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The Key to Any Fantasy Story

As I like fantasy, it’s very hard to make the kind that entertains me. Maybe that’s why I write atypical fantasy characters or plots, such as a coming-of-age adventure for a naga or a domestic drama involving female dwarf sisters. They’re not doorstoppers involving grand sweeping epic world wars and cosmic evils (and thus unpublishable).

I love fantasy but I do not have a long attention span. I read fast and my memory isn’t great. All the names of people, places, and things are in some foreign tongue, so I can’t recall whether Niffenbukugard was that innkeeper, the capital city, or some magic spell.

There’s more fantasy media than ever out there. Streaming services are allowing the “mini-series” to come back in the form of short seasons. And CGI means sweeping epics can look just as good as the cinema, but you don’t need to compress a novel into two hours. But does that mean they’re entertaining? Let’s look at what they’re getting right and getting wrong.

GOT IT WRONG

I stopped watching House of the Dragon after the fifth episode (the one with the wedding) because I was just bored. Nothing was happening. Certainly not compared to Game of Thrones (which I’ll get to in a minute). And they certainly WANT to be Game of Thrones — they even use the same theme song and style of opening. But it can’t hold a wildfire candle.

The difference is that Game of Thrones had a cavalcade of interesting characters. But I can’t tell you anyone’s names or archetypes in this one. The only character of any note is Daemon (the Matt Smith guy), but he’s so blatantly evil as to not be interesting (I mean, his name is literally the word “demon” — can it get any more heavy-handed, people?).

The Crabfeeder looked like he was going to be an interesting character. Maybe a prototype to Ramsay Bolton. He certainly had the costume for it. But they gave him no lines and killed him off almost immediately in a battle that was as predictable as a WWE fight. I mean how obviously can you harken back to the Battle of the Bastards?

Otherwise we’ve got proper royal princess after proper royal princess. I don’t care how much of a “tomboy” you try to make Rhaenyra, she can’t hold a candle to Maisie Williams. The big conflict is supposed to be that she’s a woman named heir, but people only ever talk about it. No one does anything.

It’s all royal intrigue and who’s marrying who. Viserys has nothing interesting about him. He’s just a hub and everyone’s clawing for power around him so that it looks like any other political drama like Monarch or Empire, just with a smattering of dragons. And it’s got a big case of prequelitis–where nothing really matters because you know how things turn out in the future.

GOT IT RIGHT

I know it’s pretty hard to hold a candle to the high fantasy OG, but I’m mostly talking about the movie adaptation here. There are plenty of ways it could have gone wrong in a lesser director/producer’s hands. In fact, we’ve seen it go wrong before. I mean, Rankin/Bass? Really?

But Peter Jackson absolved himself and brought a multi-storyline epic to the big screen in three short movies. But they could have been slogs easily. How did Jackson remedy that? He humanized the characters. He made them fallible and he made them funny. Merry and Pippin are delightfully oblivious to the seriousness of everything going on around them. Boromir playfights with the hobbits on Weathertop. Gandalf bumps his head on the ceiling. Even Aragorn laughs from time to time. This humor is what makes A) audiences like characters and B) cements the bond of the characters to each other.

The best part is Gimli and Legolas. Dwarves and Elves do not get along in this world, and the hatred is racially motivated. But through their trials they start to understand each other and become friends. Yeah, Gimli’s the comic relief, but they do give him moments here and there, like at Balin’s tomb in the Mines of Moria. He also acts like a true dwarf–he never gives up, has high durability, and he’s got a hero’s heart in a body unsuited for keeping up with the tallboys.

In other words, no one is too stuffy or full of themselves. They understand that this ring is a big deal (see Council of Elrond), but they also know they need levity or else they’ll fall to the dark side like Frodo did. Too much drama can be like a ring around your neck–it’ll drag you down into a mire of dull storytelling. Think about your friends–aren’t they always joking around? Laughing at each other? Trying to make you feel better through humor? That’s relatable. That’s closer to real life than utmost drama.

GOT IT WRONG

I watched The Witcher for a season and a half. I stopped because I simply could not keep track of all the names and places. I could not keep them straight in my head or remember the context they were presented in. The storywriters are trying to have their cake and eat it too. You can’t have a grand conflict like an epic world war and also focus on just one guy in the weeds.

The first season’s “trick” of revealing that all of Geralt’s scenes were in flashback? Bullshit. Sure it’s witty and clever, but… why? What does it prove? Why did you tell the story that way? What were you trying to demonstrate? How cool and clever you were as a storyteller? Unless it serves the audience’s understanding of the story or character, it’s bullshit. All you’re doing is proving you can do it. Showing off does not serve the audience. Like all the tricks of a teppanyaki chef–they’re cool, but they don’t make the food taste any better.

What kept me going was the “monster of the week” stories. Those were good. Basically, I was tuning in to see Geralt’s stories. Like the first when Geralt is tasked with either fulfilling his bounty or siding with the person seeking justified revenge. Or the first episode of the second season, where they bunk with a guy who’s been cursed into beast form. He seems fun and friendly, but then it turns out he was cursed because he’s a rapist (plus there’s the creepy vampire girl in the castle who might be evil or misunderstood). It’s when Geralt faces the gray area conflicts that are the best.

But then it’s ruined by the black-and-white “evil invading forces”/”elves under suppression” B plot. Not only is it presented clunkily, in random chunks, it has nothing to do with Geralt’s story. He lives outside this war. All the sidestories involving Ciri and Yennefer et al. I can’t quite put my finger on it but it bores me to tears.

Maybe it’s all the assholes in the cast. Yennefer is horribly ambitious and conceited for someone who spent most of her life as a crippled sideshow freak. Ciri’s the blooming flower who doesn’t understand the great power within her (where have I seen that before, oh I know, EVERYWHERE). And Jaskier’s is an obnoxious albatross. It doesn’t help that everyone’s brooding, devoid of emotion, and stoic. No one is fun. Everyone is ruthless and isolated.

GOT IT RIGHT

Willow might be my favorite fantasy story. Maybe it’s just because I grew up with it. You might say it’s just Star Wars again, but I disagree.

For one thing, what’s wrong with it being Star Wars? Star Wars is good. For another, you might be able to draw parallels from one character to another, but that doesn’t mean the puzzle pieces make the same picture. Different characters can fill the same role, but other characters still have to fill in the missing parts. You can’t just drop C-3PO and R2-D2 in place of Rool and Franjean. It wouldn’t work to the same dynamic.

Because it’s all the Hero’s Journey. You can tell a story a million billion different ways and not be interchangeable with number million billion and one. We’ve got short farmboy Willow who follows the rules (much to his chagrin) and aspires to greatness but eschews the call to adventure. That’s antithetical with Mad Martigan who follows no rules and longs for adventure. Then you’ve got all the side characters like the tiny snarky brownies who hold their own (countering Willow’s own self-esteem) and don’t seem to understand that they could be stepped on in a second. And then Sorcha–is she good? Is she bad? The evil queen Bavmorda may be a cardboard cutout, but at least she has some lines, which is more than Sauron gets. Sure, she’s plucked out of Snow White, but I’m fine with that.

In The Witcher, Geralt has already gone through his hero’s journey at the start of the series, even the flashbacks. That’s part of the flaw–we don’t get introduced to the world by degrees, we’re plunged into it. For Willow, not only do we get introduced to the world a digestible part at a time, we are with Willow while it happens, making his journey our journey. It starts small in focus, then expands into the epic tale. Plus we’ve got all the whizbang set pieces like dragon fights, magic spells, castles, wands, witches, monsters, and so on. Plus a big heaping dose of humor, even if it’s cheesy (like how Mad Martigan’s too sleepy to understand how Willow’s magicks himself up a tree).

GOT IT WRONG

I’m midway through The Wheel of Time right now, and every time they end I think “I’ll watch one more and if it’s no good, then I’ll stop.” A show shouldn’t make you trail after it like that, it should make you hungry to watch the next one.

The problem is character soup. Right now I’m watching the fifth episode where it’s focusing on the one of the wardens (they guard the magic girls) and treating his death like he’s a main character. It all feels like padding. It helps that Amazon has an “X-Ray” feature that helps explain some of the lore, but I shouldn’t have to resort to that.

That’s the problem — I can’t tell any of the characters apart. Everyone’s brooding, everyone’s stoic. The main plot seems like a Lord of the Rings retread — there’s a big nasty evil out there and only a group of friends (a “fellowship” if you will) can stop it. The magic users even use rings. A lot of fantasy stories have trouble getting out from LotR’s shadow–the big conflict is how the magic is different.

Our four main characters are indistinguishable from each other. They’re all village boys. Sure, one’s a gambler, one’s more pacifist. One’s clearly “the leader” and one’s “the Smurfette”. Their mentor is a no-nonsense teacher with an equally no-nonsense guardian. I’ve played this JRPG before. Several times. They all have the same silhouette, both physically and metaphysically.

All anyone does is sit and talk. They journey, they rest, then they have a conversation that reveals something about their character. I know it’s because they need to establish, but you don’t do that by sitting and talking. You do that by playing with each other. Isn’t that how you learned what kids to play with?

It can’t be all drama all the time. And don’t talk to me about establishing “tone”. No one makes a joke, no one makes a gaffe. That’s why they call it comic relief. Because it’s supposed to provide relief from all the dramatic tension. Even Shakespeare wasn’t above just shoving a farting clown in Othello or Julius Caesar. Tone needs to go up and down. There needs to be variety.

GOT IT RIGHT

I’m just going to talk about Game of Thrones‘ first season, because that’s the most important. If the first season wasn’t good, didn’t pull people in, there would be no second season. And no third or fourth or so on.

Everyone got into Game of Thrones right away because the characters were so good. The characters were so good because they A) could be summarized easily into one- or two-word archetypes and B) were placed in contrary groupings.

For example, Sansa and Arya are supposed to be sisters, but one wants to be a doted-on princess and the other wants nothing to do with that bullshit. Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon are old war heroes but one’s a hedonistic king with a lot of subjects and the others an honorable stoic king with few subjects. He does the right thing even when it hurts (as shown by executing the deserter from The Wall), while Robert does whatever feels good. Plus we’ve got Jon Snow and Theon Greyjoy–two people who, really, aren’t even supposed to be there. And Stark’s whole family conflicts with the Lannisters, who are rich and snooty and not humble at all. Conniving Cersei, brash Jamie, and cynical Tyrion.

See how I can summarize everyone’s personality with one or two words? See how each character has a counterpart with someone else? They’re all a beautiful stew of conflicting tastes.

CONCLUSION

And that’s why good stories persevere. I may use this metaphor until the day I die — writing a story is like cooking. The best dishes are the ones with contradictory tastes and textures. Crunchy salty chips and sweet soft salsa, chicken-fried steak, pizza, french fries (crispy outside, soft inside), peanut butter and jelly. In the same way, a good story must have ingredients that oppose each other in terms of personality, motivation, and/or origin.

No two stories are going to be alike like no two recipes are going to be alike. The chocolate chip cookies I make are not going to taste the same as the chocolate chip cookies you make, because not only are we going to have different recipes, different ingredients in different amounts, we are different chefs. I might exactly measure the vanilla while you just eye it. Or maybe you use almond extract instead. Or wheat flour.

Polar conflict in story results in two things: comedy or drama. That’s why the symbol for theater is the happy mask and the sad mask. It’s not that it could be one or the other, it’s that a good piece of art contains both.

Hey, do you think with all these fantasy series coming out, we’ll get some kind of Final Fantasy show?

Eric Juneau is a software engineer and novelist on his lunch breaks. In 2016, his first novel, Merm-8, was published by eTreasures. He lives in, was born in, and refuses to leave, Minnesota. You can find him talking about movies, video games, and Disney princesses at http://www.ericjuneaubooks.com where he details his journey to become a capital A Author.

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