Why Is It So Hard to Write Good Fantasy?

I’m always looking for more fantasy fiction to read, to inspire my own work and, hopefully, to teach me how to do it better.

I’ve read hundreds of mystery novels of all kinds, and can count on my fingers the ones that have been truly awful. It’s not hard at all to find a good mystery. But with fantasy it’s the other way around.

Why should that be? There are authors who have made prodigious amounts of money writing fantasy that is at best half-baked. And there are lesser fantasy writers who produce stuff that’s hardly fit for the bottom of a bird cage.

Good fantasy fiction, obviously, will have things in common with quality fiction in any genre: an interesting plot; well-drawn characters who have some depth to them; situations that engage the reader’s emotions; a smooth flow of the language. But in fantasy–and in science fiction, too, by the way–books that lack those features are, well, plentiful.

In addition to those indispensable qualities mentioned above, what should a fantasy have that would make it a really good fantasy? I can’t write a monograph here on this blog, but quickly glancing at a few of the greats in the field:

C.S. Lewis, in his Chronicles of Narnia and in his science fiction trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength) had a vision–a deeply Christian vision–underlying all these stories: that is, they have something very important to say to the reader. As an artist, Lewis was able to deliver his message without clubbing the reader over the head with it. As one of the visitors to this site has observed, Lewis drew his readers in because he left so much unsaid. The reader finds himself building on what he has read–you can’t help it.

In The Lord of the Rings and other works, J.R.R. Tolkien, too, built his stories on a foundation of faith. The stories mean something. Nor did it hurt that he literally spent a lifetime exploring and charting his fantasy world. He believed in it, and that’s why millions of readers wound up believing in it.

E. R. Eddison wrote one great fantasy novel, The Worm Ourobouros. Its outstanding feature is a unique and creative writing style: no one but a fool would try to imitate it. He has a great story to tell, populated with interesting and multi-dimensional characters–but the thing that makes it work is his wild and crazy use of English. If you can get into his language, it’s like getting into Shakespeare’s language. If you can’t, the book probably won’t work for you.

I’m sure I’ll want to return to this topic more than once. This time I really want to receive feedback from my readers. What makes a fantasy speak to you? What in a fantasy turns you off? I really want to know!

7 comments on “Why Is It So Hard to Write Good Fantasy?

  1. I just read this post and haven’t commented before, but a fantasy holds my attention when populated with impossibles made possible, engages my sense of delight, and removes me completely from the daily grind. I know that’s general, and to flesh it out a bit more I will say that the book must end in triumph, evil must be put down and the heroes must grow through and because of everything the author engages them in doing. What I also find a “must” for my own reading and writing is a cast of characters, not just one or two, and they have to have just enough quirkiness to make them both touchable and someone I would want to be around in real life. Hope that helps a bit!

    1. Gee, that sounds just like a description of my books! (Unpardonably broad hint)
      Actually, it sounds like a description of everything that is not in “Game of Thrones.” I hate a long fantasy in which the bad guys always win. Too much like real life.

    2. Nothing wrong with a broad hint! I also have other things, but they’re so gut-level I’d have to sit down and study the “why” of them…a lot of reading pleasure is intuitive, and things either chime, or they don’t. Does the book make me light up, or snort derisively? It’s all from within, and everyone’s switches differ. People are complicated!

  2. “Lewis drew his readers in because he left so much unsaid.”

    I think this is a great observation. A writer of fantasy probably has a very complete picture of their imaginary world, but if they are too detailed in their explanation of that world they risk losing their audience before they finish with their explanation. Fantasy involves imagination and the reader’s imagination is every bit as important as the writer’s.

    1. That’s one of the most difficult lessons a write has to learn–when to shut up, and allow the reader’s imagination to kick in.

    2. My only analog is in writing musical arrangements, especially for solo guitar or small, 3-4 instrument, ensembles. Over the years, my arrangements have trended towards simplicity, and that’s for good reason. The skill is in communicating the most information with the fewest notes, or in the case of writing, the fewest words.

  3. I think one of the challenges of both fantasy and science fiction is the added dilemma of creating a fictional world, rather than relying on the one we all share.
    All stories walk a fine line, offering us familiar messages and patterns, carefully disguised to appear new on the surface, while simultaneously fitting in with what we already know. Too familiar and audiences can see and anticipate the pattern. Too alien and audiences feel like the story doesn’t make sense.
    Speculative fiction has to perform the same feat, and extend it to the setting.
    I think what often troubles me is when a fantasy or science fiction story forces the narrative for the sake of the setting. The author worked hard to make this complete world, and they insist on showing the audience everything, to the detriment of the story.
    I agree with Unknowable that what’s left unsaid is equally important. Whether it’s a written story or a visual/video one, the “camera” can only look in one direction at a time, and the act of “looking” necessitates turning your back on something else.

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