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Breakfast TopicDec 12, 2015 8:00 am CT

Breakfast Topic: How do you like your fantasy?

For once, we aren’t talking the nebulous idea of the “class fantasy.” Instead, we’re going to talk about fantasy as a genre. Those who listen to our podcast — or read The Queue, or my Twitter, or pretty much anywhere I say things — know there are aspects of World of Warcraft‘s storytelling that don’t sit right with me. That isn’t to say I hate World of Warcraft‘s narrative. I don’t. The parts I don’t like are just parts.

Character death is one of those things that doesn’t sit right with me. Don’t get me wrong — it isn’t that I think characters should never die. I think it’s a narrative choice that shouldn’t be taken lightly. For me, when characters I know and love are being killed off left and right, my ability to care for the narrative dies with it. Perhaps it’s cynical, but I start to wonder if I should invest myself in this world or story at all if everything I enjoy about it is being eroded — and could be further eroded at any moment. When we’re warned Legion will shock us in regards to who lives and dies, that isn’t a statement which excites me. It fills me with dread. I don’t dread who I’ll lose. I begin to wonder if I should bother getting invested. I ran into this with A Song of Ice and Fire / Game of Thrones. So many characters have died over the course of that series, I realized there wasn’t anyone left I cared about. I didn’t care about what happened to their stupid kingdoms anymore. There was nobody I could cheer on to victory. That is, I suppose, the point of that series — but I realized it isn’t for me.

More than that, killing a character also kills possibilities. For me, characters drive a narrative more than anything else. I need characters to care about. I want to follow those characters’ journeys, see what they face, and what they become. If everyone becomes a corpse, why should I care at all? Sometimes, dying on a battlefield is the most fitting thing for a character — but sometimes it’s okay for them to decide to step back. Sometimes it’s okay for them to retire, or recuperate, or take some personal time. Characters can get overwhelmed. That’s part of their development and part of their journey. When a character is killed off, that’s it. That story is over. And often, especially in World of Warcraft, characters are brought back from the dead on a whim. Usually, it’s because those characters were killed off without much thought to begin with, and only later does Blizzard realize those characters hold more possibilities. Illidan is coming back. Clearly, Illidan still had a role to play in the Warcraft narrative. So why do it to begin with? Why kill Gul’dan, then explore a convoluted alternate universe to bring him back?

Death isn’t the only way to raise tension. In fact, I personally find it to be the least effective tool for that; death rarely makes me (again, personally) feel any tension. Kill enough characters, I start getting irritated with the authors rather than the story’s villains. The stories which are up my alley are the sort where I know the protagonists are in a pickle, but I don’t know how they’re going to get out of it. Life and death aren’t the only possible outcomes of success or failure. Often, all of those things that fall in between make a story which interests me more.

Humor is another tough one, because everyone has a different sense of humor. I love humor in stories — but not when it’s slapstick. Even when writing a dark and gritty story, humor is a powerful thing. Moments of levity make the moments of darkness more poignant. Stories, to me, should be something like a rollercoaster — particularly in fantasy. I want the smiles and the laughter the pull me up that hill. Then you can drop me down the other side. If it’s down, down, and down some more, I get sick of the fall before I hit the bottom. At the same time, slapstick doesn’t do anything for me. My least favorite quests in WoW are Gnome and Goblin quests. The absolute over-the-top gags pull me out of the story just as much as named characters being killed off at every turn. But can I fault Blizzard for that? No. Those quests simply aren’t for me. There are plenty of people who enjoy that sort of humor, and there are plenty of things I enjoy which others don’t.

Stories can be tense and terrifying without an endless parade of character death. Stories can have humor without being slapstick. My ideal fantasy falls between those places. Highs and lows. War and friendship. Even if I already know a hero isn’t going to die by the end of the story, I can still get invested in how he/she/they will deal with a problem.

How do you like your fantasy? Light-hearted sword and sorcery? Dark, gritty realism? Something in between? Do you like some sci-fi in your fantasy or are you a purist?

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Filed Under: Character Death, Fantasy
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