With the work of George R.R. Martin, Patrick Rothfuss and the like, fantasy is slowly becoming a respectable genre again. (At least as much a genre can be respected.) It’s even gaining the praise usually reserved for science fiction. Many of these fantasists frequently mention the Diet-Tolkien of the 70s, 80s and 90s. Fantasy needs to move past Elves, Dwarves and Dragons, they say.
But does it?
Laziness can be one of the greatest factors in creating a world, provided your worldbuilding is thorough. I know this may seem like a contradiction, but bear with me here.
I’ll be the first to say that Elves, Dwarves and Dragons are overused. But I think the word people miss from that critique is “Tolkienian”. Any new changes to these races is minimal. They are still distinctly Tolkien’s creations used by a different author. But through effective worldbuilding, these tropes can become something new and exciting.
What do I mean by effective worldbuilding? Look no further than the idea of castles and dragons. Say you live in a world where giant fire breathing reptiles are in abundance. They’re often known to attack cities and towns. Why then, would someone’s first line of strategic defense be to build a tower? Building a castle in a world full of dragons makes all the sense of a man in full armor climbing to the highest peak in the land in the midst of a lightning storm to scream curses at the gods.
Think through your worldbuilding. What are the natural repercussions of such a thing? What does an immortal race do with its time? How many times can they see Men ruin everything before deciding “We’ll take it from here.” But it gets simpler than that. Ask yourselves how these people might deal with the idea of mortality. They’ve just gone outside their own Kingdom, for example, and they see just how often everything else dies. What does that do to an Elf? The outside world is simply so full of mortality, and if all they’ve slain is Orcs for the past couple hundred years, their journey to the outside world would be less than pleasant. And are you telling me creatures that have lived that long haven’t thought of using gunpowder? At least make an excuse as to why they haven’t. Maybe their religion is based on fire and ice, where fire is bad and gunpowder would be the work of Evil.
Which brings me to the next point: religion. Many people will use the trope of single god vs. dieties. Tolkien could get away with this because many creatures interacted with the gods of Middle Earth (The Valar) and so they all knew that this religion was legitimate. But if you’re going to have three races, you can’t give them all one religion. (Or one Kingdom, but that’ll come in later). To use Elves again: things that have been alive for so long may even become godlike in brainpower themselves? (And you’d think at least one of them would have thought to impersonate a deity during early-human ages) Do they need a god? How many religions have risen and fallen? What does this say about Elves? Also, if they’re so long lived, give them more than swords at least. Be creative, dammit. You’re writing fantasy. You needn’t adhere to historical weapons. Make up your own. Give these things a if they’ve been using swords for two thousand years, I’m sure you can invent a reason why they haven’t progressed in your world. And I bet you can make it interesting and relevant to your plot.
Let’s move on to being lazy with character. I’ll stick with one archetype, like I stuck with Elves above.
Your character is a barbarian? Then use that. Don’t just make him into the same loincloth-wearing Conan ripoff seen everywhere else around the fantasy bookshelf. You’re using someone who’s never been in a civilized society. Do they have a Barbarian’s Guide to Civilized Society? What makes a civilized society? There are so many different things to be explored here. So much social commentary so ripe for the picking. Yet so many make their barbarians into simple brutes who can fight their way out of any situation. What if he keeps asking questions through not understanding, the the point where the antagonists can’t even deal with him anymore.
It would be so easy to make a barbarian character, wandering the world, and learning the ways of civilized people. It’s worldbuilding through the story. You can have him (or her. This blog does not discriminate against your barbarian archetypes. Unless you use chain mail bikinis, because fuck that.) be a gigantic brawler, but explore the implications that would have on your world. Are their countries that admire this person? Surely there are some civilized nations that can make such a man into a human weapon for conquest. What about toxic masculinity? Look no further than George R. R. Martin’s character of Victarion Greyjoy to see an example of the fantasy barbarian portrayed as an example of toxic masculinity.
This man/woman doesn’t know what civilization is. That makes him very easy to use. There are a million different ways you can throw a wrench into a trope just by thinking out the natural repercussions of this trope on the world you’ve created. Trope(x)World= An interesting twist. It’s spectacularly easy, provided you’re willing to think of ways to do this. It’s–dare I say it–lazy. And that’s not a bad thing.
Another more popular way of making a new spin on a character is inverting the tropes. George R.R. Martin did that with the Night’s Watch–criminals who are ugly and wear black are some of the most honorable characters, whereas the beautiful knights in shining armor can be some of the most despicable.
To carry this over to the barbarian: what if he were a coward? How could he be a barbarian? Is his worst fear being found out to be a coward so he’s brave when he’s got a crowd of spectators? Is that what gave him his reputation? Like I said, think of what you can do with this trope, and play it out through your world. What happens if the other barbarians find out he’s a coward? Why doesn’t he want people to know? Is there a place in this world where his cowardice is rewarded? To what extent does it go.
Lastly, we have maps. I’ll use one example on why being lazy can pay off here. You just need to ask yourself a simple question: why? Why do you need to draw a map for your world? Is it because every fantasy novel has one? Because you think you have to? Do you think you can’t show through words where everything is in relation to each other?
Now, to add a personal note: I hate drawing maps. I have only one map at my disposal and that was one I did a twenty minute sketch for and then commissioned a friend to make it look more professional. I’ve reused it a million times in a million stories for the purpose of figuring out where things lie in relation to each other. But I’ve never felt the need to show it.
But before I had that first map, I wanted desperately to avoid that. How could I avoid drawing a map? And then it hit me. Make the land fucking move like a living, breathing thing and put those goddamn mapmakers out of a job.
I would write a story where the land itself changes. Mountains crumbled and rose up in new spots. It’s something that could not be mapped, because a babbling brook in a forest could be a basin in the midst of a desert surrounded by cacti.
I called it In the Caverns of the Rock Lord. One of the first good fantasy stories I wrote.