Generational Fantasy

A friend recently loaned me a fantasy trilogy. (I am on the second book.) I started reading and was struck by how…80s…it read. I mean, this trilogy is from the 80s, but even if I hadn’t checked the publication date before I started, I would have been able to tell from the prose alone.

(It’s not weird that I look at publication date, is it? I mean, I use it for statistics when I do my year-end reading wrap-up. I admit I am a giant nerd. I have two engineering degrees.)

I got a few pages in and said, “Wow, this would never be published in today’s market.” I’d never really thought about it, but fiction goes through changes with each successive generation. Subgenres rise and fall, tropes are adopted or dropped. Some are more stable than others – I don’t think mysteries have really changed much in the last 150 years – but there ARE changes.

So, this 80s fantasy novel. Omnipresent 3rd person point of view. Large composite cast. Magic with no clear explanation of how it works. Epic story arc, multiple hero journeys, dwarves and elves. Main characters start in the real-world and travel to a secondary world.

Compare it to modern fantasy. Modern fantasy tends to be in limited 3rd or first person. You’re in someone’s head, and only one someone’s head at a time. Cast tends to be smaller. You don’t see a lot of between world traveling anymore – action is usually all in a secondary world or the real world, but not really both. Plots tend to be more character-focused as opposed to the sweeping epics of the past.

I’m not saying that you can’t find modern fantasy with the same characteristics as the 80s fantasy, but it’s going to be a lot more rare.

Even looking between, oh, say, Tolkien, and the 80s fantasy, there are generational differences. Tolkien has no female main characters, and he doesn’t really care what anybody’s thinking at any point in time. The story’s more important than the characters. The 80s fantasy is kind of a transition between the all-important plot of the 50s and 60s and the all-important character of the here and now.

Admittedly I’m being a bit general, but I do think you could pick up any fantasy from the 50s/80s/whatever the heck we’re calling this decade and be able to tell what generation it’s from without looking and be able to see the differences between them.

What say you, Squiders?


2 responses to this post.

  1. I agree that Fantasy (if not writing in general) is definitely shifting, and I think you pinpointed a lot of the changes. I recently read The Belgariad by Eddings and I was kind of struck by how little the main character changed throughout the books, the overall plot was definitely more important than the characters.

    When we look back at the Fantasy novels in this decade 20 or 30 years from now, we’ll definitely be able to pick out differences that clearly differentiate novels from this decade from other decades. The biggest question is what is going to be the defining difference? The biggest difference that I see with Fantasy novels now as opposed to older ones is a shift towards more rule based magic systems as opposed to magic where there aren’t any real rules.

    I don’t know what the next trend will be, and even if I did I don’t think I’d tell anyone, I’d just go write the book.


  2. Fantasy, like all writing, is also a reflection of the time it was written in. Tolkien was writing coming out of the WWII era, hence great battles, a very distinct good vs. evil, and themes of the ending of an age. 80s fantasy…well the 80s were a very “plastic” decade; very commercial, superficial, so the fantasy is derivative and formulaic and easy to consume. Modern fantasy has had a trend towards gritty realism with a very light splashing of magic, which is often rule-driven. People are struggling just to get by. Perhaps this comes from the ever increasing presence of media in our lives – TV, computers, phones. Terrorist attacks, wars, and economic crises, all being forced into our consciousness through every device we interact with. That’s bound to seep into the writing of the last decade and a half.


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