With a title like that, what could this article possibly be about that won’t just make me look like a goon? Don’t get me wrong; I love fantasy. Probably 75% of my reading is fantasy, and I read a lot, so that’s a lot of fantasy. But some things just keep bothering me. No matter how much I try to accept that some tropes are just tropes, or that publishers are always going to do what will get them the most money, even if it’s not my money, these things just bug me.
1. Publishers’ newfound love of trade paperbacks and B format mass markets
It’s mostly been the case in fantasy that books are printed straight to mass market. The more well-known authors get 12-18 months in hardcover, then go straight to mass market. Now suddenly we’re seeing the full fiction cycle of hardcover to trade to mass market—assuming we even see a mass market release at all. While many would view this as a positive development, because it means that publishers are taking sci-fi and fantasy more seriously, as a genre that serious customers will purchase, what it means is that the average cost of a fantasy novel has increased.
While there are plenty of slow readers who read fantasy and plenty of fast readers who don’t, it’s still the case that the majority of fantasy readers I know read pretty quickly. Last year I read over 40,000 pages of fiction. I can read a 300-400 page mass market in one day if it’s a day off. If you assume a 10 dollar book in mass market and 15 in Trade, that means if I read, say, 70 books a year (which is a low estimate if I’m only reading 3-400 pages books) that means I’ll spend 700 dollars in mass market or 1050 in trade. The cost difference is an extra 35 books I could buy.
I’ve already stopped reading several series I was enjoying because they no longer seem to be available in A format mass market paperback. The Dresden Files are my case example. At $8.99 each, I would have bought and read every single one for as many as Butcher wanted to publish; and in fact, I was doing just that. Now they are $12-13, and I’d rather get 50% more book for that price, no matter how much I might enjoy The Dresden Files.
2. Let’s not make up words, let’s just spell them funny!
Okay, fantasy authors. I understand. Not everybody is a Tolkien. Not everybody is a formally educated linguist who can create a whole language out of thin air. Nobody is expecting that. But seriously, if you are using existing Earth things, and you want us to understand that they are existing Earth things, please just use the existing Earth words. You’re not going to wreck our immersion any more by adding milk from a cow to your coffee than you already do having us see you add milk from a “kau” to your “kafe.” Come on, give us some credit.
Either make up new words that are NOT based on Latin/Greek roots, or use the words we already know. And coffee is my personal bete noire on this front. I’ve seen “kafe,” “kava,” “kaf”—if it’s a silly starts-with-k alternate spelling, I’ve seen it somewhere.
3. Wide-eyed farmboys and character development
We’ve all read more than enough farmboy/prophecy stories to know how that arc goes. We’ve all read the two entire books of The Wheel of Time that are basically the farmboys being slack-jawed at the fact that cities are big before they even get to the really big city. I mean, most fantasy readers remember that Frodo did it and Luke Skywalker did it; it’s been done. You can actually skip over that part. Or you can get it over with faster. We all know that the farmboy will be surprised by the size of a city, we all know he’s going to make at least one bonehead screw-up because he’s from a little village and doesn’t know how these things work. This can be a chapter, not a book. We want to get to the good bits, the bits where this farmboy becomes different from all the farmboys we’ve already read. Nobody is going to get angry, nobody will accuse you of insufficient character development. I promise.
4. Bucking the trend just to buck the trend
Elves who live in caves. Dwarves who hate underground. Yes, there are tropes, and yes, tropes can get tired. But deliberately setting up an obvious trope for the purpose of not following it doesn’t show that you’re a unique or creative writer, it shows that you think making dwarves who live in the forest and like birds is going to blow our minds, and it really isn’t. Write your book, tell your story the way you want it told, and if every now and then, your story needs short stocky warrior cultures who sound Scottish and have beards, that’s okay. And if every now and then your short stocky race happens to live in the hills and make stained glass and hate fighting, just do it. Don’t show us one and wait until we go “Oh look, a dwarf again” just to spring it on us that it’s not a Tolkien dwarf. Half the fun of reading fantasy is the discovery of the world the author has made for us. Don’t assume we’re all handcuffed by tradition and expectation, and don’t expend effort to rub the unexpected in our faces when you could use that effort to tell a better story.
I’m sure I could come up with several more, but why not start a conversation in the comments? What bothers you about fantasy? What really grinds your steampunk gears? Agree with me? Disagree? Something else entirely? Post away!