I read a lot of unpublished fantasy novels. People send them to me, hoping I can help. Most of the time, I can’t.
Believe it or not, most unreadable fantasies are bad because they’re unoriginal. That’s not something any editor can fix, so it’s best not to write an unoriginal novel in the first place.
(Yes, I know there are terrible, unoriginal fantasies that do get published. If you wish to imitate them, be my guest.)
It’s not easy to come up with something new and fresh and different. But you can start by avoiding stuff that’s already been done to death by everybody else–stock characters (like the incredibly clever thief, his brawny barbarian sidekick, and the invincible warrior woman) and stock situations in particular.
In fact, this is very difficult. Almost anything in imaginative fiction has already been imagined, and written about, by someone else.
Which brings us back to characters.
What makes 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea a classic and a favorite? The character of Captain Nemo! What makes The Chronicles of Narnia a continual delight? A whole cast of characters who are fun to read about, and so convincingly drawn by C.S Lewis that they can carry the most outlandish story without dropping it.
If your characters are right, the whole story will be right. Usually.
But we’re writing fantasy, and so everything has to be different from the reader’s everyday world. The kind of fantasy I like offers a fun mix of characters–some are like people you already know; some will be beyond your personal experience, like kings or cardinals, but still similar to persons you’ve heard of; and some are just way out there.
That’s what I’ve tried to do in my Bell Mountain books. The protagonists, Jack and Ellayne, are like a lot of kids you used to know. Villains, like Lord Reesh and Merffin Mord, will remind you of individuals you’ve seen in the news or read about in history. And then there are a few–Wytt the Omah, Helki the Rod (truly a wild man), or Ysbott the Snake–who are just plain off the scale.
Why do I do this? Two reasons.
It’s fun to write and fun to read.
Also, the down-to-earth characters anchor the reader in the story and help him to believe, while the weird characters give the story wings.
I could also talk about fantasy settings and other items in my tool kit; but again, it’s only a blog post, not a seminar–and I can always come back to it later, if you’re interested.