Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Common fantasy assumptions

In my few years of writing, I have always written novels that took place in worlds different than Earth. Sometimes these world were filled with magic. Sometimes there was nearly none. Sometimes there were elves and dwarves and gnomes; at others all you could find were humans of different nations. None of my settings are the same, and none of them give quite the same vibe either. Fantasy worlds have the power to be anything. When you throw the first bases, your imagination is the limit.

And yet, there are certain things common to all fantasy settings (or nearly) and that do not have to be.

Sometimes last week, Ted Cross posted on his blog about how most fantasy settings were north-hemisphere centric. He also noted in the comments that we tend to put the ocean on the west side of our continents. Fantasy writers do these without even thinking about it. I sure did, and more than once!

These can be explained by the fact fantasy settings are often similar to medieval Europe, but there are other aspects of fantasy we include almost without noticing. About a year ago, I decided to go after one that irritated me.

Magical powers are discovered at puberty.

Harry Potter has this. Eragon has this. Nearly every YA fantasy in existence has this! But I don't think it's YA exclusive. So many things happen to a teenager at that age, it's only natural to throw magic in the lot.

Well, no more. For a year now, I have been working on a setting where magic is associated with old age, because it arrives at about the same time menopause/andropause would. It's associated with loss of fertility, among other things, and I have tried to rethink a lot of my fantasy assumptions around this new fact.

It's important to understand my story isn't about magic being restricted to old people. It's something else entirely. But this is an important shift in how magic functions, and in certain parts of my world, it has a great influence. It is as much part of my world  than the religions, the kingdoms and the geography.

So let me ask you... are there any common fantasy assumptions you break?


  1. I break a lot of fantasy assumptions, but I don't do it right away. I first make my book seem very much like typical high fantasy. It's only be reading the whole book that you get to see where I keep making the reader have to readjust their first ideas. The one big drawback to all of this is that agents only look at the beginning, so they all just assume my book is derivative and never read far enough!

  2. Ok, I have to say that the idea you have about magic being for old people is a very interesting take on it. I haven't really thought about changing things up in that light. I mean, I don't do the elves and dwarves thing because that's really cliché to me, and I try to change some things up but I never thought to change things like that up.

    Though I did notice just a few weeks ago how, like, every fantasy map I've seen the ocean is in the west. My map was the same. I changed it accordingly :p I also made it way in the north so that the ocean is in the east and the north, though I'm debating whether or not I should change the region to the south because I'm having trouble seeing my world in such freezing snow. . . I'm wondering if having the ocean in the west is more pleasing to look at so that the land continues off to the rest of the book instead of continuing off from the cover, hope that's making sense. . .

    Anyway, great idea! And very inspiring for me! :D

  3. @Ted: It's a shame you can't pitch your major changes in the query, but unless I'm mistaken, they -are- far too complicated for that.

    On the other hand, readers will start with the beginning, and unless someone told them about the assumptions broken too, they'll also see the 'derivative' high fantasy first.

    It's a 'handicap' you'll carry around past the agent stage, but I don't think you -have- to break the assumptions to weave a great story. I just think it's a lot of fun for the writer!

    @Book_Owl: Hee, thanks, if I can inspire anyone with these posts, I'm a happy girl. Also, I tried to put my ocean on the east when I first drew my map, but I kept confusing the directions (yes, lame, I know), and ended up changing it again. I hope you have better luck. ;)

    Also, as I said above, I still keep elves and dwarves around quite often. They have the power to be a lot more than what we typically see. When you shake an element of your world up (such as me and the magic), it should have repercussions on everything, and that would necessarily cast the other races in a new light. In the end, it's always up to the writer to let his imagination go, and create new things with the old.