Flood Control

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Fantasy Authors: Please Stop Doing These

  • Prophecies. They are a cliche, and as such should only be used with the knowledge that they are a cliche and they aren't very interesting. Moreover, the whole point of prophecies is that they spoil the future, and this is the last thing you want to be doing. All the readers know that the main character is going to fulfill the prophecy, because otherwise why are we following them around? Don't give in to cliche, as we all know what you're doing. The best idea is to make the prophecy unreliable, but then there's certainly an interest factor in a world with magic that is still subject to the ravages of the future. For once. If you want to do a prophecy right, use it as a plot point - there is no way that the hero can satisfy it, but in the dying minutes of the story it becomes obvious that somehow the hero's basically satisfied the prophecy. Readers will remember it, though, so you want some sort of filter, like using the snowballing power of rumours or something, or introduce a flaming red herring and come up with some othe way to justify the central character's point-of-view - for instance, the central character becomes the champion of the favourite to fulfil the prophecy. Matthew Reilly's Temple does this really well - the main character gives us a prophecy, explains that a particular character satisfies it and how, and then it turns out that there's one extra line there that hasn't been covered. (Sorry if I spoiled the book for you.)
  • Madness. I haven't read a single fantasy where a mad character even remotely rang true. They always seem to be almost entirely lucid but merely pretending madness, even if they are actually completely insane. Never mind that madness itself is a cliche - there are plenty of ways to make an important person in the story impotent - but until authors actually do their research, I'd like them to stop it. (I actually knew someone suffering from a mental illness once. Her brain was regressing, and she had lost the ability to feel full. I don't think I'll ever forget her going to bed then updating up over the next five minutes whether she was sleeping on her good or bad side.)
  • Entire worlds that are useless until the Earth heroes show up. So many books pit the tiny American against some sort of Great Evil that only they can defeat. That's fine, so long as it's credible. But there's really no excuse for the hero needing to solve every problem that crops up because apparantly no-one's managed to get around to it yet. If you have special support networks set up to provide help via subterfuge to the hero, one would expect that network to have already been working on the minor bad guy designed to really really piss off the hero.
  • Improbable Runs of Luck. I know it's supposed to be a story, but the hero being a hero because of a series of thousand-to-one chances isn't particularly satisfying. It makes the author look like they didn't actually know how a hero could become one, which is probably a weakness in fantasy authors. There are sometimes reasons why you want a sequence of improbable events to happen, in which case you should note that this is a series of improbable events and come up with an explanation for it, like a hidden mentor secretly manipulating events in order to shape the hero.
  • Hidden Mentors Secretly Manipulating Events In Order To Shape The Hero. There's a principle in movies that within the first act, the hero of the story has to become a willing participant in the events that follow. Roleplaying gamers call it a 'hook' - your hero has to say, 'yes, I will do this thing' and then, using the assets they have, set out to achieve it. Having a hidden mentor screwing with things takes away that choice. It detracts from the hero's successes and dashes the possibility of heroic failures. The hero becomes a sucker, basically, and that's not the point.
  • Taking Seventy Pages To Get To The Point. Again, in movies, you need to establish interest very quickly. Ideally, you should develop some sort of conflict within the first five pages, and let things escalate from there. Similarly, you should decide ahead of time how many books you have to play with things and try and keep things as self-contained as you can. It means that you can't write that great sprawling messy epic, but then readers would like the story to keep moving along a bit and to not have to reread the other books just to know where to start in the latest. I understand that it helps to only pay attention to characters if you need to get them into position, and focus on a small set of characters who have a reasonably self-contained adventure. Sort of like Lost is doing.
  • The Perfect Hero. It's highly irritating to read a book where the hero already has all the skills to complete the quest, or fits some prophecy like a glove that you don't find out about until the second book, or anything where the author has decided that they're going to nix possibilities for tension and character development by making their main character too awesome. Don't - we all hate seeing nice guys go through hell, but we'll accept that it's a great way to develop characters. For all our sakes, be heartless.
Anything else people can think of that they're sick of fantasy authors doing?