Why Your Fantasy Novel Sucks

There are some phrases you never want to hear. As a publisher and editor, one phrase in particular is a harbinger of doom:

I’m writing a fantasy novel — well, a trilogy, really.

I heard some variation on this theme every week or so, and over time I have developed certain methods allowing the victims of would-be fantasy writers to survive. First, it is important for the victim to accept that loss of the next 20 – 45 minutes of life. Second, the victim should prepare to hear a very long pseudo-history, and perhaps a treatise on pseudo-languages too. And third, if the victim is unable to avoid being force-fed a manuscript, never tell the assailant the truth: Your fantasy novel sucks.

“But wait!” you object. “How can you know it sucks if you haven’t even read it yet?” Well, my friends, as it turns out, I have read your novel. I read it the last thousand times someone else shoved it into my face, with slightly different (yet equally flat) characters and a very slightly different (yet equally thin) plot. It sucked then, and it sucks now.

Books can suck for many reasons, and everyone is (or should be) aware of the usual culprits: The author isn’t well-read, the story is gimmicky, the characters are unbelievable, the plot is poorly constructed, the prose tells rather than shows, etc. Any attempt at writing a book can go wrong, and every professional writer has a few books are articles that they look back on as personally embarrassing. But fantasy novels tend to suck in very specific ways not common to other kinds of books.

The problem is the example of Tolkien. He created his artificial languages, and built around them an artificial world, complete with geography, history, and all the trimmings. And so would-be writers of fantasy novels understandably try to follow his example. They begin like latter-day Inklings, as world builders, cosmic creators, attempting to develop rich settings for their tales.

The problem is, you are not Tolkien. That isn’t to say that you might not have his talent (you probably don’t, but you might). Nor that you can’t have a better writing process than Tolkien — his writing process was famously slow and clunky, and his response to any criticism was to begin rewriting from the very beginning. No, you are not Tolkien in that you simply don’t have the world-building chops he had. Tolkien had become one of the most important medieval scholars in the world by the time he was in his early 30s, so this was a guy who knew all about the world he was building.  He hadn’t just read the classics of medieval literature — he had translated and taught them at Oxford for years before he really started working on his own stories … and they truly were his stories, because he had spent his professional life dwelling in them.  You can have Tolkien’s backwards writing process only if you are Tolkien. The rest of us need to put story first.

When someone tells me they are writing a trilogy, I’ll sometimes ask, “Oh, you have three stories?” And they never do. If I ask them some detail about the history, geography, or languages of their world, they always launch into a long treatise on the subject, but if I ask them questions about their protagonist, or some detail about the plot, they never have much to say. “Well, I’m still working on that,” or “I want to see where the story takes me,” or “I want to get this history right first.”

Would-be writers of fantasy novels see the example of Tolkien and imagine writing a book is a lot like playing “The Sims” — you just build a world, drop some people in it, and see what happens. That just doesn’t work. You might object, “But some authors don’t know how their plot will end!” That’s true, but such authors create rich characters first. You can have a plot-driven story or you can have a character-driven story, but you can’t have a world-driven story. Look at fantasy authors who aren’t Tolkien, and one thing you’ll notice is that maps tend to be drawn by fans, or retconned after the fact. First, comes the story, then they map the world around the story.

OK, so what do you do if you’ve just realized that your nascent fantasy novel sucks? That you really don’t have any kind of story or characters at all? Well, if you’ve really got nothing, just start by drafting out a compelling story (ignoring who’s an elf, or what languages they speak, etc), and then once the story or characters are interesting, map your world out over it. But the truth is, you might already have the seeds of a story in your novel. You know that little throw-away you have about how the kingdom was divided 600 years ago in a clash between two brothers, and the priestess of whatever fake god you’ve imagined prophesied the coming of a hero to reunite the kingdom? Instead of dropping your clichéd prophesied hero into your fantasy world, write the story about the two brothers. THAT story has potential, and if you really want to, after you are done you can end it with the prophecy and follow with a second story about your hero — but this time instead of just some stupid “Uh, I guess he fights orcs or something until he slays the big bad guy with a magical sword” plot, you can have his quest undo what had previously been done by his progenitors, healing his family as well as his kingdom. And this is the kind of thing you could write the heck out of, because you’ve never been the subject of a kingdom-healing prophecy, but you have experienced sibling rivalry, have seen family conflicts spiral out of control, and have turned to your faith to heal the rifts in your relationships. Those are your stories.

To unsuck your fantasy novel, search through all your world-building notes for the seeds of compelling characters and plots. Write about them first, and be willing to completely remake the world to fit your new focus. No one wants you to be Tolkien — Tolkien already did that better than you could ever do. Instead, do something Tolkien could never do — tell your own story.

19 thoughts on “Why Your Fantasy Novel Sucks”

  1. Thank you, Professor Awesome.
    I truly enjoyed reading this.
    Last year I set a novel down that I had been working on for quite a few months. I repeatedly kept going through, re-reading it, and then essentially rewriting it, changing every detail. It simply became too overwhelming, yet my OCD and anxiety wouldn’t let me NOT make sure it was perfection. So I just stopped writing.

    Upon reading this article, I’ve decided to re-open the Cave of Wonders inside my brain… to go back to the beginning with simplicity. Focusing on the characters, their stories, their personalities, the plot and the total concept behind it, rather than the details of the setting.

    I will also practice what Mr. Stephen King has said a time or two, and not read my works until I’ve written out the story line from beginning to end. That way, I can go back and tweak an already “finished” story, rather than continuously being melted into the cavern between chapter 4 and 5 as I rewrite 1, 2 and 3.

    Anyway… thank you. I enjoy your sense of humor and honesty about the truth behind writing… and those who attempt it.

    ~Joon

  2. Writing fantasy is difficult, it is an art form. None of us are like Tolkien. Though I’ve modeled my style after his, I can’t create languages like him.

    So instead, I’m starting with CHARACTERS and building the world around them and different concepts.

  3. Yeah…i just disagree when you say say you can’t have a world driven story… in game of thrones, by making all characters “disposable” and actually often killing the potential hero, the world is the focus all the time…but that is my opinion…

  4. Nice post, but I would argue that if you have the chops to write well, you have the chops to world build. Poor ability comes in clusters, and the reason why these forlorn fantasy writers come up with such abject story lines is because they don’t have skill in general. Note that skill doesn’t equate to talent. Skill comes from reading and writing. It seems to me that pinning the blame for a bad story on one single scapegoat misses the point of improving your craft, which is to focus on a holistic rather than a reductionist approach to changing your focus and your ability. If people get too scared of world-building, they’ll overshoot, and leave us in a blank slate kind of universe where we can’t tell what’s going on because there isn’t enough context. Everything should be in balance. Holistic, not reductionist.

    But that’s just my opinion. I don’t know much about bad writing, because I haven’t read much of it, and so I can’t say with certainty that I’m right. Nevertheless, I will stand by my point that making people scared of world building isn’t the solution to fixing bad writing. It’s fixing bad writing that’s the solution to fixing bad writing.

  5. It seems like a good test is to write out your future blurb/query letter, because very little world-building gets to go in those. If you can’t write a half-decent two paragraph summary, your story probably needs more work.

  6. Yes that’s all great and everything but it’s not all true. I’ve got 6 completed books, all my characters (I won’t say awesome cuz I’m not that stupid) but they are at least not dull or flat. Each book has purpose and drive and I already have the series plotted, who is gonna get the axe, who is going to betray, blah blah. There are not many ‘I’m working on that’. Most of the problem is if you don’t know someone in the business you are SOL. I’ve read plenty of published works that are better used as TP and the only reason they got published was because they knew someone or it had a lot of sex in it. Publishers don’t want you unless you have an agent, the agent dosent want you unless you have some published works under your belt…. Or you are the publisher’s best friends’ cousins’ daughter.

  7. I think you just helped me realise the plot I’m planning to run is typical and boring. I want to discover something new and intriguing. Time to go mind diving 🙂
    Thanks!

  8. “You can have a plot-driven story or you can have a character-driven story, but you can’t have a world-driven story.”

    That is so true, and very relevant to several discussions I am having at the moment.

  9. This article is trash, you know. No, you have not read every single possible fantasy story ever written. No, you do not know all possible outcomes (or directions the plot may take). No, you are not awesome. You are a simply blogger who is crying for attention.
    Or you once tried publishing a fantasy novel and someone deemed it cliched, which, reading your arguments, really would not surprise me,

  10. While I agree with much of your advice, you are wrong about world-driven stories. As Orson Scott Card points out in the Elements of Fiction Writing series, each story has a “MICE Quotient”…which breaks down to Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event. Some stories focus more heavily on one factor over another, but there are excellent examples of Milieu (world-driven) stories. Gulliver’s Travels, The Wizard of Oz, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court all spring to mind. A more modern example would be Mirrormask. That being said, nome of those stories would have been as popular without memorable characters and events to move the plot and world along. It is up to the writer to decide what will be the story’s focus and to adjust their MICE quotient accordingly.

    1. Exactly what I was going to say. I got here almost by accident so I have no idea who Professor Awesome is, but it seems to me he’s not someone who reads much, particularly not books about craft. His readers would do much better to read Card’s Characters and Viewpoints. There’s so much to learn from an actual writer who has a strong grasp on the craft of writing.

  11. I agree. This is similar to me years ago. Planning some fantasy trilogy stories with the only story I’ve thought is vol 1 about the hero got his involvement, vol 2 about how the hero trying to prevent the war but failed, and vol 3 about the hero ending the war. But, I wrote an elaborate rules for the magic and the history.
    I planned to write a very famous, powerful, but already dead character and even planned to resurrect him at some point. I wrote down some history about the characters and what is the connection of him and the story and what made him famous and powerful.

    I ended up with more detailed story about his history than my trilogy. And his story sounded more interesting than the trilogy itself lol.

    World building is okay, but don’t be too detailed and too absorbed into it that you neglected your characters and stories. Built a more general rules & settings first, write characters and stories, and then give more detail to the world according to your needs.

    Building the world too detailed and/or complex at the beginning could risk you being stumped in the story because you’re hindered by the very world rules that you write first.

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