Theme, Character and Plot…and the same old story


I have been trying to figure out what it is that might be “unique” about my fantasy novels. It seems to be important: the novels people seem to want, the ones that are popular, the selling point seems to be their “groundbreaking” qualities: the way they cross boundaries, turn genres on their heads, wow their readers with plot twists or viewpoints that, in theory, have never been done before.

Well, that’s what the back-cover blurbs and the critics say, anyway. I tend, in some ways, to disagree, but I have read a lot of books lately where at least the window dressing is pretty unusual. Some things, though, they kind of stay the same.

The difference isn’t the plots. Frankly, most people are aware, consciously or not, that there really aren’t that many actual plots out there. Five. Maybe seven, if you parse them really narrowly. And for epic fantasy/swords-and-sorcery, which is where mine more-or-less fall into, there are really only maybe two. Essentially, it is either “chosen child of prophesy must battle a great evil to save the world” or “group of unusual people must find the Magic McGuffin that will save the world from a great evil.”

Strip away the details, and even the most “NEWANDDIFFERENT/NEVERSEENITBEFORE” fantasy novel will contain this basic plotting.

Theme? See above.

The kinds of things that occur within these frameworks are pretty predictable, too. The main character must be put into danger before they understand how important their actions are, or they have to battle their own reluctance to be the chosen one, or they disbelieve the prophesy until a god arrives to tell them what’s what. The main thing is that good eventually triumphs over evil. Sometimes, the evil is disguised (plot twist!) and sometimes it comes wearing a black hat.

And there is really nothing wrong with that. It’s what we want out of the story. Really good authors have managed to push the boundaries of this: they’ve added dimensions to the story – opened us up to questions of what is “good”, or introduced elements of sexuality or race that challenge their readers to see the genre as more than just an adventure tale with fireworks at the end. Still, the basics remain.

I cannot say that I stray very far from canon on this. But I have, after some thought, begun to realize what sets me apart from a lot of this genre, and it isn’t about the plot. If you distill it down, my plot is still based on the underlying premise that there is evil, but that it CAN be defeated.

I think where my work may differ is in the characters.

The protagonists in my world are not mythical “chosen ones”. They have no foretold destinies. They don’t win because they are superior beings that the gods and fate have conspired to create.

They are just sort of ordinary, really. They have talents, skills and flaws, and they are prone to human emotions like envy, and lack of impulse control, and they lose their tempers or do random acts of charity or are secret cowards.

And they achieve some things by accident, or by sheer bloody-mindedness.

My books are about ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. They are about everyday heroics, where just keeping on keeping on – by doing the best you can, whatever your limitations – can have huge and positive effects on the world around you. They are about people who have stumbled into situations where the very fact of their ordinariness – their own character – is the real strength they have.

That, along with my writing style, are the only unique things I have in my writer’s arsenal.

The trouble is, of course, that, commercially, it’s a hard sell.


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