What’s the problem with fantasy?
Two great gods, hovering in the firmament.
The Rules and The Backstory.
Those are the two driving forces, theinspirado of a grand bulk of the genre. Either the writer has a really neat system of magic, combat or dragon-sex and they hammer a plot and some characters into a framework to hold it — OR the writer has a really neat world, or character, or setting for dragon-sex and they hammer a plot and some less interesting characters into a framework to hold it.
I’m not really complaining that these forces exist. [Especially about the dragon-sex.] I’ve invested a massive amount of geek-hours into consuming as much of this content as I can, and I never plan to stop. My complaint derives from the endless mimicry, and the bone-certain belief that these two masters are the only ones that the genre can serve.
That is not the case, more on that shortly. But first, a primer.
In general, there are two types of fantasy authors. Nerds and Dungeon Masters.
Nerds love their shining rules, and Dungeon Masters love their precious backstory.
So when you are reading a fantasy novel and realize you’ve just spent two pages reading about how Flame-aligned Slaughter Wizards cannot use their Flambe attack when Ice-aligned Tempest Mages have spent a fortnight attuning their Ava-crystals to the Fourteenth Ley Line —- then the author is a Nerd.
Uh, thanks Mr. Sanderson.
And when you finish a blistering passage on the Archduke Sargasso and the five-year conflict he endured developing the Draconian Congress, including the Riddle-Game played in the jaws of Tyrinel the Inferno, Red Dragon Lord – with exacting minutes provided, including three water breaks and a complete rundown of the Inaugural Dylithic Council’s attire, facial hair and a five stanza limerick sung by Jargon the Time-Sworder — ALL of this read by the protagonist on a discarded scroll in the waiting room of his dentist’s office. Then, my friend, your author is a Dungeon Master.
Both of these ideas sound pretty awesome, and both of the authors above are titanium-plated awesome. There’s nothing wrong with either approach, and in a skilled scribe’s meaty grip each style can keep you patently enthralled. I’ve spent more than a few minutes thinking about everyday applications of Allomancy from Sanderson’s Mistborn series — and you better believe I’m far more concerned about the fate of the Iron Throne of Westeros than the outcome of the 2012 Presidential Race.
This isn’t about what those authors have already written. It’s about the fantasy that hasn’t been written yet.
The fantasy that you and I are writing. The new fantasy, which is also old fantasy — as opposed to the middle fantasy that we’re currently sitting in. The new/old fantasy where we basically don’t give a shit.
What am I talking about?
I have chosen this term because:
a) It sounds cool.
b) Fuck you, that’s why.
Are there rules? Yes, of course. But they are to be like a kindly sour-smelling uncle. You send them a card on their birthday, a sincere hug at Christmas — but you’re not inviting them over when it’s time to party.
Is there backstory? As long as there is linear time there shall be Stuff That Happened Before. But we shouldn’t drag it with us like those creepy dudes wearing their high school letter jacket to English 101. Leave that shit behind.
And world building? Of course, building your own little bolt-hole from reality is the bleedin’ point. But why do we need to reinvent the wheel every time? Tolkien did it and generations of fantasy writers have been doing their best to ape him ever since. Too many fantasy writers think like Carl Sagan:” If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe”.
How about we just have apple pie? You know, the apple pie that is at the store and we’ve all had it and we all know what it is?
Swordpunk is all about just eating the fucking pie.
I think the fear that fantasy writers have is that if they don’t reinvent the wheel, they won’t be taken seriously. Like Tad Williams is going to roll up and revoke their Fantasy License. [I’m imagining him in a lime green golf cart and wearing a jaunty scarf. Are you imagining it that way? Just me? Okay.]
The worlds are there. The tropes are there. It’s all in how you use them. I think there can be more power in connecting to the old stories, then running down the street and trying to start up your own Disneyland. “Oh, no — this ain’t Mickey Mouse, this is my own character Mouselord McQueen. He’s totally different.”
I don’t want to waste energy convincing you that my world is more clever or more original or ‘waaaaaay fucking different” [WFD] from any other fantasy author’s world. That’s a fool’s errand, and honestly more than a little outside of my skillset.
When I have a hero step forth and raise his sword, I don’t want to try to sell you on how he’s different than the inumerable sword-slingers in the genre. I want you to think of them. I want you to think of Sturm Bright-blade, Simon Mooncalf, Logen the Bloody-Nine, Brienne of Tarth, Lancelot, Garet Jax, Neville Longbottom, Reepicheep, Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter and Conan the Barbarian,
himself. I want you to think of them all. I want to connect to that resonance, that legacy of character.
Is it getting a little Joseph Campbell-y in here?
Beyond that, fantasy needs to be more of a wackadoo fever dream. I want more Fritz Lieber and Michael Moorcock – more Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, more Elric of Melnibone. Beautiful little offshoots of the genre, grand and strange, bizarre and gleefully weird.
That’s what I’m trying to do at least, with Spell/Sword, my first novel. And if I can keep going, I’ll keep trying.
My book has rules. My book has backstory. [Shit, you better bring some Post-It Notes, dog.] I’m a Nerd and a Dungeon Master, just like all of you.
But thinking about these things, and giving them a silly name made me feel free. It made me feel empowered, it made me write the book I wanted to write — not the one that I thought would ever sell.
I hope it makes you feel the same.
1. Eating the pie is more fun than making the pie.
2. No one cares about about your character’s grandfather.
3. Only trot out the Rules on special occasions.
4. Don’t let anyone tell you how to make your art. Make it. Make it scream and bleed, make it shine and shatter. Be true to the moment, to the beauty of it — and make no excuses for putting it on the page.
5. There should always be more minotaurs. Preferable riding on cherry-red mopeds.
And if Brandon Sanderson wants to start an internet feud, he can GET IN LINE.
Thanks for reading my ramblings. This is what happens when I’m not editing.