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You start reading enough fantasy and science fiction novels (and I’ve discovered I like fantasy) you start to see a pattern carved into the generic heart of the genre.

Somehow it seems to be important to forge a protagonist through a particular series of  harsh fires. As if somehow, being unable to have the normal upbringing that most people encounter is a pre-condition to being exceptional.

That pattern has the following cut:

The protagonist is an orphaned child. The early death of parents seems to be the magical catalyst at the start of the story, taking the child and turning it into a hero.  Heliakon (Lord of the Silver Bow) faces the death of his mother.

He (almost always ‘he’) has an exceptional skill, talent or ability. More often than not he has an exceptional bunch of skills, talents and abilities. He is Harry Potter (does he need introduction?)  the wizard. Kvothe (The Name of the Wind)  with his exceptional intellect and fingers. Ender Wiggin (Ender’s Game) with his mind-bending grasp of strategy.  Heliakon with his all-rounder aura of command, royal pedigree, physical strength, mercantile acumen and humanity.

The protagonist enjoys an abysmal, torturous, childhood. He is Harry with the Dursleys. Kvothe in Tarbean.  Heliakon imprisoned in the palace of his cold cruel father.

He is redeemed by education. Harry at Hogwarts. Kvothe at the University. Locke Lamora (The Lies of Locke Lamora) refashioned by Father Chains. Heliakon on the seas with Odysseus.

He grows to define himself by a villain. Kvothe seeks the Chandrian. Locke seeks the Grey King. Ender prepares for the inevitable war against  the aliens. He is Paul Muad’dib (Dune) confronting House Harkonnen.

The mentor is removed. Dumbledore is dead. Father Chains succumbs to old age.

Dear ones are lost due to the actions of the villain. Harry loses Dumbledore. Locke loses all his team except Jean.

There is a climatic battle between protagonist and villain. Harry fights Voldemort. Kvothe, no doubt, will find the Chandrian. The Grey King nearly kills Locke.

The victorious protagonist falls into the swamp of the after-plot. Having defeated the villain that was the focus of his life (and the purpose of the story), the protagonist usually struggles to find any traction in the after-plot world. He is Harry Potter – the minor government functionary. He is Ender, distraught at the xenocide he has perpetrated.  He is Locke at the start of Red Seas, Red Skies – emotionally destroyed at the loss of everything he has struggled to acquire as the final price of victory.

This arc can be played out across one book, a series of books, or it can be extracted so that only part of the narrative arc is shown to the reader. The back-story might be told in a linear fashion, sketched in by reminiscence, narrated by a character created for that purpose or sketched in later where necessary.

I think this happens in fantasy and science fiction for two main reasons. Firstly, the driving desire behind many writers in these genres is to build and communicate a world. This includes elaborate social, cultural, religious and racial distinctions that have no connection with the real world.  When so much energy is diverted into creating a vibrant, different, outside world, it becomes that much harder to carve a truly unique story.

Secondly, this story arc is perhaps the easiest story to write. It’s got a classic direction, a built-in conflict and the conflict is resolved in a set way. Within those confines though, control of who, what, when, where and how is given in almost a limitless way to the author to shape as they see fit.

This generic story arc can only be identified at the generic end of the spectrum and is not true of all fantasy and science fiction. Some of it, some of the very best,  defies outright any attempt  Campellian proto-typing as I have attempted to do here.

You couldn’t reduce Foundation by Isaac Asimov to this kind of abstract. Nor could you boil down most of Philip K. Dick’s work this way. You could try and deconstruct China Mieville in this way, but you wouldn’t get far. And of course, you couldn’t do this to the grand-daddy of all fantasy novels, the Lord of the Rings cycle.

This is what makes some of those books so well recognised as high literature, as stories worthy of reading by all as well as paragons of the fantasy and science fiction genre.



    • James Lewis
    • Posted April 19, 2012 at 12:14 am
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    Though you cite Patrick Rothfuss as an example of one of those who follow the mould – I’m not 100% sure its going to turn out that way. Partly because I am an optimist, and partly because he seems to wary of conforming to Fantasy stereotypes generally (unless he plans to subvert them in some way a la Neil Gaiman).

    Here’s a piece from his blog recently on why he doesn’t like “cookie cutter” fantasy:

    Still – I do agree with you. So much of Fantasy, even good fantasy, follows the same sort of “epic” arc. In the case of “good” fantasy, I think that’s often because so much of Fantasy is actually about communicating and exploring ideas, perspectives, truths, that are reflected in our own world.

    I think its often easier to communicate these when you stick within the confines of a genre.

    I think its also very difficult to craft a *storyline* that tells your themes, ideas, perspectives and truths.
    That’s always been my challenge.
    Writing comes easily to me – but I don’t want to write because I don’t have that storyline yet – and I don’t want to follow that same well worn path you have described.

    • mtalib
    • Posted April 19, 2012 at 10:14 am
    • Permalink

    In terms of what he describes as cookie-cutter in that article, I’d agree that he’s avoided almost all of it. There are no dwarves and elves. There are no dragons used badly (well it is drug addict in the story, but its not abused by the writer as a story element). But that’s not the limit of all things cookie-cutting.

    However, I don’t see many strong indications that he will thus far avoid teling the classic heroic story arc. He’s already put in a lot of the cookie cutter elements. There aren’t any clear indicators that the plot is going to move in a radically new direction at the moment (actually the plot having any forward momentum would be nice given how much of a stalled story The Wise Man’s Fear felt like). In addition to those elements I’ve highlighted above, the addition of a ‘prophecy’ at the end of The Wise Man’s Fear didn’t help convince me that this was going to move away from the cookie-cutter tray.

    I hope Rothfuss can defy the mould. There are many aspects of his books that are amazingly well executed, including the societies, cultures and peoples that are described and his exellent (if tending to purple when we encounter Dena) prose. Rothfuss is, in conformity with the tradition of genre fantasy, an exceptional world builder.

    The only redeeming thing is that it seems rather clear that whatever Kvothe did ended in disaster and tragedy for him and the world. This would suggest that the swamp of the after-plot is going to be a very different place from where it typically goes. However, how it gets there will have to be something pretty exceptional to avoid being formulaic given how much it feels like Rothfuss has already followed a formula.

    • James Lewis
    • Posted April 19, 2012 at 3:28 pm
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    Good points.

    And I agree that other “cookie cutter” elements are there.

    Possibly “Prophecy is Always Right”:

    I actually kind of hope that Rothfuss follows the traditional story arc – poor Kvothe deserves his redemption and denouement after all he’s been through… but I do wonder. And I wonder because, even by the end of Wise Man’s Fear, its not actually clear that Kvothe *is* the hero. A lot of what he’s done has been morally ambiguous at best. A lot of what he is cracked up to be is just that – stories.

    If he’s actually an anti-hero or a “villain” we may be heading for a twist.

    Still, you’re probably right.

    On an un-related point – on a recent re-reading I wondered if the blacksmith’s apprentice might be Tehlu, and if Skapi might be Selitos (or at least one of the Amyr).

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