I’ve never felt the need to include elves in my writing. Or, really, anything Tolkien used in The Lord of the Rings. And the same can be said of fairy tales.
I’ve often read other writers discussing the difficulties they have dealing with the influence of Tolkien’s work (and to a lesser extent fairy tales). But I’ve never felt that urge, that difficulty.
The reason, I think, is that I came to Tolkien later than most readers. So his influence is drastically lessened on me compared to other writers who read him in more formative years.
For me, the fantasy that is most influential is sword and sorcery. The first films I remember watching were Conan the Barbarian, Conan the Destroyer, Red Sonja, Beastmaster, etc. All sword and sorcery. I’ve also written about how influential He-Man and She-Ra (in addition to Thundar the Barbarian) were. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that I would struggle with the influence of Howard and his successors as well as the whole “problem” of science fantasy.
That said how have I struggled with what influences me? How do I break free from it? Or even use it?
The answer to those question will, naturally, be revealed in my writing.
Reading Bryan Thomas Schmidt’s blog the other day, I began to think more about researching. How extensive does one need to be? How experiential? Can the research be minimal or does it have to be on the level of a lay doctorate? In reading a lot of writing advice sites, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is likely up to the reader (as much of the advice is colored by the experience of the writers themselves). In the end, I think, the amount of research is up to the writer. There is no universal “goldilocks” level of research.
But, I do think certain genres in speculative fiction require more depth in the research compared to others. I think Schmidt is right that hard science fiction demands doing the research, of being as well informed as possible on the science of today and extrapolating out. I also think that urban fantasy needs quite a bit of research (at least to get the setting right- though it probably helps to actually live in the city one writes about). Of course, the other major fantasy genre that demands getting it right is historical fantasy. While I question if getting the world and details absolutely right is absolutely necessary for the “suspension of disbelief,” I do think taking the time to get it right is important. It reveals a commitment to the writing, a commitment to getting it right.
Now, how much research does a constructed world fantasy need? That is a tricky one. I would say as much as the writer wants to put in it for the world building. But at the same time, you don’t need to have every little thing planned out. I mean George R. R. Martin only created a few words of Valyrian and Dothraki, but the politics of Westeros is excellently well done. Compare to Tolkien who has several immense constructed languages, but the politics of Middle Earth are rather shoddily sketched in, if you ask me.
The amount of world building and research in constructed world fantasy is, I think, up to the writer. Do what feels best for the story, and play to your own strengths as a researcher. If you are better at anthropology, do that. If you are a stronger historian, do that. You get the idea. Just because someone else argues that a world building should be this way or that way does not mean that they are right.
Moving on to realism. I read a post yesterday by A. Lee Martinez complaining about the usage of adult languages (and the portrayal of Catwoman, period) in Arkham City. His argument got me to thinking about my own attitudes towards more “mature” content in fantasy. I am beginning to wonder if it is necessarily appropriate to use “realism” as a defense against critics who desire the tamer works of yesterday (and today).
Perhaps now is a good time to define the realism defense. The realism defense is an argument that posits the acceptability of including objectionable or mature content into genres that have, until recently, been seen as exclusively for children or young adults. Therefore, it is likely that the recent inclusion of mature content is as a means of titillation for older young adults or as a means to maintain an older audience who continue to read the material long after “one is too old” for that material.
So, maybe realism isn’t the best defense. Maybe the best way to go about it is to argue that adding mature or arguably objectionable content is two fold: to acknowledge that this work is aimed at older consumers and to acknowledge that the work at present is a reaction to the old sugar coated reality of the genre.
Batman is a fantasy whether he is the goofy Adam West or the hyper serious Christian Bale. The Joker can be just a clown prince of silly crime or a truly terrifying and psychotic monster, he is still a fantasy either way. Indeed, the darker Batman (and comics in general) of today is a direct result, I think, of being bottled up by the comics code for decades.
In a similar way, I think that fantasy is undergoing a similar process. Some older fantasy readers don’t want to read sugar coated idylls of the Shire. They want the nasty, the brutish world of Earwa.
Damn, I did not want this post to be so long. Another thing on research: don’t let it consume you! Find a point and stop, write the story, and do further research in the editing phase. You don’t want to have a story gestating for a decade or more doing research. By that token, you might as well write a dissertation on the subject.