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Old 08-14-2013, 05:16 AM   #1
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Quality in Epic Fantasy

Some random clicking today took to me this article by Alec Austin: Quality in Epic Fantasy. It was written in 2002, but I did some searches through MR and couldn't find any previous discussion so thought it worth sharing. It says a lot that I found interesting. Including:

Quote:
Narrative Structure
[...]
Truly bad ones are somewhat easier to pin down: Despite the claims of the disciples of Lucas and Joseph Campbell, the pattern of the Hero's Journey is a fairly bad narrative structure, if only because its rigidity makes it agonizingly predictable. Indeed, predictability is the greatest defect in the narrative structures common to epic fantasy. The average modern fantasy novel reeks of industrial mass-production. One can practically reconstruct the checklists and flowcharts which some authors were working from after a cursory examination of their work.
[...]
Le Guin argues in "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie" that the products of such assembly-line literary production are not fantasy because their authors "use all the trappings of fantasy without ever actually imagining anything."
But the article is not all flat criticism, there are some quite useful suggestions and thoughts within it.
Quote:
Setting
[...]
Certainly some readers are content to read stories set in variations on the stock worlds of fantasy, with their romanticized versions of feudalism, but it is saddening that so many books fail to exploit the possibilities that even a cursory examination of actual medieval history reveals.
[...]
With the near-infinite variety of religious beliefs that people have held over the centuries, ranging from Gnostic heresies to all the varieties of Buddhism, why do fantastic religions invariably separate into familiar variants on Christianity, neo-paganism, and polytheism?
[...]
A little research will turn up an endless variety of governmental and religious practices: The electoral monarchy of the Spartans, the medieval commonwealth of Iceland, and the near-anarchic feudalism of the Holy Roman Empire spring to mind, as do the Hindu caste system, the original philosophy of Taoism, and the pseudo-magical religion that grew out of it.
A lot of this article rang true to me. While self-publishing gets bad press for the quality of mechanical details, publishing of all sorts is guilty of turning out more of the same, leading to masses of websites citing trite formulae on how to create a story. As the article puts it, these are "about as immediately clear and helpful as a Zen koan."
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Old 08-14-2013, 07:12 AM   #2
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Quote:
predictability is the greatest defect in the narrative structures common to epic fantasy.
I think that predictability is a problem with most fiction really, not just epic fantasy. I mean we all know that the heroic cowboy will save the town school teacher from the evil land baron or that the detective will bring the killer to justice by the end of the book for example. It's how the events are portrayed that makes the story original.
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Old 08-14-2013, 08:07 AM   #3
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Quote:
Originally Posted by crich70 View Post
I think that predictability is a problem with most fiction really, not just epic fantasy. I mean we all know that the heroic cowboy will save the town school teacher from the evil land baron or that the detective will bring the killer to justice by the end of the book for example. It's how the events are portrayed that makes the story original.
Predictability was only one aspect addressed in the article, but I do think that it is one that is particularly susceptible to blindly following a set of rules. It is not that the rules are wrong (like Zen, it is difficult to be wrong when you say so little), but the rules may be better used at the editing stage to help you assess your story, and to adjust obvious deficiencies, rather than as constraints during story creation.

And there are some differences between Epic Fantasy and other genres...

Westerns don't often run off over a thousand pages, and the reader doesn't come to a western expecting much in the way of setting or story originality; it all comes predefined in the name of the genre, anything else just isn't a "western". (I do realise this is an over simplification, I've enjoyed a great many westerns, and not all of them were identical.)

Whereas Epic Fantasy is almost wide open - it only really excludes anything adhering to reality (and possibly anything short ), and that would seem to leave a very large field of possibilities. That, to me, is largely the author's point in that article: in such a wide field it is disappointing that there aren't more author's trying to take advantage of it.

It might be said that if an author intends to re-use what has become the standard in fantasy world designs then they might be best advised to take their example from the Western genre and keep it short.

* As a writer of a (contemporary) fantasy trilogy (written but not yet all published) that goes well over a thousand pages (and so may be accused of being epic) I realise that expressing such views could turn out to be counter productive.
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Old 08-14-2013, 08:36 AM   #4
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Things which I've enjoyed and which break the mold:

- Barry Hughart's _Bridge of Birds_
- Elizabeth Bear's _Range of Ghosts_
- C. J. Cherryh's _Rusalka_
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Old 08-14-2013, 08:56 AM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by crich70 View Post
I think that predictability is a problem with most fiction really, not just epic fantasy. I mean we all know that the heroic cowboy will save the town school teacher from the evil land baron or that the detective will bring the killer to justice by the end of the book for example. It's how the events are portrayed that makes the story original.
Yes, I just posted a review on Amazon of what the author clearly HOPES will become a multivolume science fiction franchise. While he invented an interesting "almost" steampunk universe full of potential, the characters and the story is SO boringly predictable and stereotypical that I don't see the story line going anywhere.

I've seen this a lot in the self publishing arena; some interesting new ideas are presented but then they are explored with what, I guess, the author thinks is a 'marketable' story line and characters.
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Old 08-14-2013, 09:02 AM   #6
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Why pick on Fantasy?

Quote:
The average modern fantasy novel reeks of industrial mass-production.
The average modern NOVEL, period, reeks of industrial mass-production. "James Patterson" is literally a book assembly line.
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Old 08-14-2013, 09:42 PM   #7
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I agree that some of the criticisms in the article could well apply to many genres, not just epic fantasy, but one of the points - I think - is that fantasy is one of the most open genres. It is (you would think) all about imagination, which makes repetition and reproduction (and lack of imagining) all the more disappointing.
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Old 08-15-2013, 06:36 PM   #8
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It's funny. Predictability is a odd beast. I have some of my female readers mad at me because one of my characters got in to a relationship with the wrong character. I was told that ANYONE could CLEARLY see that character A really loved character B and should have married her instead of character C. So in a sense they were upset with the fact it was not predictable enough? Of course, I personally can not see what they mean... but who am I to talk, I am just the author.
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Old 08-17-2013, 01:13 AM   #9
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I wonder if odd reactions to predictability can be partly due to established tropes. If you have three people in close proximity then of course you must have a love triangle, and if your story doesn't evolve that then some readers are going to be disappointed that their expectations weren't met. Build up lots of tension regarding an oncoming fight, and then find a way not to have that fight, and some people will be let down. Write a story with obvious political or social implications, but fail to made a big deal of the obvious, and some people will think you've misled them by not following the obvious/predictable themes.

I guess it could be that some readers pride themselves on being able to see where the story is going early on, and when you don't go where they expect they feel cheated. I've experienced something along these lines myself, a series that I thought was going to present Chinese mythology in the way I expected, but instead took it in quite another direction - treating it as almost matter of fact - and it took me a good few pages to turn my head around. Once I did settle in I quite enjoyed the book, but it had me quite disconcerted for a while.
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Old 08-17-2013, 07:04 AM   #10
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I dunno, all I know is that I was blind sided by the reaction. Going back and re-reading the story, I still do not see it but I might be the only one.
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Old 08-20-2013, 01:42 PM   #11
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There's nothing wrong with the Hero's Journey, as such, but I think it is overused. Campbell observed a pattern in legends, but too many people interpreted that as how a story was supposed to be told. In the Hero's Journey, the world transforms someone into a hero. The hero is basically done at the end, and focuses on a fairly narrow slice of life.

But there are other ways of telling stories. Instead of the world transforming the hero, the hero can transform the world. Take John Carter from the Barsoom books. This is a character who knows exactly who he is. If he undertook a Hero's Journey, it was in his past. The John Carter movie tried to make John Carter take the Hero's Journey, and, in my opinion, it didn't really work.

But I think that the Hero's Journey without it being predictable. You just can't be slavishly devoted to going from point A to B to C on the journey. On the other hand, predictable isn't the worst thing a book can be.
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Old 08-21-2013, 01:14 AM   #12
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Quote:
Originally Posted by QuantumIguana View Post
[...] On the other hand, predictable isn't the worst thing a book can be.
I absolutely agree with this. The journey is the important thing to me (hero's or not), it has to be a good ride. For example I only just now put down a John Grisham novel, one I hadn't read before, and from the first chapter I could have given a broad-brush outline of how the story was going to go, but I still enjoyed the ride. Not that all his books are quite that predictable, but the point still stands: a writer's skill can overcome the limitations of a predictable story line, they MUST be able to, because some aspects of a story are (almost always) inherently predictable.
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