Putting the Humanity before the Fantasy

13 Feb
February 13, 2012

Some backstory, I finished the 3rd book in the Song of Ice and Fire series last week. I’ve been taking my time with the books, pacing myself, I don’t want to read all of them and then have to wait years for GRRM to finish the last two. Such a marvelous series, I’m in total awe of Martin’s skill as a writer. And I got to thinking about what made it special, why it has become my favourite fantasy series and what I feel it does better than all the rest of the fantasy I’ve read.

One of these things that the series does best is putting the humanity before the fantasy. Most fantasy novels you read, and I’ve read many, it’s the other way round. The humanity is there to showcase the fantasy, usually by serving as a mundane contrast to the fantastical. Humans are kinda boring, but look over there! Elves! And Dwarves! And now someone is teleporting and shooting lightning from their hands! And that guy’s sword is on fire!

The issue isn’t whether you have fantastical elements in your story or not, Martin has those in SOIF, with the Dragons and the Others and so on. The issue is which is “the star” and which “the stage”. Martin breathes an incredible amount of richness into his characters through their personality and actions, their struggles and development. Where he does add in fantasy elements, it’s with a light touch, never stealing the limelight from the characters he’s created. The fantasy is the spice to the meal, not the meal itself.

And the struggles those characters face are so very satisfying because of how human they are. The primary conflict is not really against terrifying fantasy creatures (the Others), it’s between human personalities, humans with all their ambitions and flaws. No Ancient Evil Awakening has ever been as interesting as the relationship between Tyrion and his family.

Compare and contrast this with, say, the Dresden Files. I enjoy the series as light entertainment, but here the fantasy is clearly the focus. Dresden’s character doesn’t develop much, conflict and challenge comes in the form of new magical beasties introduced each book, whether that be fairies, werewolves or vampires. And of course, since the fantastical becomes mundane with familiarity, the power curve of these enemies needs to ramp up each book, a problem similar to what comic books face.

A show like “The Walking Dead” only needs the one fantasy enemy, zombies, to create a rich tapestry of drama. And not many types of zombies, as has now become popular. Just the one, the classic shambler. Because, like SOIF, the fantasy is a backdrop to showcase the human drama, the relationships between flawed people under pressure.

Whether you’re writing for a novel or a game, and no matter how in love you are with the fantasy world you’re creating, don’t forget the most important element : your characters and their personalities. Give them the depth and development they deserve.

5 replies
  1. dcfedor says:

    It’s a good point. I am definitely guilty of putting the fantasy before humanity in NEO Scavenger. I’m so anxious to make the world do everything I want, that I’ve left the player and NPCs to languish in the background.

    In fact, I think a part of me is afraid to put the player in contact with any non-hostile NPCs because I lack confidence in my writing. I want the player to feel like NPCs are as real as the strife they face in the wilds, so I keep putting off that contact until I’m “ready” to do it “right.”

    Doing it “right,” as I’m discovering, is a lot like doing art “right.” You just gotta get down to it, and do the labor. There’s no magic technique to make good art, whether written or visual. One just has to get in there, and push details around like a mule until it looks good.

    So I should just roll up the sleeves, and see if I can do a decent dialogue with Hatter. One where he may get mad at the player, or offer him partnership, or try to trick him into a suicide mission, and all based on player/Hatter personality clashes or synergies.

    Sounds like another spiderweb of encounter flow, and lots of tracking variables…

    Anyway, good post! And here ends my “confessions of an anxious indie.”

  2. xiani says:

    Be prepared for a whole lot of…not much happening come book 5, though it’s not nearly as bad as some ‘fans’ are making out.

    Also, in case you don’t know him, Joe Abercrombie:


    He’s actually finished his first trilogy (the first law), and there’s a couple more books set in the same universe, makes GRRM look positively kind to his characters, there’s really complex characters, very little fantastical stuff, plus lots of excellent & believable violence.

  3. Arn Richert says:

    This is quite insightful honestly. Speaking as the consumer thus far (my games have no characters to speak of 😛 ), I’ve always cared far more about the details of the world and the lore. In my (admittedly) limited knowledge and selection of games I’ve played, i’d say GTA (SA / IV) features some of the few characters that stick out to me as being interesting. I’m a shameful creature, I know 😉

  4. James says:

    Hey Gareth, have you read The First Law series by Joe Abercrombie? I loved this one, it is a VERY dark fantasy and in a similar vein to Martin’s writing although I daresay it is even more gritty.


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