Pep Talk - WHRN 2009 - Modernizing Fantasy by Aiganshen_Queen
You have a really, really good idea. Yes, one of those incredibly good ideas that strike around midnight and you scribble down on whatever happens to be near your bed (on bad days, you use a pen and it turns out that handy sheet of paper was actually your history homework). Midway through plotting it out, though, you realize your goblins and teenage witch would be much happier and better suited to, say, modern-day Los Angeles.
Unfortunately, you have no idea how you’re going to move them there and make it seem like you didn’t just pull them from a medieval fantasy novel and change a few setting words.
Modernizing fantasy. If you want to write contemporary fantasy, it’s something you’re going to have to do.
You see, there’s a definite difference between a group of medieval characters thrust into a modern world – maybe you change “inn” to “hotel”, or “knight” to “police officer”, and so on and so forth – and a bunch of modern-day characters who seem to fit in, jeans and t-shirts and alternate rock posters and all. And if you want to write effective contemporary fantasy, you need to achieve the second (unless you’re doing some sort of time travel thing, in which case, ignore everything I say here, OK?).
Time periods aren’t just the scenery. They’re the values and beliefs of the characters; their perceptions of the outside world; the expressions your protagonist uses.
Let’s go back to your witch. First of all, you’ve decided that as a character, she’s teenager in the 21st century first, witch second. This will help you locate your novel soundly in your chosen time period, rather than just having a witch wear jeans and saying, “OK, yep, it’s modern now.” Think about a few stereotypes about modern teenagers. We wear tank tops, jeans, boots, Livestrong bracelets. We have braces and listen to rap and rock and roll. We’re Internet savvy and spend all of our time texting. To develop your character fully as a being in this time period, experiment with some of these. Maybe have her wear braces but hate all rock songs and love classical. What if she can hack through any computer system but has never worn a pair of jeans in her life? Think about it. The way you portray her as a character will show your time period. The whole novel doesn’t have to center around these things – just mention them once in a while. Say something about the poser of John Williams on her wall, or her homepage on her laptop. Just a few brief sentences thrown in here and there can realistically transform your originally medieval witch into a modern character.
Another very, very important thing is the values your character has. If you’ve studied history at all, you’ll know that the values of different time periods and places are very, very different. For example, the tribal values of Bedouin tribes of the Arabian Peninsula in 600 CE are completely different from the Renaissance philosophies of a scholar in the 15th century. Think of modern values – the right to free speech, equality, and justice are some – and then let your character embody a few. A medieval witch might spend her time feeling inferior to the men around her; that’s her culture and how she perceives life. Your modern witch, though, will have spent her time reading the female empowerment books and seeing Wonder Woman comics; she’ll have a much different view of society.
Dialogue, too, is a very important way for your characters to express where and when they are. Popular phrases and expressions should occasionally pop up in your witch’s discussions: she doesn’t need to say “like” or “cool” every third word, but something should come up every once in a while to tell you that she does exist in this century.
Now, we get to the part everyone’s been waiting for/skipping to: how exactly this applies to the fantasy genre, rather than just writing as a whole. Well, for starters, your characters’ lifestyles will probably be quite different. In the medieval period, it was perfectly acceptable for a wizard to sit around in a hole somewhere in a forest and let his beard and eyebrows grow extremely long. Nowadays? Not as much. Doing so would probably draw too much attention (note: most of what I’m writing is based on the assumption your writing for [i]now[/i] – a time when, as a staple of the genre, to magic is generally not practiced openly).
Also, the way they practice magic will be different. In your medieval fantasy, it’s fine for your wizard to wave his staff around and look magnificent and menacing. But your modern wizard needs a few careful, quiet, practical spells, which can be practiced without humans/muggles/whatever you want to call your non-magical people noticing.
Which leads into the next point: what exactly your witch is going to use her magic for. She probably isn’t going to be making gingerbread cottages or turning people into toads anytime soon (though it’s always a possibility). Instead, she’ll be doing dishes, perhaps, with her magic, or using it to get the bus to school on time. Practical, pragmatic changes to her magic that make more sense in a modern setting.
Finally, have fun with it! Play around. Your witch probably can’t locate newt’s eyeballs or a cauldron for her love potion – so what’s she going to make it with? Her little brother’s toy frog and a plastic bucket? Modernizing fantasy can be fun! Adding in little details, like a witch flying on a vacuum cleaner or wearing a black baseball cap rather than a pointy witch hat, should make you laugh, and, most of all, add fun and realism to your novel!