And why do you want to know that, eh, Mr Bender? You planning to swindle me? You gonna find out how to get all my money so you can spend it on a theme park, with blackjack and people of negotiable affection?
And now Ollie at Infinite Speculation wants to know as well? This is all very shady, gentlemen.
Well, I’ll tell you. It starts by writing books that include the following:
1. A Certain Tone and Voice
Hey, look, I know this tag is all favourite tropes and what not but, when we come down to brass tacks, I’m not really a trope guy. There’s no list of book tropes that sets my heart a-flutter (which kinda makes a lot of current book advertising a bit like someone trying to ask me to smell something when my nose is blocked).
But I am a tone and voice guy (also commas and run-on sentences). I struggle to put my finger on it exactly but stories told a certain way can take all sorts of liberties with what I find interesting. It can express itself many ways – my three favourite authors in the genre are Gemmell, Pratchett, and Kay, and it’s easy to find the differences. Nevertheless, there are probably a few commonalities – high levels of character interiority; a sense of telling a story rather than seeking heavy immersion at all times; a sense of humour I enjoy; clear quick-reading prose; sincerity; a strong sense of theme but without taking over the story. And, I guess, above all, warmth. I don’t need my books to be unchallenging comfort reads 24/7 but, ultimately, a sense of willingness to understand towards everything in the story, even those things that mightn’t deserve it, goes a long way for me. That’s something I think Pratchett mastered, and that I think Dickinson did incredibly well in a very challenging story with The Traitor and De Bodard with Fireheart Tiger, and Kerr did extraordinarily well with Deverry.
Give me those things and I will read your books, even if you have tropes I don’t much care for, or rely heavily on convenient storytelling, or whatever.
But you came here for tropes. And since I got two nominations, that means two tropes, and since I’m generous, I’ll square that. Assuming I can think of that many. Happily I have a list of my favourite books I can reference and start looking for commonalities and figure it out from there…
2. Rich In Years And Cynicism
The first thing to jump out at me is that apparently I like grizzled snarkers. Pratchett wrote Vimes and Granny Weatherwax, two of the most wonderfully battered by life yet still fighting characters the genre has ever seen. David Gemmell had a soft spot for the veteran with one last fight in him – see Druss in Legend, or Waylander, or just all of Winter Warriors. The Elenium remains far higher than it probably should be on my all time list due to Sparhawk. Cazaril is perfect as this in The Curse of Chalion. Etc.etc.
Why do I like these characters? Well, I suspect part of it is that I was just born old and mistrusting. But I think I just love characters who’ve already lived a story, because it makes the story they’re in even more interesting. When we see the world through their eyes, we see a world they know, shaded and coloured by their beliefs. Old friends and enemies abound. And, of course, snarky and cynical is the preferred flavour, because that’s what brings the entertainment.
It’s not that you can’t get me with a Coming of Age story. You can, you really can. But even there, I’m no small amount reading for the poor bastards who have to mentor our young heroes – Thom and Moraine in the Wheel of Time, Loren Silvercloak in the Fionavar Tapestry, the mighty Gandalf himself – and every moment they give their friends that look and dressing down.
Roughly half my top ten involve big mysteries of some sort, frequently murderous, and the various forms of mystery out there are my second favourite genre behind Fantasy. So, obviously, when you inject that into Fantasy, you get Fantasy that has my instant attention. One of the big advantages of it to me is that it tends to result in better plots. “Can we get the one thing that will save the day” is fun, but limited once you’ve read it the first dozen times. Of course they can, and of course it will go wrong repeatedly until there’s about a quarter of the way left to go. And sure, you know the shape of a Murder Mystery, but the questions of what happens at each individual turn are more interesting. There’s more uncertainty.
The questions often take us deeper into a fantasy world too, which is a big plus. The lure of exploring that imaginary world is a big part of what makes this genre work for me. Well, what you see depends on what you ask. If the mighty hero is mainly asking questions like “where’s the pass to the Badlands”, “Can I buy a new horse”, and “Have you seen this mysterious rider in a black cloak”, then there’s only so much about the interesting details of the world that can be included in the answer (I don’t find geography that interesting). But questions like “Why did you hate the dead fella so much”, “What does three feathers on a corpse mean”, “Who’d wear a red cloak around here”, can get you deep into a world.
Besides, it’s fun! Who doesn’t love clues and human secrets and piecing mysteries together?
4. Really Big Non-Explodey Magic/Divine Intervention
Okay, not so much a trope name, but I love stories that drop giant, life-altering, world-changing magic, that doesn’t leave things smoking and charred at the edges (although a shout out to Eberneezer McCoy’s act of wanton destruction in the Dresden Files). I like battle magic, but it doesn’t excite me, not like Brandin of Ygrath’s decision to wipe away an entire country’s name in Tigana, or moving a kingdom sixteen years into the future in a single night, or binding yourself to make restitution to a soul over several lifetimes.
Or, pretty much everything in The Invisibles.
That weird, crazy, stuff of fantasy impossible changes are the things that really get my motor running. It captures my imagination and creates great ‘What If’ scenarios. It’s the stuff of the myths that got me into fantasy. What’s more, it’s the sort of magic that doesn’t need much explanation, allowing it to retain its mystery and fade into the story’s background when needed.
5. Odd Couples
By couples, I mean pairs of characters, not necessarily romantic couples – although they’re more than welcome. But I really love all books that explore the friendship, or rivalry, or co-existence in some form, of two people who see the world very, very differently. Take, for example, Vimes’ anti-authoritarian authoritanism going against Vetinari’s Machievallian altruism. Or Granny Weatherwax’s very correct, cold, ruthless code against the happy-go-lucky Nanny Ogg. It’s the engine behind Good Omens. It also features prominently in The Gurkha and The Lord of Tuesday, my favourite novella, and The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox, just to pick two. That pull and give between two big fascinating characters is just my favourite character dynamic, for all I sometimes try to pretend otherwise.
So those are the things I am a sucker for. If you want my money, write a book featuring an Odd Couple, probably one of them a Grizzled Snarker, investigating a Mystery involving Really Big Non-Explodey Magic. And if you want my love, tell me about all the books involving these things.