Limyaael's Rants

Ten Great Things about Non-Tragic Fantasy

Written on 2005-11-01; Read the original post on LiveJournal

I've been more interested in comic fantasy lately--well, not necessarily comic, but there isn't a better word for it, damnit, because "light" gets people thinking "joke-filled," and "non-tragic" can still mean things like "dark" and "angsty" and "filled with whiny teenagers who are inexplicably not pimply."

Maybe "life-affirming." While tragedy focuses on some great and overwhelming end--apocalypse, the fall of a hero, the death of something beautiful and wonderful--this kind of fantasy bows to life first, to continuation and survival.

  1. Individual choice can be reemphasized. I've talked about one way of characterization in which characters cannot possibly do other than what they do, because of their personalities and relationships and backgrounds and bonds. Viewed as one way, it's inevitable that a tragic fantasy comes to the end it does, because the people in it won't let it end any other way. That's really nothing new; the idea of the tragic flaw is as old as the Greeks. But it's a truth, not the truth.

    There's also a way of characterization in which characters are seen as more than the sum of their personalities and relationships and backgrounds and bonds. After all, those are their pasts, or what become their pasts as the story continues. But there's also always the moving present, at least up until the point when the story comes to its final crisis, and even beyond that for those who survive. And as long as something has not actually happened, it can still be changed.

    I would like to see more stories hinge not on a battle or a confrontation whose outcome is certain, but on a character's choice. And if it takes delicate work to make characterization seem inevitable, imagine the knife-edge that an author must walk in order to keep a character's choice possibly up in the air, possibly still uncertain. Not even keeping a love triangle in genuine doubt requires such skill. Until the final moment, the story can still sheer either way, and still it's something other than tragedy.

    Writing with that philosophy sounds really neat to me.

  2. Causal universes. I've come to appreciate destiny-focused fantasy, to an extent, given what you can do when mucking about with the metaphysics and theology of a fantasy world. And it's certainly a more hospitable environment for tragic fantasy. Someone who's going to be forced by a prophecy to go on a quest and save the world, but who will die along the way, and yet can't back out without damning everyone, is almost certainly going to be a tragic figure.

    But my first love was causal universes--here defined as universes where gods either do not exist or do not have ultimate power, where destiny is uncertain or nonexistent, where free will matters, and there isn't only one way to save the world. Not to mention all the other stories that you can tell in a universe like that which have nothing to do with saving the world. Where people aren't compelled to do such and such a thing by Necessity or Destiny or the gods or whatever name authors use to kick characters into motion against their will and justify reluctant heroes, then what do you have?

    Choice, again, and free willl. But this time, it rules from the beginning of the story forward, and makes tragic fantasy more unlikely the moment someone looks up and says, "I want to do this."

    I think it'd be really interesting to see romantic fantasy set in a causal universe, without goddesses of love or soul-bonds or reincarnated lovers or people destined to love each other before birth or taboos imposed by the gods or any of this utter nonsense. Imagine what power that would give to desire. For that matter, imagine what love like this could do on its own in a non-tragic fantasy, whether or not the universe is causal.

  3. Love that isn't fucked-up. Fucked-up love is a great one for causing tragedies in fantasy. There's incest, or there's a love triangle (hi, tons of Arthurian retellings!), or there are lovers who damn everybody else as well as each other trying to fulfill their fiery desire. "Doomed love" is on the tip of everybody's tongue. Isn't the forbidden passion of Gaaagaaaka and Daaadaakan for each other just the greatest thing ever?

    Well, I suppose, but I get tired of all the doomed love sometimes. For one thing, it presumes that the only lovers worth writing about are the ones with unreasonable parents or who are chosen by the gods, or who have histories of abuse. It's harder, it seems, to do love with normal people.

    And no, I'm not talking about marriages that work as business arrangements, or rapes that turn into love (what makes anyone think this is a good idea?), or love at first sight. I'm talking about love that's genuine, whether or not it leads into marriage; that doesn't depend on one lover screwing with the other's psychology; that takes time to build, and never seems inevitable. Especially that last, thanks. Sure, whirlwind affairs happen in "real life", too, but they're overrepresented in fantasy. I really don't think their numbers would suffer if a few more slow-moving romances were written.

    I think it's much harder to write about an ordinary relationship than an extraordinary one, just as it's much harder to write about pleasure than pain. (See point 4). That might be its very own reason for trying.

  4. Open to pleasure and beauty beyond fathoming. Beauty in fantasy novels is pretty common, but most of the time we're told it's only beautiful because it's under threat. The elven lands are fading. The beautiful fields will be covered with slaughter before the ending. The lovely maiden will harden into a warrior. The beautiful character trait will be stained by a betrayal or a murder. And then, of course, there are the buckets and oceans of pain that come along with tragic fantasies.

    Interesting, isn't it, that beauty in its own right seems to come only at the end of the novel, when all the threats have been chopped away and where we don't more than a glimpse of it, and the book is not open to buckets and oceans of pleasure?

    Look. It's another world. It's not going to reflect our own in every outline, so yes, there will certainly be, oh, brutalities that we would never imagine because we don't have magic. But there can also be beauties that we would never imagine because we don't have magic either. And the lack of one to counterbalance the other becomes very noticeable when every character is abused and every love affair is tragic and every beautiful place is blown to bits soon after the party arrives and every change is for the worse.

    A more complicated world is one that acknowledges beauty and pain existing side by side, that does not darken the whole world because the protagonist has argued with his lover that day, that does not pretend all birth has stopped because one death has occurred. It's hard as fuck to portray, I will grant you that. It's much easier to focus in on the bad things in one person's life and show the explosion of that eventually engulfing the world. But that's only because it's long-worn habit. There's nothing that says all fantasy must inevitably be tragic, that pain is the law of life in every world.

  5. Time to face the music. Ever notice that one thing a tragedy does is let the protagonist face only some of the consequences? Oftentimes, he dies, or he loses, say, his lover and family members, and that's seen as enough punishment. His actions ripple and eddy out from him, but the ripples and eddies halt long before they start affecting other people. The consequences to others are never seen, because the focus is the tragic hero.

    But if you don't aim the whole book at a tragedy, then you have this option: that the protagonist, who has done massive things that affect the whole world, now has to watch those consequences as they hit others. And then, if he's a moral person, he has to take a deep breath, and admit any mistakes he made, and start atoning.

    Not ride away into the sunset with his lover, not die and escape, not commit suicide, not fall as a hero defeating the Dark Lord, not mysteriously win a kingdom that mysteriously has nothing wrong with it after the mysteriously undevastating natural havoc and battles and monsters that the Dark Lord unleashed. Rule, or help, or survive. Live among the society affected by the catastrophes he's unleashed.

    ...I'm starting to think that that blueprint ease of tragedy is one huge reason that so many plot arcs of that kind get written. There aren't as many blueprints for the others. And they're almost all harder.

  6. Life (and love) in peacetime. I've spoken before about non-war plotting, so I won't get into everything I said then. Besides, some of the plots I mentioned were still implicated in war, as in preventing it from happening (something many fantasy characters, for all their claims that war is terrible, don't seem interested enough in doing. /mini-rant)

    But we've heard lots of those stories, just wars and terrible wars and wars that are good because one side says so and lovers torn apart by war and snore--excuse me. There should have been a final term there, but I forgot it in my boredom.

    What does your fantasy society look like when it's not in chaos? How do people live when they aren't girding for war or revolution? What happens when, instead, a poet gets charged with blasphemy and has to finagle his way out of the country's complicated court system? What happens when a woman is getting annoyed with her prissy sister and finally thinks up a scheme to put her in her place? What happens when a horse speaks back to his driver one day, and it doesn't turn out to be a magical ability that the Dark Lord is hunting him for?

    Commit yourself to having no war in your story, ever, and you've deprived yourself of a very big source of tragic fuel. So the story has to go in another direction, yay. And it can be one free of the platitudes of war that have become banal through repetition, also yay.

    Of course, sometimes you have to reconceive of the way you treat the characters in that kind of story.

  7. We are all fortune's fools. A very large part of tragedy--again, as conceived in the tragic fantasy I've seen--is a ranking of people. The hero with the tragic flaw has it because he's just so damn great. He's somehow better than the people around him. His fate and fall is by rights the center of all eyes. Let this go too far, and you've got one of those dreadful things again where there's one developed character moving through a world of cardboard cutouts.

    Shake that away. Work on a level playing field. Now, everyone is just as bewildered and confused and mistaken about life as everyone else. The protagonist is interesting. So is his sister. So is her maid. So is the maid's sister. So is the child she just got to sleep.

    You see how it goes. It's much harder to rank people. Your characters will probably still do it, but--here comes the important part--authorial attitude cannot intrude into the story and say that one person is inherently better or more important than anyone else. You're not allowed to have any favored children. You're not allowed to have things happen just because you want to show one of them up as being helpless or stupid or silly or vicious as compared to your competent or intelligent or wonderful or compassionate hero. And you have to do it all the damn time.

    Have I mentioned that this is hard, again?

  8. Acceptance that comes in time. Tragic heroes usually don't recognize their flaws until it's too late, because otherwise they would stop short of the precipice. Likewise, authors delay and delay epiphanies of other kinds when they want tragedies, because the prince would certainly run up the tower in a hurry if he knew the villain was planning to push the princess off the balcony. Go too far and this seems like gimmicky coincidence, of course, with characters always having Big Misunderstandings that ten more seconds of conversation would solve, but it can be done well.

    So what happens when a character does accept, after wrestling with himself and arguing with other people, perhaps, that he is X, or that X is true, or that X is really in love with him? And he does it before the end of the story, and the big climax where he finds out that he's X by burning people to death, or that X is true because he catches the villain in a lie, or that X is really in love with him because he rescues her?

    Now you've not only got some story space to see what the consequences of the acceptance are, you've got a character who's able to accept X and is certainly going to use it to his advantage.

    Ooh, I wanna read about a character like that. I bet he won't self-deceive himself into any tragic corner. Sure, the moment when the tragic hero's scales fall from his eyes can be fun, but so are the times when the character smacks himself on the forehead and says, "...I've been an idiot, haven't I?"

  9. Other emotional tones. One unfortunate side-effect of tragedy is that authors start feeling they need to coat the whole story with that emotion. Light moments become few and far between, unless they're gallows humor (which some authors cannot write to save their lives, any more than they can write wit). Every remark must be Full of Portent. Everyone acts as if every gesture has Weight. There are Symbolic Moments With Birds and Flowers. I am being sick in the corner, but no one notices, because there are Prophetic Dreams Full of Black Mountains to watch.

    Yet that strikes me as counterproductive, even for a tragedy. If nothing else, the tragic hero has connections to other people who are busy having lives of their own. People don't stop getting married and throwing food at each other and failing tests and losing their jobs because one person has learned that he's fated to die. And they'll influence the story, unless they're the cardboard cutouts I mentioned earlier, who are not allowed to have any emotion that doesn't relate to the hero.

    Release your fantasy from the chains of tragedy, and you've got a palette of colors, a symphony of sounds, a room full of flickering light. The range of emotions one person can experience in a day astounds me. If more attention was paid to that, and less to the climax at the story's end, I can only imagine what would happen, even for a tragedy. And fantasies that aren't tragic can use the whole range without worrying that it might somehow distract from the Prophetic Dream of the Black Mountain.

  10. Consistency. So the tragedy is all set up, inevitable, ready to happen. The hero is going to confront the Dark Lord, and he's going to die. He knows it. He's made his peace with it. The writer sends him into the Dark Fortress.

    And then she cheats.

    Have I mentioned how much I hate that? I really, really do. Whether it's through a loophole or the sudden intrusion of a god or the protagonist dying and coming back to life for no discernible reason (please tell me what drug you're smoking, authors who do that), the author suddenly finds she can't write a tragedy after all, and shunts the whole inevitability thing aside. Or, even worse, she knew all along that she couldn't write one, and that this lame deus ex machina was going to come out of nowhere and ruin her ending, and she wrote the story that way anyway.

    *Limyaael flings random things around the room*

    See, non-tragic fantasies do not have this problem. The author can be consistent throughout them. If they bound towards a happy ending, that's where they're going. If they spend half the book as one thing and half another, then there are clues before the alteration, the alteration takes place a sane distance from the end and for a sane reason, and then the second half becomes a self-consistent and still wonderful story. If the ending is spiky and sarcastic, then the tone lets you know it's going to be that way from the beginning. Just as they don't pull lame copouts out of their asses, they also don't suddenly kill everyone in a random fashion because "that's what happens in real life" if the author has been writing in a clearly moral and moralistic universe. The author knows what she wants to write and what she can write, and everyone is happy. Well, at least I am.

    If you don't want a tragedy, please consider the benefits of non-tragic fantasy today!

A lot of my recent interests lately--post-apocalypse stories that are really post- and not focused on the event itself, stories about recovery and healing, stories that demonstrate the true psychological cost of abuse and the rising past it rather than simply curing it with True Love--can be traced back to this, I think. And I still wish there was a better way of defining it than by the name of what it's not.

Ah, well. "Life-affirming" will do.

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