Ten Steps to a Perfect Fantasy Novel
January 13, 2011 § 15 Comments
The fantasy genre is pretty easy to spot. If it wasn’t the intensely coloured (or, conversely, intensely gloomy) cover art featuring a wizard or a monster or a scantily clad heroine that alerted you, a brief glance at the synopsis will always do it. The ingredients for a good fantasy plot are as clear as day, and we can rely on their being dutifully trotted out, book after book, for our delectation.
It has to be pretty easy to write a fantasy novel then, surely? The road is mapped out so distinctly it’s got to be hard to miss the mark. I’ve recently launched myself into drafting a fantasy novel, as regular readers of this blog will know; so let’s have a look and see how I’m doing.
Plot point #1: A child hero
Or a hero that will spend at least the first half of the first novel (of many) as a child, probably a bumbling farm boy or an orphan or a street waif. This innocent/worldly cherub will have to grow up and be trained up before he can take centre stage as our Hero. It’s great fodder for making that story last for a few more books.
My story: Fail #1. Not a hero at all but a heroine, and an adult. A socially challenged adult, certainly, but nonetheless fully grown, with breasts and everything. And parents; both of them. Couldn’t I have at least killed one of them off, to insert a little pathos? Opportunity epically missed. (Speaking of breasts, this is another high point I’ve missed out on. We all know that the best fantasy stories/art/films like to feature the female anatomy quite prominently. Note to self: talk more about the breasts).
Plot point #2: Prophecy…. destiny
Our farmboy is actually no farmboy at all. Or street waif. (Though he probably is still an orphan). You might think, why the hell doesn’t his wise, all-powerful mentor solve the quest, defeat the enemy and save the world instead of having to train up Farmboy to do it? Well, because farmboy’s destiny was written in the stars eons ago, passed down by ancient mystics who helpfully interpreted it in riddle and rhyme. I’m sorry, there’s no choice. Farmboy has to do it. The stars said so.
My story? Fail #2. No prophecies, no destinies. I haven’t even managed to insert a single improbable coincidence yet. Must try harder. Actually, did I even manage a wise, all-powerful mentor yet? DON’T PANIC. I can still do this.
Plot point #3: the Artifact of Power.
Frequently a weapon, may also be an orb or a crown or some other piece of jewellery. Naturally awe-inspiring, unique and completely irreplaceable – and of course our hero is the only person who can use it. This one is a great way to get the sparkle, ‘wow’ factor. OH GOD. IT SHINES. So brightly…
My story? Fail #3. No weapons of awesome power. No glorious orbs (except of the fleshly variety). BUT. I can score a point or two here in that I do have jewellery. Shiny jewellery. JEWELLERY OF POWER. Sort of. Alright, not really, but kind of. Phew.
Plot point #4: The Girl
Usually a love interest/kidnap victim masquerading as a co-heroine. Author may attempt to pad out this character’s role by adding ‘tough girl’ features such as tough-talking, grouchiness (indicating strength of mind, obviously), dictatorial tendencies (also indicating admirable strength of mind) and a peculiar talent of some kind which will prove instrumental to the plot somewhere about three-quarters of the way through. This character will of course be luminously beautiful, possibly scantily-clad (at times), and may possess an unusually fine singing voice. (?)
My story: fail #4. The girls are the heroines, but without the tough-talking or the dictatorial tendencies or the singing voices. Grouchiness, yes, but unfortunately this is merely grouchiness, not necessarily a sign of a healthy independence. On the contrary, my primary heroine is woefully riddled with weaknesses and fear and would really prefer a quiet life to any species of adventure. Bad news, hm? What kind of a fantasy novel do I think I am writing anyway?
Plot point #5: A Quest!
Obviously the characters must have a Purpose, and the best way to do this is to set them a Quest to complete. Usually this will involve going to fetch the awe-inspiring weapon of gloriousness from its inexplicable situation on the other side of the globe, guarded by a demon army, or at the bottom of the sea, protected by a mysterious enchantment that only the hero can break. This is good. By the time your hero has grown up, been trained and retrieved his equipment, you’re comfortably through book one.
My story: fail #5. No quests yet. Damnit. There’s time, though; maybe I can rustle something up to cover the middle of the book?
Plot point #6: Travel.
Many fantasy novels read like travelogues. This is because, if you’ve gone to all the trouble of world-building, you want people to see it, right? And anyway, having people visit other places is much more interesting than having your characters spend most of the novel having tea with each other. Much as we might like tea. Inevitably most of this travel will serve to put the characters into danger. We will trek every step of the journey along with them, enjoying the surprises of repeated ambush-by-monsters, ambush-by-enemies, accidentally-walking-into-danger, and so on.
My story: fail #6. Right now, I’m still busy with the tea-drinking. And mass murder at home. I’ll get to the visiting far-off realms later, alright? With the endless trekking through mud and snow, and the repeated ambushes, and the camping out under the stars, and everything. I promise.
Plot point #7: An Army of Darkness
Obviously you’ve got to have something for your heroes to fight against. It would be a bit dull – and a bit easy – if there was only a handful of villains to worry about, so what better than vast, unthinkable hordes of enemies? This will probably include a pleasant mixture of humanoid soldiers clad in impenetrable armour, and a sea of monsters, so your heroes have the opportunity to try out a range of fantastic fighting techniques. Obviously this army will threaten to overwhelm the entire world, and may even have their enterprising little sights set on several other worlds, too. No use in thinking small; this is Fantasy.
My story: fail #7. Oh, there are monsters, certainly. I like tea, but my girl’s got to have something slightly more pressing to do, right? I stopped short of the hordes, however. Maybe I can engage in a little convenient multiplication to up the stakes a little.
Plot point #8: A Sinister Villain
An Army of Darkness is fine, but it’s likely to become an encumbrance without a Supreme Commander. Someone suitably sinister, with an inexplicable but unstoppable goal to rule, or possibly just destroy, the entire world. Every single last tiny piece of it. This bloke probably eats babies for breakfast and burns villages as a weekend hobby. Why? Who cares?
My story: fail #8. I think. Probably. I mean, obviously I have a villain. At the moment he exists as a mysterious shadowy figure behind a range of sinister activities, so who knows? As I go along, he might turn out to be a village-burning baby-eater. At the moment though he (or she) is looking more likely to be a mere criminal whose goals are not quite as all-encompassing as Taking Over the World. Possibly my focus is a little too small.
Plot point #9: Fantasy Races
Beautiful, ethereal Elves who live in forests, use bows as weapons, dress in curiously impractical (but undeniably delicious) clothes and sing a lot. Tough, sturdy, grumpy dwarves who live in mountains and mine gems and metals and stuff. Brutal orcs clad in dark leather armour made from the skins of their enemies, ugly as sin and weirdly incapable of going five minutes without killing something. If it worked for Tolkien, it can work for everyone else too.
My story: fail #9. No Elves, no dwarves, no orcs. Is this even a fantasy novel I’m writing? … am I sure?
Plot point #10: Awesomely powerful MAGIC.
People who can rearrange half the world with one crook of their supple little finger. Uproot mountains with a word. Kill entire armies with a glance. Only they don’t, because that would be a bit too easy, wouldn’t it? Sorry man, your dreams of ruling the world are CRUSHED WITH A WORD before page twenty. But it’s okay: we can contrive some awkward but effective reason why our awesomely-powerful sorcerers don’t just obliterate the villain on the spot.
My story: fail #10. It’s a fantasy novel, so people do weird stuff occasionally. But on a mundane sort of level. Maybe I can find a way to imbue my heroine with some awesome-but-strangely-restricted powers. It probably comes as part of the package with being the Chosen One.
Curses. I don’t know what I think I’m writing, but it obviously isn’t much of a fantasy novel. I need to get myself down to the Fantasy Plot Shop and see if they’ve got any of those Sauron figurines left in stock before I get to writing about the villain. Maybe I could pick up a Belgarion/Belgarath set while I’m at it, and a couple of those ‘Elven army’ vouchers?
Edit: courtesy of a noble commenter (see below), I have fortuitously stumbled over The Fantasy Novelist’s Exam, viewable here. It teaches all the necessary ingredients for a successful fantasy novel. (No really: it does).