Bad fantasy. It’s out there. A lot of it.
This will be a brief guide of some of the problems inherent to fantasy literature and how to avoid them (I’ll be covering fantasy artwork in a later post). Now, a lot of problems like poor characterization, infodumping, overuse of descriptions, and so forth are just examples of bad writing, and can happen in all literature. What I’m showing here is not how to write properly, but how to tell an interesting fantasy story. Maybe someday, when my own prose improves, I’ll talk a bit about the former. But not here.
I know that most of my readers don’t write fantasy, or even write at all, but I’d still like to give you a sense of what works and doesn’t work, and what I personally like and dislike. To those who do plan to write– good luck, and I hope this guide is useful to you!
1. All fantasy is derivative, but that doesn’t mean you can rip off someone else’s work.
Yes, I said it. No fantasy work will ever be completely original. You can trace most contemporary fantasy back to Tolkien, and trace him all the way back to folktales and mythology. This is true of all genres, of course, but I think it’s particularly important for fantasy writers to understand this.
Now, this is not in itself a bad thing, or even a problem. The problem is when writers don’t even try for any originality. It’s okay to draw inspiration from your favorite authors, but there’s such a thing as going to far. When I read a fantasy novel I should be going,” Oh, that character/concept/whatever was inspired by some other book, and here’s this author’s unique take on it.” I should not be complaining, “Hey, that’s the exact same character/concept/whatever from some other book. No, really, it’s exactly the same.”
Build on what you have borrowed from others, don’t just use it as is. Oh yeah, and if you have something totally original that’s never been done before… stop and think for a moment why.
2. Use stereotypes wisely, and do not overuse.
I’m not going to say ‘avoid all stereotypes’, because a lot of them still exist for a reason: they work. They’re a good starting point for creating a character. But like I said in the first point above, you need to build on what you already have. Try playing with readers’ expectations for a character. Switch things up a bit. A good idea is to think about a character that you would like to read about, not just a character that’s easy for you to write.
It’s also possible to have characters who are well-developed stereotypes (In fact, I will be talking about that a bit next week). While this makes them immediately identifiable, they also become far too predictable. It’s up to you whether you prefer to sacrifice originality for something that’s tried-and-true but possibly boring. The latter is fine for side characters, but an uninteresting main character is never a good idea.
2.5. They’re horses, not robots.
This is really just my little pet peeve, but I felt like it needed to be addressed because I have seen it in pretty much all high fantasy ever. I have worked with horses for over ten years, and they are big horrible slobbery things that break their legs every five minutes because they have no brains. (Not really. But sometimes I feel that way about them.) They are ridiculously delicate creatures who require constant supervision so they don’t catch a cold and die.
Galloping across the rippling plains for days on end might look pretty cool in a movie, but not when your horse collapses from exhaustion foaming at the mouth with its legs all twisted inward and it looks at you with big desperate eyes as it thrashes on the ground and then you have to put it down and all the little children cry at your movie and never want to see it again– can you live with that? Can you??????
Also you can’t actually jump onto your horse’s back from a two-story window. The Westerns lied to you. Sorry.
3. Create a consistent world.
Fantasy logic varies wildly from story to story. You can have the most carefully crafted and detailed set of magic rules ever that take ten pages just to explain, or you could just have everything powered by happy thoughts and be done with it. You can have an imaginary world with a complex socio-political history that could take years to analyze properly, or you could have Vaguely-Defined Fantasy World #2343. All of these are fine. But I, the reader, have something called ‘the suspension of disbelief’. As a fantasy reader, mine happens to be very, very high. So if you break it, there’s a problem. Don’t make me think, “There’s no way that should have happened according to the rules that were already set up!”
And if you have created an established magical Deus Ex Machina that can fix everything so you can write yourself easily out of difficult situations, I will roll my eyes at you. Really.
4. On how to write believable female characters.
I have heard way too many people (and not just men) complain that they can’t write female characters. Well, I have a solution for you.
Write her exactly as you would any other character.
That is, don’t write ‘men’ and ‘women’. Write people. Feminine and masculine ‘characteristics’ all come down to stereotypes in the end anyway– they’re only a starting point. Your battle-hardened adventurer is not going to go off and have a giggly slumber party with all her girlfriends just because she’s female (okay, she might, but only if it fits her character). Because all fantasy women are good for are looking pretty, getting kidnapped and talking about boys and clothes, right?
Fantasy is a great place to find great female characters (and other minorities not commonly or accurately represented in the real world) because there are no limits except for the ones you set. That’s one of the things I love so much about speculative fiction.
And if you’re still confused about this, go read a Tamora Pierce book or something. I mean, come on.
5. Choose a style and stick with it.
This one should be self-explanatory. Just like your logic should be consistent, your tone should be consistent as well (unless you’re deliberately changing it for shock value or to subvert the story thus far, which can take some practice). If you’re doing Tolkien-style high fantasy, your characters aren’t going to be talking like 21st-century teenagers, and if you’re doing contemporary urban fantasy they won’t be speaking in Elizabethan English. I’d talk about avoiding purple prose as well, since that pops up in fantasy alarmingly often, but that’s more about bad writing.
6. Do some research before you start writing anything.
Yeah, yeah, I know… It’s fantasy! But really, even if you’re planning to make things happen that are deliberately unrealistic for the cool factor, you should probably know how to do them properly beforehand. Kind of like how a writer should know how to write in standard English before they start playing with words, or how an artist should learn basic essentials like composition and anatomy before they start drawing magic marker faces in five different dimensions.
I have even more to say, but this post is late anyway, so I’m done for now. If you liked this post, make sure to read the companion art post (coming hopefully in late November). Sorry for the lack of pictures, there will be plenty next time!
Next time: Some good old classic high fantasy and… wait, are those giant robots?
“I haven’t hunted dragons in a long time. This is going to be such fun!”