Monday, January 3, 2022

The Tyranny of Contemporary Western-Style Fantasy

Happy 2022, everyone! Mary here, and earlier today I was trying to decide whether to kick off the new year with a fluffy 2021 look-back or a soap box rant. Before y'all say "well, Mary, OF COURSE you chose the soap box," let me mention that I am incredibly lazy, and soap box rants take more energy than fluff. But this is something that's been on my mind for a spell now, and I figured now is a good a time as any to let it out.

The very title of this post might have some of y'all riled up already. Let me start off by clarifying that I very much enjoy Western-style fantasies. I marathon the Lord of the Rings trilogy -- extended edition, of course! -- on the regular and binge watched all 8 episodes of The Witcher's second season within 24 hours of its release.

I've started noticing something about the kinds of fantasy stories that get popularized though. I say "popularized" as a quick way to summarize all the ways in which stories spread beyond a handful of the creator's closest devotees -- whether through big publishing deals, or TV/movie adaptations, or marketing pushes, etc. Because I'm sure plenty of stories of all kinds get told. Yet until they're popularized, few hear them.

Anyway, the type that gets popularized follows a certain set of rules that's been defined as "good writing" by The Powers that Be. And those rules arise out of Western-centric ideas.

At pretty much every convention I've ever been to, there's always been at least one panel on world-building for aspiring writers. The advice is usually some variation on "make sure you have internal rules and stick with them," and heaven knows I've given that same advice a million times (and there's always one author on the panel who spends far too long intricately detailing how he does it in HIS book, but I digress). 

But at a convention I attended a few months back, one panelist said something that stuck with me: "I want magic to be more magical." (Since this is a soap box rant, I'm omitting names so I -- hopefully -- won't insult anyone. Nothing personal here!). This panelist then went on to describe how in a book, the "rules" of magic were inexplicably broken for dramatic effect. Another panelist immediately interrupted with a haughty, "See, that would take me right out of the story." What proceeded was a (rather supercilious) exchange of praise by magic rules-lawyers types.

You know, the kind who want to know precisely how much of which ingredient must go into a potion of what size to do how many points of damage and blah blah blah...

What was lost in all that back-and-forth was what the first panelist meant: "I want magic to be more magical." I would take that one step further and say, "I want fantasy to be more fantastical." 

What do I mean by that? Simply that not everything needs an explanation, that sometimes the mysterious and inexplicable can be impactful because of its lack of definitions. I dare say that most stories about magic from across time and across the world are like that. Do we need some logic behind why Rapunzel's hair could grow so improbably long? Animated fantasy films get away with it all the time... What are the limits of Elsa's wintery powers anyway? Who cares? It's magic!

As a fantasy writer myself, I've always dwelled in a murky in-between. Sure, my magic systems have rules when it makes sense for the stories -- like in the Flynn Nightsider tales, about teens who fight monsters, I defined what weapons can kill which monsters because it added an extra challenge for the characters. But sometimes, I'd rather just let magic be magic.

My last fantasy manuscript takes place in a world where humans live underwater (think the Nautilus navigating between Disney's Atlantis and the Gungan City in The Phantom Menace). The whole thing is so out-of-this-world, any screen adaptation would probably have to be animated. Yet I still got asked about the mechanics behind it all. My answer: Who cares? It's magic!

The people who made those comments were just doing what I'd asked, which was to give me their honest feedback, and this is not meant to be anything against them. But it's a mentality that's been hammered into us by the kinds of media that's been popularized lately, and the kinds of discussions that have come out of them. I'm sure the popularity of gaming has something to do with it. Hey, if you want all your magic battles to have specific, mathematically calculated damage points and whatnot, more power to you. But that's not the only way to tell a story.

I could go on about all the other ways in which contemporary Western-style fantasy is limiting the kinds of stories we get exposed to, but I've already gone on far too long on just one point. So I'll pick one more thing to rant about before calling it a night: Agency. Goddamn agency. 

What is agency in storytelling? Basically, it's giving the main character control of the narrative. It's the Hero's Journey -- which I love! -- or the Great Man theory of history -- which I don't love. It's your knight in shining armor choosing to sally forth and slay the dragon to rescue the princess.

As for the princess? Well, if you're going to tell it from her point of view, you'd better let her control the situation too. Which is awesome of course, but not everyone's story.

Because not everyone has agency. Some are faced with powers too great to defeat, and the story lies in how they survive when they don't have control of the narrative. That's worth telling too.

I'll give a (possibly silly) example: the animated Thumbelina movie from the 1990s. Like all the other little girls in my school, I loved it. I remembered it with the same fondness as the famous Disney movies from that era -- The Little Mermaid and whatnot. Which is why I was surprised to recently learn that critics panned it at the time. One of the reasons? Because Thumbelina had no agency.

I rewatched the movie a few weeks ago out of nostalgia, and poor Thumbelina really has no control over the story at all. She's basically a human trafficking victim: kidnapped from her bedroom and passed from male to male (these are critters so "man" doesn't seem like the right word) when all she wants is to go home and marry her true love. At two inches tall and with no superpowers (unless you count Jodi Benson's singing voice), she's unable to fight back as she's dragged from one unfortunate situation to another. In the end, she gets rescued.

She may have no agency, but hers is still a story of resilience and survival. Is it not worth telling then? I wonder if the reason why so many of us elementary school girls loved it is because we could relate to being tiny and powerless, always being told what to do by others and having virtually no control over anything. The story may not have been the kind of rah-rah-girl-power tale that usually gets held up as a good example for girls (and, again, I love those), but that doesn't mean it wasn't worthwhile.

Anyway, this wasn't meant to be a full-throated defense of the animated Thumbelina (heaven knows that movie has issues). The point is that a character doesn't have to have agency to mean something, yet we've all been hammered with the message that YOUR CHARACTER MUST HAVE AGENCY AND DRIVE THE STORY OR YOU MIGHT AS WELL RIP IT UP AND BURN THE PIECES.

Tyranny, I tell you.

It's easy to internalize these messages -- lord knows I have -- and repeat them over and over until they multiply like omicron (insert "what I see" "what you did there" pie chart meme). They've been repeated so many times that it's become accepted that these kinds of things -- world-building with rigid rules, characters with obvious agency -- are what make a fantasy story "good." You hear this advice, you heed it, you pass it along, and then you use it as a rubric when evaluating other stories (and by "you", I'm including me).

But what is "good" anyway? Who decided what was "good"?

It reminds me of the grudge I have against Stephen King's On Writing not because of anything that's written in there, but because of the number of people who treat it as God, unquestioningly, uncritically using it as the standard by which to judge all writing. It's one set of opinions and advice. Ignoring it won't tear the fabric of the universe.

So, what's to be done? Well, therein lies the challenge. To paraphrase Yoda, we must unlearn what we have learned. Read stories about characters without agency and see how they, too, are valuable, rather than dismissing them out of hand. Stay with a tale where magic is inexplicable, illogical even and feel the impact. Dig a little deeper when deciding what's good, rather than giving knee-jerk reactions based on someone else's rules.

All right, stepping off my soap box now. Good night, y'all.


Gary Frank said...

I agree about your take on the mechanics of magic and such. I hear that at conventions, that everything needs to be explained or it takes them out of the story. It works because it's magic. If you don't like it, don't read it just to criticize it later. Thanks for the post.

Mary Fan said...

Thank you for reading!!

Blogger Template by Designer Blogs