Scared Of The Rings: The daunting prospect of tackling the fantasy genre
Updated: Apr 19, 2020
I'm in the very weird position of having just finished writing a novel. Specifically, it was my sixth book, a return to crime thrillers after recently dabbling in horror (Disturbing Works Volume Two, out on Halloween this year) and science fiction (London 2039: Auxiliary, out in May 2020).
This means that instead of my usual feeling of crushing guilt that I'm not working on my current writing project, I can instead enjoy the (brief) respite of pausing while I figure out what I want to write next.
And I think it's going to be some sort of dark fantasy story.
When I was young I loved fantasy novels, demolishing everything from The Lord Of The Rings to Discworld, from Brian Jaques' rodent-based Redwall series to Stephen Donaldson's decidedly darker The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever trilogies. I played Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone's Fighting Fantasy adventure gamebooks whenever I had a spare surface to roll the dice on, and watched movies like Willow, Legend and Labyrinth more times than I'd care to count. (A special shout-out also to the kids' show Knightmare, a TV masterpiece that was at least two decades ahead of its time and that I'm STILL hoping they'll bring back...)
In my late teens and twenties I drifted away from the genre, becoming more interested in horror and Lynchian dream-realities (Silent Hill can shoulder most of the blame for this), but my interest in the dark and the macabre doubtless had its roots in the faceless horror of the Ringwraiths or the sprawling nightmare of Shelob's underground lair.
Then, in recent years, I've slowly found myself drawn back to fantasy stories, although perhaps from a slightly different angle. Kazuo Ichiguro's massively underrated The Buried Giant, as well as the deservedly acclaimed Dark Souls video games, use medieval fantasy tropes to present melancholy, desolate worlds almost bereft of human life, the crumbling ruins of castles and the shambling husks of once-proud knights injecting a poignancy to these tales: we are presented not with a beautifully-crafted fantasy setting, but instead with the sad wreckage of one.
Stephen King's excellent Dark Tower series has a very similar feel, as its protagonists wander a landscape of arid deserts and overgrown, long-abandoned machinery. But these stories are very clearly inspired not by medieval fantasy, but instead by gunslinging Westerns. Which yields a question: if fantasy stories don't all have to contain armour-plated knights and fire-breathing dragons, then what does 'fantasy' even mean?
Somewhat tragically, the first thing that comes up when you type it into Google is a fantasy football website, but after a brief scroll you'll find the following definition:
'A genre of imaginative fiction involving magic and adventure, especially in a setting other than the real world.'
This is immensely broad but also surprisingly specific, in that magic is a key component.
So my task is to write a story centred around the wielding of supernatural powers in a mystical realm... the first challenge would appear to be how on earth this can be tackled with any originality, in a world that has wrung every last drop of joy out of Harry Potter, and has spent half a decade worshipping the Game Of Thrones series.
But perhaps this is precisely the challenge: to work within familiar constraints (dare I say even tired tropes) while finding a new way to breathe life into them. Many writers have already found ingenious ways to reinterpret the genre (in another bit of eighties-child nostalgia, the story that springs to mind is Flight Of Dragons, an animated movie in which the human protagonist is forced to inhabit the body of a dragon), and George R.R. Martin certainly taught us that there are still very human, relatable stories to be told in even the most fantastical worlds.
The key, I think - or at least the first step - is in the world-building. Which means rather than dive straight in and start writing about the ageing knight character I've got in mind, I need to first invest time in figuring out the setting. What drives this world? What is its history, its currency, its legends? If it is to be a barely-populated wasteland, what was the tragedy that reduced it to this state?
And, perhaps most importantly, what is the nature of its magic?
I think my immediate future will involve lots of scribbled maps, and things written on post-its... but I hope to bring you updates very soon! In the meantime, don't hesitate to get in touch if you have any ideas or recommendations for further reading, or just want to enthuse about your own favourite fantasy tales... especially if you're an eighties kid like me!
Until next time,