Saturday, July 2, 2011

Clarkesworld: Epically discussing, Epic Fantasy.

Found this really interesting article thanks to Sci-Fi Signal.

One of the writers from Clarkesworld has collected and collated interviews from some of the Fantasy Genres biggest, as well as from many mid-list and up and coming authors. It's only part one, but seems to be making fairly good progress in an attempt to adequately define the sub genre, epic fantasy, at least in broad terms. How exactly it differentiates from Sword and Sorcery, seems to be boil down to Scope. It also helps me to understand why some of the Conan Pastiches just don't feel like Conan stories (Despite them frequently being barely literate constructions).. is that they are infusing Epic Fantasy sensibilities into the Sword and Sorcery Hyborian world.

The Interviews also are nice in a way because several of these authors, far more effectively encapsulate a very close proximity of my feelings. They also do it in a much more concise and well worded way.

My esteem for Peter O'Rullian continues to increase with every interview I've read.. though I've yet to actually read his book.

Peter O'Rullian:For me, some things must exist for a fantasy novel to feel epic. And at least some of them would apply to epic storytelling in any genre. I think first of the stakes in the novel, which ties closely to the scale of the story. If my stakes are missing my morning cartoons because I've got to weed the garden, it ain't epic. Failure of my character to answer the story question has to have consequences that impact others besides the character himself. Could be, too, that my character fails. But there has to be risk on a broad scale. Yes, it's compelling to read about the risk of a single life, but for me that's a different genre of fantasy.

Peter O'Rullian: And related to the notion of stakes/scale, there needs to be an adversary. It needn't be the devil. But it's got to be more than a robber. I'm glad to have the motivations of this antagonist explained; I'm even glad to be made to sympathize (after a fashion) with the "bad guy." But at some point in epic storytelling there needs to be real conflict (which then plays against this idea of high stakes), and if there's no clear hero, however flawed, then I'm not invested in the outcome. Maudlin as it may sound, I want triumph of some resonant kind. I want to be thrilled. If I don't care who wins, what's the point?

Bolded to emphasize the part I'm specifically agreeing with. I hate to beat a dead horse, but he just summed up exactly what my problem is with a lot of modern fantasy novels I've tried to read over the last 3 years or so. Ranging from Abercrombie to Martin, even old standbys such as Moorcock. I frequently find their "heros" to be just as odious as their "Villains" if you can even define their characters in those terms. The base, 6th grade writing class "Antagonist" and "Protagonist" monikers seem to fit more simply because they don't carry any emotional baggage with them like the terms Hero and Villain do.

This article ties into another book I'm reading right now, "Lies my Teacher Told me", which features the basic thesis that American History textbooks remove the foibles and flaws of important historical personae in order to purify them into Heroes. This is done in order to give people ideals to live up too, But all it does is remake real people into unattainable paragons. They never fail, therefore we cannot help but fail in our quest to be more like them. I think thats a perfectly valid flaw in a lot of Epic Fantasies, But doesn't excuse the sudden and violent pendulum swing in the other direction. In reality, we should simply be going for more balanced characters, even though by pure emotional need some should balance slight more towards one or the other pole. They need not be violently magnetized to one or the other unless the story needs them to be. Nor do they have to fall for every weakness they possess. Galadrial didn't take the ring, even when it was offered to her. It helped her character in the context of the Lord of the Rings, but does it atone for her actions during the first age?

Boromir succumbed to the temptation of the ring, but after its influence was gone gave his life to protect those who couldn't protect themselves. Just because you have flaws dosen't mean you are irredeemable. It's the resistance to redemption, or rather resistance to realizing you have flaws, that is the root of the trouble.

As a specific example from the first chapter of "lies", it discusses Woodrow Wilsons heinous personal beliefs. Beliefs he never recanted. But that dosen't change the fact that he also passed a lot of important legislature which helped the United States become the great power it is today. But if he were a Fantasy character, I feel Martin would be better suited to write him than Brooks.

Further great quotations come from the likes of Ed Greenwood, summed up here.

Ed Greenwood: At the core of all good fiction, Epic Fantasy and otherwise, are the moral choices made by characters—characters the writer makes the reader care about. For good or bad, smart or foolish, these choices (Uriens in the movie Excalibur: "I saw what I saw. The boy drew the sword.") define the characters. They stand up for what they believe is right, or sacrifice themselves knowingly, or do "what needs to be done," and inspire readers. Scenes of heroic choices lift the hearts of readers, make them feel that there is good in the world, let them revel in moments of magnificence ("The boy stood up to the dragon! I saw it! I was there!"), and feel better for having done so.

No one wants to read a story of unrelieved gloom, wherein sordid characters the reader loathes or despises do nasty things to each other, there is no order nor moments of kindness or good triumphing in any way, and good doesn't win in the end. The happy, just ending is a cliché because it works, because readers want it and wait for it and feel somehow cheated if they don't get it (and very cheated if there's no glimmer of good or "rightness" at story-end, at all).

Elizabeth Bear: Beowulf and the dragon destroy each other: fantasy tells us he was right to have fought. I need stories that tell me it is right to keep fighting, when despair and capitulation are so easy.

I think current publishing trends some what disagree with Mr. Greenwood on what exactly readers want. It's clear from the sales push behind certain authors that the idea of unrelieved gloom and sordid characters doing nasty things to each other is popular. The question is why has it become so, now? As I said, its a truly fascinating article and I am very much looking forward to reading the next parts of it.

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