Re: Has the fantasy genre lost some of its fantasy?

I wrote this initially as an answer to this thread about whether we lose our creativity by following the rules. While I don't agree with the exact premise, the author brought up a point that I thought was worthy to discuss in itself. Namely, if you would ask a child to come up with a fantasy plot/characters, they would come up with some outright bizarre and imaginative things. But on the other hand, if you would ask an adult (I'm obviously generalizing) you would come up with something way less fantastical. It of course could still be creative and good, but it would probably closer to the standard medieval fantasy setting. Nowadays, it sometimes feels like a good fantasy is not something builds something new (Yes, I know that nothing is truly ever new) but rather something that simply examines the known conventions and settings from different angles.

To put it in a metaphor: If you give an adult a board with figures and whatnot, the adult would figure out all the rules and try to bend them or explore in every way possible. The child on the other hand would flip the board and play by their own rules. The fantasy genre has imo to some degree lost the fantastical. I think it's a problem that we've established a typical and standard fantasy setting/plot. There shouldn't be anything standard  about our imagination (Joseph Campbell would probably disagree). I think fantasy has lost some of this childish creativity that made it so awesome to begin with. 

I recently reread the Neverending Story from Michael Ende. The way Ende weaved this childish imagination into an adult plot was just phenomenal. Just one example was Graógramán, the many colored death. He is a lion who lives in a desert whose sand is colored in patches of different colors, each one unique. Whenever Graógramán steps on a spot, he changes his color in accord to the spot. Graógramán is lonely because everyone who enters the desert will turn to sand thanks to the heat. And he can't leave the desert, because he carries it around him. Wherever he goes, the location will transform into the colored desert. But at night, when Graógramán goes to sleep, he turns into stone, and the desert transforms into a night forest that is lush and brimming with life. Once he wakes up, the desert will reclaim the forest. And there are many other characters and places like this in the Neverending Story, some more bizarre than Graógramán.

I feel like not many stories have something of this, I'm not sure how to describe it, perhaps raw fantasy. When writing fantasy we adults may have diluted our imagination. Our imagination is bizarre, sometimes nonsensical. It's the grotesque and surreal. The weird and the strange. Fantasies are dreams and nightmares. They are manifestations of our primal instincts, our subconscious given visual representation. Yes, they are full of holes, but that's why rules and structures exist. To fill those holes and not to restrain the fantasy. We as adults have lost/suppressed some of this imagination that children unleash without worry. Coupled with the sometimes strict adherence to the genre giants and conventions, and the fantasy genre suffers somewhat from a lack of fantastical and surreal imagination. Nowadays, it's imo also too much trying to fulfill desires and escapism, at least in the webnovel community.

Personally, I thought to change this at least with my story. One of the ideas I wanted to explore was what a fantasy to a character living in a fantasy world is. What would they consider impossible, bizarre or nightmarish? We think of magic, wizards, and dragons as impossible and fantastical. So, what would have to qualify for a fantasy character, like our standard hero, a wizard, or an elf to be fantasy? And I don't think they lack such imagination since fantasy is an expression of our primal instincts. Unless these characters lack instincts, they should have fantasies themselves, some that are not grounded in their reality.

Or maybe I'm completely wrong. Perhaps that childish imagination is still everywhere, and I'm looking at all the wrong places. And after all, what is creative to one person, may not be to another and vise-versa. Or perhaps, it's not even a bad thing, and the fantasy genre doesn't need this childish imagination of ours.

So, what is your opinion on this?

Re: Has the fantasy genre lost some of its fantasy?

I believe that much of this more fantastical still has it´s place. I would also assume that it was not more or less prevalent now than it was back in the day. While not universal, people tend to become somewhat more analytical of their thoughts, thinking about why things are the way they are, wanting explanations. But with such explanations also comes limitations, as it makes it hard to imagine something we cannot dissect into parts. 

I personally am not very interested in these more childish, imaginative elements, as I am with wonder in general, which I feel is unjustly being compared regularly to not being mature. Discovering things both great and terrible, that defy our imagination, that we cannot even begin to attempt to puzzle together, that defies our desires for knowing exactly how things work. That to me  is not something reserved for being not fully developed yet. There are a great many things we know little to nothing of in our own world still, most people simply never seek them out or think about them. 

Think of deep parts of the ocean unexplored, the vastness of the universe, the microcosm of particles, the mathematical possibility of other dimensions. The unknown never went anywhere, the figurative map of knowledge is still widely unexplored. It is simply just not as easy to access for people without research and effort. 

And to lastly just say words that everyone has already heard about the idea of making something new: There is nothing fully original, lest you want to go back to the epic of Gilgamesh. Stories have always been about elements observed differently and put into contrast or supplementation of other elements. With enough time and knowledge you could dissect anything into every single inspiration and viewpoint an author had for their work. It would only take longer for some authors than for others, which is why I dislike the idea of thinking in those terms. What makes a story appear new is exactly the constellation of elements, as well as the author´s unique perspective they gained through the events of their life. 

Re: Has the fantasy genre lost some of its fantasy?

It's easy to be random and bizarre. Just combine any elements around you and you can create something more 'unique' than the standard. Imagine a river of flowing down, which will coalesce into fabric the moment it's removed from the river. You can scoop out a little of the river in a cup if you need a small hand towel, or with a giant net if you need a blanket. Then imagine the fish that swim in the river of down, who are so soft and delicate that they are killed by the slightest drop of water or touch of hand, and are prized throughout the realm for their rarity.

Is it useful as a story element? Well, if you need someone to find a towel, sure. Is it interesting? Maybe. Maybe it's just weird and pointless.

The true power and value of creativity doesn't come in making up random things, but in pulling them together into a cohesive whole. Any child can tell a story that goes on and on and on, switching tracks as often as they dream up something new. But can they carry a theme? Can they integrate the disparate elements into an engaging narrative? Can they draw the story to a satisfying conclusion?

There will always be a standard to imagination, because it's inherently based on remixing reality. You can imagine bird wings on a slime-thing, and it's still nothing that couldn't theoretically be imagined by someone else. Human experience is the ultimate unifying meaning and differentiation between different writers. You can take a given setting, however fantastical or mundane, and give it to a dozen different writers and they'll interpret it in their own unique ways.

Re: Has the fantasy genre lost some of its fantasy?

Ah, I can see where you are coming from, yeah. It's so easy to just fall into the tropes, structures and cliche's that have been taught to us as THE WAY to write and create. I think this is why it's so important to read more broadly. Especially reading translated works is so important because people from different cultures have such a vast bounty of diverse ways of creating stories, with their own rules and structures and tropes informed by different history and culture and everything.

Re: Has the fantasy genre lost some of its fantasy?

I'd actually say that the fantasy genre has become more broad, and that's a good thing.  Magic realism, for example - I hadn't encountered ANYTHING like that before I entered college, even though I had already read a lot of science fiction and fantasy.  Or fantasy based on a non-European mythology, that was quite rare before the 90s.  Japanese mythology was in in the 90s, but I didn't encounter Xianxia until maybe 2010?

I have no idea if authors who are in their twenties these days are encountering the more interesting fantasy written around the 70s, but there is a lot of unusual fantasy out there if that's what you want to read.

Re: Has the fantasy genre lost some of its fantasy?

In a way yes, but also no. 

There seems to be something of a trend to introduce fantasy elements that people will relate to more. In this, historical and cultural sort of fantasy as well as urban are blooming. While these sub-genres can be done creatively, they inherently lead to a more mundane story and setting. 

Truly high fantasy, with out of this world concepts are definitely hard to come by. Something like Stormlight archive, set in a world where just about every creature is a crustacean and a storm frequently crashes through the land. Good luck finding many stories like this. At the same time, these stories are out there, beneath the piles and piles of fantasy. It's just a herculean feat for these kinds of stories to be recognized and published. And who can blame publishers, stories like this are undoubtedly a risk. 

Also, don't forget. Creating stories with these highly fantastical elements and making them good is a difficult thing. A lot of these stories just suck. And that's that. 

Re: Has the fantasy genre lost some of its fantasy?

You bring up some very interesting points - and I should say I'm not inclined to fully agree or disagree with them.

One thing you mentioned is that it feels like you are not finding this in the light novel community. In my personal opinion most of these isekai novels I almost don't consider fantasy. Originally it was a subgenre of fantasy - portal fantasy. Then it was basing it on an anime portal fantasy. Now it has doubled down so hard that few (at least on scribblehub, my main stomping ground) seem to care much about exploring outside of isekai.

I think that I see in the world of traditional publishing much more variety, but still perhaps some of the problems you are highlighting. One fantasy series that comes to mind for me that has that kind of childlike imagination is Brandon Mull's Five Kingdoms series. Although he writes for the audience between middle grade and YA, I've read his stories even as an adult - and so has my dad. He comes up with amazingly creative fantasy worlds, that feel like they actually need to be in the fantasy genre for the story to exist. Whether it is that series, or his others, Beyonders and Fablehaven, he has some really cool ideas.

This is the part where I plug my favorite author, Brandon Sanderson. While Sanderson doesn't usually go for soft magic, or stories aimed at grand spectacles of wonder, he definitely goes for interesting ideas. You mentioned that many authors simply try to tweak existing tropes "what if it's a medieval fantasy, but dragons are the ones running the show?"

No. He goes completely beyond the simple cliche Medieval Europe fantasy. His epic fantasy series, The Stormlight Archive takes place in a world regularly buffeted by storms stronger than hurricanes. It has dramatically shaped the world, and its people. They exist in a renaissance level of technology, appear racially similar to Asian people, and many of the creatures around them bear resemblance to crustaceans. Sanderson does not care about fitting his story into a box - he just makes a world.

Other stories of his have similarly interesting worlds - he has Mistborn - the prophesied hero lost, and now a dark lord has ruled for a thousand years over a world where it rains ash from the sky. Magic users called allomancers are able to push and pull on objects, and on people's minds by swallowing flakes of varying kinds of metal. 

While these are not as out there, bizarre ideas, I find them so interesting because Sanderson invents new rules that these worlds follow. He doesn't go for out there insanity like Lewis Carroll or something, but carves out his own brand of creativity by giving interesting limitations.

And in these worlds are fantastic characters. Plots with twists that are awesome not because of some grand secret kept, but because the characters chose something completely unexpected, acting like real living people.

Though his work may not be your particular cup of tea, if you are even slightly interested, I highly recommend basically any of the dozens of stories he's made. He and others demonstrate that there is still a great deal of wonder to be found in the fantasy genre. Somehow, I find more relatability reading a story about a girl fighting a monstrous man with spikes for eyes than I do reading some dry piece of realistic fiction for an English class.

And in my own small way, I try to shy away from the cliche Dungeons and Dragons style fantasy - mine is about an industrial society stuck in a stalemate war with an ocean of merfolk. I like to think that maybe it is creative in its own way.

I wish you luck fellow traveler on this fantasy road, may you find many great and marvelous worlds in your journeying.

Re: Has the fantasy genre lost some of its fantasy?

Well, no. You are not talking here about your local paper boy, but specifically about fantasy writers. I very much doubt there is anything similar or even comparable between some flight of mind a two year old might blurt out and the skyline of imagination writers usually reach, and it certainly is not a matter of age or lack of imagination.   True enough that many may lack some originality, but that simply separates the men from the boys in terms of quality fiction. I have certainly not seen that in the best fiction.

Re: Has the fantasy genre lost some of its fantasy?

Have you ever watched the movie Troll Hunter? It's a Scandinavian Fantasy/Drama/Horror movie about a bunch of journalist teens in Norway or something like that who discover that trolls are real, gets stuck with a troll hunter, and goes on to try and make a documentary about the trolls to reveal their existence to the world. The trolls are inspired by classic Scandinavian folk art.

And hoooooooly shit did the American reviews complain about that little detail in the early days of the movies release. (That quickly died down as Europeans chimed in, but still, wow.) The problem was a culture clash. They expected fantasy trolls and were probably more familiar with WoW than Scandinavian folklore. The movie initially got a whole lot of negative reviews because it didn't fit into the mainstream fantasy narrative. As a Scandinavian, I loved it, it was really well done and I think any native Scandinavian would agree. Trolls are a lot of different things in different parts of this corner of the world, but they're not purple hunch-backed/super-hot (depending on gender) humans with tusks and mohawks and Native American-inspired freaking totem magic (lol). But some people genuinely expected that of Troll Hunter, simply because they were trolls. 

My point is that making things outside the mainstream is a double-edged sword. If you make something that goes against peoples expectations of what a certain thing is supposed to be because that's what it's always been to them before, then you need to either be clever about it or accept that you'll lose a large part of your audience. On the flip side, it's pretty easy to just write a standard WoW/DnD/Tolkien elf character. Everyone already knows pretty much what that is, so you're free to get on with the story. Yeah, sure, that's a limited setting. It's not super imaginative. But, to echo what I wrote in the original post, limitations are great. You're free to work within them, challenge them or not, and you already have the groundwork done for you. Awesome. 

Re: Has the fantasy genre lost some of its fantasy?

For a lot of theater goers (not all) Fantasy only grabs them above a certain level of cinematography, regardless of the story content. Written work is another story. Readers look for different things to stick their noses in. As they are paying for it at least in their time investment, that is their perfect right.  Originality is one thing looked for, comfortable and predictable patterns and tropes are another. There are good reasons for this on the readers side, as some predictability makes the story easier to follow, requiring less attention to every detail. Most stuff is a mix. There is literature, which does not, by the way, sell well, then there is genre. All genres have their tropes, key concepts, and mechanisms. Since you can write in any genre you want, this is not as limiting as it might seem. Sometimes whats fresh and new is only fresh and new to you because you haven't been exposed to it before.