Thursday, July 29, 2010

Medievaloid Clichés and Tropes

Reading thuRsday

I recently read The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones.

Kate Nepveu, writing at, described it as, "an affectionate parody of what rec.arts.sf. called Extruded Fantasy Product, generically-medievaloid epic fantasy that is full of clichés and unexamined worldbuilding tropes"

I found the guide both funny and sad. Funny because Diana Wynne Jones nailed many of the conceits of high fantasy and, by recasting them in generic terms, exposed their latent silliness. Sad because I spent a lot of time in worlds of "medievaloid epic fantasy" as a young person and came away from the tough guide with the melancholy feeling that I'll never be able to go back to Fantasyland.

Continuing the theme of me-too vs. something new, I want to raise the question of whether some settings, like mines, have shallower veins of potential stories than others.

The orthodox answer is that there's always room for stories that are fresh.

The north-eastern U.S. was called "the burned-over district" in the early 19th Century after a series of religious revivals left the people there mostly tired of the whole business. In a similar vein*, lots of paper has been devoted to tales of swords and sorcery--so much so that it's no longer clear how the setting can help make the story unique. Put another way, given a story you want to tell, why does it have to be in that particular setting?

Tolkien gave The Lord of the Rings a medievaloid setting because he wanted a legendary, almost mythic feel. Since then, a great many other writers have gone over the same ground simply because they wanted to use the same kinds of cool elements.

In some respects, it's easier to do something fresh when the clichés are so well canonized: you simply exploit or invert the clichés.

But at a deeper level, the setting is really a meta-character and requires the same care to avoid stereotypes as your other characters. In particular, the setting needs more of a reason for being than because it provides a stage and props. If you can take your medievaloid epic and turn it into a space opera by exchanging advanced technology for magic, you should ask yourself some hard questions about your setting and whether it's contributing to the task of giving us something new.

* Pun intended.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

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