Odd thoughts on writing

The last few weeks I’ve been pondering and scheming ideas for the upcoming Camp NaNoWriMo, wanting to try to get something ready for that, and I’ve come to some odd observations thanks to some general opinions I’ve seen around the internet and had echoed by some friends.

I’ve chosen to work on my old novel project, instead of a fanfic or throwaway project, which basically means I’ve got to finish making the world and actually set an “ending” story for it, which it has always lacked.  In no small part due to how I originally came up with the story – as a “huh… let me take my characters from this RPG and toss ’em into an original fantasy!” debacle back when I was 12.  (For perspective, I’m almost 30 now.)  Over the years, I’ve reinvented the world and characters multiple times on account of criticism from very skilled writer friends and self-criticism stemming from being older, (arguably) wiser, and more genre savvy.

The current incarnation doesn’t even resemble the original one, with a few possible exceptions.  While good, this is actually the source of some of the difficulty in telling the story.  The sheer number of changes have sort of caused a world building dilemma that has driven me to examine the genre as a whole.

You see, in all the redesigns, I somehow managed to purge all of the antagonists.  Some of them were removed on account of being unrealistic, some were made more realistic and their motivations and role changed, and ultimately, I ended up with a world that exists in a “calm state”, with no evident challenges, wars, or impending perils, having a relatively defined day-to-day existence.  While a good sign as far as world building goes, I’m writing a fantasy adventure… not a slice of life.

I attempted several times to rectify this, but each subsequent revision fell short.  I didn’t like having a progenitor villain for it’s JRPG feel.  I didn’t like having an external force suddenly show up and create a binary conflict for how much of a copout it always feels when it happens.  I tried villainizing a neutral character only to realize that he has no possible motivation to be the villain nor would he ever lose if he were.  I tried the classic kingdom vs empire angle only to get a few good characters and a woefully generic plot.

So I began reflecting on the genre to see what I was overlooking, and I saw a trend that puzzled me at first.   Over the last 25 years, The fantasy genre has gone from being glorified retellings of “The adventure” with tales of epic combat with hero vs monsters to a mix of political intrigue and noble houses vying for power.  Personally, as much as I enjoy the latter, I can only stomach so much of it at once, which is why as much as I enjoy fantasy, I don’t actually read that much.

As I studied the progressive growth from monster of the week to house politics, I realized this trend is not unique to fantasy.  Science Fiction echoes it at the same gradual frequency.  For an example, in the 90’s, as the D&D monster of the week trend began to fade in fantasy, at the same time Science Fiction began to shift away from the Planet of Hats trope towards the same growing political concepts as fantasy.  As the 90’s faded into the early 2000’s, the shift continued and now it feels like every series- fantasy, sci-fi or otherwise- has some degree of cloak and dagger politics whether it makes sense or not.  (As a sidenote, this is mostly because Sci-fi and fantasy are two branches of the same genre.  An example of this can be observed from looking at the Flash Gordon era of sci-fi, which is “Fantasy- IN SPACE!”)

On one hand, the change has lead to more involving, mature stories.  The shift away from Tolkien races which themselves are the planet of hats trope, towards noble houses of human lords with backstabbing and other political intrigue and realistic motivations has made the stories more personal.  “I want to kill this guy and take his land” seemingly carries more weight when said by a man than if said by an orc.  The Dwarves vs Elves “racism” prevalent in most fiction is really just a “planet of hats” way to depict real world racism in fiction without fear of people misinterpreting it as the author’s real racism.   Playing this trope comes at a cost: we fail to process the horror of the scenario because of the planet of hats effect – We would feel the horror more personally if it were human on human, and precisely for that reason fantasy has moved away from the planet of hats trope.

As for the monster of the week, modern fantasy tends to bank not on the cast’s fear of monsters, but on the cast’s fear of other men for the same reason.  After all, it’s easy to think of a monster as a monster, and simply leave it at that, but to take a man and reveal him to have monstrous intentions is more personal.  Objectively there’s no difference between a Dragon slaughtering women and children and a single man slaughtering women and children, yet emotionally as readers we aren’t affected as much by the actions of the dragon as by the actions of the man.  (Interestingly, historical mass murderers tend to be distorted into monsters in legend.  Consider how Vlad the Impaler’s legacy as a brutal leader created the mythology of Dracula.)

Having considered all of the above, I felt armed with a much better idea of the kind of scope I want for my world, but still hadn’t quite arrived at a solution.   It underscored that I need motivations that can be understood, and so that narrows things down to human and humanized concepts.   To that end I began visiting the different groups of characters and started thinking about personal motivations which would exist counter to my protagonists’ goals.  I took my various previous 2D attempts to come up with antagonists and simply asked “What does this character want as a person?” and arrived at a situation where I had so many directions to go I had to actually be careful which one I chose.

I did find I have to be cautious.  The trend away from monster of the week to political intrigue has made it much more difficult to stand out as a fantasy writer.  The line between the blaaaah of a badly done story and the “oh cool” of a well done story is dreadfully thin in the first place, but during the era of heroic fantasy, you could stand out with a good monster in a monster of the week story easily where today’s political intrigue is very hard to distinguish from other political intrigue.

To me, this tells me I must find a balance.  I think it very unlikely as a novice writer that I will create a political intrigue to rival the trendsetters.  I also don’t believe that a strong monster of the week setting will captivate the way it once did, no matter how much I would enjoy writing such a story.  The Bestiary I’m taking time to carefully construct is only one half of the story, the motivations of men make up the other half.  And that is how I will be handling the political side.  I’m not going to try to invent some sort of complicated political scenario for the sake of trying to craft a political drama, I’m just going to say “This guy wants this, that guy wants that”  and see where they clash.  Then embellish as needed.

At long last, I think I have an actual chance of getting this story moving.

As far as other life stuffs, I may ramble a bit in the “What are you doing?” thread tomorrow.   This last week was positively terrible, with little prospect of getting better.

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