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02:58 pm: Rant on relationship of fantasy and nature
Just one I wanted to do.

I don’t mind including nature in large roles in a fantasy novel. I love including nature in large roles in a fantasy novel, and I love it when the books I’m reading do that. But, as with so many other clichés in fantasy, the problem is not what people use but how they use them. What could be grand and inspiring and chromatic becomes small and dull and pastel.


Stop that.

1) If nature is going to be benevolent/malevolent, give it rules and reasons for behaving so. I’m sometimes disconcerted when the author starts treating trees and animals as people, especially when it happens in the middle of the story with no prior warning, but hey, it’s a fantasy. You could easily come up with a hypothesis that here, trees really are intelligent, just much slower of thought, and animals, being closer to humans in speed of life, can more easily communicate with them. (Speed applied to all magical communication would be rather a neat idea, especially if it depended on lifespan. Perhaps trees’ voices would sound like bass, the voice of an elephant like a human’s, and the voice of a mouse like Alvin and the Chipmunks).

The problem is, those same animals that talk to and fight for the heroine are inexplicably hostile to everyone else, even the villains who didn’t hunt them—a reason which I feel is overused, but makes more sense than the wholesale adoption by animals of human moral codes. Why should a wolf be against the Dark Lord? Why should he like the heroine? Why is he caring at all? He might be grateful if the heroine brings food to his starving pups, but why does he walk out of the forest, lay his head on her knee, and declare his loyalty to her?

You get the idea. Does the heroine do something nice for the animals? No? Then why do they follow her around? Why does the land itself recognize her as the rightful ruler if it didn’t recognize her parents that way? Why does it only help her, and not someone else who has the same kind of magic or destiny? Why does it turn against the bad guys when all they’ve done is hunt a heroine who didn’t either help or hurt the land? Answers, answers, answers. If you’re going to postulate that your fantasy universe is not just causal, without morals worked into the very fabric of things, and that nature obeys rules, too, make up rules for it to obey.

2) Study the habits of animals before you use them, damn you. I have read two amateur fantasy stories lately where wolves showed up, randomly attacked people, and were as randomly driven away. It wasn’t winter. The wolves weren’t described as starving, or evil were-creatures, or controlled by magic.

*deep breath*

LOOK. *winces from the volume of her own voice* Wolves are not villains, all right? The main reason there was enmity between them and humans in agricultural communities was because they could prey on livestock, and did when it wasn’t well-guarded. Then they got taken and transformed, on the strength of that fear, into the evil creatures of fairy story. It doesn’t mean that they’ll attack anything that moves. It doesn’t mean they’ll be interested in your heroine, particularly if they’re living in a forest well-stocked with game. They certainly won’t charge out of the night, try their best to eat her, and then run away again.

Wolves suffer the most from the Evil Randomizer of Animal Doom, but so do other creatures, including:

-leopards (who go out of their way to avoid humans, not be near them)
-tigers (usually only the very old or wounded would start eating humans)
-mountain lions (hair-trigger tempers, but the latest statistic I heard was that only four people die of mountain lion attacks each year).
-jaguars (better known as man-eaters, but again, they wouldn’t necessarily prefer your heroine to a tender mammal).
-snakes (they could creep close for body heat, but they don’t lurk in forests plotting to eat traveling fantasy heroes).
-spiders (also don’t eat people Just Because, and the number of spiders with poison enough to kill humans is not great, and if you have a poisonous spider it should be living in the right damn territory).
-rats (dangerous when hungry, in great numbers, and most to the weak or defenseless. They would attack a baby before they would attack a hero armed with a sword and fire).

If you have normal animals unaffected by magic or the moralization that some fantasy authors introduce into nature—if nature is neutral—you have no excuse to use animals as villains, and especially not against their natural behavior. Best way to have an animal attack, if you must, is have the hero to do something to piss it off, and in that case he wouldn’t be a shining paragon of innocence and light.

3) Read up on ecosystems. As much study as you need to avoid every mistake would probably take a lifetime, but you can avoid some common errors. For example, if a bunch of human loggers are cutting down a forest and affecting the elves, why doesn’t it ever affect the animals? The elves seem to still have enough to eat if they make their living by hunting. None of the species have left. Logging a forest does more than just remove trees, though; it affects habitats, game trails, animals’ access to water sources, and so on. Just once, when an elf intones something about how the humans are destroying nature and the animals are leaving, I’d like to see him credit it to the destruction of the forest and not some nameless, nebulous evil.

Alter one part of nature, and you may end up altering far more than you mean to. It’s interesting that in systems of magic where there is a series of consequences, where taking some rain for your own farm might mean that someone else’s crops die of a drought, the only consequences that are important are the ones that affect humans. So if rain moves from a forest without farms to water a farm, and the animals there die of drought, or of a forest fire, is that all right? Most fantasy heroes aren’t portrayed as the kind of people who would find it so, but even the ones with animal companions are amazingly anthropocentric. (See point 1).

One favorite theme of fantasy is the interconnection, the web of balancing forces, such as good and evil, that depend on each other. This sounds very eco-friendly. Make it so.

4) Put the right species in the right places. Some fantasy authors have noticed the holes in their ecology, and scatter species to fill in the gap. But they wind up having white animals in dark forests, butterflies fluttering about happy and healthy in the dead of winter, birds that should have migrated north or south a long time past, or large predators where there is apparently nothing for them to eat.

This is a danger of getting too specific, but I don’t think people should run in the opposite direction and return to the very occasional mention of random singing birds and rabbits that the hero kills for the inevitable stew (and, of course, horses). Just study a little. Someone might still get on your case about having the red-eyed species of such-and-so bird in the wrong place, but an error that a specialist can find is still much better than the audience snickering up their sleeve when you describe the hero getting attacked in the middle of the polar wasteland by an enormous boa constrictor.

5) Remember that lack of skill in woodlands= less things to see. A lot of authors are fond of pairing their newbie hero with a guide skilled in “the delicate art of the forest” or whatever name they’re using this week, and letting the guide glare at the hero for stumbling through the forest. The problem is, the newbie might as well be an oldbie, since he still sees all the shy animals that should have fled at his approach and all the wonders that the guide claims are only visible to someone with a special eye, largely because the guide shows them to him.

Think, think, think, think. If the birds go silent at the approach of the evil soldiers riding in formation, why aren’t they going to go silent at the hero thrashing through the brush? Why is a jay going to cry in warning then, but not when the hero knocks a tree aside and sends a ripple through every sapling nearby? Why is a deer going to stand grazing calmly when the hero nearly steps on her fawn, but go bounding at the first rumor of someone else’s footsteps?

This is one of the subtler ways in which fantasy authors prejudice the world towards their heroes. Everything so favors him that of course the fact that he’s human and clumsy and clueless isn’t enough to disturb the animals; they only get upset at the approach of eeeeeevil. A variation of this is when the “clueless” newbie “teaches” the guide something about a species of animal or plant he knows very well, such as getting the deer to come eat olives off her palm or whatever. Bitch, please. Put down the rose-colored glasses and pick up some green ones.

6) Try to resist the impulse to describe the evil parts= dead and/or technologically advanced. This is what Tolkien did. It’s very effective. But he has the descriptive skills, and, even more, the surrounding moral universe to make it so. And while it’s very clear what his message re: most technology is, he doesn’t have his characters go around making long speeches about the nature-lovers being hounded by the technology-lovers. It’s couched in illustrations of history and, at the most, talk about the “sin of possession.”

Modern fantasy could really, really stand to learn a thing or two, or even better, get away from what [info]worldserpent calls its “Oedipal fascination with Tolkien” and make up new stuff on its own. Try to build a conflict between nature and technology, or magic and technology, that actually resonates as part of the world’s background and doesn’t need to be brought, consciously, to the reader’s attention a la allegory. Or reconcile them somehow. I haven’t seen a whole lot of non-Luddite fantasies. Might be interesting, really.

Why would a wolf care about who sits on the throne, really? Still trying to figure that out.

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