How To Write Traditional Fantasy In A World Of Urban Romance

There are people (you might be one of them) who go back on a regular basis to read Lord of the Rings. It feels lush. It captures, for many of us, what fantasy writing is actually about.

Why Isn’t There More Stuff That Feels Like LOTR?

Morality and gender are the key places where contemporary fantasy falls off the bus. Many of us find ourselves returning to the classic standards of science fiction and fantasy precisely because they fill up that aching need inside of us in a way that most new books fail to do.

Fans Of Mercedes Lackey, Watch Out!

I was probably thirteen when I finally gave up on contemporary fantasy novels. Like most of you reading this, I read a lot as a kid. Fantasy worlds and imaginary places helped me escape from difficult things I didn’t have the power to fix. The moment I gave up on new fantasy was when I was standing next to a little book turnstile that my home-town library kept at the end of the art history shelf. This turnstile was stuffed, alphabetically by author, with historical romance and fantasy novels (I was there for the fantasy books).

Upstairs was a wider selection of the classics, and of middle grade fiction, but down on the main level, and in these plastic turnstiles, was the contemporary sword and sorcery type stuff.

It was the series Lackey wrote about white horses. The covers were lovely; the first two books were pretty good. It was the third book, I think, that stopped me reading.

Where Are You Going With This?

I got tired of the cheap sex. I got tired of the contradictory morals of the characters (fighting evil officially, stabbing their best friends in the back privately). I got tired of believing in work that, eventually, seemingly inevitably, betrayed me as thoroughly as life kept betraying me.

What’s Immoral About Sex?

Let’s talk for a moment about prostitution and procuring. Prostitution, the selling of the temporary use of one’s gender presentation to an uncommitted partner, is, perhaps, the most unromantic and unsavory of subjects in fiction. Pimping, the professional exploitation of the prostitute, is, in fiction, probably the highest and most corrupt depiction of villainy that is possible in the human range of evil.

What About Killing Babies? Isn’t That Worse?

To be perfectly frank, a person who manages prostitutes and drains them of autonomy and resources is both the creator and destroyer of life—of babies, if you will. There is no way to come out clean from this scenario; unless an author is writing this exploiter of vulnerable beings as a literal demon in human form, that author is contributing pain, and not healing. That author is writing lies, and not truth.

The Soul Of Escape Fiction Is True Honor

Protecting the weak; defending the innocent; these are the foundational principles of real fantasy. These are the underpinning truths, the “love conquers all” theme that creates an intoxicating flame of adventure in real fiction of this type. Magic, and the idea of a world where our present evils are externalized, and expressed openly in hideous forms, is the bridge over which the eager reader enters into a new world in their hearts. The reader escapes this present world, and comes into a place where evil can be fought, and where pure honor, and true love of peace, are carried openly as banners, and as bonds between like-minded companions.

What Do Pimps Have To Do With Fantasy?

When an author exploits and exposes the gender of expression of their characters, when they deliberately write salacious passages between their characters, and offer this fabricated sexuality to their readers, they are, in essence, lowering themselves to the status of a common procurer, and attempting to degrade the reader into a purchaser and consumer of what amounts to sexual slavery.

This is ugly.

Contemporary Fantasy (Urban), And Aren’t You Being Dramatic? They’re Only Books

Am I being overdramatic? How many of you read fantasy precisely because you want to get into another, cleaner world, a world where the passion in your heart and the values that burn in you can actually bring change to the landscape of reality? Isn’t the fellowship, the honorable bond between the characters in LOTR, and the message that their core friendship was eventually able to overcome great evil, a huge part of the appeal of the series?

When I was a young person, I wholeheartedly sought to escape into books; I pretended to be the characters I read about. When an author pissed all over my independence, and my feelings of sexual autonomy, by manipulating and exposing a character sexually, I felt manipulated and exposed, too. I felt betrayed. The fantasy book that did this became as dark and unpleasant as my real life was at the time.

I was not reading fantasy books in order to encounter a new form of abuse.

Urban fantasy, as a genre, is a way to combine the awful, stark reality that is sometimes real life with the magic and hope of traditional fantasy.

Well, What Do I Do With This Information?

Revisit your manuscript. Are you, as the author, pushing your characters into sexually exploitative scenes because you have heard, or you think you know, that sex sells books?

Are you distorting the honor and internal integrity of your characters so that you can write “like a grown-up”?

You’re Being Awfully Pushy About This

Let us talk for one moment about romance. Everyone knows, who has studied the market, that romance is the biggest-selling genre for books. But if you dig a little deeper, you will find that the books that sell best, and the stories that dominate the market, are about honorable people fighting towards each other with genuine love in their hearts.

Even if you take a book like Twilight, which is very different from Lord of the Rings, you will find characters who, however misguidedly, act from a place of genuine loyalty, fellowship, and love. I personally believe that Twilight exploded the way that it did because it combined buckets of raw lust with a shyness, and a modesty, that was, to innocent minds, utterly intoxicating. The readers could identify with and escape into the main character because, however much Bella was technically abused, she was never exploited.

People can bitch all day about Stephanie Meyer’s success, but I believe that she succeeded because, on a gut level, she honored the sexual and moral autonomy of her characters.

She never betrayed them in the name of sales.

You can write about sex, friendship, and honor without destroying the integrity and innocence of your characters. If you set to, and figure out how to do it consistently, you will make mountains of money.

And if you write with intact morality and autonomous gender in the tradition of epic fantasy, well, readers may soon be revisiting your books just as often as they revisit Tolkien.

You’ve been reading a blog about writing by Victor Poole. You can read my own honorable fiction here.