Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Classifications of fantasy?

It's Wednesday again...

There are several different terms used to classify written fantasy fiction, but they aren't used consistently.

For instance, what is high fantasy? One friend of mine uses the term for fiction that takes place in a world rich in magic. He's not the only one, but some other people use the term high fantasy for fiction that takes place in a world with clear and unambiguous divides between good and evil. So we have a term used to mean two different things, and since it's two orthogonal axes, it's not always immediately obvious from context that the person using the term is using it in the sense other than the one you prefer.

There's also the term low fantasy. What's that? One might imagine it's the opposite of high fantasy, but which of the two kinds of high fantasy is it the opposite of? Does it mean a world that is not rich in magic? Or a world in which the divide betwen good and evil is not clear and unambiguous?

And where does heroic fantasy enter the picture? Is it the opposite of low fantasy? Is it aesthetically different from high fantasy?

(I'm not going to talk about urban fantasy at all, because I have very little idea what it is. I've probably read some of it, and liked some of that which I read, but I simply won't talk about it in this post. If it somehow fits into my proposed classification scheme, please let me know.)

My proposal is a two- three- two-and-a-half- axis classification scheme. On the first axis we have the magic prevalance of the world, if it is rich in magic or poor in magic (keeping in mind my arrogant and elitist attitude towards the phenomenon that I call "the extrapolative burden"; the greater the delta-W is, the more intellectual work the world creator has to perform), and on the second axis we have the intrinsic and autonomous competence of the protagonists. How badass they are. How much they can accomplish without help from the author-god, or from the game master-god. On the third axis is moral complexity, whether things are black-and-white or if there are many shades of grey.

A third axis?
The third axis is a bit of a problem, though, in part because I really don't believe that extremes at one end actually get published any longer, at least outside of children's cartoons (and even such extreme forms of child abuse are hopefully dying out as I write this). So it's an axis where the actual span of existing fiction (ignoring that which is so outdated it's no longer relevant) goes from one end and to a little past the middle, and then grinds to a screeching halt; anything beyond that is no-go-land, due to being profoundly insulting to the intellect of any imaginable target audience. I mean, even Tolkien wasn't painting Middle Earth in stark black and white. Nearly so, yes, but not entirely so. And he was in no way a modern writer of his time, being stuck intellectually in the 19th 18th century.

The other problem is that I think there is a correlation between protagonist competence level, and cynicism. The more good stuff the protagonist has on his character sheet, the more likely the story or campaign is to deal in complex moralities, and take place in a neutral and ojective world without massive divine intervention from an author or a GM. I find it hard to visualize authors who are wide-eyed idealists yet write about high-competence protagonists.

Protagonist competence is, of course, the axis that interests me the most (I'm also very interested in magic prevalance, but I have written a separate post on that). As Connor Mac Connor will say, men are not equal. Some individuals are much more capable than others. Yet we still see fictions, including written fiction, audiovisual fiction, and RPG campaigns, in which incompetents achieve great things. That's horribly unrealistic. E.g. two howlingly naive, and screamingly incompetent, halflings, wading hundreds of kilometers through enemy territory, to dunk a ring in a volcano?

Pardon my Frankish, but how the fuck did they accomplish that?

The answer is obvious: Because the author (the one monotheistic god of the setting) wanted them to win. They won only because they pursued a goal that the author (or GM) approved of. If they had tried to pursue any other difficult goal, than that which the setting's one god wanted them to pursue, the outcome would have been realistic: failure.

That's not how it works for a high-competence protagonist. These are dangerous to write, for the unskilled author, and they are really dangerous to GM for for the unskilled GM (and most GMs have so little ability that just thinking about it causes me acute rectal pains), because they cannot be controlled. Such protagonists cannot be forced to pursue divinely approved goals, and they cannot be prevented from pursuing divinely disapproved goals. That's why I talk about autonomous competence. Competence that the character is free to use, according to his personality, psychology, knowledge, background, culture, and so forth.

When writing such a character, the author has a duty to ask himself what the character wants, and to take that into account. Not doing so causes the story's intellectual credibility to drop like a stone. Forcing high-competence protagonists to do things they don't want to do requires massive and complex contrivances. It's much easier to write low-competence protagonists, and likewise it's infinitely easier to GM for low-competence player characters.

High-competence protagonists have some tendency to take what they want, and since human nature includes a lot of politically incorrect instincts, often what high-competence protagonists want is power, and sex and other comforts of the flesh. Stories like that are dangerously close to becoming pornographic. Not that there's anthing wrong with porn, but when I want porn I want porn, and when I want fiction I don't want porn. The solution (apart from the obvious of giving the high-competence protagonist an actual character sheet - I'll probably write a blog post about character sheets for written-fiction characters, later) is to create the high-competence progatonist with a personality such that he'll realistically be motivated to pursue goals that are interesting.

So, let's try to apply my classification scheme to some pieces of written fantasy fiction...

Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Magic: Not much magic available to the characters to use as they choose (i.e. most magic is in the form of divine authorial intervention).
Protagonists: Varies, some are high-competence, others are halfling amateurs who ought to have stayed home in the Shire.
Morals: Fairly clear but with some characters being slightly complex. The halfling amateurs accomplish some things through legitimate cleverness (mainly Merry and Pippin), but the primary accomplishment, the only one that goes down into legend, is achieved solely due to the moral purity of the questers. So I'm going to need a vomit break before I can continue...

A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. le Guin
Magic: Much, and skilled characters are free to use it, although there are (Taoist) consequences.
Protagonists: Ged is pretty badass. The reader cheers at "Master, I go hunting."
Morals: It's an objective story, and the protagonist triumphs and fails without authorial intervention.

Red Nails, by Robert E. Howard
Magic: A little, some looking like science, and also some supernatural or just weird creatures. No magic used by the protagonist at all.
Protagonists: Conan is very competent.
Morals: Cynical. You prevail if you are competent, fail if you are incompetent. Howard does have an agenda about the weakening and corrupting effect of civilization (softness and decadence), relative to what he sees as more natural barbarism, but that doesn't exactly cause any weaklings to accomplish anything they shouldn't realistically have accomplished, so it in no way contradicts my classification scheme.

Saga of the Exiles, by Julian May
"Magic": A lot of the main characters are or become psionicists, several being very powerful. A few have mental blocks on specific usages, such as self-levitation, but that's not the norm although in one case it is convenient for May's plot.
Protagonists: I'm still surprised there's no Green Group fan group on Facebook. They're pretty awesome. Some of the Tanu are too. We see less of the Firvulag, but some of those we do see are also badasses.
Morals: Delightfully objective. Actions have consequences (e.g. Culluket torturing and raping Felice), and some - but far from all - characters sometimes or often worry about the morals of their actions, but May is a neutral and non-interferring goddess.

Granted, that's only four cases, but they support my point about axis 2 and 3 tending to correlate. But how does that fit with the established terms, high fantasy, low fantasy, heroic fantasy?

High fantasy vs low fantasy can be either high-magic vs low magic, or clear morals vs cynical morals. So this doesn't solve the problem. It merely suggests throwing out - disusing - terms that do not have one clear meaning.  There is certainly little correlation between high magic and clear morals, although I think there is some between low magic and ambiguous morals.

Heroic fantasy is clearly based on the high-competence end of the protagonist axis. A succinct definition of heroic fantasy is that it's fantasy with a protagonist who is consistently badass (i.e. not just badass when he pursues goals the author approves of), and preferably a sword-swinging one. Someone who can say to a bunch of psychopathic prison inmates: "I'm not looked up in here with you. You're locked up in here with me!" and be taken 100% seriously by the reader or viewer.

So, my axis-definition is a bit broader, to include e.g. the less martial characters from the Pliocene Exile, and Ged. I'm not now going to propose terms for the various corners/extremes of this three two axis classification system. But I do maintain that it is useful, and much more so than the terms presently in common - and very confused - usage.

Peter Knutsen typed these letters

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