One Essential, But Overlooked, Element Of Fantasy Fiction – A Ramble

Well, I thought that I’d take a very quick look at the fantasy genre again. This is mostly because the novel that I just finished reading (Kill The Dead” by Tanith Lee) reminded me of another, somewhat overlooked, element of fantasy fiction that gives these stories a lot more emotional depth, humanity and atmosphere.

In short, nothing is mass-produced in traditional-style fantasy stories. This sounds like a really small thing, but it has a huge impact on the atmosphere and tone of fantasy stories.

In essence, everything in the story – from the buildings, to the items, to the musical instruments etc… is a unique thing that has been made by hand by people of varying skill levels. This means that every location seems slightly unique and every object in the story has a greater significance because it has it’s own backstory. After all, it was made by a person rather than churned out by a factory.

This “every object has it’s own backstory” thing can be used in all sorts of creative ways. For example, in Tanith Lee’s “Kill The Dead”, a bizarre musical instrument (cobbled together from three other instruments) is not only used to explore quite a lot of one character’s backstory, but the instrument’s backstory also means that you actually care about what happens to it. Now try to imagine the same thing for a mass-produced smartphone in a thriller story or something like that. It just isn’t the same.

In addition to this, it also means that many objects in fantasy stories are at least slightly unique. This, again, can be useful for worldbuilding and characterisation. After all, if the objects in your fantasy story are as unique as the people that made them, then they are probably going to tell the reader more about the places where they are created.

Likewise, these handmade objects in fantasy fiction will often be well-used or slightly imperfect in some way or another, which helps to add to the vaguely tragic and thoroughly human atmosphere of the story. It really creates the sense of people living in a harsh medieval-style world where everything matters more and things have to either last longer or be made/repaired by people who might not be experts at a particular trade.

Plus, because objects in fantasy fiction are made to last, this can also give these items a lot of backstory – especially if they have been handed down through the generations or stolen/won in battle from other characters.

In other words, fantasy fiction is one of the few genres where inanimate objects rountinely have characterisation. This adds a lot more atmosphere and depth to a story than you might expect.

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Sorry for the ultra-short article, but I hope it was useful 🙂

Three Thoughts About Writing Short Fantasy Fiction

Well, I thought that I’d talk about the fantasy genre today. This is mostly because the novel that I’m reading at the moment (“Kill The Dead” by Tanith Lee) is a short traditional-style fantasy novel – seriously, it’s just 172 pages long 🙂

One of the things that can be off-putting about the fantasy genre is the sheer length of the average fantasy novel. Don’t get me wrong, longer fantasy stories/series can be good (eg: J.K. Rowling, Clive Barker, G.R.R Martin etc..) but a longer novel is just as likely to put readers off as it is to attract them.

So, whilst Tanith Lee’s “Kill The Dead” isn’t the first shorter fantasy novel I’ve read (since I also read urban fantasy novels sometimes), what I’ve read of it so far has made me think about what makes a good short fantasy story. So, I thought that I’d offer a few tips.

1) A focused story: Simply put, if you want your fantasy story to be a lean and efficient story, then you need to focus on a few essential elements.

For example, I’ve read just over half of Tanith Lee’s “Kill The Dead” so far. In what I have read, there are three main characters, one central magical element (eg: the creation and exorcism of ghosts) and one mythical location for the characters to journey towards. Everything in the story is related to these five elements.

If you want to tell a shorter fantasy story, then this seems like a good template to follow. In other words, you need to find the few truly essential elements of your story and then focus all of your attention, descriptions etc.. on these things.

2) Pre-existing elements: If you are telling a fantasy story within a sensible number of pages, then you need to at least partially rely on things that the reader already knows and understands before they read your story. Yes, you need to add one or two important new elements to these things (otherwise your story will become generic and uncreative), but you also need to rely on your reader’s pre-existing knowledge too.

For example, Dave Duncan’s “A Rose Red City” partially relies on the reader’s knowledge of history and myth in order to make room for more storytelling. Likewise, Rebecca Levene’s “Anno Mortis” uses pre-existing history and a mixture of Roman/Norse/Greek/Egyptian mythology in order to add a lot of extra depth to a relatively short (350 pages or so) self-contained dark fantasy thriller story.

Plus, pretty much every urban fantasy novel already expects the reader to know what vampires, werewolves, elves etc… are and what the modern world looks like.

This sort of thing can, of course, be done in a much more subtle way too. For example, the settings in the first half of Tanith Lee’s “Kill The Dead” are all various nameless villages and natural landscapes. Since the average fantasy reader will already be familiar with medieval-style villages and most people will be familiar with natural landscapes, the novel can do a large amount of worldbuilding with relatively few well-chosen descriptions and details – leaving more room for characterisation, drama, storytelling etc….

3) Other genres: Virtually every shorter fantasy story that I’ve mentioned so far has taken inspiration from at least one other genre (eg: the thriller and/or horror genres).

Focusing on blending the fantasy genre with another genre means that you have to use techniques from that genre. Many other genres have more of an emphasis on fast-paced, suspenseful, focused storytelling.

In other words, adding another genre shakes you free from the traditions of the fantasy genre. It frees you from the idea that fantasy novels have to be giant, sprawling epics that contain seven pages of family trees and four maps before the first chapter even begins.

Other genres don’t really do this sort of thing very often. So, by adding elements from another genre to your fantasy story, you can use those elements to tell a leaner and more efficient fantasy story 🙂

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Reasons Why “Low Fantasy” Is Better Than “High Fantasy”

[Note: Since I prepare these articles quite far in advance, it can be surprising how much my opinions can change between writing and publication. Basically, at the time of preparing this article, I was still a relatively inexperienced reader of the urban fantasy genre (and was perhaps a little less aware that it has it’s own set of tropes and cliches too) .

Since then, my attitudes towards the fantasy genre have become a bit more nuanced (especially since finding books in the dark fantasy and magical realism genres). Still, I’ll keep this article (albeit with a couple of small edits) for the sake of posterity even though it doesn’t really reflect my current opinions and seems a bit naive and simplistic when I read it these days.]

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One of the interesting things about getting back into reading regularly a few months ago is that I’ve ended up reading a lot more fantasy fiction than I initially expected. Unlike some other genres (eg: sci-fi, horror, detective fiction etc..), my relationship with the fantasy genre is a lot more of an ambiguous one.

On the one hand, it’s been a genre that I’ve loved from an early age (eg: I used to watch “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer” enthusiastically, I read “Fighting Fantasy” gamebooks, I played computer games like “Heretic“, I read “Harry Potter”, I collected “Magic: The Gathering” cards and enjoyed the “Lord Of The Rings” films etc.. when I was younger).

It’s also a genre that I seem to drift away from and return to regularly (such as my “Game Of Thrones” phase a few years ago). Plus, a couple of my favourite types of music also have an association with the genre too (eg: symphonic metal, power metal etc..). Yet, I’m much more likely to derisively think of fantasy as “silly”, “over-complicated” etc… when compared to my other favourite genres.

However, a while before writing this article, I happened to read a Wikipedia article about “Low Fantasy” and it was something of a revelation to me. I suddenly realised that most of my criticisms and misgivings about the fantasy genre applied to high fantasy (swords & sorcery, Middle-Earth etc.. type fantasy) rather than low fantasy (eg: fantastical stories set in, or involving, the “real” world).

So, here are three of the reasons why low fantasy is better than high fantasy:

1) Variation and imagination: One of the really cool things about low fantasy is that it sometimes includes a lot more variation and imagination than high fantasy does.

For example, urban fantasy can include elements from other genres alongside more traditional fantasy elements – such as vampire thrillers like Jocyelnn Drake’s “Nightwalker“, horror story arcs in Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics and sci-fi elements in both novels like Lilith Saintcrow’s “Dante Valentine” series and computer games like “The Longest Journey” and “Shadowrun: Dragonfall“.

In addition to this, low fantasy will sometimes use the tropes of the fantasy genre in a much more creative and imaginative way than high fantasy traditionally does. Since these stories can’t rely on the traditions of the high fantasy genre, they have to come up with new and imaginative ways to meld the fantastical and the mundane. They can’t just rely on the old tropes of swords, castles, knights, heroic quests etc.. for their stories.

As such, not only does low fantasy have a lot more variation between stories – but it also means that the fantasy elements have to be imaginatively different too. In other words, you’re much more likely to see intriguingly different variations of the fantasy genre in low fantasy than you are in high fantasy. After all, if a low fantasy writer has to come up with a plausible way to meld the fantastical and the mundane, then they’re going to have to use their imagination…

2) Shorter stories: Yes, some low fantasy novels are giant tomes (Clive Barker’s “Weaveworld” and Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” spring to mind), but this is thankfully a lot less common when compared to high fantasy.

With the possible exception of Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” (which I haven’t read), I don’t think that I’ve even heard of a high fantasy novel that can’t also be used as an emergency doorstop and/or paperweight. [Edit: Surprisingly, short fantasy novels/novellas actually exist 🙂 Expect a review of Tanith Lee’s “Kill The Dead” in late August.]

Since low fantasy stories incorporate well-known real life settings and elements, and since they’re often melded with other genres like the thriller, horror, detective, romance etc.. genres, there’s more reason to tell gripping, shorter stories. Since they don’t have to spend lots of time building a giant, medieval-style world, they can get on with actually telling the story.

Since a good portion of low fantasy novels aren’t that much longer than the average novel (300-400 pages these days) and don’t require any extra time investment, they are a lot more accessible and easier to impulse-read when compared to giant tomes of high fantasy. Likewise, even when low fantasy novels tell longer stories, they will often be broken up into a series of shorter books rather than a series of gigantic tones. I mean, I’ve even found a low fantasy novella. A novella! In the fantasy genre 🙂

3) Themes, symbolism, meaning etc..: One of the cool things about stories that meld the fantastical and the realistic is that the fantastical elements usually have to be there for a reason. In other words, low fantasy isn’t just “fantasy for the sake of fantasy” in the way that high fantasy can often be.

As such, low fantasy stories will often be a lot deeper, more intelligent and emotionally powerful than high fantasy can be. For example, good urban fantasy vampire stories will often explore themes like belonging, subcultures, civil rights, secrecy, mortality, traditions etc.. in a way that could rival even the most literary of novels.

More fantastical low fantasy stories (eg: Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics etc..) will often use the fantastical as a lens to look at elements of humanity, in a way which often gives these stories one hell of an emotional punch when compared to the typical high fantasy stories of knights going on epic quests etc…

So, yes, since low fantasy has to find a good reason to include fantastical elements, these stories usually mean something in the way that the fantasy elements of a typical high fantasy story often don’t.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Things An Old Computer Game Can Teach Us About How To Add Some Heavy Metal To The Fantasy Genre

Although I have a weird love/hate relationship with the fantasy genre, I recently happened to find something really cool in this genre which made me think about how to add elements of the heavy metal genre to the fantasy genre.

Although I don’t know when or if I’ll review it properly, it’s a fantasy/action computer game from 2002 called “Enclave“. Although this game has somewhat clunky combat and was clearly designed for consoles rather than computers, I still absolutely love this game.

This is a screenshot from “Enclave” (2002).

Why? Because it is about as metal as you can get 🙂 Whether you’re playing as a chiselled barbarian-like knight or a scary halfling warrior (yes, there are other playable characters, but these two are the only good ones I’ve found so far), this game exudes badassery in every way.

Seriously, it’s like the epic fight scenes from the “Lord Of The Rings” movies, but with added gloominess, mindlessness and general epicness. Although the game includes a vaguely movie-like soundtrack, I found myself fervently wishing that “Tonight We Ride” by Unleash The Archers was playing in the background of some segments of the game instead. In other words, it’s a brilliant example of heavy metal-style fantasy.

So, what can this game teach us about adding some heavy metal to the fantasy genre?

1) Simplicity: Although the game has a lot of vaguely Tolkien-esque lore (with lots of unpronounceable names like Dreg’athar etc…), one of the reasons why it is so metal is because the story of the game is relatively simple.

I hope you like fighting monsters…..

If you play as the “good” faction, the story involves breaking out of jail, defending the city from orcs, going on an epic quest through some scary wastelands etc…. I haven’t played the “evil” campaign, but the fact that you can also play as the villians is pretty cool.

Both stories are suitably heavy metal, but why? Simply put, they’re simple and focused. They don’t get lost in the minutae of mythical politics or magical lore. Although all of this stuff is still there as a background detail, the basic story is just a simple goal-orientated thing that allows for lots of epic feats of combat and dramatic battles. It doesn’t require you to keep track of twenty character names, memorise seven family trees or anything like that, it’s just a thrilling story that is there to be enjoyed.

So, if you want to add some heavy metal to your fantasy story, comic etc.. then keep the basic underlying story relatively simple.

2) Lighting: One of the best visual ways to add some heavy metal to the fantasy genre is simply to focus on gloomy lighting and death/destruction-related imagery. Again, “Enclave” excels in this respect. So far, I’ve seen creepy old castles, a besieged city, a decrepit ancient temple and some kind of hellish underworld. All of these locations are lit by fire, magma and/or moonlight. And they look really metal as a result.

Seriously, this location is pretty much an album cover in it’s own right…

So, when making comics, art in the heavy metal fantasy genre, then make sure that at least 30-50% of the total surface area of each picture is covered with black paint. Likewise, make sure to include lots of fire-based light sources too. If you need more examples of this type of art, then just look at some classic-style heavy metal album covers.

3) Character design: The character designs in this game provide some instructive examples of both good and bad heavy metal fantasy character design. The good examples, which I mentioned earlier, are the “Knight” and “Halfling” characters.

The knight looks more like a Roman gladiator (in terms of his spiked shoulder armour etc…) or a muscular barbarian than a traditional medieval knight. Likewise, the halfling has spiky blond hair, grins maniacally, has scary-looking facial tattoos and looks genuinely fearsome. Although her costume design (eg: dark trousers and a crop top) doesn’t include any armour, her character design still has a rather practical and rugged look that wouldn’t be out of place in a lawless wilderness or a 1980s heavy metal concert.

Yes, THIS is how to design a badass heavy metal-style character 🙂

And this Roman-like area just makes the Knight look even more like a grizzled gladiator too!

The common factor with both of these characters is that they look like hardened warriors. They look like they’ve been forged in the heat of battle and exist to strike terror into the hearts of their enemies. Their general character designs are meant to exude toughness and they seem like they genuinely fit into a harsh world that is ruled by the sword and the bow.

On the other hand, the “Druid” character is a terrible example of heavy metal fantasy character design. Simply put, she’s wearing a swimming costume.

I’m not exaggerating, this outfit is more suited to a beach party than an epic battle with the forces of evil!

Even though the game recognises the sheer absurdity of wearing something like this into battle (by drastically reducing the level of protection against damage she has), her design comes across more as blatant fanservice than actual heavy metal character design. In other words, she seems like she wouldn’t last five minutes in the game’s world. And this completely breaks the immersion for the audience.

So, design your characters with toughness and practicality in mind and they will come across as considerably more “metal” than if you aim for fanservice or ultra-stylised character design.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂