Oh, fantasy? I meant a real genre.

“They can keep their heaven.  When I die, I want to go to Middle-earth.”

George R. R. Martin

“Many readers, many critics, and most editors speak of style

as if it were an ingredient of a book, like the sugar in a cake,

or something added onto the book, like the frosting on the cake.

The style, of course, is the book. If you remove the cake, all you have left is a recipe.

If you remove the style, all you have left is a synopsis of the plot.

“This is partly true of history; largely true of fiction; and absolutely true of fantasy.”

Ursula K. LeGuin

Fantasy Wallpaper: Steampunk Landscape

     More common even than the atrocious, “I’m writing a book!” seems today to be the follow-up statement “It’s a fantasy epic!”

     Let me start (or amend my opening, leastways) by saying this:  I love fantasy.  I love writing fantasy, I love reading (good) fantasy, I love finding fantasy movies and watching them.  Even when they’re bad, they’re still fun to watch.  I began in fantasy, and it’s all I initially wanted to write.  Or perhaps I should admit something and identify the problem with the fantasy genre at the same time: All I wanted to write was The Lord of the Rings.

     Who wouldn’t?  The Lord of the Rings is easily the greatest fantasy epic of all time.  Sorry, Robert Jordan.  For years, I tried so hard to make a carbon copy of “LOTR” that I could call my own – meaning I wanted to sincerely believe it was original, but have people compare it to LOTR in an admirable way.  That would have been the greatest compliment anyone could give my work: “It’s the next Lord of the Rings…”  From age 10 to about 12 and a half, I bumbled around and flipped through different worlds and ideas and plots and characters.  Nothing was good enough, nothing was epic enough that wasn’t exactly like The Lord of the Rings.

     Somewhere around this time, I read Eragon, the first book in the Inheritance trilogy (actually it’s apparently a tetralogy now – I wouldn’t know, I stopped after the second book, Eldest).  Eragon was, altogether, a pretty bad book.  It had either directly stolen from other popular fantasy works or changed the ideas enough to avoid a full plagiarism claim.  And ultimately, there was a lot – I mean, a lot – of poor writing in the first two books.  I had more writing friends back then, particularly fantasy writers, and they would all get upset at the very mention of the book.  But for all of the negativity and hate it inspired, I had to give author Christopher Paolini credit on one count: it was pretty entertaining to read.  And I don’t mean that in a bad way, as in fun to read what an idiot this author is.  No, I mean I was sincerely very engaged by it as a 13-year old boy.  I was a huge fan.  I role-played it, I imagined scenarios where I was Eragon (or Murtagh more frequently), and I usually turned evil and dominated the world.  I was a weird kid.

     Anyway, so I read Eragon and I tried to write something like it.  What eventually came out was my first novel.  I believe it was just over 95,000 words, but I cannot for the life of me remember what it was called.  It was basically a cross between Eragon and The Lord of the Rings.  I honestly can’t remember what it was called.  Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately, depending on how you look at it – I lost the manuscript about a year later when my computer died.  I was 14 when I wrote it.

     Returning to the point of this blog post, the problem with fantasy writers is not that there are so many of them, it’s that they all write the same stuff.  We, I should say, as I still consider myself an avid fan of fantasy, if not necessarily a writer of it.  We always write huge epic stories that look exactly like every other fantasy on the shelves.  The only authors who really get noticed are the ones who have 35 books under their name.  It’s sheer saturation of the market.  I’m not even kidding, look at what’s out there.  Fantasy writers don’t have lots of books because they write great stories and their publishers wanted more, they have lots of books because they wrote lots of stories.  Obviously, it’s the same way with a lot of mass market writers as well.

     Let me be clear: I’m not saying these aren’t great writers.  I’m saying, dear heavens, look at how many books it takes to get noticed in the fantasy genre!  (There’s actually another blog post in the works about fantasy writers playing in their created sandboxes, so stick around!)  Everyone knows that everyone and their grandmother has “I’m writing a novel!” as a springloaded response just waiting on someone to make the mistake of asking “What else do you do?”  And five times out of ten, it seems that novel is a fantasy epic.

     What’s to be done?

     It’s not that complicated, really, and yet… it kind of is.  Stop writing fantasy epics.  Let me repeat-

     Stop.  Writing.  Fantasy.  Epics.

     But, Professor Traven (self-attributed titles FTW!), I just can’t not write fantasy!  Dear writer, I never said you should.  There are four words in the above paragraph.  One can be replaced with “Start.”  Two can remain as they are.  And one should be removed.  If you hadn’t guessed it, the answer to the solution to the question I made you ask is this:  Start writing fantasy.  Just.  Fantasy.

     I should be clear, yet again: this is only one solution.  The other is to write so well and so prolifically and engagingly that readers can’t help but worship you, and beg you to take their money (as if it’s so hard to get a writer to take money).  But for those of us who want to try a different route, it starts by leaving off the “epic.”  By focusing on the simple, real nature of people and places and things that happen and things they do.  I want to read a story about a farmer who has to take this year’s crop across a semi-arid desert inhabited by outlaws and some wild fantasy race to the grain market on the other side.  I want this story to begin with a farmer and to end with a farmer, not a prince, not a wizard, not “the chosen one.”  I don’t want to read about a prophecy, I don’t want to read about a dark lord whom the farmer alone can stop from conquering the world.

     The following is an example outline for a fantasy story I would like to read.  It’s slightly long, and you can skip it if you’d like, but it’s somewhat integral to what I’m talking about in this blog post.  Besides, I just came up with this off the top of my head and I think it’s not half bad!

     I just want to read about a farmer who has a goal (sell crop) and an obstacle (desert), who takes an action (crosses semi-arid, incredibly dangerous desert) to achieve an outcome (bring home money to build a house for his family).  Who encounters challenges (members of his caravan are captured by outlaws), and must respond (he goes after them).  Who meets reversals (after crossing the desert tattered and scathed, his caravan finds the city they’re going to has been occupied by an opposing nation), and solves them in an unlikely way (the caravan ambushes a caravan from the enemy nation and disguises themselves as the enemy), but which leads to another reversal (they are found out and imprisoned and their crop is taken to a guard post outside the city).  They rise to the challenge (trick the guards and take their uniforms) and set out to regain what’s theirs.  They come to the guard post and disguised as the enemy guards, they are let in.  The fight begins, but the farmers are inexperienced.  With all their success, they began to think themselves invincible.  The tables are turned and they find themselves holed up in the top of the beacon tower.  There, they unwittingly signal a friendly patrol who seize the opportunity and take the outpost.  The farmer is thanked for his service and invited to stay and help retake the city.  The caravan members have had about as much fighting as they can take.  But they need to sell their crop in the city, so they agree to help.  In the end, they are sent in once again disguised as enemy guards, and overcoming difficulties that ensue, they open the city for the friendly army to retake.  The farmer and his friends sell their crops, but can’t get the price they need.  As they prepare to head home with insufficient funds to provide for their families for another year, the Prince arrives and announces his intention to make their hometown a charter city of his nation – he sends them home with funds to begin the growth of their city, and soldiers to protect them on their way.

     See?  Fights and strange creatures (in the desert) and princes and farmers and outlaws and beacon towers and city sieges.  It’s fantasy alright, but it’s not The Lord of the Crowns, if you catch my drift.  If you want to know what makes for interesting fantasy, think about a story that would be interesting in any other genre.  And then set it in your fantasy world.  Throw in as many obscure world-building references as you can possibly think of.  Give the enemy army some dragons.  Add wizards and priests and kings.  But remember that the key to success in the fantasy genre is the same as success in any other genre.  It must be a solid story, have engaging characters who do something and have a satisfying outcome.

     What about you?  Do you agree?  Why or why not?  What are your favorite non-epic fantasy novels?  Who is your favorite fantasy author, aside from J. R. R. Tolkien obviously?  (If you don’t like Tolkien, then get off my blog.)


10 thoughts on “Oh, fantasy? I meant a real genre.

  1. Hey,

    Good post, although I think it’s a little pessimistic. True enough when people try too hard to write something epic it falls short, but that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t completely try to stop thriving to reach that point.

    /begin shameless self-promotion
    I actually just posted a blog post on this very subject tonight. http://www.hamfacepublishing.com/2011/the-makings-of-a-great-fantasy-novel
    Although it’s more about developing a world we can be immersed in where an epic fantasy could possibly spawn, not necessarily steps to reach that point.
    /end shameless self-promotion

    I agree that one should just focus on the story itself and the experience the reader will go through reading the story, than trying to create a masterpiece. That will come naturally with natural, or trained, talent. But we shouldn’t give up hope to be the next Tolkien or Eddings. Otherwise, we’ll all just strive to be mediocre writers, writing mediocre stories for a mediocre crowd. And then what will we have? Novelized Readers Digest novels.


  2. I almost burst out laughing at the last line. Thankfully, I like Tolkien. Especially, how he handled “allegory vs. applicability.” But that is a different topic so we shan’t go there right now.

    Anyway, completely agree on this wonderful post. There’s nothing inherently wrong with fantasy epics, but there’s SO many of them! And everyone’s doing them! And everyone that’s doing them shares a lot of similar elements/cliches/genre conventions!

    I’m very encouraged to find a writer that thinks similarly, as I don’t think either of my current fantasy novels count as epics. With one of them, one of my goals during revisions is to make sure it doesn’t become epic as stays a little more “local.” Even though the MC kind of makes a… disturbance… that’s fairly far-reaching, he never “saves the world.” And I like that. The other fantasy novel is about 3 princes at war over 2 thrones, but it has a very historical feel, so hopefully it isn’t too epic.

  3. The points and mentality you have pointed out in this blog post are exactly the ones that have strangled every fantasy novel I have ever tried to write (like all my absolutes there?). I would always feel this semi-conscious need to write something epic. A world with such a massive backstory and history that it could rival Middle Earth.

    But I think you’re right for the most part. Fantasy writers need to break the cliches and focus on writing real, natural characters whose power to captivate comes not from their position or ‘destiny’, but rather from their deep emotional core and realness.

    With that being said, it may still be possible to write an epic fantasy novel -but I think the focus has to be on character and originality. I’m not interested in trying to write this kind of novel for awhile – but I’m intrigued by the idea of writing a fantasy novel like you’re talking about.

    • (Just realized I can reply to comments individually…)

      I think it’s in a fantasy writer’s blood to want their story to rival Tolkien’s in epicality (new word!). Backstory, or “world building,” is one of the most fun aspects of writing fantasy for most authors (I love it and hate it at the same time), and if you have this massive, awesome world to play in, of course you want to tell an awesome, massive story!

      Who wants to tell a story about a farmer who has to take his crop to the market… IN MIDDLE-EARTH??? I don’t want to write that, I want to write about “Nine-fingered Frodo and the Ring!” I want to write about Gondor, and the wizard Saruman, and the dark lord Sauron, and the Nazgul and trolls and Uruk-hai and the Watcher, and the Dead Men of Dunharrow.

      (Yes, I like all the bad guys most.)

      But at the same time, I think focusing in on a “normal” story can make it more emotionally satisfying, both as a writer and a reader. At the very least, it’s more manageable during the rewrite process!


  4. @Hamface, thanks for reading! To clarify: I entirely agree with you that if one wants to write an epic, they should write it. But I have sincerely given up trying to be Tolkien (or anyone else). I want to be the next Michael Traven. I know that’s not really much different from what you’re saying, but I think it’s an important thought shift. When I try to be the next Tolkien, I wind up being a way-less-cool version of the last Tolkien.

    But when I focus on my writing as the writing of Michael Traven, and I try to identify what makes MY fantasy stories unique, they become much more.

    This thought shift came for me when I realized I wanted to approach fantasy with a Cormac McCarthy-style grit. Not that I wanted to be McCarthy, but I realized after reading The Road that you don’t need an epic plot line and 5 billion characters to tell an engaging story.

    And as I was still writing fantasy at the time (alas, fantasy is on the backburner for now, while I work on other writings – another post on that later), it only made sense that I find a way to tell a “small” story in this huge fantasy setting.

    By the way, great post over at http://www.hamfacepublishing.com! I look forward to more like it.


  5. @Rick, does the title “Steampunk Farmer” work for you?

    @Aubrey, I find myself wondering how soon I can read these two intriguing fantasy stories of yours… (as a side-note, anything involving princes or clans and you can count me in – unless it involves rings of power and you’re not Tolkien.)

    • Haha, “Steampunk Farmer” sounds a little hokey (maybe they’d call it something else?)…but I still like the idea. In a way, that would also be breaking a common mold–that is, everyone writes steampunk stories about airships. I bet there’s all sorts of cool, unexplored territory in steampunk farming.

  6. Oh, I agree! The farmer story would be delightful in steampunk! (I happen to love steampunk…)

    Well, when both of those fantasy novels are finished, I’m going to need test-readers… Nope, no rings of power, promise. Actually the one with a bunch of princes has no magic at all. It has a very political slant with all the power wars, vassal agreements, and such the like. (That’s the “Vassal restores his own overlord” novel.)

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