This Old Trope I
I know I should probably do another ‘This Old Monster‘ before diving into this, but… I had the idea after watching some fellow writers describe one of the tropes dealt with below and I had something to say. Of course, they were talking about it in glowing terms and the specific place I was haunting is… less than friendly to disagreement, so I’m doing it here rather than getting arbitrarily banned.
Now, on the outset, I am a big fan of the Fantasy genre. While I’ve complained and mocked a lot of modern fantasy for its grim and gritty ‘look how much our world suck’ bullshit trying to imitate Game of Thrones, or much, much worse, Sword of Truth (no links. It does not deserve links.), there’s still plenty of great material out there that isn’t playing follow the leader.
I like imaginative worlds and magic and non-human races both exotic and stock. Buuut… like all genres, it’s collected its share of cliches and while I am adamant about the idea that not all cliches are bad, and in fact some are awesome (like beardy, Scottish burrowing dwarves!), some… kind of need to die. And most of them are, surprisingly not aesthetic, but just plain bad writing. Tropes like…
Not this one.
I am firmly of a mind that a prophecy appearing in any story is the writer’s way of informing you of their intent to phone this one in. They have actively and knowingly chosen to not put in an effort for a complex and engaging plot and instead have picked a path so hackneyed—so IMPOSSIBLY HACKNEYED—that they might as well have pulled a Shanarra and just ripped off Lord of the Rings completely.
Granted, there are some stories that have prophecies in them that don’t suck, but I can almost guarantee that not only was the prophecy really not that important to that story, but that the tale would have been better without it. And yes, I am counting usage of the Book of Revelation. Or would you like me to discuss Southland Tales. Because I’ll do it. I’m crazy like that man; you don’t want to push me.
Anyway, the reason prophecies suck has a lot to do with what TVTropes calls the Unspoken Plan Guarantee. The gist of it is based on a happy little paradox: One: Watching someone explain a plan and then carry it out perfectly is boring. Two: Watching someone undertake a plan and then bungle it is confusing because you don’t know how it was supposed to work. Therefore, if a story takes the time to tell you what’s going to happen in any form other than foreshadowing, that is precisely not what is going to happen.
Because of this, every prophecy in fiction is actually a time-release lie of varying complexity. If you hear a prophecy, it will never, ever come to past in an ‘honest’ manner. There will always be some twist or play on words or missing line or something that makes it turn out to be predicting something entirely different than what any reasonable person might surmise.
Sometimes, there will be clues and foreshadowing of the event, and sometimes the obvious solution is missed by the characters because they’re idiots, and at best it turns out that was a joke in a comedic tale.
Most of the time, however, the moral of the story is that the ancients, the gods or some wackadoo who wrote up a bunch of predictions turns out to be both infallibly correct about future events (which means no one living in a period covered by that prediction has free will! Yay!), so vague as to be right no matter what, and/or utter jackasses screwing with the protagonist from four thousand years in the past.
Now, given that the prophecy is either a lie or spoils the entire story, I have a question: Who the hell are they in the story at all? At the very best, every prophecy story is a shaggy dog story, completely meaningless to the overall scheme of things. They’re often a MCGuffin, but taken with the ‘is always a lie no one sees coming’ thing, that means that the characters interacting with that McGuffin are necessarily going to fail unless they have some last minute epiphany like Batman figuring out a Riddler puzzle (Wait… the box was purple. Purple is the color of royalty. Queens at royalty! My god, Riddler is going to rob the Dairy Queen!).
While technically everything in a story is based on author fiat, prophecies underscore the fiat aspect in that it clearly requires the universe’s sense of logic and causality to bend over backward to achieve.
So what’s the solution? How about having the prophecy not be infallible but the hero has to go through hell and possibly pull of insane, badass stunts to make it true anyway? This makes the prophecy no longer the realm of author fiat and instead a puzzle for guile heroes to figure out. It has the bonus of actually making these things important to the story. I call that a win-win.
But of course that isn’t the only annoying trope that crops up as a result of purestrain laziness. Next we have…
It’s Always Medieval Europe
I’m not going to be coming at this the way a lot of people do. See, I rather like castles and knights and those funny cone hats princesses wear with the sash on that tells you ‘I’m not just a dunce, I’m a royal dunce’. I’ve argued with my pal J.A. Childress before when it came to The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. I find it fun to actually get my sandbox fantasy on in ye olde totally-not-England.
However, the setting for Oblivion is really only superficially like Medieval Europe. It’s not swimming in its own filth (which is pretty much a myth), there doesn’t seem to be much if any feudal system beyond the existence of minor lords—serfs don’t even seem to be a thing, women seem to be more or less seen a equals, and the people all have a basic understanding that the world around them involves magic and monsters.
Not so in a lot of fantasy stories. There, it seems that the standard setting is ‘Ye Olde England (or sometimes Germany—but never France or Italy or all those other countries that make up the continent. Wouldn’t a Medieval Spain setting be awesome? Or Turkey—hell yeah, Turkey!) with magic and dragons haphazardly painted on’.
In these settings, no matter how easy it is for wizards to punch reality and make something happen, everywhere is still chock full of filth, rats and filthy rats—even the wizard’s home town. And if the wizard is a wizardess, she’ll still be treated like crap despite the fact that she can erase anyone who does from existence and everyone knows it. Oh, and for some reason, even if this wizardess lives in a giant glowing tower in the center of her filthy town that hates her, everyone will still be superstitious about dumbass Earth stuff, like spilling salt even though actual magic is happening all around them!
And if we skip forward ten thousand years nothing will have changed.
My friends, I am, if nothing else, a world builder. I love setting up and watching how all the different parts of a newly crafted world play off each other. Not every writer, however is a world builder; they just give the idea lip service.
Now, I can understand if the point of the story is to satirize or purposefully emulate the perceptions of the time or even of our own time. But that’s not what this is. This is ‘knowing a bit about Medieval Europe, then throwing in magic’.
What comes out of this are bland worlds with very little depth and even less logical sense. They also tend to create idiot plots because the characters should know what is an isn’t possible in their world. That’s actually one of the reasons why I like the setting of Oblivion. Instead of being shocked that minor demons (daedra in the gameworld) exist, the people notice the problem, recognize that they aren’t strong enough to deal with it, then hire you to kick its ass. Hell, they’ve domesticated some of their monsters and farm eggs from them.
The excuse given for this sort of thing is that the reader needs a frame of reference and therefore a world should essentially be like Earth unless otherwise noted.
No. You can’t pull that card here. I will accept it for the oddity of every world having earth-like gravity, climate and basic physics. However, the ‘historically inaccurate version of England circa 1200’ thing is too specific for you to get away with it. The reader is aware that other time periods are things and hey, Star Trek’s post-capitalist society where lasers make everything you need never seemed too hard for anyone to grasp and that’s a much bigger leap than ‘things are not continually crusted in human waste and also no one things women are people’.
No, what you’re doing is making excuses for not dong the work. And if you’re honestly trying to just write an alternate history where the point of divergence is ‘ogres’, you’re still failing… because doing that and doing it for real is the solution.
If you want to write Medieval Europe with fantasy elements, then write Medieval Europe with fantasy elements. But understand that what you’re writing is an alternate history and take the time to put your brainmeats to work considering how those elements would change things. It’s not going to be the same old Earth but with monsters.
Those monsters are now going to be considered wildlife and people will develop ways to fight or evade them. Societies will operate with other races in mind. If winged folk are your enemies, you’re not just going to slap a wall around your city and if they’re your friends, you’re probably not going to built, say, chairs in such a way that sitting in them sucks for those guys. If there’s magic, there will be applications for it on every level of people’s lives even if it’s rare. Some army is going to employ a wizard and some wizard is going to consider a town under their protection.
Cause and effect. It is the basic building block of all logic and it is stunning how many writers fail at it. By the way, looking at how the world is described in the first few chapters is part of how I vet fantasy stories to read. There are some holes in that system though: Discworld and The Magic Kingdom of Landover , for example play the illogic of their setting for comedy and it works brilliantly.
Along those same lines, something else that’s always bothered me is…
For some reason, fantasy writers seem to believe that technology as a concept wasn’t invented until sometime during the reign of Queen Victoria. Up until then, everything was apparently done with crude tools and the greatest weapon eve created was either the sword (if the writer is a romantic) or the longbow (if they know a bit of history). Never, ever will you get any hint at the fact that things like flamethrowers, guns, automatic crossbows, and vending machines predate the fall of Rome or the fact that if Rome hadn’t fallen, the library of Alexandria hadn’t been destroyed and Genghis Khan hadn’t dumped the entire contents of the library of Bagdhad in a river, they would have been deployed and upgraded continually for hundreds of years before the timeline that the Standard Medieval Europe setting takes place.
The excuse here is that magic has reduced the demand for such devices… and that instantly falls through when you take notice that the same writers who make that excuse also make magic in their worlds rare and ‘special’ (more on that in a bit), completely negating the whole point.
Now, this might seem at odds with my earlier complaint that so many settings are pretty much just Earth Plus. After all, if I don’t like that, then why should I complain about ignoring elements from real life? Good point, hypothetical reader, but here’s the thing: there’s never any excuse for this lack of progress. Fantasy worlds go on for thousands of years without anyone bothering to rub two iotas of curiosity together and discovering the principals of, say, mechanical motion.
As someone who loves science (and SCIENCE!), this is galling to the extreme and whenever I run into a setting where it happens, I can’t help but realize how… fakey… it makes the setting. I’m not saying that this sort of thing has to be widespread, but come on! No one thinks or studies in these settings. No one even hits upon the idea that things like flour and swamp gas can explode on accident. Ever. When I read these settings, I can feel the hand of the author reaching down from the sky and holding everyone in it back because it goes against their asthetic.
And again, I’m not asking for everyone to go all steampunk with their fantasy stories. If it’s important to maintain a certain aesthetic, I understand that, but it’s often not even portrayed as that. It’s very clear that a lot of writers just plain don’t know that much about this sort of thing beyond what other stories have taught them. On the other hand, its especially annoying when actual scientific progress is shown… being used by the crazy or stupid. I’m looking at you, tinker gnomes.
The solution here is simple: it’d just be really nice to have more stories out there with more thought and research put into them. It’s not an either/or thing: low tech settings are perfectly fine, but I wish more fantasy writers weren’t so… terrified of higher (and more logical) tech levels.
Speaking of aesthetics that could use some variation:
Magic is Special
To get the full effect, put on your best hurtfully stereotypical Minnesota accent and pronounce it ‘spehey-shul’.
This always strikes me as weird when dealing with fantasy stories. In so many settings, magic is so rare and exotic that you can cow a village but lighting your cigar by snapping your fingers and yet everyone capable of that feat is likely also capable of hurling fireballs and leveling cities. There’s hardly ever anyone who can just do the first part because there seem to only be three or four spellcasters in total and all of them are nigh-unstoppable badasses of the highest order—unless they’re the comic relief of course.
Magic just isn’t part of day-to-day life in settings like this. It’s a weird, outlier thing some people can do. That’s fine… or it would be if that wasn’t the default. Where it falls down for me is the implication in many of these settings that wizardry is the result of studying really hard.
Okay. So why aren’t there any commonly known, simple tricks most people know?
Well it’s really really hard.
So is operating an automobile when you get down to it. And children have figured that out by watching their parents.
Well the knowledge is kept secret.
So was stone masonry, but people still knew how to stack rocks, they just couldn’t stack them awesomely.
It’s around about this point that things start to get esoteric. Writers who seem to do no other work in their world building will run the equivalent of a mental marathon trying to justify rare magic. It involves expensive components, it requires a specific meditation technique, it’s genetic. Anything to just keep that damn magic under wraps where it belongs, damn it!
Again, that’s fine. There are plenty of stories across all media that have limited and rare magic that I enjoy and sometimes I even enjoy them thanks to their magic system.
Here’s my question: Why? No, seriously why are we so afraid, in the FANTASY genre to allow a major fantastic element to affect the world?
And it is fear, folks. I’ve talked to other fantasy writers who were, I shit you not, horrified at the magic levels in Rune Breaker, at the idea that anyone who might have to travel learns how to draw and activate akua crea the same way we learn how to find and collect fresh water or that a server would learn to conjure up temporary glasses to pour drinks into. The argument that gets screamed into my face all the time is that magic should be special, dammit.
Every time I hear that, all I can think is how sci-fi doesn’t have to put up with this crap. In sci-fi, lasers don’t have to be special to be awesome because they’re lasers. I don’t see why an expy of scorching ray needs to be any different.
I can’t confirm this, but I feel like this comes back to the laziness that keeps things n a lot of Fantasy tales stuck at ‘like the Middle Ages but also magic’: if magic isn’t rare, it becomes a big ol’ elephant in the room if you don’t pay some lip service to how being able to create water out of thin air might change society, for example. Once you start doing that, the big comfortable bubble of laziness comes crashing down and now you’ve got to do work and who the hell wants to do that, am I right?
Again, I’m not saying rare magic is inherently lazy or bad. I’m saying the rare magic is a tool in the toolbox of the lazy writer. While it can inspire a sense of wonder and the exotic, it can also be a simple handwave to get you out of worldbuilding.
And the final stop on our whirlwind tour of things I wish people wouldn’t keep doing in one of my favorite genres:
Humans are Inexplicably Important
Your standard fantasy world will probably at least have elves and dwarves or vampires and werewolves (which are the exact same thing: charismatic pretty jerks vs hairy, badass jerks and they hate each other [Hey, did I ever tell you guys that there are half-elf-half dwarves in the Ere setting? Try and get THAT mental image out of your head.]) Because in fantasy, everything MUST be in fives and sevens, you’ll usually then have a race the writer made up and some little people like halflings, gnomes, pixies, brownies, goblins… whatever.
And then there are humans. And despite being nowhere near as good at anything beyond breeding like rodents than their neighbors, they are inevitably the most important race in the setting. Everything happens to them, the hero is one of them, and when shit gets real, it all comes down to them.
We’re going to ignore the inherent racism metaphor that people belabor this trope because… well it’s very, very stupid. ‘Race’ in fantasy terms is not the same as it is in real life terms, and while fantasy races (read other sapient species) can be used as an allegory for the real life concept of race, I feel that some people go too far and find issues that aren’t really there—often with the express purpose the denigrate nerds. And while we have many lessons to learn and some things to fix, this isn’t really part of it. The fact that most humans in fantasy worlds are inexplicably Caucasian is, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about.
No, it’s because writers assume the audience is stupid and incapable of empathy for anything other than themselves. So yeah, much better than being racist.
See, we’re humans (most of us at least. I don’t want to offend my vast Lizardman audience.), and the wisdom goes that we’ll find it hard to connect with humans with pointy ears, or really short humans, or the bearded. Now, while I understand not being able to feel empathy of people with beards, I think the marketing geniuses who still insist all heroes be human forget just how hard film audiences wanted to do Legolas and Arwen.
Or this sexy beast.
Attention fantasy writers! We are perfectly okay with elves, halflings, orcs, and most other non-humans as leads! …Provided that they are unbearded. And even that last part might be envy for the fact that I can’t grow one without looking like Shaggy from Scooby Doo’s husky brother.
Alas and to no one’s surprise at all, the ‘audiences can’t connect to non-humans’ is just as much bullshit as ‘male audiences can’t connect to female leads’ (which is always based on the box office return for AWFUL movies). Nope. Again, we run into our old pal laziness.
J.R.R. Tolkien was not lazy. The man wrote thousands of pages of notes for a series of books he wrote purely as backstory for some languages he made up. This was a man who, if he ever met laziness, would have made it get up off its lazy ass and write a hundred pages about some dude’s sword before breakfast. The payoff for him was to be ripped off for decades to come by other writers to varying levels of success and proficincy.
Why am I talking about this? Because non-lazy writer Tolkien made Frodo Baggins, a hobbit, the main character of his story. And yet even with that story becoming the most ripped-off Fantasy story ever… very, very few of them start hobbits or (to avoid copyright issues) halflings.
Because it’s hard to write a halfling main character. They’re shorter than everyone else, you have to keep that in mind for every scene they appear in because they’ll be waist-high to other characters and have to climb up on chairs and won’t be able to reach the top shelf.
And who needs to do all that work when you can make the little bugger human and never have to turn your brain on for that bullshit again until it’s time to make short jokes about the token comic relief halfling. Same goes for elves: they live too long and they have better senses and a different culture and—screw that, he’s human too.
Humans are easy mode. Not to say there shouldn’t be stories about humans as main characters, but Jaysus Croyst, are they way over-represented relative to their actual interesting attributes. At the very least, I’d like more writers to ty and, I don’t know, give local humans something like a unique culture instead of the generic Middle Ages guys thing.
Did… I just write two articles on a row that amounted to ‘stop being lazy, you bastards’? It would appear so. Huh. Something entirely different next week, I promise… even if I don’t know what that is yet. Give me some suggestions, guys!
Oh and hey, you know what Fantasy book isn’t lazy? Evil Unto Evil, Rune Breaker IV. It’s now on sale in paperback from Createspace and Amazon. Buy your copy today!
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