The thing about a well-established genre like fantasy is that it has certain conventions that everyone just assumes.
This is both a trap and an opportunity. A trap, if you go in unthinkingly and just do things because that’s how they’ve been done by hundreds of other authors before you, in which case you are contributing to a perception of the genre as derivative and unoriginal. Contributing to making that perception accurate, in fact.
It’s an opportunity, on the other hand, if you take those now-classic riffs and give them a whole chunk of funk.
Here are a few of those assumptions, overused ideas and conventions, and how I plan to subvert them, twist them and otherwise funkify them.
The hero is the big guy on the horse with the sword
We can trace this one, if we want to, back to the invasions by mounted barbarians that swept from east to west across the European plains, and the fact that history is written by the victors.
In my setting, the big guy on the horse with the sword is solving the wrong problem. The hero is the one who’s making tough choices that benefit other people as his or her own cost, and doing so through working together with other people of goodwill. Hence the tagline about heroic civil servants.
Actually, the hero is the sassy kick-ass girl these days
Big guys on horses are increasingly giving way to smart young women with attitude. Unfortunately, they are still, generally, solving the same kind of problems in the same way (beat people up until they stop opposing you), only with better banter and wearing better shoes.
I actually think women are capable of solving problems more creatively than that. Men, too.
OK, The unlikely hero is the little guy from an ordinary background who saves the world
The thing about the way most fantasy heroes save the world is that it’s intensely protective of the status quo. We mostly have Tolkien to thank for this, though any genre that looks back in time for its models and then idealises them is going to be inherently conservative. The traditional fantasy hero is reluctantly drawn into vast events when his small, comfortable world is threatened.
My little folks (who are, for the most part, only figuratively little, and do not have hairy feet – or light fingers) don’t react to threats so much as they have an ideal of a better world and believe they can help to create it. I’d say that they’re progressives, except that a particular political agenda which isn’t always my agenda is associated with that word.
But surely There must be a chosen one to combat the Dark Lord?
The whole Chosen One/Dark Lord plot has been so done to death I won’t even read a book that signals it in the blurb. GET A NEW PLOT, PEOPLE!
No Chosen One. No Dark Lord. Some of my villains don’t even kick puppies, they just have a different agenda from the heroes and are sometimes less ethical about what they’ll do to advance it.
It’s not actually necessary for a villain to wear black and twirl his moustaches while tying a girl down in the path of an oncoming train. You can be a bit more subtle in your depiction of opposition. This isn’t American political television.
Ahem. So, um, elves – they’re all noble and emo, right?
Why? Just because Tolkien’s were?
Read some of the original source material about the elves. They’re vicious bastards, and they think humans are scum. They’d enslave them if they could. So yes, they are “noble” if by “noble” you mean “like the actual medieval nobility”.
So, in my setting, they had an empire that was a bit like the Roman Empire and a bit like the British Empire and, in places, a bit like the Third Reich. And humans managed to get out from under them by a process that I may or may not get around to explaining fully, but they still have a lot of culture and religion derived from the Elves. The human nobility, whose ancestors were mostly house-servants and who took over the mansions when the Elves saw the writing on the wall and bailed out, still worship the Elves’ star-gods, for example. High culture is conducted in Elvish, or at least in the Elvish script.
Oh, and the Elves were bioengineers. They made gryphons and flying horses and werewolves and kelpies and beast-headed people and medicine cows that are milked for pharmaceuticals. They made humans stronger and healthier and capable of using magic. All their stuff looks – and probably is – grown rather than built. In contrast to the dwarves.
Dwarves? Little hairy guys with axes and helmets?
Little industrialists with ledgers and scale balances. Technologists and businesspeople. They coin all the money, since everyone trusts their contracts and the purity of their alloys, even if they don’t like the money-grubbing little buggers. Anything made out of metal is made in a dwarf-owned workshop – usually by gnomes, who are a dwarf underclass and your basic exploited industrial workforce.
A dwarf won’t fight when he can trade. He doesn’t carry an axe – he has people for that sort of thing.
Trolls, right? Or goblins or something?
Nope. No “evil races” or “lesser races” or “degenerate races”. We’re not in the 1930s. There are people, and other kinds of people.
At least tell me there’s a quest
Oh, Harry Potter and the Far Too Many Plot Tokens? No.
Oh, there are magical gizmos and so forth, and they’re useful and amusing, but no McGuffin. You don’t need one if you have a real reason for people to take action, like, I don’t know, redemption, or revenge, or protecting your people, or proving to yourself that you’re not that guy, or any of the dozen reasons that real people have for the things we do.
Realism? You’re writing a realistic novel?
No, no, no. I find realistic fiction boring, because the sets are so predictable. Give me a flying ship powered by magically-generated steam and a levitation spell any day.
So it’s steampunk?
Well, there’s the aforementioned steam, plus at least one set of brass goggles, and probably magical artificial intelligences/computers. The female ruler’s name is Victory, too. But she’s not even slightly Victorian, and the dialogue is mostly normal contemporary language. I did “period” in my last novel, and I think I pulled it off, but it’s a lot easier to write the way I talk.
I will say this: Sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from mad science.
Bioengineering, antigravity, computers – why not just stage it as sci-fi?
I have a funny relationship with the science fiction and fantasy genres. See, I have a little scientific training, and that’s my worldview, for the most part, but I find a lot of contemporary science fiction bleak, alienated and hopeless. Fantasy is a lot warmer and more human, and it’s more about human values and ideals, which is what I’m most interested in. But I can’t stop thinking like a scientist, so it’s hard to just say “a wizard did it” and move on.
Hence this strange collision of retrofuture-sci-fi-inspired technologies in period steampunk dress, powered by magic.
Genres are there to make it easier to lay out a bookshop, after all. They shouldn’t become boundaries of the imagination.