Things That Bug Me About Fantasy

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.

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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.

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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!

About Dan Ruffolo

Dan Ruffolo
Dan is a History and Philosophy graduate from Laurentian University. When he’s not reading an excessive amount of fantasy and sci-fi novels, or putting way too much time into online gaming and forums, he runs a Wine Shop in the north end of Toronto Ontario. A lifelong fantasy reader, and gamer nerd, Dan’s life ambition is to become a librarian.

View all articles written by Dan Ruffolo.

20 comments

  1. I completely agree with your list, and especially number 2. I hate when I am reading a novel, especially epic fantasy, and the characters use coded language that wont be explained until 100 pages later. I am pretty used to it because I read a lot of fantasy but it still gets rather annoying.

  2. I don’t like trade format either–but it’s cheaper for them and more expensive for us. I hate it. but POD and short print runs make it more economical for the publishers. They get the added benefit of higher margins with it too because things like shipping and warehousing are fairly static. Another bonus for them is that libraries like the format (I used to work in a library–the trade are easier for them to change to a hard cover book if the book is popular. They need certain “white margins” to do that and trade provides it if they decide to cover the book to increase its circulation days.)

    I get pretty dang tired of dumb-ass farmboys anyway. I grew up on a ranch and most of us had gone to various cities before we were 6. Yeah, sure, medieval settings and all that–but guess what? Grammy had a covered wagon–and SHE had been to large cities even thought it took 5 to 10 days to get there! Turns out that dad was even there when HE was a kid because people go to the bigger cities for festivals, baptisms–you know, just like in the BOOKS when all the people gather from the outskirts!!! Yup, that crowd is the country bumpkins!!! So that trope is a fast way to get me to put the book aside…or not pick it up. I know. I know. I need more patience.

  3. I’m with Cameron. As both a reader and writer, number 2 is something to which I’m probably unduly sensitive. Every time I hear Ewan MacGregor refer to “younglings” instead of “children” (and in my house, it’s way more often than is probably healthy), I want to smack someone. If it’s already got a name, use it.

  4. Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide To Fantasyland is a great encyclopedic examination of the tropes, clichés and derivative tendencies of the fantasy genre. I spent an evening snickering as I read it, because I could name at least three books for every given listing in it. Jones’ book is set up like a tourist’s guidebook and I would recommend it to anyone who finds themselves feeling a sense of deja vu while reading a fantasy novel. Since Jones wrote in in ’96 and the publsher reissued it in ’06, I’m sure it’s about due for an expansion.

  5. I only agree with number 2.The others i haven’t really notice. I mean i will but a book if i really like it no matter the price or so. It just annoys me, when i start the series with an edition that does a year to get printed after the book is published and i have to wait one more year for it.

    And i really disagree with number 3.
    ” 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 will accuse them actually. The fact that you’ve read many fantasy books and you’ve seen the concept doesn’t mean you should take away the character development. Because it is character development. And there are many people out there who haven’t read Wheel of Time, etc, etc and that might be their first book. The writers write for everyone, new and old. And a good book should have even those cliche things. It’s upon the writer to make it interesting for the older readers, not to completely forget that part of the storyline just cause it’s been written before.

    • Janea S

      The question here becomes, do these cliche plot tropes actually enhance our understanding of the character? If this is an archetypal farm boy doing his archetypal country-bumpkin thing…what has the reader come away with? The confirming of an archetype? If so, does the author really need to spend a great deal of time establishing this archetype before they grow the character beyond that? Fantasy, for me, isn’t about where the character starts or where the character ends, it’s the journey they took to get there. And I don’t like the journeys I read to take too long to get started, no matter how many miles have already been traveled.

      • I agree with you. It’s the journey that matters.And the whole farmer boy thing is overused. It annoys me too.
        But if the writer thinks it’s important for the journey to be big for a reason? I mean, at Name of the Wind, Kvothe’s journey is both big and detailed (of course he has nothing to do with the farm boy).
        In Feist’s Serpentwar Saga, Eric is a farm boy. But if he skipped the parts of him getting accustomed to the city, you will miss entirely what kind of man Eric is.Something that i quite enjoyed.

        If the author has a really talent for fantasy and writes well, no matter how many times you’ve seen something, he/she will make it different and interesting. Something that will worth your read.
        I don’t think that ALL of them must been cut out. In their own way, they make you get to know the character better and connect with him. Which personally i find really important. Characters are one of the most important parts of the story. Without them you don’t have a story.

        On the certain matter, i believe it’s more on the author to work out what he needs to keep in.

  6. Given the diversity (read: disgusting breadth) of the English language, I don’t think there’s much of a need to make up fantasy names. Certainly for people, as there are traditions in the genre. However, for place names, guild names, and more, a well-chosen word or combination of two words will always be more memorable and pronounceable. Give me the Black Daggers over the Dra’suldeth any day.

  7. Just to be anal retentive — kava is an actual drink and it may not have been meant to be coffee. I think it’s an alcoholic drink? Or the name of the plant from which it is derived. But that does not take away from your point. That is just me being a pain in the neck.

  8. Generally i disagree wirh your list.I wll explain what i mean about each of those numbers.
    Number 1:
    I disagree not because you aren’t right but because there are people including me that actually like Hardcovers or trade paperbacks.Personally i have some books 2 or 3 times because i like the new editions and some times i prefer hardback over mass market, not only because of the hardcover but also because of the cover; many times the hardcovers have different covers from the mass market paperbacks.Yes i will agree that the cost is increased but many times i found myself not angry because i will buy one book instead of two.

    Number 2:
    I agree completely with you.It is furstrating most of the times when you read words with only one letter or two different.I prefer to write the real ones instead of those.It is like they making fun of themselves or in the worst that they don’t respect their readers.If you wanna do something like Tolkien do it right for yourself and for your readers,either way you fool both.

    Number 3:
    Here i disagree completely.Like yiota said there are many new readers.Lets assume those readers have never discussed with their friends fantasy books and want to start a fantasy series.What will they say and think if the writer does what you propose?Also that thing is indeed a development of the character.You have seen it in different books and series but almost never in the same way.It is a key element of the development of your character.Writers must indeed write for both old and new readers, and they must try to win both.Also this element adds to book’s realism about it’s world and characters.If you lived in a small village,and by chance you visit some big city.What your reaction will be?You will act like you have been raised in a big city or like the one we read in books like Wheel Of Time.Probably the latter and that will be the reality.If you take it away or skip you lose that realism.It is up to the writer to make that interesting for all the readers.

    Number 4:
    I will disagree and agree with you at the same time.Maybe an author does really want to write about elves who lives in mountains and i don’t know what else not because he wants to write something new and not rewrite old ideas,but because he wants it,because that is how he/she is thinking it.There are authors of both kinds.The key to success for one more time is how he/she will write his/her idea.That is the element that will make him/her different than Tolkien or other writters.

    Anyway i liked your post.It was very thoughtfull!Keep up with the good work! :)
    I will definitely will follow your post from now on!

    • Dan

      Thanks for the comments :) I have a few responses to your responses :)

      To #1, I say “I have no problem with hardcovers or trade paperbacks. There are several series I own in hardcover and consider the cost completely worth it. My problem isn’t the existence of Hardcover/Trade/B-Format, it’s when there simply -aren’t- A-Format Mass Markets of titles, I have -no- option to purchase at the 8.99-10.99 price point”

      To #3, I say “Again, I don’t think we actually are on opposite sides of an issue on this. My problem is how -long- it goes on for. You can develop a character without starting entirely from base premises and explicitly stating every single thing there is to know about the characters. While it’s a bigger issue in Fantasy because Fantasy is where most very large-scale long-running series live, it’s just as common in general fiction. I’d rather see one sentence of “characterX looked around with wide-eyes, this city was HUGE!” which tells us what we need to know, instead of a whole PoV chapter (or in the case of WoT, about 3 full books) of it happening over and over.

      To #4, I say “The whole thing was aimed at the people that appear to be trope-baiting, just waiting for you to make the standard-fantasy-assumption simply to spring it on you like a surprise. You can absolutely un-selfconsciously break those tropes and write a great book.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article, and I’m extra glad you’ve decided to follow my future posts :)

      ~Dan

  9. Well, goodness. I guess I have to disagree with most of what you are saying as well. I personally don’t care what format books come out in or in what order, as long as, eventually, there will be one that I can afford. If I have to wait several months to get the affordable one, no big deal. I have a very limited budget so never buy hardcover or trade paperback anyway. Now, if they ONLY come out in hardcover or trade (or overpriced ebook), I’ll have to borrow them from the library because I can’t afford to pay that much for books. I read over 200 of them yearly. As far as kafe goes, I don’t have a problem with it. It doesn’t bother me in the least. It is a world not ours so a different word that is close enough to ours so that we can distinguish that it is a hot, caffeinated beverage without gobs of silly infodump on a drink is fine by me. Farmboys. I don’t get the hate for this trope. To begin with, I can only think of a couple of different books/series that have this trope as written. There are other people who live out in the country – not necessarily farmboys – that go through the ‘wow, this city is big’ stage. All of it is character development and unless the author’s writing is poor, I don’t have an issue with it. Bucking the trend – I can’t ever recall reading anything that made me think “the author made that tree grow upside down just to be different from all the others who have their trees grow right side up”. I don’t see where this is a complaint anyone can make. We readers aren’t the authors, there is no way to know the reason those trees are upside down – perhaps her story needed roots to pull nutrients from the air instead of the soil – so basically those that feel this way are not only making assumptions but without all the information needed to get a workable theory. In any case, again, we are readers. We read the story the author writes. If we aren’t enjoying that story, we put it down and try another. Easy peasy.

  10. Hmmm. Well I can’t say I agree with number 1. Probably because unless you are American, it’s not really a newfound love at all (although A-formats are slowly being phased out here completely now, more popular books have tended towards B-formats after the initial trade print for quite a while). I actually really dislike the A-formats and prefer the B and trade formats because the text tends to be bigger, most of the time the paper and binding is far better quality and they don’t damage as easily. Also, it makes some sense seeing as people who just want the cheapest version of the text are moving towards e-books while the trades and B-formats are more of a luxury item for the collectors.

    Overall, it’s probably mostly personal taste though. For every person I get complaining about the lack of cheap A-format, another person will come in and complain that the trade format is no longer available because they prefer the larger text and if they didn’t want a nice version to keep they would get it from the library.
    However, I may be bitter that I live in one of the countries where thanks to various taxes, imports and whatnot, even the mass market (A-formats) are rarely as cheap as $15.

    • Dan

      The tax bitterness is probably it then, Michelle. A mass-market for me is 8.99-10.99 and the B-Format paperbacks are 13-15.99 just like trade, which can often be as high as 18-20. Given the volume I read, those few dollars add up a LOT across a year.

      • I’d say the average trade here is around $32 dollars. Hardbacks up to $50 (non-fiction usually more expensive than fiction where I’d say average is around $40). An average paperback (other than the super-bulk printed things like 50 shades) would be around $20. Which also adds up to a lot when you read 100+ books a year. Which I tend to do. I just admit that I see why the publishers might do that in the current climate.

        Sorry, if I appear rude. But we can disagree about things without it just being me being bitter (which was a joke). I guess I would be a bit annoyed if all book prices jumped by $5+ here as well. However, compared to the prices readers in many other countries pay those US prices aren’t exorbitant. I’m pretty sure certain other countries get higher prices than AU as well.

        That doesn’t mean that you can’t be annoyed if you prefer the mass markets. I was just stating my own preference and adding perspective to the conversation seeing as not all our readers are from the US.

  11. Having had the main character in Stormcaller thrown straight from poverty into a position of power (because I’m interested in what he does with the power and how he deals with that rather than a slow journey of awakening) I can tell you a hell of a lot of people seem to like that slow process!

    • Dan

      Have you found people actually actively complaining about the fact that their circumstances changed quickly instead of slowly? To me it would all be about how it was handled. If their character immediately adapted and changed, I’d have a problem. But then to my issue, if you spend half the book doing nothing but make continual reference to how different this is, and how everything has changed, that’s the problem I’m referring to.

      Characters should develop, obviously. But it’s when there are MILES to go between where you start them and where you want them to be in time for the main plot elements, maybe you need a training montage.

      ~Dan

      • oh yes – Isak’s certainly not equipped to handle the power and powers he’s handed, despite the fact he’s got an innate starting point. And some people hated that – probably debut writing skills also played a part, but lots of people just didn’t get/like what I was aiming for at all!

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