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.
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.
What You'll Learn
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.
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!
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?