I’ve noted several times in this blog that I’ve become jaded with ‘vanilla’ Western medieval fantasy, specially as a setting. But there’s an interesting dichotomy between that and my ongoing enjoyment of The Lord of the Rings, de Camp’s Incomplete Enchanter, Feist’s Riftwar series, Gemmel’s Drenai series, REH’s more identifiably Western Medieval Conan stories, and others.
A loophole through which some new writers may yet find their way into my favorites shelf – I need to find new favorites to follow, practically all the authors I like nowadays are already dead! And it all lies in the balance of MICE.
MICE refers to Orson Scott Card’s idea that we can categorize elements in fiction as Milieu, Idea, Character or Event. I’ve noted before that Milieu tends to be really heavy in science fiction and fantasy, because you need to establish that the fiction is happening in a world unlike our own; properly handled, these differences make the world practically a character in its own right.
What’s this have to do with ‘vanilla’ fantasy settings? Familiarity. Western Medieval tropes such as knights, feudalism, monolithic organized religions and so on are so familiar across the world (or across the world that’s exposed to Western-aligned education systems and Western media) that they’re like a shorthand already. There could be a good MICE ratio-based rationale for choosing a ‘vanilla’ setting over creating a more exotic one if one wants the background to, uh, fade into the background, and have the characters or other elements stand out more.
Take Feist’s Midkemia for example: probably one of the most vanilla fantasy settings I’ve ever read, but I didn’t mind that much because of the simple, direct appeal of the characters, specially in Magician: Apprentice. Pug and Tomas tapped directly into the childhood dreams of adventure everyone must’ve grown up with, the elderly wizard Kulgan comes across as a kindly avuncular figure (contrast this to the often distant and mysterious Gandalf), and there are noble-minded heroes like Arutha and lovable rogues like Amos Trask. The Midkemian characters have a universal appeal because we’re confronted with their choices and trials in a universal human light – growing up, the responsibilities of power, good and evil.
Contrast that with Feist’s Kelewan, which mixed Japanese culture with elements from Mesoamerican civilizations and some touches from MAR Barker’s Tekumel. Characters in Kelewan such as Mara and Kasumi are written in such a way that they’re very much creatures of their milieu, their every action being a response to some quirk of Tsurani law or custom. Using Card’s analysis technique, you could say that M and C were almost equal in the Kelewan-based parts of the Riftwar series, and very intertwined. (Which to me is good world-building by the way, or good use of the milieu.) But page count wise, look at how many pages of the books have to be about the milieu.
Gemmel’s Drenai series is another triumph of Character over Milieu. There are very few details I can remember about the nations of Drenai, Vagria, Gothir, etc., but if I were to try writing a Druss fanfic I’m pretty confident I could nail the character with little effort. Motivations and powerful internal conflicts leap right out of the pages in Gemmel’s stories, making his characters into emotional dynamos. You’re caught between simultaneously admiring them, fearing them – Gemmel’s heroes are often borderline psychos -- and sympathizing with their all-too-human plights. There’s another element that Gemmel plays upon masterfully, that makes his characters so memorable: in the realm of Idea, Gemmel’s big on spiritual themes like guilt and redemption, the journey to maturity, and the difficulty of the virtuous path.
In my own fiction, I think I’m still trying to find the ideal balance of Milieu, Idea, Character and Event, with Milieu often pretty heavy since I really love exotic settings. But there’s a lesson to remember from these authors, and it’s that characters are what really carry the story. Perhaps as a gamer I can be a bit too focused on the setting at times, because I’m thinking of ways to incorporate that cool stuff in my campaigns later; and as a GM, I’m not spending that much time inside my player characters’ heads – they’re not my characters. But I need to study how to make my characters come alive the way Gemmel and Feist do.
And that’s one of the things I’ll be looking for in new fantasy. I need to find new stuff that’s as compelling as the adventures of Druss, Pug, Harold Shea and the lot …