I've known for years that sci-fi and fantasy are often considered "plot-based" genres, focusing more on wacky, impossible-in-the-real-world happenings than on character development. Obviously, there are exceptions - loads of them. The best sci-fi and fantasy, I think - certainly the kinds I like to read and to see in movies - have both. In the Harry Potter books, for example, magic runs rampant and many important plots and subplots rely on a fantasy world to happen, yet the characters are vivid and compelling. The same is true of many Diana Wynne Jones books.
Recently, when submitting short stories to magazines, I found that many magazines of science fiction and fantasy have a lot of what I would call "world-based" stories. It was easy to spot these, even though I wasn't actually reading the magazines. The advertisements for the current issue would say something like the following:
"Author A takes you to a swamp world whose flying inhabitants have never seen solid ground. Meanwhile, in Author B's 'Moontalk,' explore the politics of a village of werewolves. Ever wonder where your cats disappear to? Why, to 'The Jellicle Tavern of Space and Time,' and Author C will show you the way."
The above, of course, being totally made up by me. And to be honest, I now kind of want to write at least one of those. If I did, though, it might not be pitched that way. I realize that one certainly could write one of the above stories with strong character development, but some audiences seem to be looking for world at least as much as characters - or at least, the advertising at these magazines think so.
This is what threw me a bit this past week: I realized that most of my work does not pitch well without really looking at the characters. I write primarily in one fantasy world, and that world is - *wince* - somewhat generic. I've spent years building it, and it is rife with complexities, politics, different species, magic, and so on, but the world itself simply is not all that different or catchy-sounding. It's a pretty recognizable swords-and-sorcery-type fantasy setting. It has elves, centaurs, and hobgoblins, which are all my own takes on those species (and decently reasoned out, if I do say so myself), alongside original creatures. It has countries and cultures based loosely on not only medieval Britain, but ancient Japan, India, and Russia. It has (some) checks and balances on its magic system. Overall, I would say it is consistent, workable, and in some ways original, but it still doesn't advertise well alone. "Anica Lewis takes you to . . . a world with magic, elves, and centaurs!" Fantasy fans of the world say, "Um, been there, done that." No, my query letters tend to focus on the "who" and "what" of the stories, not the "where." (Interestingly, Dragons Over London is a total exception. So are a few of my short stories, like the one accepted to Reynard's Menagerie.)
All this leads me to one small conclusion and one big worry.
Conclusion: I should be submitting some of my fantasy to more general fiction magazines, providing that they do accept genre work. Possibly, though my work certainly is fantasy, its strengths lie outside the realm of what some fantasy editors value most (i.e. taking readers to a wildly new, different place).
Worry: Some of my work, it occurred to me, might have no real reason to be fantasy. To be clear: my own personal standards would never shut down anyone's work of fantasy that didn't seem to have a real reason for needing magic, elves, etc. (Especially elves.) This is because:
1. I personally enjoy reading fantasy, even when it's mostly just neat little things that happen outside of main plotlines.
2. I understand that, if your fantasy world were a real place, important and interesting events might happen which do not necessarily depend on magic, and I don't really mind reading those stories.
Still, because the default setting of fiction is the real world, there is a feeling of needing a reason why your story is set in a fantasy world - something important to the plot or premise of the story which simply could not happen in the real world. Basically, the author is asking readers to accept and remember a different set of rules from those governing our world, and owes those readers a payoff. For some readers, such as myself, the fantasy is a payoff, but even I admit that I prefer a fantasy story with a plot that somehow couldn't happen in the real world.
Many of my stories have this sort of premise. Dragons Over London does not take place in my fantasy world, but brings fantasy elements into the real world - the characters' reactions basically are the story. Rabbit and Cougar has relatively little magic, but a malfunctioning spell is responsible for one of the biggest problems to be solved in the story; there are also numerous subplots and characters that are overtly magical and have roles in the story that depend on that. Guardian to the Prince, my first novel, is similar in those ways. But I worry that The Dogwatchers may not have enough fantasy in its basic plot elements to avoid that most feared (and thoroughly annoying) question: "Why is this set in a fantasy world?" And looking at some of the plots I have jotted down to write in the future, I realized that at least one involves virtually no fantasy elements. Others do have significant plot reasons to be set in a fantasy world, but still, this makes me wonder.
The conclusions I've drawn from this are, first, the one which starts this entry: that I need to qualify my work as being character-based fantasy. Secondly, some of those plots without much fantasy may need serious retooling. After all, why am I writing them in a fantasy world? "Because I don't want to be limited to a world without elves, familiars, and spells" may be an answer in my own mind, but not a very good one, even as I see it. Certainly not one I can expect a lot of readers to accept.
This worried me for awhile. I've always loved reading fantasy, and have long considered myself a fantasy writer, but I wondered whether I was really using this world just for the flashy tricks that characters could do there. At least I haven't committed the ultimate fantasy faux pas - pulling magic out to solve nonmagical problems. As Diana Wynne Jones writes on her website, fantasy is, whether intentionally or not, a sort of metaphor for reality. Magical solutions (if well-enough explained not to take the reader by complete surprise) are perfectly fine for magical problems, but to solve a nonmagical problem with magic is a sort of mixed metaphor. I don't think I've ever done something like that, but I still worried.
Now, I feel better. Diana Wynne Jones, my writing heroine, sometimes puts her fascinating plots and engaging characters into a world which isn't all that shiny and new, fantasy-wise, on its own. Indeed, the setting of Howl's Moving Castle hardly turns paradigms on their ears, though it does mock them a bit. Her description of that world appears in the first line: "In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three."