How is it possible to be given the most incredible premises, the most heart-pounding situations, and then end up writing unreadable slog? This is not a rhetorical question without a clear target. I’m thinking about fantasy fiction here—or, at least, what is usually known as heroic fantasy. What sometimes is also known as adventure fiction or epic fantasy. It mostly involves people pretending to be awesome.
For the past couple of years or so I have gradually distanced myself from fantasy (and “fantasy in space,” also known as Science Fiction) for my reading material because, well, it’s simply too boring. I came to the conclusion that our real world has enough interesting stories of real, greater-than-life people to occupy me for thousands of lifetimes for me to waste time with imaginary worlds inhabited by cosplayers whose made-up struggles have no relevance or relation to our own. Yet… ineluctable as that conclusion seemed, it was also unfair and it didn’t really explain the reason. I mean, sure, something is boring or is badly written… all right, but why? Besides, not all fantasy works are, even to my jaded present self, as dull as an airplane plastic knife. So, why?
I have written my share of posts about the decline of fiction, so the explanation I will give now may seem crude and underwhelming in its simplicity, but sometimes the simplest answer is the best as it goes right to the point. Here it is: heroic fantasy is written almost exclusively by turbonerds, and nerds are usually boring people, and boring people write boring stories.
Every time I have read a good war memoir or the biography of some real-world traveler or adventurer, my reaction has always been, “Damn, I’d love to pick out this guy’s brain or have a chat with him so he can tell me all about his life.” That’s because I’m a man, though. I guess that if I were I woman I’d think “I must get this guy’s phone and/or I will have all his children,” but I digress.
In any event, it’s quite uncommon for me to think that meeting an sff writer could be interesting or that I could learn something. Maybe in terms of the craft of writing, perhaps, but that’s it. “Oh, sure, I’d like to drink a couple beers with this bearded weirdo so he can tell me all about his 2000-page fantasy trilogy called The Sword of Divine Retributive Justice, set in the imaginary land of….” zZzZzZ No, sorry, that won’t do at all.
You know that thing about being able to differentiate the artist from his work? Yeah, I don’t think that applies that well to writing. You can easily keep, let’s say, a rock artist’s cocaine-fueled, wife-beating existence away from your appreciation for his music, or separate the works of a genius painter from his miserable, disgusting real-life personality, but words are the stuff thoughts are made of. Some writers can put up a mask, or perhaps they write using a rehearsed formula, but even then words are too personal, and the real self usually slips through sooner or later.
So back to the main point: if a lot of “epic” fantasy is boring is because the people who write it are boring. Their knowledge, but especially their personalities, are as far away from the subject of their books as from an alien being. It’s like expecting a nun to write good erotic novels. That can only work if your customers are other nuns. Traditionally, writers and proto-nerds tried to compensate their bookish, unsexy nature by being well-read, scholarly, knowledgeable, or whatever, but it’s almost like none of that matters anymore.
“Oh, now, it’s just because the same tropes have been overused!” Some of you may say. I don’t think so. Literature is not a collection of tropes, and many classic works have surprisingly simple plots. And, by the way, I don’t hear that excuse with whodunnits or other cliché-ridden genres. Besides, a lot of writers try to compensate for their texts’ lack of passion by creating multi-layered stories and immense, unheard-of world-building with dizzying twists and characterization… and it’s still boring.
It’s clearly not a matter of complexity because I recently read the epic poem Beowulf, and although I didn’t understand half of it due to the archaic language and its many allusions and references to events and people from that era, it was quite an awesome story. Yet it’s so simple it almost feels like a parody: giant monster attacks a palace, so the strongest hero in the world swaggers his way over there, then kills the monster (with his bare hands, mind you; he rips off its arm and pins it up for everyone to see.) Then the mother of the monster is angry so the hero goes to her underwater palace and beheads the crone with a giant sword he finds there. Many years later, as a 70-year-old king, but still kicking ass, Beowulf dies while killing a dragon that is terrorizing his land. He is given a hero’s funeral. End.
I had difficulties with the text, but I certainly wasn’t bored, and I suspect that reading it when and as part of the public for which it was written would be incredible. And think about it this way, what’s the simplest, most over-used story in heroic fantasy, the sort that many magazines actually tell you to not send because they won’t even read it? Something with orcs or elfs, with the characters meeting in a tavern, perhaps something based on your RPG campaign? That’s the standard, first-level quest, for those in gaming. So, what would be the real-world equivalent of that, and would it be equally boring?
Now, we don’t have orcs in real life, but we have enough monsters in human skin so I’m sure I can find an apt analogy. What would be the equivalent of unproductive, parasitic, ugly, smelly, psychotic murderers terrorizing the land and plundering everything, with a fondness for torture, killing and raping everything that moves (from where do you think all those half-orcs come?) with a malevolence so great it’s almost comical. Well… it may be a bit unfair, but I guess ISIS militias can work as a stand-in.
So, to follow the analogy… Our adventurers would most likely be farm boys, bored to tears with their life and craving for adventure and glory. So these four dudes meet at a bar, and while completely drunk, someone says, “Ey, did you know that over there in Syria those psychos have a shitton of loot from all the people they have murdered? Man, we should go there and relieve them of their shit.” And everybody laughs—until they don’t, and they all say, “Yeah, maybe we should.” So they buy tickets to Syria, buy some second-hand Kalashnikovs and rations from a smuggler, and start to shoot jihadis and loot their stuff because… why not.
That’s the closest real-world equivalent of going off to kill some orcs for fun and profit. So… why would anybody NOT want to read that story? How can you possibly make that boring? Well, you apparently can if you are boring. And writing it in a typical secondary-world fantasy setting probably doesn’t help either.
Here’s my point: the psychology of the heroes and what motivates them are so alien to the average fantasy writer (and reader,) that they can only botch any attempt to put such awesomeness on paper. Yes, you write what you know, but also what you are. Neurotic people tend to foist neurotic characters on the unsuspecting readers, and boring people tend to write boring characters. Why is the fantasy landscape populated by neurotics, sexual freaks (or eunuchs afraid of any intimacy,) and boring cosplayers acting like they are cool but they really aren’t? You know why.
The Hero, is important to remember, is not a role model. Hercules or Beowulf are not supposed to be role models, at least certainly not for the masses. Hercules was deified; he was worshipped. The stories about them are not told to give children role models. Grandpa going to Career Day is a role model; Beofulf ripping off a giant’s arm and beating him with it is something else.
In fact, even while they occasionally laud them, most societies consider adventurous/heroic behaviors dangerous, ill-advised, or even reprehensible, and will try to keep their children (especially their teenage daughters) away from guys like those. No, their stories are told because the hero is better than you, the reader. He may be an “average dude” in terms of not being a genius or a superhero or secret agent, but he is certainly not average or common in terms of mindset, motivation, and psychology (being a fictional Hero is mostly a matter of personality and having the right stuff*. Everything else is secondary.)
*Cojones, I’m talking about cojones
You are not supposed to “relate” to the heroic protagonist. You are supposed to be amazed. You are supposed to say, “Did you just see what he… just did?” And the awesomeness of what he just did doesn’t really come from superpowers, being a high-level character, or chosen-one faggotry, but from a borderline psychotic disregard for one’s safety, and aggressive, monomaniacal, kill-your-enemies-and-see-them-driven-before-you determination to achieve one’s goals (which incidentally may be to defend the weak and all that but at the end of the day is really about showing off and killing the monster.) And let’s be honest, do you think the common fantasy writer (and reader) knows or understands those things? Or, given today’s cultural climate, even likes or appreciates them?