Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Your Fantasy Novel Probably Sucks, and Professor Awesome's University Explains Why

I love fantasy. However, as any genre fan can attest, there are a lot of shitty fantasy books out there. In fact, sometimes it might seem like for every one great fantasy novel, there's a dozen that should never have seen the light of day. The sort of dross you find in the bargain bin tucked under the card table at your weird neighbor's garage sale. And while we all love our own books, and think our ideas are special little rainbows, it seems like we forget the number one rule of good fantasy stories.

No one cares about the world. We're here for the protagonists.

And so are your villains, coincidentally enough.
Professor Awesome's University touched on this in the post Why Your Fantasy Novel Sucks, and I agree with the postmortem report. Nine times out of ten, the chief reason a fantasy novel sucks is because all of the author's attention went to the world, and little to none of it went to the story being told.

You Are Not Tolkien (And You Shouldn't Try To Be)

Tolkien, for better or worse, is held up as the architect of high fantasy as we know it. The Hobbit, the subsequent tales of The Lord of The Rings, and the overly complex history text The Silmarillion, makes up a huge chunk of the genre's modern foundation. Not only that, but Tolkien's work has been hugely influential on roleplaying games, and it's the reason we have Stephen King's Dark Tower, among other tales.

I'm glad for all the things he's influenced. I didn't hear about Tolkien until I was an adult, though.

J.R.R. who?
My introduction to fantasy came from older, stranger tales. I discovered Conan when I was very young, and once I'd devoured the sagas of Hyborea, I moved onto other classic characters. Kull, Solomon Kane, Tarzan, and the other heavyweights of the Weird Tales era. Because of that introduction, my fantasy stories (and really all the fiction I write) tends to be very character-focused. We settle on our protagonist's shoulder, and while they're hacking, slashing, or spellcasting their way through the plot, we are getting invested in them and their struggles.

Just check out my fantasy novel Crier's Knife, and you'll see what I mean.

Professor Awesome's University points out that, for many people whose introduction to fantasy was Tolkien's epic, world-building and linguistic exercise that grudgingly told a story, that is often not the case. They focus almost entirely on the world, and its history, and the vast gulfs of what came before our tale begins. Which is fine, however, we're not reading a history manual about the centuries past; we're here for you to tell us about what's going on now.

What most people forget (or think is simply trivial) was that Tolkien was a scholar first and foremost. He built a massive setting, with a huge history, and filled his work with languages, songs, and poems, not because that makes for good fantasy, but because that was his field of expertise. He'd spent decades learning, and then teaching, about these subjects. Those were the skills he mastered, and they are what made his complex world work. It was what allowed him to create a whole new breed of fantasy.

Chances are you ain't Tolkien, though.

By all means, build a vast, complex world. Create languages, and races, and thousands of years of conflict. Drop some sick verse into your world, and have a sing-a-long in chapter 33. But before you try to tell anyone about your book, ask yourself these two questions.

- Who is my protagonist?
- What are they doing that will get the reader's attention?

Fantasy worlds are a dime a dozen, and ones with longbow-wielding elves, and dwarves who speak with a brogue are five for a penny. Worlds are the canvas you're painting on. They're the background on your stage. It's the play that people are here to watch, though, so don't spend so much time getting the scenery perfect. You can work on that once you know what the show is.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing post. If you'd like to stay up to date on all my posts, simply follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter to stay plugged-in. Lastly, if you want to support me and my work so I can keep bringing posts like this right to your door, go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! All it takes is $1 a month to buy my everlasting gratitude, as well as some sweet, sweet swag.


  1. Please correct this sentence: "Nine times out of ten, the chief reason a fantasy novel sucks is because all of the author's attention when to the world, and little to none of it went to the story being told."

  2. This gave me some great perspective. Thanks for writing.

  3. Sorry, but personally I think fantasy sucks. Every fantasy story iinvolves the same damn evles, orcs, and so on and so forth. It's almost like fantasy writers are trying to out do each other with the level of life draining involvement you're required to get sucked into just to understand the story. The stories are so overly complex you have no energy left for your real life...and maybe that's why it seems that the bigger fan you are of fantasy less of a real life you have. You know the stereotype, the nerd who sits and argues for hours on end which is stronger superman or an orch, lol

  4.'s like fantasy absolutely 100% requires swords, epic wars, wizards, and everything must be a cliche of every other fantasy book ever written. If you're not a fan of war...or maybe not that interested in swords...or whatever then ALL of the fantasy genre is out because it ALL has EXACTLY the same tropes. Every fantasy writer is trying so hard to be J.R.R. Tolken that they actually believe his books to be the ONLY thing the genre is. If I found a fantasy novel that wan't some nine million page 75 book long series about an epic never ending war fought with swords or perhaps a dragon that would be awesome, but there doesn't seem to be any out there. When I hear the word fantasy am I the only one who thinks J.R.R. Tolken fan fiction?

    1. First, if you feel that way about every book in an entire genre, then you clearly haven't read very widely within it. Given that about half of Stephen King's work belongs in the fantasy aisle, and that the "medieval" fantasy you're describing is only one flavor of the genre, I'd recommend branching out.

      Second, if you feel the need to strongly condemn an entire genre so badly that you leave two paragraphs in the comment section of a mostly unknown blog, then you clearly care much more about your opinion than anyone else does. The point of posts like this is to help people become better writers through constructive criticism, which is not a term that can be applied to your rambling statements above.