Thursday, May 10, 2012

Making the Fantasy Fantastic

Last week we looked at one slice of the fantasy genre, urban fantasy. This week we take a step back and examine the fantasy that paved the way for the slices, mainstream or "high" fantasy.

What is your working definition of fantasy as a literary genre?

Shane Moore: Pure fantasy is a quasi medieval period setting. However, fantasy can be in anything such as modern (Twilight) and Science Fiction (Star Wars). However, for it to be in either there must be some form of explanation/boundaries or the reader will be come disenfranchised with it. 

Allan Gilbreath: Storytelling based on known or recognized mythological creatures from folk tales.

Nancy Hansen: Fantasy is the fiction genre where some sort of magical/mystical backdrop partially or fully replaces science, industry, and technology. It differs from classic horror in that the focus is less on the terrifying aspects but more on character growth in overcoming some overarching obstacle. There are subgenres within fantasy, and lots of crossover possibilities, so high fantasy is just one possibility amongst many.

Don Thomas: Traditional Fantasy typically tends to be set in a pre-Industrial revolution type of society that is heavily immersed in mythology and magic.  A world where superstition, legend, and the sword are the standard as compared to settings where there is the excessive use of gunpowder, explosive compounds, and liberal use of the scientific method for that matter.

And in some case these worlds can be just as advanced as our own modern day society with magic replacing various logically based scientific discoveries.

Fantasy itself is a word that can be used to described any setting that one would call fantastical.  In other words a setting that is dramatically and very obviously different from the present day world that the reader currently occupies.  Which is why stories like the Wizard of Oz or even Science Fiction epics like Star Wars or Blade Runner could also be labeled as Fantasy.  But the key difference would be the Fantasy genre as a whole and what many call Traditional Fantasy.

Lee Houston Jr.: I look for the basics: swords, sorcery, elves, mythical creatures, enchanted realms, quests, etc. But while I love the adventure and unique turns of phrases amongst the various authors, I do prefer a steady pace to the story and not get too bogged down in details and exposition.

Herika R. Raymer: As a literary genre, I would have to say fantasy are stories which explore the mythical and lore-filled world. This mostly deals with the well known faeries, elves, and dwarves – not to mention pantheons of gods – but it can also deal with the nastier side of legend, like redcaps and dopplegangers and such. Then again, if you look further back in lore, faeries and elves and dwarves were not always considered friends to humans. Sometimes, they were enemies. It just all depended.

What drew you to the genre and made you want to write fantasy tales?

Shane Moore: I was stabbed in the line of duty in 2004. I was suggested writing as a way of coping with PTSD. Since writing police stories would only exacerbate the condition--I chose something as fa removed from law enforcement as possible--dragons and dwarves. Being the perfectionist I am, I began to learn the industry for potential publication--earned my first contract--and two years later had enough sales I quit/retired from law enforcement and went pro.

Allan Gilbreath: Faerie tales and fables were the first stories that I remember back in childhood days of having a story read to you. They were written to give a regular person hope that one day they may be in extraordinary situations and rise to the occasion. I just never lost the love of story telling. 

Nancy Hansen: Escapism. I think of all the genre fiction out there, fantasy least resembles the everyday world we live in, past or present. As a reader and movie goer, I always seemed to gravitate towards those kind of stories that were peppered with magic and mythical creatures or beings, mainly because I could so easily leave my own world behind, with all its everyday baggage. When I started writing seriously, back when my kids were young, we were a gaming household, and the RPGs (role playing games) were always the favorite. Back then most of them were solidly fantasy or some sort of hybrid setting. Those were stressful years for us, with lots of chaos to them, because my oldest son has a disability and he was struggling in school. I was reading a lot of fantasy at night to unwind. That quickly led to writing it as well, because there was something about creating a world where I made the rules that was really appealing. A lot of what I am having published now came from notes and snippets from over 20 years ago, as I did an extensive amount of world building back then.

Don Thomas: I have always been interested in things like history and mythology.  And traditional fantasy grants me an opportunity to craft a fantastical world with a solid and very intricate history that contains many mythological based elements.

Lee Houston Jr.: As a reader, like my love for science-fiction, fantasy takes you to realms and explores things not possible in the "real" world. Some might consider this escapism, but I prefer to look at it exploring alternate possibilities of what might have been. After all, what if the Renaissance or the Industrial Revolution never happened?

Herika R. Raymer: There is something appealing about writing characters which do not necessarily think like humans. The current ideas of dwarves are beer drinking blacksmiths that you simply do not mess with, and I have seen some wonderful renditions of this – in writing and in RP/LARP. The current ideas of elves are nature-abiding magic weavers who are very artistic in nature, again well presented in some cases. Faeries are fun in that they can be presented as tricksters or just as guides, depending on your point of view. For me, writing fantasy is interesting because you get to explore those mind sets as you select them and see how your humans react to the set of rules put before them. Your character can either see them as ‘noble’ or ‘archaic’, depending on their personality.

Suppose for a moment that Tolkien had never existed. What do you think fantasy tales would look like today? What might be different about the genre?

Shane Moore: The "mainstream" monsters would be different--such as elves/dwarves/halflings/orcs--but the general concept would be the same. Fantasy has been around as long as men dared fear the dark, the forest, and the deep blue sea.

Allan Gilbreath: I don't think that Tolkien actually shifted the fantasy genre all that much. I think he is just the best example of what was possible at the time. Since the genre is based on older works being "re-imagined" and expanded upon, I think the form and function of the genre would be pretty much the same.

Nancy Hansen: I've read far more than Tolkien, though I still cite his work as a major influence. While he might be one of the seminal and often copied fathers of modern epic fantasy, there have been a lot of other worthy contributions over the years. I doubt we would have all that much difference within the genre. Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles were similar in having a fairly concise epic backdrop, and you could also make that case for The Chronicles of Narnia and The Wind In The Willows. I'm also a big Conan fan, and that's about as far from quest fantasy as you can get.  What keeps fantasy books filling shelves is the genre's sheer diversity and willingness to crossbreed with other genres to bring in new fans. There's a color and flavor for everyone. I guess we're kind of the backyard alley cat of fiction.

Don Thomas: It would be slightly different.  But remember a lot of Tolkien's stories were derived and re-imagined from his knowledge of older European myths.  There would be some differences, just like if Bram Stoker had never written Dracula there would still be modern day stories about Vampires.  There would be have been some other writer that would have written something along similar if not exact lines.

Look at it this way even if J.R.R. Tolkien had never had anything published, there would still be an enormous amount of Arthurian Tales written throughout time for modern day Fantasy writers to draw upon.  All you would need would be to add things like a race of dwarves and a man-sized humanoid race similar to elves and you're more than halfway there.

And point of fact.  The idea of a separate race of dwarves is not something that Tolkien invented, as it is a solid component of Norse mythology among other things.  And King Arthur's sometimes portrayed as villainous older step-sister was commonly referred to as Morgan Le Fey.   And in case you did not know the 'Fey' at the end implies that she had at least some ancestral connection to the magical fairies of the world.  So it could be argued that even if Tolkien's elves had never been known to the world, somewhere along the lines some writer could have read about how those particular racial origins had been the initial source of her unique mystical abilities.  And from there it would take very little imagining to come up with a unique race of pointy eared (An established physical characteristic of some fairies) humanoids that tended to be more steeped in magic than the average human.

Lee Houston Jr.: Hard to say. While he didn't originate the genre, Tolkien is definitely a pioneer in that field. There probably would not be as many "inspired by" or outright copycat authors. Depending upon how much influence Tolkien had on her, the next big fantasy author would then probably be Anne McCaffrey.

Herika R. Raymer: It would be more mythos- and lore-related, as it was before him. From what I read, almost all mythical creatures came about to either explain something that could not be explained readily, or to impart caution on children on unmarried youths. Heck, even for adults there were stories of caution lest they fall to temptation and be forever lost. Those were quite interesting. I believe fantasy tales would still exist, they would just be much more region based instead of having a ‘common’ ground.

How "pure" do you like to write your fantasy? With all the genres blending together (like urban fantasy, horror fantasy, etc.), how do you keep "high" fantasy from becoming diluted, or is that not an issue to you?

Shane Moore: I like to write within mainstream fantasy. Re-inventing the wheel is a pet peeve of mine as a reader. Instead, I like to focus on characterization. That was one of the reasons of my success. Fans liked my villains as much as they did the heroes.

Allan Gilbreath: "High Fantasy" is the very definition of genre blending. No great story today can be written without being influenced and borrowing from the other genres.

Nancy Hansen: Contrary to what you might believe by the books I have out there, I am far from a purist. I've dabbled in plenty of crossover stuff, and some totally new genres, though I will say the epic/heroic high fantasy will always be my favorite medium of literary expression. As far as dilution, that really depends on the story line. If you take for instance Anne McCaffrey's wildly successful Pern series, you would likely think of it as high fantasy. It started with a solid science fiction backdrop with the colonization of a far off planet and small lizard creatures being bio-engineered to fight a cyclical environmental thread. It was brilliant too in that the society created by these colonists sort of 'devolved' over the centuries into the mote typical quasi-medieval setup you find in high fantasy tomes. In the end, they find their off-world roots again in uncovering lost technology. I don't think I've ever read a bad Pern tale, and I've read most of the series. Never occurred to me that it might be diluted by the initial reliance on technology. What she wrote worked, and the blending was fairly seamless.

When I write, I give the story what it needs. No matter if that is some kind of horror scene, a technology boost—or as in the Silver Pentacle series, a bit of everything in a colossal mashup of other genres against a confused post-apocalyptic backdrop—as long as it works, then I've done my job. The main thing is to make sure whatever goes on in there isn't unnecessarily jarring so as to break the spell over the reader. I want folks eagerly turning the page to see what's coming next and not tossing the book at the wall because I shoved in something that makes no sense in the context of the outlined world. So if it needs diluting, it gets diluted.

Actually, its the little leprechaun voices that tell me what to write and when to do so who get to decide what goes on every page; but then, that's a story for another day...

Don Thomas: I don't have to keep it pure.  I think it is important to solidly craft your particular Fantasy setting, but with that said when I write any individual story I generally let the story lead me where it will.  And excellent example of this would be the short story I wrote titled "The Town the Demanded Recompense" which although it could be said that it is a traditional fantasy there are also elements of a stereotypical American Western and a Kurosawa Samurai film.

Lee Houston Jr.: Fantasy is open to a lot of possibilities, so it depends upon what's being blended. I personally loved the Shannara series until Terry Brooks decided to give the realm a post-apocalyptic origin. Still love the Magic Kingdom of Landover, but sadly Brooks doesn't produce as many books in that series. I absolute devoured everything Robert Aspirin, but his estate hasn't released another Myth Adventures book since 2008.

Herika R. Raymer: It depends. For children’s stories, try to keep it as pure as possible. Unfortunately, or fortunately, when writing for young adults and adults the field does get mixed in order to keep attention. After all, there is plenty of horror within fantasy if you select the proper myth. I will admit to trying to keep out vampires, zombies, and technology if at all possible – but sometimes they do mix.

===================================================================

For more information, visit the author's links under the Heavy Hitters column on the right side of this blog.