Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Fantasy in the Modern Age

As fantasy leaps from the page into other forms of media, it’s finally leaving behind some of its most divisive tropes.  ♦ 
When a book, movie, or television show has the fantasy genre labeling it, audiences know at least some of what they can expect: swords, magic, mythical creatures, invented languages, some form of perilous quest, and a number of other familiar tropes that have become so standard to the genre that any fantasy work without at least one of these traits may not be thought of as fantasy at all. Most of these tropes have been passed down from those fantasy works that are widely recognized as the best of the genre, such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, but lesser fantasy works that adhere too tightly to these tropes, or that do so unthinkingly, can make the genre stale as a whole and can keep away new readers who might equate the genre only with these too-easy clichés.
   Then, there are a number of even more pervasive, and even more problematic, tropes that have infiltrated the genre for a long time, and which ought to be stricken from the Book of Lazy Fantasy Devices altogether—namely, the infrequency of female protagonists in story, the over-embellishment of narrative description and worldbuilding, and the over-reliance of physical combat as a solution to many of the difficulties the protagonist faces. But as pervasive as these tropes are, some recent fantasy works have shown that they don't have to be the norm.

Fantasy’s Representation Problem

Beginning with the most divisive trope, women in fantasy have traditionally served as secondary roles to male protagonists. Their most common role is that of a love interest, and in turn their physical appearance is the subject of focus more often than their characterization. The reason for the scarcity of female leads in the fantasy genre can vary depending on what source material is being referenced, but the most common reason is that the majority of fantasy consumers, at least historically, are male. (This isn’t just a cliché of its own—a number of online surveys have been conducted to determine the demographics of fantasy readers, and each survey revealed that the male-to-female ratio is indeed skewed toward the male side.) Fantasy authors and content creators know that the genre they are working with is male-centered, and in turn they cast male leads that their audience can find more relatable, or their mindsets presumably easier to understand. But this has also meant that fantasy’s female characters—in novels, films, even in fantasy art—have too often been reduced to one-dimensional male-fantasy fulfillment instead of strong characters in their own right.
   This particular trope isn’t one set in stone, however, and recently fantasy entertainment has made bigger strides in offering complex female characters; ultimately it’s the actions and motives of a protagonist that fantasy consumers find the most striking, regardless of whether they are male or female, and the genre has finally begun to catch on. The fantasy sci-fi hybrid video game Horizon Zero Dawn is one such example, where the game’s protagonist is a young woman named Aloy, who was cast out of her village as a child and then trains to become a skilled hunter and warrior, eventually gaining entrance into a new tribe through a series of trials called The Proving. There are no romantic plot devices, and her physical appearance never controls the narrative; all that drives the story is her desire to save her adopted tribal homeland from a robot invasion with her bow and spear. With over 7.6 million copies of the video game sold worldwide in a year, it is clear that male audiences are hardly deterred by a female lead instead of a male one. The notion of having a male protagonist for male consumers of fantasy products is a trope that more and more modern works are starting to let go of, and in turn more variety and diversity in the genre are coming about.

Worldbuilding at the Expense of Character

Of all the fantasy tropes that can keep potential newcomers at bay, lengthy paragraphs of overdone narrative description and worldbuilding are some of the most glaring offenders. This trope took root in the fact that fantasy takes much of its narrative composition from epic poetry. J.R.R. Tolkien has stated that The Lord of the Rings was heavily inspired by the epic poem Beowulf, and in turn many of the characters and settings reflect medieval characteristics. Tales of heroic deeds and mythical settings are the heart and soul of fantasy, but the sheer magnitude and intensity of their descriptions can overwhelm both new and experienced readers. It is generally accepted that readers will not recall every detail the fantasy creator painstakingly describes or presents, and some go so far as to skip over these bits in the story entirely to move into a more fluid point in the plot. But that’s sometimes easier said than done, as the fantasy world often gets page after page of worldbuilding description.
   The even bigger problem with the overuse of worldbuilding is that it’s often presented at the expense of character, or sometimes even instead of it. This poses a particular problem, as in fantasy especially it can be difficult for readers to always sympathize with and connect with characters in terms of who they are and what they’re attempting to do. Few people can relate to someone like Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings who must wrestle with the task of becoming a king as well as beating back the armies of monsters that threaten the world. When fantasy works lean too heavily on its worldbuilding, this adds yet another layer of distance between character and audience.
   But this doesn’t have to be the case—the needs of the fantasy world can absolutely co-exist alongside characters with whom audiences can find similarities and can root for on a more day-to-day level, such as the characters found in the animated television show Avatar: The Last Airbender. The age range of the main characters goes from twelve to sixteen, with the protagonist Aang being the youngest. Despite the regular use of their supernatural abilities to control the elements of air, water, earth, and fire, the narrative focus isn’t on the otherworldly but on problems faced in the real world. Coming-of-age responsibility, a developing sense of morality, and even teenage love are all topics addressed by the show and experienced by the characters. The realistic response to these issues by teenagers is often one of immaturity, sometimes to comedic effect, but it’s believable nonetheless. The plot still retains its epic quality of a grand quest, but those within it have mentalities and motivations that modern youth can relate to. And it is because of the narrative being so character-driven that the lengthy descriptions of worldbuilding—such as background information about the Chinese dynasty-era inspired fantasy world—aren’t needed, as the world is shaped and described by those that operate within it in perfect harmony. The trope of expansive description and fantastic worldbuilding can be overcome so long as the audience finds their fantasy characters realistic.

Battle of the Excessive Battles

The final trope that fantasy is most guilty of is requiring physical force to be one of the go-to tools in a protagonist’s toolkit. With fantasy narratives so often consisting of adventuring out into unknown and unfamiliar lands, there will be plenty of individuals who wish bodily harm upon the inexperienced traveler. Assertion of oneself through combat is the easiest way to represent conflict in a manner that is both plot-advancing as well as entertaining. George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones television series is packed with flashy action sequences that make audiences knuckles grow white with fear of their favorite character meeting a gruesome end. Though diplomacy is an important factor of the narrative, steel and fire are just as relied upon to see things through. But violence is often overused as an easy way to create tension on the page or on the screen, and sometimes it seems to simply exist for its own sake rather than for the sake of story.
   The notion of having a pacifist fantasy protagonist, then, seems absurd given how much of the genre revolves around medieval combat. Yet Toby Fox’s roleplaying video game Undertale centers itself on that exact concept. The player actively decides on how they wish to handle the monsters that attack them as they make their way out of the underground kingdom they accidentally fell into. Players that choose to kill the opposing monsters will notice that the narrative changes based on how many monsters they’ve killed and who those monsters were in the monster society they travel through. But the unique aspect of this fantasy tale is that the player can choose to be a pacifist and never kill a single monster in the entire game. This distinct approach of non-violence is directly addressed by the characters in the game as bizarre and unusual, but the reward for this unique playstyle is an equally unique narrative ending based around pacifism. Because of this unprecedented take on the classic fantasy adventure narrative, Undertale was one of the most popular games in its release year of 2015. Praise over the writing’s self-awareness of violence as the easy answer gives legitimacy to the fact that physical combat is understood as one of fantasy’s most common traits. The standard approach of swords as problem-solvers rather than problems themselves is undermined by Undertale and demonstrates that epic quests don’t require epic proportions of destruction.
   Fantasy as a whole contains many traits that give it the flavor and feeling consumers seek in it, but when these traits become standard practice the freshness of the genre begins to spoil. More recent works have begun to step past these conventions across new platforms and media, allowing a wider audience to connect to the adventurers and have a character-driven grasp on the world they operate in. And it’s when these pervasive patterns are finally broken that truly unique fantasy tales can be told in this modern age.
  • About the Author
    William Kaleb Yi is a senior Creative Writing major at Miami University. He is currently employed at the West Chester (OH) Barnes & Noble as a Bookseller. His career goal is to become a self-sufficient fantasy author utilizing a blend of modern humor, classic adventure, and Christian undertones.

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