A Field Guide to Good Fantasy Writing

Edmund Dulac, "Scheherazade," 1907

Edmund Dulac, “Scheherazade,” 1907

I read a lot of fantasy books.  I read the teen fiction about girls who become knights, the early 20th century English novels about otherworldly magic, the newest Neil Gaiman book, the Tolkien knock-offs, the fantasy so great and strange they label it “speculative fiction” so that upstanding non-nerd citizens will buy it.  I don’t read fantasy to the extent that I hand-sew Harry Potter cloaks and learn Elvish, but there is something fundamental about good fantasy writing that is important to me.  It makes me better, freer, and maybe stranger.

But not all fantasy books are Good Fantasy.  Some of them are just trashy romances with the trappings of fantasy clumsily pasted on.  Some of them are basically several-thousand-page games of Dungeons and Dragons.  Some of them are cheap, forgettable, dumb, and unoriginal, but hey, that’s the risk you take every time you open a book.

This blog is a Quest for great books.  Or at least a meandering hike through the literary countryside, peering through dirty binoculars and hoping to see something magical.  This first post is here to remind me what I’m looking for, and what good fantasy might look like in its native habitat.  Here’s my incomplete, uncertain list of what good fantasy is, and how we might spot it in the wild:

  1. Good fantasy has to have meaning.  It can’t just be a charming story about a young farmer boy who discovers his secret destiny to save the world, where the world is defined as a fantastical version of northern Europe.  There has to be some kernel at the heart of things that is true, because that’s the marvelous secret of fantasy writing: it can tell us things about reality that realism simply can’t.  It can tell us the secret things, the wild, mysterious, wonderful, terrible things that lie just beneath the dull surface.  Good fantasy makes us all realize that the reality we know is “a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger.”
  2. Good fantasy pays attention to race, class, gender, and hierarchy.  Maybe the book is set in some charming Narnia, where everybody is ruled by wise white child-kings, and happy little Beavers roam around and give you fucking advice on manners, and the author thinks he’s exempt from the politics of writing.  False.  The Pevensies’ oh-so-innocent venture through the wardrobe is a weird hyper-British dream of a perfect empire, populated by willing subjects and ruled by good Christian kids.  You have to deal with the politics of inventing a world and a story, and there are always politics.  Does the book have human or quasi-human characters?  Do they have genders and races?  Is there a currency system , and a working class?  Then there are politics to the way it’s written.
  3. Good fantasy has to be well-built, and well-researched.  Creating a new world, and giving it a history, culture, religion, and character of its own, is not easy.  You can’t just cram all your favorite bits of history into a box, give it a good shake, and pour out the pieces into a new planet.  That’s how you end up with medieval knights who worship pagan gods and preach 20th century American democratic values at their nearest handy-dandy Inn or Tavern.  (If I see another one of those dudes, Isweartogod, I will lead a violent revolution and found a totalitarian state that mandates good historical education for everyone).  To build a truly great world, you need complexity, intention, depth, and a sense of reality.  You might also need an anthropological understanding of how and why cultures change over time, enough literature background to make nimble analogies and references rather than clunky ones, and enough solid political theory about revolutions to know how they work (Suzanne Collins, I am talking to you).
  4. Good fantasy is original.  Robert Jordan.  Christopher Paolini.  Middle Earth is a wild, complex, beautifully mysterious world built on Norse mythology and cool languages.  Unfortunately, that world has already been taken, please find your own.  An orc by any other name, and all that.  I’m a little more forgiving with unoriginal character roles, because part of the deep-seated appeal of fantasy writing is its ability to pull on ancient archetypes (the wise man, the hero, the trickster, the thief, the old blind beggar who asks you for change and then magically transforms into a powerful wizard or something, and who was just disguised to test your purity of heart). 
  5. Good fantasy is also just magical somehow, god I don’t know.  Apparently this list is falling apart.  I mean that good fantasy still leaves you with the sense of wonder and mystery and something to believe in.  It’s that new feeling when you close the book, the sense of an extra place in your mind, overgrown with thorns and strange trees.  It’s the sense of otherness, of “wandering on paths that other men have not seen.  Behind the sky.  On the other side of the rain.”

So this is a blog about the books I love, and why I love them.  It might also be a blog about the nature of writing, history, science fiction, my dog, or 19th century children’s illustrators.  My brain is not a neatly categorized Barnes and Noble bookshelf; it’s more like one of those used books stores that has molding stacks of paperbacks, a couple of parakeets, and three or four different organization systems that don’t work.  There will be missing items, nonsense categories, and some mediocre writing.

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5 comments

    1. I might…have read them all twice. And walked around the house in my pajamas complaining about the nature of imperial power structures and the over-simplification of young adult novels, and then sat down to read some more.

  1. I’d say that fantasy is perfectly capable of telling wonderful stories while staying immersed in the cliched trappings of fantasy. Originality is admirable, but sometimes it’s the execution that makes a story worthwhile, not the idea. And sometimes original ideas are contained within the the cliche, or the cliches are deconstructed in such a way as to make them feel original. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “A Song of Ice and Fire” would be good examples.

    I’m also not convinced that good fantasy has to pay attention to race, class, gender, and hierarchy. These are things that certainly provide a fantasy novel with a sense of depth and reality, but surely whether or not this is important has to do with the intent and tone of the story.

    Loved this first post and your thoughts. While I think fantasy is capable of being varied enough that trying to nail down a list of what makes fantasy “good” is kind of like trying to carry water with a sieve, you definitely nailed some of the key elements of what makes many remarkable fantasy novels stand out. I can’t wait to read more of your thoughts.

    1. I know, right? Every list like this is doomed to be strangled by its own hypocrisies later on, but they’re still awfully fun to write…

      I can totally grant that my originality clause is too strict, and that some people do beautiful things with very familiar worlds/characters/ideas. But I do think good fantasy–actually, just good fiction in general–has to deal with the race-gender-class-power thing. It doesn’t have to be all-consuming, or the main point, but I think just by dealing with human characters you’re delving into our morass of complicated histories and ideas about race-class-gender. And you can either do that with intention and awareness, or totally thoughtlessly. George R. R. Martin, by the way, has some really interesting and thought-provoking and layered ways of talking about all those issues. But more on that (hopefully) later. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

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