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Going out on a limb: S&S

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  • Going out on a limb: S&S

    A lot of us here don't really LIKE Sword&Sorcery. I am (at best) a very critical admirer, and quite a bit of what is popular in the genre induces narcolepsy for me, or worse, nausea.

    Part of the problem is that the practice of the genre has degenerated into formula.

    Anyone here willing to take a shot at breaking out of that formula?

    Be aware, that with Leiber, Moorcock, and the best of Howard, CAS, and Eddison and Dunsany, you've got a hard act to follow.

    LSN

  • #2
    One possible approach to subverting the genre is to pick a protagonist that is interesting for reasons other than his strength, fighting skill, or magical prowess.

    Make him or her a street performer, for example (artist or musician) or an actor (a "common player" as they said back in the England of Elizabeth).

    This is for brainstorming. Anyone else?

    LSN

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    • #3
      Not giving the game away or nuthin', but I've got a kind-of-finished flash-fiction piece that starts off with the typical muscular sorcery-hero negotiating beasts and antagonists as he performs a compressed quest - all the usual lurid S+S cliches. Denouement is that he's a slightly bonkers 'Big Issue' vendor, and the whole scenaio is his fantasy of how he copes with crossing the road, shopping, dealing with other people. A kind of back-handed take on the plight of the moderately mentally-ill.
      No, it was my idea. Me!
      Prob'ly bin done a hundred times... :lol:

      Comment


      • #4
        I wrote several drafts of a sitcom set in a "Fantasy" world once. The characters were on a "quest", and all that, but they were very much contemporary "types", and their dialogue was fairly typical of my usual stuff. Sadly I couldn't fight the nagging suspicion that I was just ripping off Pratchett, so I gave it up. It's a shame really. I don't read S&S at all, but I used to love playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. As I've mentioned beofre, my role-playing characters were always fairly a-typical, and I might enjoy reviving the project at some point... er... possibly...
        "That which does not kill us, makes us stranger." - Trevor Goodchild

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        • #5
          Originally posted by L_Stearns_Newburg
          One possible approach to subverting the genre is to pick a protagonist that is interesting for reasons other than his strength, fighting skill, or magical prowess.

          Make him or her a street performer, for example (artist or musician) or an actor (a "common player" as they said back in the England of Elizabeth).

          This is for brainstorming. Anyone else?
          After my dismal failure (so far) to come up with anything zeitgesty for your previous challenge LSN :oops:, I'm not about to throw my hat into the ring quite so quickly this time, but I will mention something that I think tried to do what you're talking about a few years ago and that's the PC game Planescape: Torment.

          Set in TSR's Planescape environment (hence the name) and developed by Black Isle (the guys behind the Baldur's Gate CRPGs) it subverted (imo) the player's usual (generic) expectations of an RPG by placing greater emphasis on your character's Wisdom, Charisma and Intelligence, rather than what I would consider the usual standbys of Strength, Dexterity and Constitution.

          There were still the familiar quests/fighting tropes that you'd expect from a TSR game, but you progressed quicker and learnt more if you asked the right questions of the right people, which you could only do if you focussed on the more cerebral aspects rather than the brawny ones.
          _"For an eternity Allard was alone in an icy limbo where all the colours were bright and sharp and comfortless.
          _For another eternity Allard swam through seas without end, all green and cool and deep, where distorted creatures drifted, sometimes attacking him.
          _And then, at last, he had reached the real world – the world he had created, where he was God and could create or destroy whatever he wished.
          _He was supremely powerful. He told planets to destroy themselves, and they did. He created suns. Beautiful women flocked to be his. Of all men, he was the mightiest. Of all gods, he was the greatest."

          Comment


          • #6
            Again, a propos of your post in the 'Future of S&S' in the Q&A (as well as this one), I was thinking the other day what would someone come up with nowadays if (like Mike in 1961) they were asked to write a new fantasy character. Mike of course just took REH's Conan and created the opposite type (weak not strong, king not barbarian, sorceror not warrior, etc.). Back in 1961 there wasn't really a fantasy genre as such, whereas today it's seeping off the shelves in bookshops all over the world.

            As I understand it, Mike didn't specifically set out to become a fantasy writer, he choose the fantasy genre for his stories because he felt there were no expectations and he sould mould it to his own methods and ideas. Where he had a field of virgin snow we now have a well-trampled mire.

            So is there some genre today that's so unconsidered as fantasy was in 1961? You certainly have genres like the Western which have pretty much fallen by the wayside these days, and yet more than one commentator has remarked that the Western isn't a genre so much as a set of conventions that you can insert into any other number of other genres. High Noon becomes Outland. Rio Bravo becomes John Carpenter's Assualt on Precinct 13. Seven Samurai becomes The Magnificent Seven becomes Battle Beyond the Stars. Yojimbo becomes A Fistful of Dollars becomes Last Man Standing.

            And despite Westerns not featuring very much these days in fiction, I though Mike's The Ghost Warriors in 'Tales from the Texas Woods' very refreshing and would love to see more of that from Mike (if he feels like it).

            Anyway, back to your original question. The only thing I can think of doing with the fantasy genre would be not to make the protagonist some seemingly ordinary lad (or lass) with an extraordinary future ahead of them where they're destinied to accomplish great and wonderful feats, but to make that seemingly ordinary lad (or lass) actually be an ordinary person. They don't have some glorious future ahead of them. They're not born to be King (or Queen). They don't leave they dull boring village and go on amazing quests or have great adventures. Instead they stay at home and do the normal ordinary things that we all do. I'd have extraordinary events occuring 'off-stage' as it were, so some 'great and terrible warlock' raises an army of chaos creatures (or something) and lays waste to the protagonist's home or village, but rather than swearing revenge and going off to destroy the 'great and terrible warlock' they have to stay behind and get on with rebuilding their life, etc.

            I suppose what I'm getting at is the kind of thing that Tom Stoppard did with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. So it's not even a terribly original idea after all.

            Anyway, the problem would be that it probably wouldn't be very interesting for the reader and no-one who wrote such a story would make any money from it. ;)
            _"For an eternity Allard was alone in an icy limbo where all the colours were bright and sharp and comfortless.
            _For another eternity Allard swam through seas without end, all green and cool and deep, where distorted creatures drifted, sometimes attacking him.
            _And then, at last, he had reached the real world – the world he had created, where he was God and could create or destroy whatever he wished.
            _He was supremely powerful. He told planets to destroy themselves, and they did. He created suns. Beautiful women flocked to be his. Of all men, he was the mightiest. Of all gods, he was the greatest."

            Comment


            • #7
              Some common approaches to S&S these days that I deplore:

              - Creating characters according to "statistics" similar to D&D. Characters should be something other than the sum of their "stats." Those things aren't really so easily quantifiable as all that, nor as consistent. Reliance on such means tends to produce 1-dimensional characters.

              - "Designing" a world from the ground up. It can work okay, but it seems like a case of the tail-wagging-the-dog to start with such an approach. A writer's relationship to his background materials should be primarily exploitive, so that something shouldn't be specified, created, or rationalized unless it is somehow pertinent to the story. Do NOT set out to write a 3 volume fantasy series. Remember what Oscar Wilde said about trilogies.

              LSN

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              • #8
                For some different, not commonly used approaches on what such a protagonist might be like, I'd suggest some examples: Hope Mirrlees's Lud-in-the-Mist, and James Branch Cabell's Jurgen and The Cream of the Jest and Figures of Earth.

                LSN

                Comment


                • #9
                  Originally posted by L_Stearns_Newburg
                  ...

                  - Creating characters according to "statistics" similar to D&D. Characters should be something other than the sum of their "stats." Those things aren't really so easily quantifiable as all that, nor as consistent. Reliance on such means tends to produce 1-dimensional characters.

                  ...
                  I also blame Joseph Campbell's 'Hero with a Thousand Faces' for a lot of, all too similiar and familiar, formula product.

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Originally posted by AndroMan
                    I also blame Joseph Campbell's 'Hero with a Thousand Faces' for a lot of, all too similiar and familiar, formula product.
                    Hmm, then we probably shouldn't ignore George Lucas' participation in bringing that text to wider prevalence.
                    _"For an eternity Allard was alone in an icy limbo where all the colours were bright and sharp and comfortless.
                    _For another eternity Allard swam through seas without end, all green and cool and deep, where distorted creatures drifted, sometimes attacking him.
                    _And then, at last, he had reached the real world – the world he had created, where he was God and could create or destroy whatever he wished.
                    _He was supremely powerful. He told planets to destroy themselves, and they did. He created suns. Beautiful women flocked to be his. Of all men, he was the mightiest. Of all gods, he was the greatest."

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Campbell wasn't trying to give people instructions on how to design such characters, any more than Otto Rank was in Myth of the Birth of the Hero. Campbell's book, viewed for what it is, seems to me not without interest. He wasn't responsible for the bad uses to which his work was put.

                      Might as well blame Kenneth Burke for the bad uses people have made of his insights from The Philosophy of Literary Form.

                      Campbell's books called The Masks of God are a nice 4-volume compendium of information. Again, they aren't instruction-manuals.

                      LSN

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        With fantasy Worlds, it becomes increasingly difficult to bring off, the 'suspension of disbelief' factor, as they recede further and further away from points of reference that a reader can use to orientate themselves, particularily with relationship to the main protagonist.

                        Tethering the fantasy World with some subtle references to the real World can help. I've been reading Edgar Rice Burrough's, John Carter of Mars, on my PDA, for weeks. A paragraph, or two, at a time, before I go to sleep, it's held my attention, effortlessly.

                        No matter, that Carter is faced off against some fierce opposition. Like the sixteen foot tall, green skinned Martians, with four brawny arms, all wielding enormous swords and devastating firearms, not to mention mouths filled with huge tusks and fangs. No matter, because at core, the monstrous green, thoat riders of the frigid deserts of Barsoom owe a considerable debt to the riders of the purple sage, in America's 'Old West', back on Earth.

                        Don't knock it, a slightly stylized mode of speech and a cast iron set of personal moral values for your hero, can go a long way. As long as you throw the occasional sly anachronism into the mix, as seasoning.

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Originally posted by L_Stearns_Newburg
                          Campbell wasn't trying to give people instructions on how to design such characters, any more than Otto Rank was in Myth of the Birth of the Hero. ...
                          Quite fair enough, though I do get ired when people insist that Campbell's particuliar, structural interpretation of mythology is the ultimate, or only possible construction. The 'Ur' Myth. Because, it's so obviously subjective. All that Jungian stuff comes through. A Calvanistic and Presbeteryian Hero, for pagan times?

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            I don't think the S&S genre is played out. I think it has simply become formula-ridden, and consequently rather sterile.

                            However, just when you think a mode or genre is dead, someone will come along and show it CAN still be done. People thought the literary gothic was dead by the late 19th century. Then, in the 1930s, along comes Isak Dinesen with Seven Gothic Tales, where she showed it could still work in the right hands. She continued to do it for the rest of her life (although in too few books for this reader's taste).

                            So we just need the right person or persons here. S&S didn't look too promising until Leiber came along and hit his stride. Singlehandedly, he reinvigorated the genre. Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword is another case in point. Hell, I even like the same writer's Operation Chaos -- I just don't want to see any cheap imitations, thanks! :lol:

                            LSN

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Originally posted by AndroMan
                              Originally posted by L_Stearns_Newburg
                              Campbell wasn't trying to give people instructions on how to design such characters, any more than Otto Rank was in Myth of the Birth of the Hero. ...
                              Quite fair enough, though I do get ired when people insist that Campbell's particuliar, structural interpretation of mythology is the ultimate, or only possible construction. The 'Ur' Myth. Because, it's so obviously subjective. All that Jungian stuff comes through. A Calvanistic and Presbeteryian Hero, for pagan times?
                              Who insists on this? I'm sorry, it's not that you are beating a dead horse, but that you are objecting to what sounds like the critical grousing of a collection of utter morons with whom I am fortunately unacquainted. If this is in fact the case, and you aren't simply engaging in hyperbole, I suggest we ignore these "one big idea" people beyond simply suggesting they peruse an essay by Sir Isaiah Berlin called The Hedgehog and the Fox, and consider whether they fall into the first category.

                              A plague on both their grouses! :P ("May their tribe increase.")

                              Sensible people generally understand that there are multiple valid interpretations to these things. Multiplicity of meaning and intent are not unusual writerly goals. Fiction isn't an engineering diagram.

                              LSN

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