to the opening days of the RPG, when I conceived of After The Hero after completing Ocarina of Time. From the very beginning—from the very first night the story was born—I wanted to steer away from the stereotypes that dominated so many fantasy stories to the utter obliviousness of their creators. Ganondorf, Zelda's principal antagonist, was the inspiration for Galavar, except that, as I mentioned in Part 1 of this essay, Galavar would possess all of the same ambition, dynamism, ruthlessness, and wisdom, with none of the pettiness, cruelty, vanity, or sheer malevolence that made Ganon (or any such villain) so unlikable, unrelatable, and ultimately worthy of defeat. This was a subversion of a stereotype, not a true departure, but, as I explained at the time, only the premise was subversive; the actual flow of the story that resulted from this idea really was a departure from the plot structures that routinely dominate epic fantasies.
That's just the tip of an enormous iceberg whose bottom I have yet to plumb and likely never will. Most of The Curious Tale's content is philosophical, usually in multiple ways at a time. Virtually every piece of text, large and small—and both overlapping—has something to say, has some particular reason, beyond simply serving to carry the reader from Point A to Point B. The Tale is extremely deliberate—and not just for the sake of developing plots, characters, and settings, but also, equally so, for developing themes and treating philosophical ideas.
It's not a coincidence that, in the Prelude, we first meet Silence in the dark:
FOR THE FIRST TIME in Benzan's travels throughout Galadrim, they entered into a dark place. The only light came from the gloaming sky beyond a colonnade of arches, with a few ekes of purple on a black and distant horizon, and stars twinkling calmly above. This was the Western Veranda.
A still figure stood ahead of them. Benzan couldn't discern if she was facing toward or away, but he imagined she was looking out into the evening, whose faerie light surrounded her form.
The layers on this particular onion are pretty deep—deep enough that perhaps it's even humorous. What is the text saying literally? Very little; it's an establishing shot and this excerpt is actually rather spare compared to my typical style. But so many crucial ingredients and symbols are here for the numerous philosophical ideas being introduced or advanced.
I write fantasy for all the four reasons I mentioned, and other, lesser ones besides. But my strongest drive, my greatest desire, is to explore the philosophy of power. Power, to me, is the most fascinating subject in the world. It is the closest subject, I think, that can claim to directly confront life's existential questions with satisfying results. Power is not political offices, or muscular strength, or a stack of cash, any more than electricity is clocks or digital cameras or bolts of lightning. Power is an omnifaceted energy of limitless potential. In this one moment in the story, Silence herself is completely dark, but is surrounded by light, and stands on the boundary of two worlds—the Fortress of Galadrim, and the celestial canopy beyond—and it cannot be seen which way she is facing. Everything is peaceful, quiet, and dark, unlike the commotion and tumult of the Fortress up to this point. Silence herself is still and, of course, silent. Putting aside its development of her character, and of the plot, this little bit of text also confronts the first and most daunting idea of power: Here is a person who, we can imagine, if only for a moment, can be anyone...and who, therefore, can do anything. It isn't required for the reader to understand this, especially right then and there, but to those who do understand it, this realization immediately demands they evaluate their conception of identity itself. And that is just one of many philosophical ideas contained in those few sentences.
As we learn later in the text, Silence in this moment is suffering from considerable psychological upheaval, yet what that text does not reveal—what we learn only later on in the story—is that that upheaval is not the full consideration of the contents of her mind. There's more going on. Silence in this moment is also free, in a way that often eludes her. The Galan anthem didactically (though cleverly and subtly, if I may) cries "Freedom hides no choice for me," which paradoxically means that freedom is not freedom, and this is something that Silence spends a lot of energy contending with in the course of The Curious Tale.
I could go on, but the point here is that there's miles-deep philosophy here, and barely a stereotype to be found. The only one I can think of is that, in fantasy and science fiction, characters of great import—usually villainous—are sometimes introduced with a field of stars behind them. It's a lesser-known trope, one that has fallen out of vogue from its peak in the 1980s, and though its inclusion here is deliberate, it is deliberate only in that I noticed it and chose not to delete it. The main reason for this particular backdrop for Silence is to connote her vastness—her power. This plays is the same space as the stereotype, but is not itself stereotypical. To me, the sky is a departure from all mundane concerns, all frustrations of everyday life. It is a focal point for liberation of the psyche. Silence is, for me, a symbol of that freedom, manifested somehow in the material world.
And yet there are stereotypes borne of philosophy in The Curious Tale. In fact there are a great many of them—and when they occur, they are supremely and proudly deliberate.
A battle for control of the world; an upheaval in which the world's survival hangs in the balance...these are fantasy stereotypes, and they are present in The Curious Tale, quite prominently no less. So too are gods, "magic" per se, and profound ethical conundra.
In each case, the philosophical stereotypes present in the story are an occasion for me to consider the underlying subject matter and premises—some of which I think are very important to the construction of our worldviews. There is a lot to be said about these ideas that conventional discourse simply hasn't conceived, let alone addressed. Here, more so than anywhere else, do stereotypes take on a special kind of positive power, acting as conceptual points of reference that serve to facilitate some conceptually difficult conversations. Over the years, as The Curious Tale has evolved further away from its coming-of-age RPG origins and further into a manifestation of my own worldview, this usage of philosophically-driven stereotypes has increased.
One of the most iconic of these, especially in the earlier part of ATH, is the imperialism of Gala—the great fantasy premise of a dynamic (and inevitably evil) Empire out to conquer the world and impose its unique (and inevitably tyrannical) order upon everyone. That stereotype is front and center in ATH, especially early on, minus the superficial "evil" trappings which are entirely a distraction from the question of whether such a force is actually evil, and many other questions besides. From Galavar's central emanation of imperialism and its continuing manifestation in the Galan capital of Sele, to Gregor's presidence over Sele, DeLatia's military conquest of the nations, and Silence's non-military assimilation of the same, the theme of imperialism brandishes itself as one of the most urgent and encompassing themes in the story. Logically, it didn't have to be this way; Galavar & Co. didn't have to make a play for the world. They could have gone off and founded a luxury resort hotel or something. But the fact that they went the world domination route affords us the opportunity to consider everything entailed therein.
The True Stereotypes Were the Friends We Made Along the Way
At last, that's it for this high-concept essay. I hope you have a better appreciation of the importance and richness of this topic, and of The Curious Tale's particular intersections with stereotypes in fantasy.
This also marks the conclusion of "Season 3 ideas." Next week's article will be the first one conceived in Season 4, and thus marks a transitioning of sorts. Join me then when I discuss some of the other ideas that compete with The Curious Tale in my imagination for my energies and attentions as a writer.
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!