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.

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.