Another good one from the Portent Content Idea Generator.
Because let’s be serious – we all have read some very bad fantasy in our day. And I use the term fantasy in its broader sense, from sword & sorcery where mighty-thewed barbarians roam to the shaded forests of high fantasy in which elves of all stripes can be found, to the slithery shadow of horror, to the dusty and sun-baked landscapes of planetary romance.
There’s some excellent stuff out there, but there’s also a fair amount of duds.
And if reading the good stuff is essential to write good stories, reading a fair amount of drivel – as long as we recognise it as drivel – is also useful, because we all learn from mistakes, and when it’s other people’s mistakes it sort of feels good, doesn’t it?
So, having read my more than fair amount of fantasy drivel, here’s my list of blunders, ugly choices and bad ideas behind some of the worse fantasy I ever read.
Blunder the first – you write up your D&D game
True, some hugely successful book series have been published based on games the author played, but essentially the good ones were the ones in which the mindset and rhythms of the gaming table were ditched, and the story was developed making the most of the setting and completely forgetting about classes, numbers and initiative. Oh, and I’ll bundle with this one the other, about the obsession with weapons’ length, weight, name and assorted quirks, usually with big expository passages taken directly from some HEMA handbook.
Blunder the second – you only read fantasy
Knowing the field is important – and in this sense reading short fiction and magazines, and not just the classics of the genre is essential. But reading only within the genre limits your palette, gets you stuck with a smaller pool of ideas and of character types. Read everything – literature, some poetry, non-fiction (history, of course, but also science). Keep an open mind and a varied reading list, or you’ll end up believing there are to be elves in it for it to be fantasy.
Blunder the third – “Who cares? It’s just fantasy!”
This one really gets to me big time: the idea that you can justify anything, throw in anything, make and unmake plot points and decisions, and it will be okay because after all it’s fantasy, so anything goes. And it’s true, anything goes, as long as the plot is coherent, and you don’t just solve your characters problems “because, magic”. Fantasy requires discipline, strict rules and deep thought.
Side note: I see this a lot in what is supposed to be comic fantasy. But if you check out Terry Pratchett or Chris Moore you’ll see they are rock-hard when it comes to coherence and sticking to their rules.
Blunder the fourth – you get your heroes from Central Casting
Lessee, brawny barbarian, check; busty amazon, check; cantankerous old wizard, check…
It can work. Clichés are part of genre fiction, but you have to do something new and original with them. This one often goes hand in hand with the first blunder of this list, and has the same source.
Blunder the fifth – you get trapped into sub-genre hell
This happens when you sit at your keyboard and you think “I’m gonna write a grimdark story”, or “I’m gonna write a magic realism story” instead of thinking “I’ll write about characters and situations that will grip my readers like a vice”.
Mind you, if you are selling your stories to magazines you will need to apply a certain tag to your work – I guess Grim Dark Magazine is looking for Grimdark stories while Occult Detective Quarterly… well, you catch my drift. But your occult detective could be noir and cynical enough to qualify as Grimdark, too. Etcetera.
Think about the story, as you write it, and not exclusively (or primarily) at the box in which you’ll put it. Otherwise, you’ll be paying too much attention to certain tropes and elements, and not to the overall story.
Blunder the sixth – Celtic alphabet soup à la Lovecraft
When it comes to naming conventions, both Tolkien and Lovecraft have a lot to answer for. Elven languages from the appendix in The Lord of the Rings are perfectly fine, but after half a century Celtic-sounding names can be a little bit trite. As are Lovecraftian or psaeudo-Lovecraftian deities with names like Shuub-Wankalot etc.
Usually, a good idea for naming characters and places, on the run, in fantasy worlds, is to get an atlas, choose some exotic place (like, I dunno, Turkey) and then play around with place names from the map. It’s still better than opening the Silmarillion at a random page.