How Not to Write a Fantasy

I don’t like to rip an author who has died recently and can’t defend himself; who was extremely popular and successful; and who, in the book I just read, was trying to create something positive and wholesome, even if he didn’t pull it off.

So I’m going to write a review without mentioning the author’s name or the title of his book. Why do such an odd thing? Because the book has lessons to teach anyone who wants to write a fantasy.

The biggest of those lessons is this: Don’t waste good ideas.

The story is a fantasy set in Victorian England. That’s a good idea; makes a nice change from the usual medieval stuff. The hero, unbeknownst to the other characters in the book, is immortal. In fact, he comes out of a legend that they’d all recognize. That’s another idea with a lot of potential.

The hero communicates telepathically with his dog, who is also immortal. The author could have done a lot with that. Instead, the hero and his dog mostly exchange sappy small talk that accomplishes nothing but to add pages to the book. Lots of pages.

There’s nothing in the story that makes it uniquely Victorian. We could just as easily be in New Jersey in 2013. There’s no Victorian feel to the story.

There is no reason for the hero to be immortal. He doesn’t do anything that a mortal hero couldn’t do. He’s been wandering around as in immortal for a couple hundred years, but we are told nothing of his adventures or experiences during that time.

Lesson Two: Please do try to make sense!

Just because your story is a fantasy doesn’t mean it can be incoherent. A lot of the stuff in this book happens for no apparent reason. A boy and his dog are made immortal–by a talking angel–and instructed to walk the earth and “do good.” Wherever they are, the angel warns, they must move on as soon as they hear a bell, any bell, toll once. How come? I dunno. And I don’t know about you, but being sentenced to an eternity of perpetual wandering seems like a heavy burden to me. What did the boy and the dog do to deserve this? Nothing, actually. Maybe the angel was just in a bad mood.

Lesson Three: It’s really hard to believe a story in which everyone is either 100% good or else totally mean and rotten. Worse, all the nice characters are really smart, but all the bad characters are abysmally stupid and incompetent. It’s hard to imagine how these villains could find their way out of bed in the morning, much less pose a threat to anyone.

This book was written for young readers, 12 years old or so. Unless an author has a warped desire to write to idiots, I think it’s always better to write up to children than to write down to them. Just because your readers are young doesn’t mean they’re unintelligent. Show them some respect. Give them credit for being able to understand that bad people sometimes look like good people, until you get to know them better, and that wicked schemes are dangerous precisely because they aren’t clearly labeled “wicked schemes.”

Give pre-teens credit for some smarts.

6 comments on “How Not to Write a Fantasy

  1. Yeah, I know who you’re talking about, and he does get a bit stereotypical with his characters–generally I’d find that very annoying, but there’s something about the author I like. I have read the book and question, and you definitely have some very good points. But I also think that what you just described is not all there is to the author, and it’s not a hideous idea to check out at least one of his books, in general.

    1. Well, I did read one of his other books, and he kept interrupting the story to write about what the characters were eating. It made me wonder if he was on some kind of killer diet and couldn’t stop thinking about food.

  2. One things I dislike in a novel are unrealistic characters. As much as I liked the works of Jules Verne, his characters tended to the be predictable and monolithic, although I must admit that Captain Nemo proved to be a bit more interesting than most. But Verne seemed to reuse certain characters such as the incredibly noble professor whom brimmed with knowledge and understanding or the sincere student chosen to assist the professor and did so with an unrealistic degree of devotion.

  3. I haven’t read this author, but I surely enjoyed your article. 🙂 🙂 “Write up to children, not down to them.” There’s a quote for the day!!

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