Diversity, fantasy, Fiction, General Writing, World Building

The New Sword and Sorcery

As a teen, I read every Sword and Sorcery novel I could find. Even then, I knew much of it was poorly written. Worse, Robert E. Howard and many others could be downright racist. Yet I retain a sneaking affection for the adventure and magic of the best of the genre, particularly for Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series. However, when I sat down to write my own fiction, it took several years before I realized that I was trying to write S&S for adults of the modern era. Recently, I’ve taken to calling what I was doing New Sword and Sorcery as I queried my novel The Bone Ransom.

My affection has a long history, some of it embarrassing. I would just as soon forget how as a teen I struggled to write the first act of a verse play called The Lion At Bay that stole the plot of Conan the Conqueror. The same goes for many of the role-playing games I organized as a young adult, whose source books borrowed the racism and sexism of the pulps without question.

However, I remain proud of Witches of the Mind, my Master’s thesis on Fritz Leiber. It was inspired in part by Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series. From the start, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser had irony and wit that most S&S lacked. More importantly,Leiber’s social views evolved with the times, and in its final form showed the two heroes growing into responsible middle age and settling down with two feminist women in a culture inspired early Iceland. To this day, there is no question in my mind that Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser is the most literate S&S ever written, and proof that the genre can be more than it usually is. And it was only by being inspired by Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser that I ever finished The Bone Ransom. When I tried to write classic S&S, I never got past the first few chapters.

So what do I mean by the New Sword and Sorcery? Basically, I mean a purging of outdated social outlooks. To start with, the stock figure of the stoic barbarian has to go. As a character, the barbarian is an uneasy mixture of Rousseau’s Noble Savage and obsolete sociological models, with all the racism those sources imply. Allegedly primitive cultures are much more complex than S&S depict. They may be illiterate, but they have a wealth of oral culture. Often, they have rich cultures in which art is part of everyday life, and elaborate ceremonies and dances. Historically, they tend to meet technological cultures as a group, not as individuals, and often manage to preserve their cultures and become enriched by trade. Simply by eliminating the stereotype of the barbarian, writers gain access to a wealth of untold stories and plot points.

The same is true of the standard female characters. Usually, in S&S, they are either pliant slave girls or strong women who come to a bad end. Either way, they are usually viewed as the prize for success — never as permanent partners or fellow parents. Such depictions may be fine for boys new to puberty, but are as limited and as repetitive as they are misogynist. Complex women characters add an adult complexity, especially if matrilineal societies are depicted, in which property and status come through the female line, and the male parental figures are uncles.

But perhaps the most restrictive aspect of classic Sword and Sorcery is that the story lines are usually power fantasies. The barbarian hero shows the decadence of other cultures by becoming a king. At best, an obscure farm-hand becomes the Chosen One. In either case, the hero gives nothing back, and takes only for themselves.These stories have their source in the nationalism and imperialism of the early 20th century. They do not even begin to touch on the post-colonialism of the last seventy years: of the struggle of colonies for independence and their generally troubled relationships with the colonizers. The stories that classic S&S tell have become irrelevant and obsolete.

Yet despite everything, adventure stories have their lasting appeal. George Orwell said that there is no reason that there could not be socialist adventure stories that featured activists fighting and outwitting the police. In the same way, there is no reason Sword and Sorcery could not feature realistic oral cultures and realistic women, and depict modern politics. So, presented for your consideration: New Sword and Sorcery.

Anybody with me?

Characters, fantasy, Fiction, General Writing

Roleplaying Norms That Don’t Translate Into Fiction

New writers are often inspired by roleplaying. Probably, only film and anime inspire more — with fiction, sadly, a distant fourth. At first, that seems to make sense. After all, aren’t both games and fiction a form of storytelling? Yes, but they are different forms of storytelling. In fact, there are at least seven ways in which storytelling in games differs from storytelling in fiction:

Gaming is communal

Roleplaying tells stories that are outlined by DMs, fleshed out by players’ choices and interaction, and often determined by the dice. The responsibility is shared around. Fiction, by contrast, is entirely the responsibility of the writer. Nor is it generally a matter of chance. It’s far more work — and all up to you, which is why online forums often have posts in which the writer tries to get others to do the work for them.

Gaming largely ignores diversity

Despite recent changes, gaming still tends towards a racial perspective: elves are agile and clever, orcs are stupid and evil, and dwarves combative and good with their hands. Especially in Young Adult books, such stereotyping is apt to get you flayed alive on Twitter today. Just as importantly, such casting usually makes for derivative and uninspiring fiction. What was acceptable in Tolkien is obsolete today.

Gaming is episodic

A roleplaying game can run for months, or even years. While the best games have an overall goal, and even several arcs, all games tend to be episodic, with one session often having minimal connection to others. Some fiction is like that, too; it’s call picaresque. More often, though, fiction is plotted: the first event causes the second, and the second the third, and so on until only one possibility remains at the climax. If you use games as a model, you are likely to lose direction and flounder because of what, in fiction, is a lack of structure.

Gaming does not consider point of view

On the one hand, a gaming session is developed by the players. Even the DM doesn’t always know what all the characters are thinking. A skilled DM might make some information known only to selected players, but, more often, all characters know what the others know. On the other hand, a fiction writer needs to decide on the point of view? Limited or deep third person? First person? Omniscient narrator? All these choices present challenges that gaming does not

Gaming emphasizes action

In most games, character points are based on action — if not killing, then figuring out traps and puzzles. Inner thoughts and dialog are only part of the socializing that is part of a gaming session. But focus on action in fiction, and the result is as mesmerizing as a choreograph diagram. Whether it’s fighting or sex, thoughts and reactions make the scene more readable in fiction.

Gaming focuses on a limited number of characteristics

Because games focus on action, their character development focuses on talents and skills. Anything further will be provided –if at all — by the player using the character. Some players may commission a sketch of their favorite character, but all the things that make fictional characters enjoyable, from background and appearance to how they move and talk, is rarely considered and is unimportant if it is.

Gaming develops characters separately from plot

When you roleplay, your characters are developed before the story begins. In fact, most characters can be dropped into any scenario. In comparison, characters are developed alongside the plot. The plot of Hamlet, for example, depends on a main character who thinks before he acts. Put Othello into the lead, and the play would be over before the end of act one; once he talks to the ghost, Othello would immediately rush off to kill his uncle. Conversely drop Hamlet into Othello, and no one would be murdered, because Hamlet investigates thoroughly before he acts. For this reason, the character sheets that are often suggested for fiction writers are largely useless. They simply provide the illusion of progress.

Two Forms of Storytelling

None of this is to disparage games. Rather, it is to point out that what works in roleplaying is likely to fail in fiction. If games inspire you to tell stories, perhaps you should consider writing roleplaying scenarios. But if you decide to write fiction, carrying the assumptions of games on to a novel or short story is one of the worst things you can do. Instead, read as widely as possible, and learn the conventions of your new form of storytelling.

fantasy, Uncategorized

Why Sword and Sorcery Is Obsolete

As a pre-teen, I devoured sword and sorcery. Even then, I could see most of it was mediocre at best. The sole exception was Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series, which was rarely about hack and slash, and first made me aware that fantasy could be humorous and ironic.Leiber, at least, stilll holds up today (In fact, I wrote and published a Master’s thesis on his career). But unfortunately, Leiber was never typical S & S. So when I recently came across a magazine whose goal is to revive S & S, I had to wonder why anyone would want to. The conventions of S & S date both badly and embarrassing.

The most obvious convention is the portrayal of women. In vintage S & S, women are accessories. They kneel at the hero’s feet and gaze lustfully up at his face in a way that leaves no doubt who is the dom and who is the sub in the relation. Often they are manacled. At the end of the story, they tumble into bed with the hero, only to mysteriously disappear before the start of the next adventure. Personally, I suspect the hero sold them for drinking money. Yes, you can point to C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry or Joanna Russ’ Alyx, but they are exceptions, and you can’t easily find them to point out. Vintage S & S is toxic masculinity, soaked with the outlook of a boy who has just discovered puberty, but is still a little nervous about girls and probably doesn’t know any

Less obviously, S & S is still enmired in a concept of other cultures that was dead and rotting before the twentieth century. This concept is seen in the typical barbarian hero — a simple, but honest Noble Savage who is always pitted against the corruption of civilization. S & S rarely stops to consider that such a character never existed, and is essentially racist. A true member of a culture that S & S labels “barbarian” may be unable to read, but is likely to have tens of thousands of lines of poetic wisdom stored in their heads. Probably, too, they can rattle off complicated family relationships and social obligations. They may have no agriculture because they live in a rich environment where you would have to be stupid to starve. Or perhaps their agriculture is centered on practices like clam farms or the rights to a defined hunting ground that the so-called civilized eye misses because it doesn’t expect them. They may even have breathtaking arts. In any event, they are not ill-bred half-wits like Conan. And far from despising or being over-awed by technologically advanced cultures, they will gladly trade with them and cheerily borrow anything that might enrich their daily lives. Barbarians are a stale fictional conceit that has been kept alive only by roleplaying games. In real life, there are only humans with different cultures.

Most of the time, Sword and Sorcery has one basic plot. And it’s not the Hero’s Journey, the story of how a character matures and becomes useful to their society. Instead, the story is a power fantasy, a tale of how brawn and pigheadedness win out over wits and knowledge, traits that are often personified by evil wizards. It is, in the most literal sense of the word, puerile — the outlook of a naive teenage boy who feels overwhelmed by looming adulthood and longs to imagine himself superior to it. There’s a reason Sword and Sorcery has become unpopular in recent decades: shackled with such conventions, it is nearly impossible to write a story in the genre that is meaningful in today’s world. The genre deserves to stay buried — or, better yet, cremated, and the ashes scattered to the winds where they can never be reassembled.