In view of the upcoming third annual novel contest at ACM, I figured I would start a ‘rules for genres’ theme. These things are those things that I find distract the reader and are hallmarks of poor writing. I don’t know how many potential applicants might read this blog, and this post and upcoming posts. However, I will remind those reading that I am a judge for this competition and a mentor for several finalists each year. (Finalists in the competition have a few months to work with an assigned judge to rework their manuscript. Us mentors do not read for grammar, but try to help the author eschew distractions, tighten the story, and make it even more interesting.) And of course, many authors in the library fantasy section are blatant violators of these rules…
Without more introduction, I will plunge right into this post’s topic: Rules for Fantasy. Of course the rules are ‘more like guidelines’ but the higher the number of broken rules and the more egregiously they are flaunted the more likely the book (that you are reading or writing) is not worth the time. Fiction in general has rules like: Don’t treat your reader like an idiot, they can remember things from page to page. Follow the rules you make. Characters must be true to the personality you gave them, if they change there must be a reason. (Having characters acting or talking out of character is a terrible jolt for the reader.) etc.
Here are three rules for good fantasy: (For instance: The Eyes of the Dragon)
1. No Elves (Or dwarves, or shadow/fire demons …)
In general, as soon as elves appear, the story becomes transparent. Inserting mythical beasts, alternate races of sentient beings, this all has either the campy feel of fan-fiction or the plagiaristic feel of… plagiarism. In general, stories with elves use them to distract from the gaping inanity of the plot or boring meagerness of the characters.
This rule applies even to those stories that do not explicitly have elves. If there is a set of people, or a race of people, who have elvish characteristics, it has almost the same effect. For example, Orson Scott Card (who has some really good works) has a series about Alvin Maker which start with the book Seventh Son. The first book or two are good, but then, all of a sudden, it turns out that the Indian tribes are actually very, very, elf like (in tune with nature, special woodland related powers, odd and profound wisdom… everything except pointy ears.) At that exact moment, the books begin to spiral down and down into ever more vapid displays of cliché. (And I usually like O.S.C.)
So, in summary, Tolkien used elves because he was brilliant. Everyone else who does so, seems to do it because they lack an imagination of their own. Until such a time when I read a novel (other than Tolkein) with both elves and originality, I will believe this the immutable first rule of fantasy.
2. No invented languages
Unless the author is a philologist, brilliant, and Tolkien, invented languages are just nuisance and pretentions. Tolkien actually invented languages with strict and realistic grammar based off of the ancient languages he was master of like old Norse, old Welsh etc. etc. When reading any other book that has an invented language, it is distracting and unconvincing. It is very like the author thought, ‘well gee… what should I call this? I know… I will call it the klåkkakûla. (K’s are for dwarvish… it’s a convention of bad fantasy.) The same thing in elvish is harloth-tìrath, and in the ancient language of Man: ombundium, and in orcish: zkartzik…. English? you ask. In English it means ‘boring’.
3. Last rule for now. You cannot give straight off, modern sensibilities to characters in a fantasy world. This rule is even more important for historical fiction, and dystopian fiction. However, in fantasy, it would be generally jarring to meet a sexually liberated communist feminist in a world of swords and patriarchy. Basically, your setting has to feel self-consistent, and if you put your characters into a historical-like setting, the people need to be believable too. This does not mean that the women in your story have to be non-entities, or in the metaphorical kitchen. (Witness Eowyn, and back further, Britomart, and even further to Antigone.) Just let your characters speak in a ‘real’ fashion, without the idioms and platitudes of modern speech.
Now, of course these rules can be broken. And if anyone reading this wants to submit a story that breaks one or two of these rules or whatever, of course that is fine. Just remember that you cannot break these rules in lieu of plot, interesting characters, originality, and conflict. For those who do submit a novel, semifinalists get good solid feedback, and finalists get rigorous feedback, and winners… well they win.
Update: A negative example just occurred to me. The horribly plagiarist and predictable Eregon books are violators of every rule here, and then some. If you want to know what garbage looks like when transmuted into fiction, they are a prime example.