What Makes Good Fantasy?

Taken from Carl Jung's personal diary The Red Book, Liber Novus

Taken from Carl Jung’s personal diary The Red Book, Liber Novus

(Ah, Where Fantasy and Psychology meet!)

I talked to a woman yesterday who had an interest in what I did in my free time, while not at work. I told her I wrote fantasy novels, and she instantly smiled a matronly smile and asked what kind of fantasy. Choosing to talk about the latest WiP, I told her it was High Fantasy, where a bunch of people go on a journey. As an afterthought, I added it was similar in style to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, though not so descriptive.

She sighed. “Ah. Do you write anything else? I’m not much of a fan of Tolkien’s work.”

I must start off by explaining the difference between fantasy and science fiction. While you’d think one uses magic and the other uses science, that’s not always the case, though “magic” might be a theme in a scifi novel and science might be the preferred skill of a race in a fantasy novel. Good fantasy focuses on the individual, on the psychological, and on the expansive nature of the human condition, while good science fiction focuses on the society, the culture, the history, as a point of conflict. Usually. One of the big hitters of fantasy is currently Martin’s Game of Thrones. I’m using this as an example because this series bends my definition a little, and when I wrote the previous sentence, I asked my self, “What about…”

Tolkien’s LOTR is all about his take on war while simultaneously creating races that speak his created languages. It is broad-reaching, overarching, complex and societal. Yet it’s more about the journey of a group of people to throw a ring into a volcano. In my opinion. You are certainly free to disagree.

What would you call any zombie book ever written? The best of which I’d refer to Max Brooks‘ World War Z. Most people would posit it’s fantasy due to the (currently) inconceivable nature of the thing. I am inclined to say, and probably always believe, zombie literature is science fiction. What was the first zombie, nay, the first work of science fiction we have today? Frankenstein’s Monster. The first fantasy goes aaaaaall the way back to Beowulf. Fantasy’s been around a lot longer than science fiction. Why? Well, science wasn’t always “science.” It was superstition, then spirituality, then religion, then art, then science (I’m exaggerating a lot here).

I don’t just write High Fantasy. In fact, Nautilus is the first HF I’ve written since early college. It’s usually not my bag, but a recent blooming of the genre by several fresh writers inspired me, most notably Rothfuss and Pollock and actually, the ending of Jordan’s Wheel of Time series also plays a small part. That’s not the point.

While everyone has their opinion about things–I’m not sure what I could send that woman that she’d like, now that I know she’s not a fan of High Fantasy. Modern Fantasy? Thriller? Epic Literature?

There are a majority of people who don’t enjoy fantasy writing. And that’s cool. I respect it. We all have our preferred genres of writing–if we even enjoy reading at all. But why is fantasy MY bag? Why is it MY thing? And why do I believe everyone in the world should give it a chance? Several chances?

Like all smart writing, the smart fantasy novel can be brilliant. There’s no one way to write a fantasy novel, despite what you might think. Edgar Allan Poe wrote fantasy. And so does Anne Rice, Tolkien, George R. R. Martin (whose name synergy isn’t an accident. By using this construction, it rings with Tolkien’s name. Brilliant), Jim Butcher, and Dan Simmons. The particular genres for fantasy are as far-reaching as rewriting history (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter).

I’ll start with the Cons of fantasy, or at least what I’ve heard others say. If you have a few that I haven’t mentioned, please feel free to tell me about them. I’m a professional, and I’d love the input.

CONS

  1. Too detached from the real world. “Not real enough.”
  2. Too long a read. I’m a casual reader but don’t have the time to dedicate.
  3. Difficult to connect with any character, regardless of perspective. Then they just die anyway.
  4. Too much fluff. Not enough science/logic.
  5. Magic is used as a plot device and also used to fill in weak storytelling. Every time.
  6. Straight-up boring. Why do I care about some midget with a ring? Who cares about magic missiles?
  7. Too many options. I can’t pick one, because they all look the same!

I hear you. Those are all valid reasons. While I’d say half of those would apply to genre-specific novels in general, it might be difficult to find the right type of fantasy for you. It’s a matter of taste, usually, and unfortunately, like romance novels and in the late ’80’s, horror novels, the market is saturated with mediocre-to-terrible published writing. Who knows? My book might be added to that list, if you were to read it. But that isn’t to say you can’t find what you’re looking for in a great book. I’ll go through these piece by piece, and offer advice to each one in turn.

1. Some fantasy is. There’s fantasy that even I don’t like, as a sub genre. In fact, truth-be-told, it’s difficult for me to get into most fantasy. Why? Not real enough for me. Teleporting, tiger-in-a-rock summoning, fireball-throwing fantasy is rough for me, because most writers inundate and overwhelm. They take a sledgehammer to the scene, then step back and watch the wall fall. Then pick up the pieces. But not all. Guy Gavriel Kay is very real-world oriented, with a finesse for the psychic. Charles de Lint holds the reader’s hand through rich and intricate real-world scenarios, then invites the reader through the portal he created while nobody was watching. Rich storytellers don’t need the flame-retardant computers. Some use them anyway.

2. A good book can engross anyone, regardless of length. Take the Harry Potter series for example. So many people picked up those books and said, “I usually don’t like this kind of stuff, but I love these.” I know fantasy-hating people who have read that series three, four, even five times through. Yet, if length is specifically important, I recommend checking out Edgar Allan Poe, Lovecraft, Washington Irving, or Anne McCaffrey. They even make anthologies of fantasy from big name writers like Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. And don’t be misled by Lovecraft’s reputation. He has some incredibly sweet dream-stories that have nothing to do with the macabre.

3. Yes, George R. R. Martin‘s Game of Thrones series has recently made quite the buzz. While it’s not my style of writing, it is important to note there’s a kind of fantasy that focuses on the medieval, Shakespearean murder-she-wrote aspect of royalty and intrigue. If you feel too detached from the characters, move on. Not all fantasy is sword-and-sorcery in such a setting. Modern Fantasy (or even Urban Fantasy) might be something closer to what you’re looking for. Jim Butcher‘s Dresden Files might fit squarely in your interests, with an equal dose of “hard-boiled” detective work and “high octane” fantasy. There are slower books, as well. I don’t think any of us can avoid the recent insurgence of romantic Modern Fantasy novels hitting the shelves where romantic links between human, ghost, werewolf, and elf is commonplace. Again, not my bag, and I can’t even recommend an author I find particularly interesting in that sub genre, but it’s out there.

4. Fantasy’s bread and butter IS not having to use science to explain it all away. But that’s not the point of using fantasy as a storytelling tool. I feel instead of making it easier on a writer to simply whisk a character away via magical means, it should make the elements more difficult. A lot of poor writers fall into this hole. Instead of a magical structure built on action/reaction and cause/effect, some writers simply bubble hearth, to take a term from World of Warcraft, and use deus ex machina to handle difficult plot. It’s cool in a game, but not in a book. Some science-minded fantasy writers would include Neil Stephenson (I know. Some might consider his work science fiction, but I read Anatheme, and even though it deals with the multi-world interpretation, it focuses more on the individual than the culture) and Greg Bear, though his body of work in the fantasy realm is much smaller than his science fiction. Finally, Jaqueline Carey‘s Kushiel’s Dart series uses so little magic, it might not even have it at all (if you’re into the sex/romance/smoldering brothel scene without the pointy teeth and (much) blood).

5. A great example of terrible storytelling is Christopher Paolini’s Eragon series. Not only does his character randomly have three arms (one holding the reins of his horse, the other two shooting a bow), but every time the main character runs into a difficult situation, he passes out. Conk out cold. Sleepy time. It’s an amateurish way to end a chapter and could be done much better. (Note: I’m talking about a non-magical way a writer uses to close a chapter. If he uses waking sickness to close a chapter, I can only imagine what he does with magic.) Another writer who uses magic to fill in writing weaknesses is Terry Goodkind, and his Sword of Truth series. He falsely drums up conflict then resolves it–I don’t know how many times–by turn-of-phrase or previously forgotten information on the MC’s part. That begin said, not all novelists use magic to make life easier for them. Patrick RothfussLev Grossman, and Terry Pratchett give every magical conflict the consideration it deserves.

6. I understand. Fantasy might not be your type of writing. I would, on the other hand, recommend some of the classics of fantasy due to its historical/religious/psychological significance. Some of the heavy-hitters I love are Dante‘s Divine Comedy, Milton‘s Paradise Lost, the various works of the Bible and apocryphal sequels, the Bhagavad-Gita–any Gita, really–1000 Arabian Nights, or finally, the comedy of Terry Pratchett. One of my favorite novels ever written is Good Omens by him and Neil Gaiman. Brilliant work, that. It’s so very difficult to do comedy well in any genre, but Pratchett’s satire is palpable, while Milton’s environment is intangible. For those who still say “who cares?” you might want to go elsewhere for your reading needs.

7. The market is over-saturated with fantasy writers of all shapes and sizes, and currently the majority of them are Romantic Fantasy or Urban Fantasy Lite. I don’t know how many novels I’ve picked up, read the inside jacket, thought it had promise, then bombed horribly when I cracked open to the first chapter. We all have our own tastes, but it can be difficult for someone to find the right kind of fantasy. This is why I recommend word-of-mouth, research, and a little time spent looking at the market. Tom Pollock is one author I stumbled on, followed the media buzz for his first novel, and fell in love with his writing. Same with Patrick Rothfuss. If it has a shirtless guy on the front, or a woman with a shotgun, you should know you’re looking at a cover that (I want to say panders, but I’ll avoid it) empathizes with the mainstream. It says, “I am no better than the shirtless guy book beside me.” Which might be just fine for you. Finally, ask. I’d be happy to give my opinion on writers. I tried to drop as much as I can in this post to show a few.

So why COULD you like fantasy? Here are some personal favorites among the Pros:

  • Great storytelling.
  • Outside-the-box thinking you can’t get in regular ol’ Literature.
  • Escapism at its best.
  • Symbolic writing, and furthermore, psychological development at it’s absolute best (or worst, if you know what I mean).
  • Epic storytelling (which is different than great storytelling by definition: the epic scope of a story allows for an individual, or group of individuals, to change the path of history).
  • Focus on the individual and not society. Humanity can be delicious.
  • Extension of Zoroastrian, Hindu, Buddhist, and overall Pagan beliefs. Any book that uses magic as a tool, in any capacity, tips its hat to the ancient religions that built our society.
  • Inspiring alternate history.

I won’t go into individual pros because I think they explain themselves. There’s a reason fantasy movies go huge or go home in the box office while other genres (thriller, detective, con job, romantic comedy) have more mundane turnouts. American culture likes to visually see fantasy. It takes a particular mind, or group of minds, to create something unique and concrete. It wakes the minds of people to see things outside the norm.

Why is the Fantasy Genre so important? Because you are.

I really hope that doesn’t sound as cheesy as it looks. We all have hopes and dreams (despite what my high school priest told me in religion class), and fantasy is not only a great way to introduce new thinking, but it’s also the perfect inspiration to do something fresh.

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15 thoughts on “What Makes Good Fantasy?

  1. Man, have to say, couldn’t agree with you more about Eragon. Read the first one and just couldn’t bring myself to go on, though I’ve heard it got a lot better after book numero uno.

    One of my big fantasy cons (and this has actually changed for the worse in recent years, contrary to expectations) is a lack of strong female characters. And by ‘strong’ I don’t mean ‘able to hold a sword properly’. In fact, warrior-culture seems to be an excuse for a lot of fantasy writers to stick a sword in a woman’s hand and assume this makes her more interesting/ stronger as a character. Oh brother. Or, erm. Sister.

    And I’ve had similar problems–people ask what you write, you say ‘fantasy’, and they give you this very strained smile, like you just farted on a bus. (I actually had one lady tell me, apologetically, that she was sure I was very good, and to let her know when I wrote something more literary. I think my writing is plenty literary. After all, you have to be literate to read it, no?).

    There’s this assumption that fantasy isn’t ‘real’ writing, that it exists solely in the company of lurid covers with shirtless guys on the front (hello, Mr. Rothfuss). If anything, good fantasy requires you to be a BETTER writer, I’d say–since your plot and milieu are unconventional, your writing has to be clear and informative in the extreme. Less room in fantasy for the styilistic jimjaws and purple prose pathos of mediocrity.

    • YES. Exactly. (My Name of the Wind has some cloaked guy stalking a gnarly old tree in monochromatic greyscale. I wonder who decided what book got abs and what didn’t). I didn’t even think about weak female characters. Don’t get me wrong. I love a strong lead female role. I can’t think of many. (Peter Watts wrote a scifi trilogy that started with Starfish, where a disturbed woman decided to get revenge on the whole of the Dystopian United States by spreading a plague through sex. I loved her.)
      I think the fantasy stigma is dying out a little, although there will always be people who either have a bad taste from being bad fantasy burned or simply have no interest.

      • I’d like to be at the publishing house for that printing decision. “All right, guys, we’re going with abs.” “But not everybody likes abs!” “Fine, fine. Fifty percent abs, fifty percent some shit that isn’t abs.”

        You’re right, it’s not as bad as it was even ten years ago, but it’s still there fo sho. If I had a nickel for every time I heard the phrase ‘oh, like Lord of the Rings/Harry Potter?’ I’d have a full change jar at least. No, not like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. Is your ‘literary fiction’ debut like Hemingway? Huh? You mean just because it’s supposed ‘literary’ fiction, it’s not like Hemingway? Imagine that.

        That said, I think the fantasy stigma’s getting a little better precisely because of people like Rothfuss and Grossman and Gaiman and even Joe Abercrombie, who’ve all done unique things with non-YA fantasy in absolutely solid prose. Hopefully it won’t be too long until I can tell old college classmates what I’m doing without receiving pitying smiles in return–until then, I’ll just suffer the smiles and tip them extra when I leave the restaurant.

        (Sorry, a bit bitter. But righteously bitter, I feel, because it is a problem.)

      • Every literary debut is like Faulkner, of course! (And I think abs are what publishing companies think the ladies want on the cover? Trying to appeal to everyone? I don’t get it.)

        Sorry your college classmates give you grief for what you love. Mine did too. I live in the Midwest, which means I’m essentially an island of fantasy writing. I’ll be an honorary college classmate, if you want. Nobody should have to walk this road in shame.

      • I’m a lady, and I’m not totally sure I get the abs either. Made my first impression of it waaay pulpy and harlequin romance-y, which is not at all what that book deserves.

        I totally think we need to start a ‘lone-fantasy-writer-in-the-horde-of-nineteen-year-olds-writing-the-next-great-American-novel’ fraternity. It seems like there’s one of us per university creative writing department. One.

        It’s funny, it totally WAS a shame thing when I was a kid. Honestly, nothing came closer to stopping my writing than taking writing classes in college. But, y’know–now that I’m a little older, I couldn’t be prouder. At least what I’m churning out isn’t the millionth Bukowskiesque poem about being drunk at three in the morning.

        I hope, when some poor kid eventually does write that, there are balloons and confetti, and possibly a door prize.

      • One. Exactly. In college when I told one of my professors I wrote fantasy, he actually choked on his water he was drinking and said, very very carefully, “I think you should, probably, not just write. That. Kind of stuff. Because. You’ve got ability. And. That stuff really. Well. It’s great. But it won’t pay, you know, bills.” I know, good sir. I know. I knew then.

        Grr. That kid will. Someday. IT MIGHT BE EITHER OF US.

  2. I am currently working on a fantasy novel and attempting to avoid the usual mistakes of the genre. Thanks for the perspective! This boosts my confidence about my non-conventional plot. I am so sick of the romance! And I understand why people demand more strong female protagonists, but I simply cannot see mine as a female.

    • Oh yeah! Write what (who) you’re comfortable with! If your Protag is a male? Go with it. I’m much more about strong characters, as a whole, than a specific gender bias. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. A lot of deep thought in here (apologies to Douglas Adams, who might just fit into both categories). It encourages me that I’m on the right track with my Dubious Magic series – I look forward to some feedback in the fullness of time. There is a danger when you ‘create your own reality’ that you can make up your own new rules every time you write yourself into a corner. That’s one of the things I love about Pratchett’s Discworld series. After finding his feet in the first couple, Sir Terry has put great store by being consistent and true to the ‘rules’ of his world.

    • I agree. Loosey-goosey rules kill otherwise good writing because it’s cheap and used as a tool instead of a guide. I also believe challenge is a great way to make the writing shine. I prefer unique rules and to work my way through them instead of using them to make the character stronger than most, or save the MC due to a technicality, or for shock value to the reader.

      I love his Discworld due to the fact that half of the rules are screaming against physics, science, etc, while the other half are twisting physics to a magical end. So much fun. And the characters have power. And he understands the importance of motivation: no single character (I can think of) is wholly evil or good.

      Gosh, I could talk about this forever. Thanks for stopping by! And good luck to your Dubious Magic series. 🙂

  4. Pingback: The Best Fantasy Books...? [Poll]

  5. This is a great post. Last night I was wondering what genre my current story falls into and now I know it’s Fantasy. Although I would say most of it is real-world based. There is little magic, and the magic there is is light. It’s more like being in tune with nature than anything else. But my story draws much inspiration from Slavic mythology.

    • You can have literary fiction (which is a genre) with magical elements, and it not fall under “fantasy.” It sounds like you write in the same vein I mostly write in: real world based magic that is an undercurrent to the story and not a focus. Your unique experiences with Slavic mythology sounds quite intriguing as well.

      Thanks for stopping by, and I’m glad I could help!

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