Today on Geek Speaks…Fiction! we are welcoming a different sort of fiction writer. Marc Tassin writes fictional stories, but he also has created an entire fantasy world called Aetaltis, which provides the backdrop for fiction, games, and more!
It seems to me that the world of geekery is convinced that the measure of a thing’s value is how different it is from what came before. This is reinforced by an endless string of articles like “10 Science Fiction Tropes That Have Got to Go!” or “5 Fantasy Stereotypes We’re Sick of Seeing!” and entire websites devoted to highlighting “that dumb thing they always do.” Enough already! Tropes exist because people love them and they resonate with us both culturally and as humans. The thing is, when people say “I hate tropes” the tropes aren’t the real problem.
My Experience with “Be Different!”
I create fantasy and science fiction worlds for games, fiction, and comics. My most recent creation is the World of Aetaltis, a heroic fantasy world created for roleplaying games.
Whenever I tell someone I created my own fantasy setting, the first question they ask me is, “Cool! How is your world is different?” Odds are they’re looking for something like “Oh, it’s a living planet, and the wizards are actually sentient trees that are an extension of the planet’s consciousness” or maybe “It’s an alternate version of Earth where the legendary creatures never faded into mythology.”
But my answer isn’t anything like that. My actual answer is, “Well, actually, it’s not different.”
Yeah, I know. Not the best sales pitch considering people’s expectations. (In fact, my publicist pulls her hair out whenever I give people this answer.)
But the thing is, the palette I used to create Aetaltis is the same one used to create Middle Earth, the Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Shannara, and countless other beloved fantasy worlds. I did this in part because I love classic fantasy worlds and all the tropes they’re built on! I daydream about the vast, underground kingdoms of the dwarves, imagine myself walking beneath the golden boughs of an elven glade to meet with their ageless queen, or fantasize about facing off with the Dark One in a final, epic confrontation. It’s tropes like these that made many of us fall in love with fantasy in the first place. I think there are a lot more stories to tell and things to discover in worlds like these.
There’s also a craft reason I embraced the classic elements of fantasy. I have new stories to tell, and I don’t want people struggling to wrap their heads around a completely alien setting. I want focus on stories like exploring the idea of common people embracing uncommon heroism when there is no one else to help them, delving into the what the loss of homeland means and how one copes with that as seen through the eyes of the different fantasy races, and probing the nature of temptation through the morally questionable origins of Aetaltan magic. To me, this is far more important than someone struggling with questions like, “Wait, so what’s a Kleegmerk and how many legs does it have?”
The Real Problem with “Not Different”
Contrary to popular belief, the real problem with “not different” isn’t that the fantasy tropes are bad. The real problem is that too often these tropes are executed badly. Sometimes the awful execution is because the person using them was just being lazy and relied on the tropes to do all of the hard work. Nobody likes lazy work, and we all know it when we see it. Other people use the tropes because they’re just trying to cash in on our connection to them. Whether the person make’s this clear or not, we can tell, and nobody likes to see something love strip mined by someone who doesn’t care about it.
The other challenge is that fantasy tropes have been used so expertly in the past, and executed so beautifully, that the bar for any new projects that use these tropes is really high. When someone can make a direct comparison between what you created and Middle Earth as a measure of how well you pulled it off, you’d better have made something wonderful.
In the end, we’re given the impression that the tropes are the problem, when in fact it’s simply how they’re used.
So what does using tropes right look like?
We have wonderful proof that tropes properly executed are awesome. Take the first Captain America movie from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. By choosing to realize the character and his origin as true to the original as possible (right down to the Vita-Rays!), the filmmakers took a huge risk. If they’d put a big twist on his story, they could have dismissed criticisms by saying, “Yeah, but we were going for something different.” But because they chose to stay true to Captain America’s tropes they placed their creation right alongside everything that made the character a legend.
Another fantastic example is the Netflix series Stranger Things. The entire series is a collection of tropes woven masterfully together into an amazing story. If you’re going to judge the show, its closest relatives are films like E.T., Alien, A Nightmare on Elm Street, or The Shining. Talk about setting yourself up for some tough competition! And yet, the Duffer brothers treated the material with so much love and respect, and wrote such a wonderful story, that they’ve created an instant classic.
Love Your Tropes
So keep on loving your tropes and the people and projects that dare to tread the holy ground of legends past! Will creators like me succeed in when we risk it all to walk the path more travelled? Only time will tell. Many will fail, in some cases spectacularly, but every so often, someone like the Duffer brothers will get it right, and bring a bit more magic into our world.
Marc Tassin is a writer, a game designer, and the creator of the World of Aetaltis campaign setting for Fifth Edition. The Kickstarter for Aetaltis, his “Not Different” heroic fantasy setting, is underway now and continues through October 11th. If you want to check it out for yourself, you can visit the Kickstarter page here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1486366537/world-of-aetaltis-rpg-campaign-setting-for-fifth-e