The tropes that trouble me

I think the one fantasy trope that bugs me the most is its Britanno-centric model.

Ever since Tolkien, Lewis and Eddison invented the modern epic fantasy novel in the first half of the 20th century — let’s not forget, that’s a hundred years ago — other writers have tried to emulate them, from Terry Brooks to Christopher Paolini.

There has to be more to fantasy than rehashing the same old stuff.

It’s understandable that the fantasy worlds of the three originators resembled Britain more than any other place on our world. They were English authors, after all. But others since them have missed an opportunity to expand fantasy’s oeuvre, to incorporate other cultures into the genre.

One notable exception is Guy Gavriel Kay ; his latest books are based in China, and his Sarantium series is based in a country that looks suspiciously like the Eastern Roman Empire in about the fourth or fifth centuries CE.

But many of the aspiring and independent fantasy writers I come across have a decidedly British bias. (I’m using the term British here in the way the Romans did: to refer to a person from the British Isles.) Come to think of it, most new Canadian and American writers share a British bent.

What do I mean? Crack open any novel, electronic or paper. Look at the characters’ names. Almost always, you’ll find the hero or heroine has an English, Scottish or Irish name. And that’s not just in fantasy, by the way — almost every genre has the same feature.

When it comes to epic fantasy, the kind set in a fictional world similar to ours in some past era, the names are still almost always British.

Or they sound somewhat British, or evocative of Tolkien’s names. The worst example of this is Paolini’s Eragon series.

Write what you know

We in North America live in a decidedly multicultural society. I’m not the first to notice this, but when I read independent and upcoming authors these days, I wonder if I’m the first fiction writer to notice it.

At my sons’ high school, people with English- or British-derived family names are definitely in the minority. And also in my workplace (granted, I live in Ottawa, so there are a lot of people with French last names; but even beyond that, the proportions of people with background deriving from other nations is growing fast).

What’s problematic about this is that it’s limiting to our imagination. The world is a wide, colourful, wonderful place with a breathtaking range of species and peoples. For a fantasy writer, there is so much inspiration to be found in cultures of eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, Oceania … you get the idea.

What I’m trying to say is this: be original. Come up with new ideas. And while there is much inspiration to be found in ancient mythology — I certainly have taken a lot from several mythologies for my writing — why limit yourself to one little corner of the world? Look broadly, take what you can from different places.

And if you’re going to invent your own world, then invent your own world — not a tremulous imitation of someone else’s.

7 comments on “The tropes that trouble me

  1. I think the word that fantasy needs to be more than medieval Englad is getting out there, Scott. At least when I took a creative writing workshop, they said if you ever want to see (brick and mortar) publication, avoid castles, swords, knights, etc. I heard it again while looking for an agent and from my editor! All that is certainly why I did avoid that trope in Born of Water and it was a lot of fun breaking out of that theme. There is far more room out of the box than in. 🙂

    But there will always be big name authors who will be published no matter what theme they choose. And there are the indie authors that won’t care I’d a publishing house will never look at them twice, they’ll write what they love, and that may very well be knights and swords. Now I think I’m going to head off to the Renn Faire!

  2. Honestly I think that as much influence as the classics of fantasy have had on the Brit-centric thing, D&D also has a great deal of responsibility for the modern crop of fantasy authors. While D&D was clearly inspired by the older authors, many new authors grew up, and wrote their first stories, for D&D and similar games. It’s created a kind of universal setting.

    Personally I’m trying to steal from as many traditions as I can to make my own worlds, but it is easy to fall back on the familiar (which for me is mainly Ireland since I grew up on the Knights of the Red Branch, but still…)

    My one concern with branching out of the familiar is to manage to do so in a way that respects the original culture. I’ve read several PoC bloggers who have commented on being disturbed by parts of their culture being twisted and perverted- sometimes it can come across as a kind of literary imperialism- and while I do believe in the need for artistic license, I also believe in respect and consideration for the feelings of others.

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