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Most Derivative Fantasy: Dragonlance or The Magicians

No genre exists in a vacuum, Fantasy especially. Each new book is deeply indebted to previous works, and even those wishing to eschew tropes and traditions are still reacting to the series they choose not to emulate. Each previous book is but another brick in the Fantasy foundation, which future authors build upon with new bricks stamped with their own particular seals.

Yet, to belabor this building metaphor a bit more, some series come to the conclusion “Why fix what ain’t broken? If that one brick worked so well, let’s just keep cranking out the same thing over and over,” which crosses a line from “influenced by” to “derivative of.” Two of the worst offenders include Dragonlance and The Magicians, and while each series has diehard fans, both deserve some time in the stockade of shame for their crimes.

The only question remaining is which one will go first.

As always, I’m joined by fellow fantasy author, SPFBO semifinalist, and all-round academic extraordinaire, Daniel E. Olesen, to put this issue to bed.

Daniel: I should preface this by saying that I’ve read +20 Dragonlance novels, so I am not judging anyone else for enjoying Dragonlance. I’m even a derivative offender myself, as my own Knights of Adal are definitely inspired by the Knights of Solamnia (with an even heavier dose of Eddings’ Pandion order). But I’ll leave it to others to roast me for this offence; precisely because I have read a healthy serving of Dragonlance books, they are the obvious victim for me to prey upon.

Dragonlance is basically someone’s homebrewed D&D version of Middle-earth. That’s not an insult either; the original authors (Weis and Hickman) played D&D and used their games for the stories. This is very obvious in the original series, The Chronicles (guess where I got the idea for my own series’ name). A group of heroes are on a quest to save the world. The party consists of a half-elven ranger (Tanis), paladin (Sturm), cleric (Goldmoon), barbarian (Riverwind), wizard (Raistlin), thief (Tasslehoff), a human fighter (Caramon) and a dwarven fighter (Flint). I wonder how long they had to brainstorm to come up with the character of a surly, dwarven fighter named Flint.

Just for good measure, Tanis has a romantic subplot with an elven princess, and Caramon has one with a barmaid. I’ll spell it out: female characters in this book are a cleric (healing and support), a princess, and a barmaid. It should be said that the first book was published in 1984, making it a blurred line sometimes between when Dragonlance relies on tropes and when it actually invented them, but female clerics, princesses, and barmaids have been a staple of the genre since the times of Conan. Dragonlance may have been innovative in certain ways, but world-building and female characters definitely aren’t counted among them.

Matt: I’m not going to lie: I was scared when you said you were picking Dragonlance because I feared you would really tear into what was also my gateway series into Fantasy. Despite its somewhat derivative nature, there is still a lot of love in my flinty heart for Dragonlance; an emotion not shared with The Magicians, which is without a doubt The. Most. Derivative. Fantasy. Ever. Because although Dragonlance might borrow archetypes and tropes from LOTR/ D&D, The Magicians stalked its influences down a dark alley and then gleefully took them for all they were worth.

Including any sense of innocence.

For all six of you out there that are not aware of the series or the Sy-Fy show it inspired, The Magicians can be distilled down to “What if Harry Potter discovered Narnia but everything and everyone was terrible?”

Yep, that’s the entirety it: the Harry Potter cast ham-fistedly redesigned as unlikable American a-holes that drink and bang a lot in a college rendition of Hogwarts, only to discover Narnia is real but a terrible place to visit. There is literally nothing more to the pitch than that, though it’s dressed up as “New Adult,” as if that somehow makes it better than the children’s books it appropriates all its ideas from.

Yes, some argue that it’s a deconstruction of both those beloved series, but that definition does a disservice to the term “deconstruction” since no new meaning can be gleaned from The Magicians other than it stands on the shoulders of giants and dares to call itself tall.

Daniel: As I already admitted, Dragonlance was a big influence on me; it was the second extensive fantasy series I read as a child after The Lord of the Rings. That won’t stop me from tearing down my own idols though. As for your choice, I have not read The Magicians, and so it does not bother me one whit if you tear it into pieces. My lack of knowledge will not prevent me from trying to play devil’s advocate, though (in general, my ignorance rarely stops me from doing anything). Doesn’t The Magicians contain some unusual characters at least? It is not often that fantasy stories mention that mental illness even exists, let alone feature a protagonist suffering from one. At least the characters in your pick seem to have some meat on them.

As my salvo above pointed out, that is hardly the case in the Dragonlance Chronicles. Every character is basically the stereotype of their class. I already mentioned the surly dwarf, but special recognition should go to another offender, Tasslehoff. He is the thief of the group and a kender. If you are not familiar with Dragonlance, you probably don’t know what a kender is. It’s pretty simple: they’re hobbits, except they wear shoes. That and the name change was probably to avoid being sued for copyright infringement by the Tolkien Estate. Not only did Dragonlance copy the whole race of hobbits, they even made Tasslehoff the thief of the party like Bilbo. Except I remember Bilbo having actual character traits and serving as a good protagonist in The Hobbit, a fish-out-of-water who eventually adapts, finds his own courage, and is guided by a strong moral compass, even when those around him succumb to greed.

All I remember about Tasslehoff is that he’s a kleptomaniac.

Matt: You don’t remember that Kender also have topknots? And can, as a racial ability, annoy anyone else to the point of violence? For shame, sir. Mind you, I can’t really think of any defining traits of hobbits other than their hairy feet and fascination with food. And pointlessness within a narrative

But what I think we’re missing is that what Kender really are is a rip-off of Halflings, which are D&D’s Hobbits with the serial numbers barely filed off. Which makes sense since the Dragonlance started off as a D&D module that ALSO had some novels accompanying it. So, to shift the argument a bit, yeah D&D (and therefore Dragonlance) is derivative of LOTR because D&D is basically just really good fanfic.

Opposed to The Magicians, which is TERRIBLE fanfic.

While I’m not personally a fan of fanfic (pun?), it is definitely an act of love, with fans so enamored with a world/ characters/ story that they want to continue the adventure after what the author intended, even if they have to fashion it themselves, often by inserting themselves into the story with the existing heroes.

And if inserting a character you created into an already existing fantasy story/ world, usually as a silent protagonist, to interact with canonical characters doesn’t sound like EVERY RPG video game based on an existing intellectual property (Star Wars, LOTR, GoT, & South Park just off the top of my head in the last six months), then you’re just lying to yourself.

So yeah, that’s my belief that the only difference between fanfic and RPGs is just that fanfic is written down. And since LOTR literally wrote the book on fantasy for adults and dominated the genre for something like 20 years, D&D is deeply indebted to it in its presentation of elves, dwarves, orcs and dragons. If you’ll allow me a bit of a metaphor, in effect Tolkien created his own hand-crafted, gorgeous figurines everyone marveled after for many years behind glass until D&D make plastic, knock-off versions (not unlike Star Wars action figures) others could act out their own adventures with.

That, in my opinion, is the definition of good fanfic/ RPGs: Fans lovingly playing with the action figures from an author’s toybox.

Compare this with The Magicians, which took two of the most beloved children’s fantasy series and then tried to break them with the almost pathological glee of an angsty teenager smashing his little brother’s beloved toys simply because he could. Every defining trait for the Harry crew gets turned into a weakness or obsession, making those characters intentionally unlikable, while Narnia fares no better, with Aslan being reduced to a senile and impotent goat and the villain a character the author abused and abandoned. Both magical worlds were no longer filled with wonder, rather ennui and dissolution.

I’m not a fan of either Harry Potter or Narnia, but I have to wonder to what end did The Magicians try and smash all the things fans loved about those two series with such cynicism, and all I can come up with is sour grapes.

And that, right there, is bad fanfic: Someone entering another’s world just to wreck up the place.

Daniel: Damn, son. Well, there doesn’t seem to be much left to add to this discussion. Except that you’re wrong about Hobbits, of course.

Matt: Wow. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a speechless you before (yet still somehow an avowed Hobbit apologist). Never thought I’d be defending fanfic either. Strange day for both of us, which wraps up a strange year.

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MD Presley is a screenwriter, blogger and occasional novelist… which basically means he’s a layabout.  He has written two books on fantasy worldbuilding, and teaches worldbuilding techniques, tricks, and tips at Forging Fantasy Realms once a week on YouTube. 

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