Monday, May 27, 2019

Assorted Thoughts on The High Fantasy Genre

(Originally Published on May 29, 2018)

So I'm working on a thing.

Like most things I work on, I really can't go into too much detail about this one. It's a very personal project, and one that will likely take a bit of time to complete. There may be a dearth of content here for a while as a result, save for the odd interview. But in the mean time, my thing has given me a lot to think about in regards to High Fantasy settings. There's a lot of real fun to be had in these, but also many pet peeves that tend to get under my skin.
So here's a collection of musings regarding High Fantasy as I visit and re-visit some books in the genre:


One of the reasons I never got into Harry Potter, aside from the lack of sword guys in armor, was the whole "chosen one" thing. It's like a big red spoiler telling us all he wins, guys! Which...just kind of robs us of the suspense of whether or not The Boy Who Lived will keep on doing just that. And I guess for a children's book that's okay....but this trope keeps appearing, even in more modern books (though with less frequency, thank the Lord).
Now granted, there are twists you can do to make this concept interesting (see:WoT). But overall, it's a terrible idea to simply announce that God Himself has declared your main character will win in the end. I honestly feel that books where the main character has to achieve a legendary status through his/her own willpower and strength are way more satisfying than ones where she/he is simply a pawn in some cosmic game. Even the subversions of the trope have become trite and dull.

A while back, I had an idea for a fantasy setting modeled after 90's retrofuturism. Stuff that seemed really hi-tech back then, but dated and analogue by today's standards. I made a post on a fantasy readers and writers' group on Facebook, and surprisingly, many were down for the idea of an epic fantasy novel modeled after Oakley adverts, the Matrix, and PS2-era Final Fantasy games. It's on the back burner for me, but if anyone wants to...maybe steal this idea outright and send me a draft, that would actually be kind of kickass. Seriously, go do it. Make this a thing.


And look, I love knights and wizards and all that jazz. But the cool thing about imagination is that if you stretch it far enough, you can keep all that fun stuff and have unique and varied settings. Not everything needs to revolve around Medieval Europe, after all.
This is one area where Brandon Sanderson absolutely shines in, although most people associate him with the complex magic systems. His worlds are wholly unique, ranging from Mistborn's smoky Victorian cityscapes, to the strange alien wastelands of Stormlight Archive. More cultures would be awesome as well, African, Chinese Wuxia, American...heck, if Star Wars can do Epic Fantasy in Spaaaace, anything is possible.

Dealing With Power Creep

So before I go any further, I'd like to suggest that any of you who are epic fantasy writers...just drop whatever you're doing right now and start watching Hunter x Hunter immediately. I don't care if anime gives you the dry heaves. Watch it now. If you plan on designing a good magic system and need some inspiration, you'll thank me later.

Anyway, on to the subject at hand."Power creep" is what happens when an epic fantasy series goes on for a good long while and the doe-eyed farm boy ends up becoming a mountain-hurling demigod by the end of it. For the sake of avoiding spoilers, I won't highlight any particular series in this regard, but if you've read enough Epic Fantasy, I'm sure you can think of one or two. Or ten.

Power Creep is a problem a lot of more modern epic fantasy series tend to deal with, as much of Epic Fantasy these days is inspired in part by tabletop and video role-playing games. And one of the hallmarks of fantasy games in this genre is how absurdly powerful your characters can get after turning in enough shiny raccoon asses.

This problem extends to high fantasy literature as well, with series that go on long enough often ending up with characters that can hop multiple planes of reality, cut through time itself with magic swords, and sometimes literally beat up Satan. And while character growth and power development is an awesome thing, development at this level can be a bit much unless handled really well.

I bring up Hunter X Hunter because one of the ways that comic/anime deals with the problem of Power Creep is through a technical and varied "magic system" that establishes a few basic rules:

1) "Magic" (Nen) is an ability that draws upon your life force. If you spend all your life force, you will die (limited resources)
2) There are different types of Nen Users, which allow you do have one, specialized focus with your power. An Enhancer (someone who can augment their natural strength, speed, etc) cannot have the same power as an Emitter (Someone who can channel their life force into a projectile like lightning, bullets, etc).
3) Because Nen is (A) limited and (B) a product of the mind as well as a life energy, forcing a self-imposed restriction upon your abilities makes them stronger. For example, you can create an ability that only works on Bears, or only strengthens you under the full moon, and these will be stronger as a result. Nen abilities that include a punishment as well (Ie: "If the target is not a bear I will die") become even stronger.

So essentially, this magic system is limited by design, and the more powerful you get, the more limitations are placed upon you. On top of that, because the "Magic" (Nen) users in this setting cannot specialize in all forms of "magic," it leaves them open and vulnerable to users who might be able to counter them, or to weapons like guns and nukes. This is Sanderson's Second Law in action, and makes for REALLY good narratives.

I'd honestly go as far as to say that Power Creep is to modern epic fantasy what "Chosen Ones" were to the 70's, 80's and 90's. And a large reason Grimdark fantasy's become so prevalent is partly because people like to see more stakes in their fiction. That, and Game of Thrones is more popular than sugar. And while I do like Grimdark, I also do like the power acceleration of Epic Fantasy.
Perhaps combining both approaches...

That's all, Folks

I dunno, Epic Fantasy's been on the mind as of late. I recently bought the first book in the Licanus Trilogy, a series of of spiffy-looking phonebooks, and that sort of got the noggin a-joggin'.


It's yet another one of those really good self-pub books which got picked up by Orbit, so that sort of caught my interest. I'm pretty early into it, but so far I'm really digging it! And it's given me some things to mull over as I write my own monstrosity.
Anyway, that's all for now I suppose.

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