Same old story

Frontispiece to Chap. 12 of "The Face in the Pool" by J. Allen St. John (1905)

Frontispiece to Chap. 12 of “The Face in the Pool” by J. Allen St. John (1905)

My friend Crow blogged recently about the challenge he was facing crafting characters that would work in a fantasy novel, rather than a JRPG:

So when I’m confronted with the urgency of my own desire to create (recognizing that given my skillset, writing a novel is the option that doesn’t require me to learn a new hard ability like programming or art) I run into this issue where I can come up with characters that are compelling from a conceptual standpoint, with unique voices and viewpoints on the world, but can’t come up with a coherent plot that forces those characters to change over time. You look at the plot in any of the Final Fantasies, and the formula is pretty simple: a group of characters who otherwise wouldn’t have anything to do with each other (due to racial/cultural/social conflicts or physical separation) must come together to defeat an otherwise unassailable evil bent on destroying the world. It’s a plot that works in videogames, but by this point is incredibly cliche in novels.

I’ve had similar issues before where I had a character but no story. I eventually decided that I should look at how she became the person I’d imagined and try to find the story there, which eventually led me to the full plot. The lesson I took was that if you’ve got a brilliant character but no story for them, you might consider whether you’re imagining the character at or near the end of her story, rather than the beginning.

However, I’d like to delve more into Crow’s concern about the “cliche” fantasy plot and how it should be considered and approached. First, it is obviously true that “the scrappy band of misfits who unite to thwart the Dark Lord from conquering the world” is a fairly tired storyline in fantasy fiction. But it is also true that it continues to be a very popular storyline in both original and media tie-in fiction. So, there’s no reason to avoid this kind of plot — the challenge instead is to make it fresh and stand out from all the competing variations.

Below are a few ideas for taking a beloved but worn-out plot and make it relevant again:

  • Subverting/Deconstructing Tropes: One of the most obvious ways to may a tired story fresh is to subvert or deconstruct it. A full-scale subversion/deconstruction is generally hard to pull off in a way that doesn’t feel like a one-note joke, but a piecemeal approach is very effective. The goal is to keep readers on their toes by never delivering quite what they’ve been taught to expect. Deconstruction approaches this by looking at a trope of the genre and asking “How would this really work?” You can see that in some of Joe Abercrombie’s work, where the violent barbarian hero suffers from PTSD and a personality disorder. Subversion takes the approach of pulling the rug out from under the trope and is a favorite tool of Joss Whedon. The idea is to trot out a tired trope but give it a new punchline, one often based in the genre-savvyness of the characters. Now, if you’re writing this kind of story, you probably want to play some things straight. You just have to be very aware of the tropes you are deploying and how you want them to play out. The number one concern about is audience boredom. If the audience is convinced they know how things will turn out, both on a macro level and moment to moment, it sucks all suspense from the story.
  • Compelling Characters: A cast of engaging characters is always to be desired and can turn a familiar story into a true page-turner. If you’re in Crow’s position, you hopefully already have a strong cast. Ensuring that they have the opportunity to grow, change, and bounce off one another is all you need trouble yourself with. But I would caution that with these kinds of stories it can be all too easy to simply create an archetype rather than a proper character. That doesn’t mean that archetypes can’t be useful frames to hang characters on — just make sure there’s some meat on the bones. A good rule of thumb is to imagine swapping out your character for a more famous version of the archetype — if the story plays out the same even with someone else in that role, you’ve got work to do.
  • Unique Setting: Some fantasy works can overcome a tired plot and stock characters by presenting them in an unusual setting, be it simply moving from the overused Medieval Western Europe setting to new pseudo-historical environs or by introducing readers to a radically weird and different reality. A well-drawn setting can help draw readers into the story and make everything seem fresh. Note that you don’t even have to run away from Medieval Western Europe, you can simply present that setting in a different light (such as the brutal realism* of George R.R. Martin) or by focusing on an under-explored aspect of the setting (like the experience of European Jews, merchant families, or women on pilgrimages).
  • Unique Villain: An often overlooked element in this kind of story is the villain. Given that the Dark Lord (or Lady) is driving most of the action, it’s important to dedicate time and effort to fleshing them out as memorable characters rather than generic baddies. Give them personalities, mannerisms, and goals that stand out. Another defining characteristic is their grand plan for conquest, which often should involve manipulating the rules of your setting to their advantage. Even a generic Dark Lord who has a clever and unconventional plan can become a memorable villain. A good resource for building villains from the ground up is this piece by Rich Burlew, which although geared towards D&D campaigns has great advice for any author.

I think a lot of beginning writers are concerned about being “original” (I know I certainly was). But truly original ideas in our genre are quite rare — oftentimes the groundbreaking stuff often tends to be a reworking of an old standby, or the mixing of two existing ideas in an unexpected way. We’re all standing on the shoulders of giants here and shouldn’t be afraid to admit it. As long as you’re presenting your own perspective on the classics and not rotely implementing a fantasy fiction checklist, the story of the plucky band of misfits confronting the Big Bad will never get old.

*Obligatory disclaimer that the “realism” of Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novels is as stylized as any high fantasy and should be understood as such.

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