Current Fantasy Trends

Boy, fantasy has changed!

My husband and I recently started watching the Shannara Chronicles on Netflix. The episodes are being released this year (I think this may be the most up to date I’ve ever been in watching a series!), but the story is based on the Elfstones of Shannara book written by Terry Brooks and published in 1982.

THAT is my era of fantasy, when I was growing up and discovering magic set amid vast worlds. How awesome to revisit something I did read (though only vaguely remember) when I was a teenager.

Only it isn’t.

The original cover - traditional 1980s fantasy and not the current fantasy trends

The original cover – traditional 1980s fantasy!

I find myself clenching my fist and shouting at the TV on the two nights a week we watch the show. Maybe not shouting. But I want to. I do roll my eyes and it has become a contest of who elicits the first groan between my husband and I. Last night when I managed to guess Alanon’s dialogue before he said “And now you are king.” set Adam laughing.

It isn’t the world, or the characters, or even Terry Brooks’ writing. It is that the expectations of fantasy have changed. And as much as I love those early novels, I can’t go back. I love the deeply plotted, subtly nuanced storylines of today’s fantasy. It is what I read. It is what I write. I just didn’t realize how much it has changed.

You don’t believe that THREE decades makes a difference in fantasy? Well here are a few of the major points that drive me batty when I ever so want to love this series.

Heroes aren’t made, they are chosen

This was one of the first big differences I noticed. It is a complete reversal of how the hero becomes the hero. Back in ye olde days, heroes were chosen. Whether through birth, soothsayers, or bloodlines, you know who the hero is because someone important stands up and says “This is your destiny. You cannot run from it.” I actually think Alanon says that. It gave me stomach cramps.

That worked with Star Wars (the first movies) partially because Luke, even with the bloodlines and destiny, had power to back it up. Plus he had to beg to be trained. I won’t say it doesn’t work with the Shannara Chronicles. Will is the only person (elf?) left who can use the elfstones because of his bloodlines (I’m not sure why only the Shannara’s have that sort of magic, but shhhh… you can’t question those sort of things). And Amberle is a princess who is raised to fight. But that doesn’t really matter, because the Ellcrys chooses her.

This trope really gets under my skin.

To quote a most awesome upcoming book by my friend A.M. Justice “Wizards aren’t born, they’re forged.” Those five words sum up where modern fantasy heroes come from. Yes, you might be born to magic. Yes, you may be born with an iota of royal or heroic blood. But who cares? Earn it. Learn to use it. Show the reader that you are worthy, that you will suffer for your right to wield (insert magical or other object here). The world is full of a million potentials born with the ‘right’ to become great. Give me the one that will fight to be the best they can despite everything. Because of everything.

In today’s fantasy, circumstances and choices make heroes.

Even Harry Potter, marked at birth due to a prophecy, was, in the end, saved by his dying mother’s love. Nothing to do with him or noble birth. And it was years of study, choices, and the pursuit of Voldemort that led him to rise to something great. And let’s not forget he wouldn’t have gotten to where he did without his friends, who were a Muggle and the other one of a litter of magical children. So much for special.

That is modern fantasy. Muddled with being ‘chosen’ a problem and choices, study, and friendship far more important in the becoming to something solid than you’d get by being given the right to be a hero by a druid who hands you some elfstones, pats you on the back, and pushes you to your fate.

shannara chronicles current fantasy trends
I don’t care what you say, I just don’t believe you

The most prevalent of this trope is not from the book, but from the writer’s of the TV series. The attitude of Arlon is one of the points that drives me crazy beyond reason. Because he is beyond reason. I was relieved when he died (spoiler!).

I can’t remember Arlon in the book, but a quick search of the book’s plot doesn’t say much about Arlon except where he dies. So maybe he is just as much a jerk in the book as the TV series. And being a jerk or obstacle blocking the things that needs to happen is certainly fine. But he has absolutely no reason to do so.

Or I should say, his character development has given no justification for why he is an a$$ so much of the time.

His father, the Elvin King, says “do this.” So he not only says, “No!” but then must say how much he disagrees with the task and decision. Without offering any reason to say, not trust Alanon, the one sole druid left.

There are a few hints that the Elvin king lied about magic’s existence, why an entire war was fought, and what the Ellcrys really is. Is the prince and heir mad about being lied to his entire life? Nooooo. He decides the lie is the truth. Everyone is making up the new reality despite demons appearing and ravaging the countryside, and darn it, that is just how it is.

I could even go with that lousy attitude if it showed him clinging to a false reality (He does briefly prefer to believe the demons are gnomes attacking elves). But, in general, he seems completely cognizant of what is happening. He just wants to throw a fit about everything, especially if told that it is life and death or “we need to do this to save the world” big.

There are just so many things wrong with this!

current fantasy trends

The new cover! Note the updated dystopian look.

The first is that we live in the era of strong characters. Deep characters. Even the bit part street urchin who flashes through a chapter has feelings, motivation, and worth. No one is a problem just to exist as a problem. That is such a 2D stereotype that if a reader hits it and doesn’t throw his book across the room … well it better be because he doesn’t want to break his kindle. Just give me a reason to know why Arlon is such a toad!

And there are so many possible ones like constantly living under the shadow of his awesome dead brother. Or lies told to him by his father. But nothing is developed enough to explain Arlon’s outbursts and views. I don’t know him at all. I can’t root for him. And that is what I want to do. I want to know and understand every character, even if it stems from only a few well placed remarks.

Really, I shouldn’t just pick on Arlon. Other character’s histories have me scratching my head. Bandon being one. He enters the story while being not only locked, but handcuffed and masked like some fantasy Hannibal Lector, in a barn. Hints say his parents put him there because they “didn’t understand him.” Yet he mourns his parents several times after that. Really? The kid should have a LOT more issues than the show gives him. Instead, I’m wondering what drugs he is on to be so peaceful and compassionate. It doesn’t make sense.

Cause and effect, writers. Character building comes from cause and effect. Characters have issues with which they either aren’t aware (early arc) or are struggling to overcome (mid-arc) and hopefully rise above (end of arc). Whereupon we usually traumatize them in some other way to begin a new arc.

This issue combined with the heroes being chosen comes from the fact that plots currently move forward based on character choices. The choices need to make sense or the reader gets annoyed. Previously, plots moved forward because they needed to move forward or the world would end. So things happened. They didn’t have to make sense. You could send in a Luck Dragon to save the day because the hero, who was chosen to be the hero, has to live and save the day. Roll the credits. Argh.

I could so easy continue with other peeves from the prince not knowing that there is a hidden room in the castle where HE GREW UP but the elven handmaiden has heard rumors of it (?!?!). And that the demons are flat out evil and want to conquer the world. I don’t know why. Or why they are all so evil. I have no understanding of them or their powers. I just have been told they are evil and must die as if the world can only have good or evil and angels can never make good choice that cause them to be cast from heaven and demons can never fall in love. Sorry, I must be thinking of a different show.

But I will control myself. Because despite the many problems, I do watch it. The actors do a great job. I like Eritrea, Amberle, and Will. I like the nostalgic feel of “simplier” fantasy while at the same time wanting to throw my remote at the screen.

And it reminds me of everything to avoid in my next novel. 😉

Have you noticed that fantasy has changed since you were a kid? Do you like where we are better? Where do you think it is heading from here?

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Written by: Autumn

Autumn (also known as Weifarer) is an indie author, conservationist, & world traveler with plans for many more adventures both real and fantastical! She is currently on the road in North America in a Four Wheel Camper along with her husband, Adam, and Cairn terrier, Ayashe.

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14 Comments

  1. Jan Hawke

    And then there’s George Martin! LOL
    Of course fantasy has to evolve, especially in a real world where the truth is is usually, by default, far stranger than fiction. As communication methods increase and become insidious, so fiction has had to ‘grow up’ and, most of all, get cynical. I think for anyone brought up on traditional fantasy fare, these days, magic and heroes have to be plausible and multi-layered. It’s also the reason that classic masterpieces like Tolkien’s Arda, survive regardless, despite two-dimensional attitudes to the concept of ‘evil’ and ‘tell not show’ tendencies (though authors these days would be hard pressed to emulate Professor Tolkien’s lifetime dedication to honing backstories and language – academia having undergone it’s own drastic down-scoping).

    It’s definitely a change for the better though, especially for the YA market where the craving for action and angst (romantic or whatever…) is so keen – reality checks do need to be made and done well so the plot works, even when leaps of faith are required. And dragons still matter, even when magic is subsumed by advancing glaciation! 😉

    • Sue Bridgwater

      What Jan said….

      • Weifarer

        I agree!

    • Weifarer

      I will cry and refuse to read it anymore if dragons become unimportant in fantasy! 🙁

      I agree, Jan, I like the current trend. I think our world is more nuanced. There are too few druids and noble heritage for all of us to become the hero. And we ALL want the chance to be the hero (or the super villain. I won’t judge). So having stories where anyone can rise or anyone can fall appeals to this generation and era. Thank the gods!

      • VeeRay

        Milady, having known dragons all my life, i can tell you that the truth is not that Dragons are important in Fantasy, but that Fantasy is important to Dragons. Without Dragons there is nothing to separate fantasy from pulp. Characters, plots, even the carefully constructed world will fall apart, without the glue that is the Dragon. ” Dragonriders of Pern” is not fantasy, but it is. Science Fiction becomes fantasy when you add a Dragon. My story is a science fiction tale, until the Dragons arrive. Alhabra makes the story come alive. (to my mind, anyway)

      • Weifarer

        I like that, Victor. Dragons do make any story shade to fantasy, no matter the realm, time period, or initial genre. That might be even more true than magic, because, as the saying goes, any highly advanced society or advice will appear as magicians to one less so. iPads are the modern scrying mirrors of yore. We can talk and see Gods (ahem, parents) on them even. So magic is not necessarily fantasy. But a dragon always is!

  2. PHS

    Well said, Autumn. Personally, I’m taking the old hero trope and trying to turn it a different direction which will become evident as the series progresses. Thinking back on the few episodes I’ve been able to watch, the series seems to be developed without meaningful context to such a story. It’s not like Walking Dead where the context is straight-forward (survive) and moves into complex choices and actions. I do like the depictions, setting and acting, just don’t feel that they’ve given enough information to engage the story.

    • Weifarer

      Hi PH!

      That is right, your second book is about to come out, right? Can’t wait to see how things are going. You certainly left a bit of a tease at the end of book 1. 😀

      I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one feeling a little frustrated about the series so far. The characters and effects are great. But the story… well, it provides a great teaching moment! lol

  3. Benjamin Spurlock

    It’s funny, but I actually did check out the… Sword of Shannara, I think it was? One of the Shannara books from the library. And I admit that I just couldn’t get into it. At the time I couldn’t quite put my finger on why it was such a problem, but I think you have. It’s just dated. Literary equivalent of sleeve garters- once served a purpose and worked, but now just seems a bit odd.

    I kind of feel the same way while reading through other fantasy books, especially older D&D ones. There is that feel of ‘heroes are declared,’ which is a plot ‘tell not show’ that doesn’t work at all. I do think the formula might have gotten a little repetitious the other way, nowadays, but still. “Now you are king” just doesn’t work. *laughs*

    The same thing happens with a lot of genres- I’m thinking the mystery novel in particular- where the early works basically just exist to prove the premise and work with it, and it’s follow-up works that expand it and question it. In early detective fiction, just about any weird answer could work. It wasn’t until later that there was a ‘code’ that governed what was acceptable and what was not for a mystery story. And, ironically, that’s the moment when those things that didn’t get codified were seen as bad writing, in and of themselves.

    I dunno, I find it really interesting, how tastes evolve and how writing evolves with them. Reminds me of some of the Enlightenment philosophers, pointing out that the more we’re exposed to something- be it art, music, or dragons- the more refined our tastes become and the higher our standards are. In the early days, anything with magic or dragons was, well, magical. So we focused on that, and the rest didn’t really get thought of. Nowadays, we’re sophisticated enough in the genre to be able to tell poor ideas from good ones, and we demand more. Which is good!

    …I just hope that fantasy doesn’t enter the death spiral of cynicism and self-parody that pretty well torpedo’d the mystery genre. That’d break my heart.

    • Weifarer

      I hope fantasy doesn’t enter that horrid spiral as well! Of course, we’ve had great paradies (Princess Bride to name just one) that pokes fun at the genre. Happily with so much freedom and so many indie authors, I think we’ll hold true to the core of adventure and overcoming obstacles while hopefully avoiding the dated “this is your destiny” that makes me, and so many, groan.

      Funny you mentioned not being able to get into the book. I vaguelly remember reading the Elfstones of Shannara and not any of the others. It didn’t impress me, but I couldn’t remember why. Everytime I saw the cover with the recent resurgence, I tried to get my enthusiasm going, but… Just isn’t my cup of tea!

      • Victor Rutledge

        Almost forgot this note. When a series of probabilities come together in such a way that something is about to occur, there will always be a focus. “There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.” Shakespeare said that, and it is the reason for stories that are told. We don’t write about the farmboy who didn’t pick up the magic thingamabob and lead the peasants to victory over the cruel tyrant, because he didn’t do it. Whether he, or those driving him, believed he was “destined to be king”, or not, makes absolutely no difference. He did it, and is now the founder of a dynasty. No special training involved, and not because he “strove mightily against impossible odds.” The sword came loose and he pulled it out of the stone, or “the embankment gave way and his sword plunged through the very heart of the evil tyrant” as he fell. It isn’t always about having characters who are motivated, and want to achieve the results. A Bible story, about a young shepherd. The boy liked to play and sing, and was good with a sling. He found himself in the unenviable position of having to fight a giant, who, as it turned out, had a weak forehead and died from a single, well-placed, sling stone. This child was made king of what was to be the most powerful nation on earth, and all he ever wanted to do was be a shepherd and play the harp. Oh well, David wound up King and it almost killed him. Never forget that stuff happens, sometimes for no good reason at all.

  4. amjusticewrites

    Great post, Autumn! I somehow skipped/missed the Shanara series when I was reading every other fantasy I could get my hands on in high school, but from what I’ve read about it lately, and heard about the series, meh–I didn’t miss anything important. I’m glad we live in the age we do, where we have both the freedom to write outside the box and we also have to live up to the grand expectations of our readers!

    • Weifarer

      I agree! I’m afraid that many of the stories I loved as a teen wouldn’t fit my adult, and current trend, of fantasy. Though I did recently see Mercedes Lackey’s Herald Mages of Valdemar is out in ebook. I’m very tempted to pick it up and hope I still love it! Of course, there are so many awesome modern books too. What a time for readers!!

  5. Victor Rutledge

    In the words of Jackie Gleason,,, “And Away we go…”…
    The problem with today’s fantasy is the same problem which occurs in Science Fiction. Every writer tries to make his entire cast of characters either ‘realistic’ or ‘Relatable’. When dealing with ‘human’, or even human-like characters, this is essential, but when dealing with ‘non-human’ characters, its the downfall of the genre. A Vulcan is not a human, anymore than an elf is a Rigellian. When we start to try and ‘understand’ some creature, as if it were a human being you might meet somewhere, we limit the entire story. A demon is a creature who has no empathy. It exists to fulfill its own desires and needs. An Elf won’t die for a leader, in all cases, but the forest is worth more than life. A Dwarf would rather be in a cave, Drinking, than almost anywhere else on earth, or middle earth. Over the decades, Fantasy has moved from stories about non-human creatures who interact with humans, to stories about humans who look like Elves and Dwarves, or even Brownies and Gnomes. The most difficult thing for me, as a author, to grasp, is that people expect the non-humans to be human. Faeries will never care about human villages, any more than humans care if the berries are happy in the lower glen. Think about how odd you would feel if you had a pet Tree that was more important than any dog, or cat, or possession. In fact, only a soulmate is more important that the forest, in the eyes of the elves. Dryads are linked to their trees, and die concurrently with them. No friend, lover or offspring can compete with that.
    I suspect that any ‘fantasy’ story, if it actually exposed the inner workings of its ‘non-human’ characters, would fail miserably, and perhaps would always have failed, because people honestly don’t want to see the ‘fantasy’ characters as unreal. I remember a story I once read, about two brothers who encounter the ‘forest folk’. The story wasn’t specific about which group of forest denizens were the setting, but they were not, by any definition of the term, human. They lived in the ‘magical’ places of the forest, and danced among gold and gems. In the story, they gave the brothers a test to see what character traits they had. One brother took only what he was given, and the other gathered up what he liked. The brother who was submissive and docile was the one they preferred, and they rewarded him accordingly. The other brother was portrayed as greedy and self-serving because he told the forest people, “You needn’t trouble yourselves getting anything for me, I’ll just gather up what I want.” The point to the story was that greed is bad, but the point I’m showing is that the forest people had no human motivation, nor did they share the needs and wants of humanity.
    Even Druids are human, generally speaking. Those Druids who are not human are usually depicted as evil and dangerous, because, if you harm the forest, they will kill you without a thought. Fine, but don’t forget that, to them, you aren’t even close to as important as the forest. If termites are destroying your home, you never pause to consider the families and motivations of the creatures, you just kill them. In the books I’m writing, about Samovar, there is a creature whose motivations and actions make no sense at all. Fifnir is utterly alien. He has no empathy, his race does not possess it. Other living creatures, intelligent or not, mean nothing to him, because he’s after something, and they are in the way of his getting it. That means they die; All of them. The Dwarves in my series were once human beings, but no more. They can metabolize part of the alcohol they drink, and so get drunk far less easily than humans. Elves, on the other hand, are forest creatures by choice. They have places to live that human beings call cities, but are more properly ‘parks’ where they have permanent campsites. The true danger, in the books, is that the field of ‘magic’, on Thoss, changes those who are exposed to it. Over time you will become a whole new species, unrelated to what you once were. All of this is deliberate, on the part of the planetary designers, because the place was designed to enhance and encourage evolutionary change, with the eventual goal being a complete transmogrification, into a creature of energy.
    When we look back at the ‘older’ fantasy, and even science fiction, we must remember the view taken by the authors of that era. You cannot write a story with a non-human main character. No human being is able to divorce himself, or herself, so completely from the human viewpoint as to be able to depict non-human emotions and drives. Even in this discussion, one finds that my discourse is from a ‘human’ viewpoint, because that’s the only one I have. I can’t remember the last time I was a non-human, it’s been altogether too long. I could write another hour on this subject, especially when I consider the Biblical comment that, when we go to heaven, we shall “be changed, from that creature we are”. What can we know of that existence, when we have never experienced it. Does a caterpillar dream of being a Butterfly? Or does he look upon that state as horrible, and try to eat as slowly as he can, to avoid it for as long as possible? We can’t know, because we are doomed to be human, and look at the Universe through ‘human-colored glasses’. But we can still write interesting books and stories, so long as we remember that we have no clue what it’s like not to be a person.