TT: EFPs and Quests

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back one and wade into the YA pool.  Then come back and join me and Alan as we look into the mysterious realm of the EFP.

EFP Quest

EFP Quest

JANE: On and off for the last couple of months, we’ve been discussing the genres and sub-genres that make up the speculative fiction literary realm.

We’ve gone through a whole bunch of sub-sections of Science Fiction, taken a look at Horror, and now it seems time to begin on Fantasy.

ALAN: Righto. The last of the big three genre types.

JANE: Back when we were defining what makes SF different from Fantasy, we decided the basic difference was that Fantasy had magic.

ALAN:  Yes – that was on 13th  December 2012. The Tangent was called “So, What’s SF? What’s Fantasy?”

JANE: You have a much better memory than I do!  Thanks.

One thing that hit me as we ventured through SF is that there’s  a difference in how the terms evolved in each genre.  In SF, the terms for the sub-genres often had to do with what type of technology was being extrapolated.  For Fantasy, the terms seem to have more to do with a combination of the setting and the roots.

ALAN: Quite right.  There are fantasy stories that have a firm basis in accepted mythologies, and then there are stories that seem to bear little or no resemblance at all to the roots of our own culture. Any or all of these may have a vast range of settings in terms of time and place, even to the extent of being set in the modern day and age (so called urban fantasy).  It’s a very flexible genre. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of it I don’t like.

JANE: What sort don’t you like?

ALAN: One thing that annoys me is that so many novels seem to be built up from fantasy cliches. The bookshop shelves are groaning under the weight of fantasy trilogies (or greater), all of which seem quite indistinguishable from each other.

They are full of quests and magical artifacts and low born commoners who play a large and important role in the medieval, semi-feudal society of the cardboard world of the novel. There are swords, and often the swords have names.

Somebody in a discussion group once coined the term Extruded Fantasy Product (EFP) to describe this stuff and I’m in full agreement with that. I detest EFP, but I continue to like fantasy stories with some degree of originality to them.

JANE: Do you want to risk controversy by naming a few authors and titles?

ALAN: I’m probably going to ruffle a few feathers here, but in my opinion the very worst practitioners are George R. R. Martin with his “Song Of Ice And Fire” novels and Robert Jordan with the “Wheel Of Time” books. I started both series with high hopes because I knew and respected earlier work from both authors. But I found the books to be interminably dull and predictable, and it wasn’t very long before I said the Eight Deadly Words, and abandoned them.

JANE: Eight deadly words?

ALAN: “I don’t care what happens to these people.”

JANE: Ouch!  I haven’t followed either of these series, so I can’t really comment.  However, I firmly agree that if a writer can’t make me care about the characters in the story I certainly don’t want to continue reading it.

ALAN: You’ve written a lot of fantasy novels without falling into the EFP trap. How aware are you of the genre cliches and how do you avoid them?

JANE:  I appreciate your comment because I’ve worked very hard – twenty-two published novels and counting – to avoid genre cliches.   Part of the reason is that I’m just not attracted to anything anyone has ever done before.  That means I don’t have a longing to write my version of Lord of the Rings  or whatever.

I also don’t have a desire to write my own books to show everyone how someone else should have done it “right.”  I know of at least two authors (and I suspect there are many more) who have written their version of Twilight.  Power to them, if reaction is inspiration, but that’s not how my brain works.

Even when I do want to use recognized tropes  – certainly I didn’t invent the idea of a woman raised by wolves – I tend to research from the ground up and invent my own take on the idea.  I’m astonished how many budding writers do their research from other novels or from films and never go to the roots.

ALAN: How do you feel about quests?

JANE: Quests…  If I do one, it’s so interwoven into a complicated plot that it’s just one element of a larger picture.  If I have a simple quest plot, I use it as the core of the plot when I run a roleplaying game.  That’s more fun for everyone.

ALAN: That’s fine, as long as the book doesn’t turn into a novelisation of a role-playing game (which, to be fair, yours don’t). Raymond Feist’s novels started life that way and I’m afraid that they read like EFP to me. However, he has written an utterly brilliant and very dark urban fantasy called Faerie Tale. If I was feeling cynical, I might say that the reason it is so good is because it isn’t a novelisation of a role playing game…

JANE: Actually, there is some very original fiction based on role-playing games.  The problem is that many RPGs are based on EFP, and that contributes to the generic element.

Going back to quests, possibly the only “straight” quest story I’ve done was for the inside out quest novel in four parts Forever After that Roger Zelazny put together toward the end of his life.  (And for which I was uncredited co-editor.)   That can hardly be called a “straight” quest, since the goal was to put back items that had been gathered…

But I have diverted the stream of conversation.  Let’s get back to the roots of Fantasy fiction as we know and love it. Meanwhile, I need to go and write more non-cliched fiction, so let’s dive in next time.

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9 Responses to “TT: EFPs and Quests”

  1. James Zimmerman Says:

    I agree that fantasy themes have been over-done. I think the root of most fantasy is “magical thinking.” This is also a part of most religion and mythology…both are full of quest stories, as well. I would disagree with Alan’s opinion of George RR Martin’s “songs…” Series…I think the success of the series and now the HBO show are due to people caring very much for the fate of many of those characters.. That said, my shared prejudice against the many over-done similar fantasy themed books on the market kept me from reading this series until I saw the HBO show…

  2. Louis Robinson Says:

    I remember thinking at the time you first brought it up that ‘fantasy has magic’ was still oversimplification. Some of Guy Kay’s books, for example, have nary a magician in sight, but if they aren’t fantasy I don’t know what they are – certainly not historical fiction, despite the reworked settings [or maybe because of them]

  3. Heteromeles Says:

    Nice to see that someone else gave up on George RR Martin’s series. It’s not that I didn’t care what happened to all of the people, it’s just that I didn’t care what happened to most of the people, and sorting through the volumes to one or two plots I cared about was enough to put me off the series. Sorry George!

    As for Ray Feist, oddly enough, I liked his early Riftwar books better than I liked Faerie Tale, although I agree that the latter is under-rated. However, and this is a big however, I liked the Riftwar most back when I was in high school and college. I also liked Mercedes Lackey’s books when I was in grad school, not because they were good (although they are excellent examples of their formulae), but because they were a balm for a brain that otherwise had to deal with way too much science.

    There’s a lot to be said even for extruded fantasy product. They are books that keep your reading speed up when otherwise you only read technical papers. They are comfortingly predictable in an unpredictable world. For people on the Aspergers spectrum, who are uncomfortable dealing with complex politics or ambiguous emotions, they are a pleasure to read, because they are can be understood. They are, of course, not to everyone’s taste, but then again, nothing is. Good thing, that.

  4. Sally Says:

    Hah! I generally shorten “I don’t care what happens to these people” to “I don’t care!” Often shouted. But you are absolutely right that those are the deadly words, however you count them.

  5. Paul Says:

    Newsstands (in the days before bookstores) used to have much more SF than fantasy (although the same authors tended to write both) but now it’s the other way around. Some have argued that real-life has become so stressful that readers want sheer fantasy for escapism, even though a lot of early SF wasn’t much different (Captain Future walking around on Jupiter, for instance). The ’50s, the heyday of SF, should have been about as stressful with the constant nuclear war cloud hanging over us, but for some reason the escapism than was more into SF than fantasy. Go figure (there’s probably a doctoral dissertation in that, somewhere).

    • janelindskold Says:

      Perhaps the shift was due to the fact that people started seeing science as a problem, not a solution.

      • CBI Says:

        I think that’s correct on many levels. “Science” is too often used as a club to support a previous agenda, rather than a way to learn things, and has fallen out of favor with a lot of people who aren’t anti-science so much as anti-scientism (or whatever one might call it).

  6. Thaddeus Nowak Says:

    Hi Jane,

    I agree that too many fantasy stories get stuck in clique. One of the things that bug me the most is getting hung up with prophecies. I’ve put down a number of books/series because so much attention is put on characters being fated to save the world or do this or that. Many times the stories would be good without trying to force things through some guiding force.

    To me, I rather have the characters drive the plot forward with their own desires, ambitions, and goals. I want to read about a character that is the catalyst for change, not one that is simply being swept along for the ride as they wait for life to come to them.

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