Fantasy? But that’s just rubbish about elves and dwarves and stuff…

If you’re a fantasy reader, you’ll be well used to hearing this kind of thing, particularly from hard SF fans, who, for some bizarre reason, seem to think that spaceships and terraforming are somehow more ‘real’ than dragons and wizardry. So you open your mouth to defend your reading – and the first thing you realise is that there is a regrettable amount of bad fantasy, almost invariably dripping with fey elves and characters who can’t turn round without stepping on a dwarf. So is there some mystical link between the faerie races and lousy writing?

Let’s start from another angle. What makes good fantasy? The same things that make good writing in any genre; SF, fantasy, crime, literary fiction, take your pick. You need originality, engaging characterisation, natural dialogue and vivid scene setting all held together with a coherent plot. Good writing addresses the tougher realities of life like sex and death, both of which are very difficult for the author. It takes serious work to convey the depth of emotions, the mix of sensation, without trivialising death in particular, which at some time or other is going to affect everyone.

You won’t find these things in the bad fantasy that’s such an embarrassment to the genre because bad writers are usually lazy writers. They retread other people’s ideas through the easier route of clichés. You see the same cardboard cutout characters time and again, you read dialogue that no one could ever actually say and the background has all the substance of daytime soap opera scenery. The good guys get plot immunity and any sex is basic Tab A into Slot B descriptions or sentimentality that either makes your toes curl or gives you the giggles, depending on temperament.

And elves and dwarves look irresistible to the lazy writer. They look so easy. Why bother creating an original milieu for your fantasy when there’s such a vast array of myth and folktale to be dusted off? We all know about elves, we’ve all read the stories; there are dozens of plots to be plundered. Add indifferent characters, dialogue and scene setting and it all adds up to that bad fantasy with its prevalence of elves and misty medieval settings with holes in the plot you could fly a dragon through. But it doesn’t have to be that way, just because it’s fantasy. Just as there’s no good reason for the SF writer with a mania for detail telling you everything you never wanted to know about air purification on spaceships while the story is cryogenically suspended for half a chapter.

The bad fantasy problem isn’t down to the elves. It’s down to the writer who can’t see that elves are in fact horribly difficult. Yes, everyone knows about elves, everyone’s read the stories and as a writer, that means you’ve immediately set yourself twice as hard a task when it comes to being original, never mind anything else. How can you surprise the reader who comes to your story with so much background knowledge? How can you play on expectation and twist the perspective, when you’re committing yourself to themes and ideas played out time in folk tale for the past thousand years or more? A good writer can do it. There’s excellent fantasy out there with elves; Katherine Kerr’s Deverry books and Kate Elliot’s Crown of Stars sequence leap to mind for me. On a comical note, there’s Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies. In their different ways, all these books take what we all think we know about elves and explore the implications, weaving those ideas into the stories. Preconceptions about the elves we all grew up with are challenged at every turn.

I wouldn’t touch elves or dwarves with a barge pole; I think they’re far too difficult. So I was quite startled to hear two people discussing the elves in my Tales of Einarinn recently. One was convinced that the Forest Folk were elves and his mate was arguing they were no such thing, they were gypsies. From where I’m standing, Forest Folk are neither; these guys were imposing their own preconceptions on what they had read. Granted though, I’ve drawn on the Celtic pre-history that underpins the faerie mythos as well as the nomadic traditions of central Europe. That kind of background is integral to the fantasy genre, after all, in the same way that FTL travel and settling strange new worlds in fundamental to SF. Any genre fiction has common themes and elements, whether fantasy, whodunits or ‘city-girl chick lit’. But there ain’t no justice in condemning writers who use those themes as a starting point for creating something new, in the same breath as the lazy writers who tack clichés into a one-size-fits-all, threadbare story.

As a writer, I’m always going to suffer from people imposing their preconceptions on my work but there’s not a lot I can do about that. Perhaps with these ideas up your sleeve, you might be able to answer back when someone waving a handful of recycled space opera tries to impose their preconceptions on your choice of reading.

This article appeared in the Spring/Summer 2001 issue of the Ottakar’s magazine Outland

2 thoughts on “Fantasy? But that’s just rubbish about elves and dwarves and stuff…

    1. No, he didn’t. What’s your point? That Saturn V’s are real? Okay, but galaxy-hopping space-travel and shake’n’bake colonies in remote star systems still aren’t.

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