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Saturday, November 17, 2012

Fantasy Don'ts: What to Avoid in Your Fantasy Novel

Fantasy writers have to worry about so many things while writing.  They have to build a completely new world, and at the same time, make it believable to us Earthlings.  This is harder than it sounds.  Often, I read things in fantasy books that are either wrong, or just don't make sense.  Here are some things to avoid when writing a fantasy novel:
  • Heavy swords.  I've lost count of the number of fantasy novels I've read where the hero/heroine picks up a sword for the first time, and make some comment about it being "surprisingly heavy".  Unless your main character is a five-year-old or a supreme weakling or a leprechaun, they will have no trouble lifting a sword.  Swords, when they were commonly used, hardly ever weighed more than four or five pounds.  Think about it...if you're going to be lugging this thing around a battlefield, do you want it to be heavy?  No.  (more info on this here.)
  • Unrealistic horses.  Do you really think horses can gallop all day long without resting?  Have you ever written a scene where your main character, while riding, sets something on his "lap"?  These things are  I won't go into too much detail on this one, because I already wrote an entire post about it.
  • Death of a king/major leader throws peasants into chaos.  It's very likely that, for the most part, your peasants are largely unaffected by what's going on in the throne room.  If the king dies...there's a new king.  And, unless there's a war going on, life goes on as usual in the kingdom.  People at court might be thrown off by the new king, but unless he's radically different from the old, the large majority of the kingdom won't care.  (Unless your new king's name is Joffrey.  In that case, your peasants will most definitely want to storm the castle and do whatever they can to get him off the throne.  Seriously.*)
  • Death of king immediately ends battle. I see this quite often in fantasy books.  As soon as someone finishes off the king/general/whoever, the battle immediately stops and the side that killed him/her wins.  Think about that for a minute.  You've got soldiers fighting all over the place.  It's loud and chaotic.  If you were a soldier, you'd be focused on one thing: survival.  The news of the king's death probably won't even reach you unless you were within a few feet of the event.  Because of this, the battle won't end as soon as the king dies.
  • Ripping clothing all the time.  Characters quite often rip a strip off their shirts/dresses for bandages, firestarters, etc.  Do something for me, will you?  Try to rip your shirt.  Just do it.  It's not going to happen, is it?  Unless you're wearing really thin silky material or something.  (Now, I'll admit that I could be wrong about this.  If you can bench press a couple hundred pounds, can you rip a shirt?  Possibly.  I wouldn't know, though, since I can barely bench press the bar.  Upper body strength has never been my thing.)
  • Misuse/abuse/overuse "thy, thou, etc."  Just learn how to use them, please?  Here, let me Google it for you.
  • Have a sage/wizard/elderly character who is full of knowledge and wisdom that could make the plot so much easier on the characters but doesn't say anything.  For example: Hero is trying to get from Point A to Point B.  Since there is an impassable mountain range between these two points, Hero must instead travel all the way around.  Wise Old Mentor knows of a mountain pass that is a well-kept secret in his family, which would save Hero two weeks of extra travel.  Wise Old Mentor says nothing, though, because he thinks those two extra weeks of travel will be good character-building for Hero (or, he just conveniently forgets).  This is, plainly and simply, annoying.  Why spend so much time writing about travel when Hero could take the shortcut and use these two weeks to fight some bad guys, or something.
  • Good guys lose every battle but win the war.  It's handy to have your good guys lose a battle.  It's a great opportunity to add conflict, up the stakes, and work with character development, among other things.  You can't win 'em all, right?  In fact, if the good guys always won every minor or major clash, the book would be boring.  So the good guys need to lose sometimes.  (Some writers take this to a greater extent than others.  One of the things I love about D. J. MacHale's Pendragon series is that there is always doubt whether the good guys will win at the end of each book.  He's not afraid to have at least three novels of the series end in defeat.)  But still, you have to factor logic into this.  If your heros lose every battle, there's no way they can win the overall war.  It doesn't make sense. 
  • Have names longer than three syllables.  Naming your  character "Galbatorix" just sets him up to become the supreme badguy.  Long names tend to get clunky, unpronounceable, and often just sound ridiculous.  In real life, do you know many people with names longer than three syllables?  And even if you do, do they actually go by that name?  Most likely not.  Also, watch your naming patterns.  It doesn't make any sense to have a Bob and an Ithrilzalacktiemda'lean in the same town.  (This goes for all writers, not just fantasy writers: watch other naming patterns, like first letters or end sounds.  Often, without even thinking about it, writers fall into patterns.  For example, I tend to name things that end in an -on sort of sound.  I have a Davisson (though he doesn't go by this), an Ayin, a Bromen, and a Revan, all in the same book.)
  • Write about a species of creatures that are just orcs with a different name ("our orcs are different").  It's so easy to write about a species of stock evil creatures that don't really have any character development, but are nice obstacles to throw in your MC's path and have him fight his way through.  Here's the deal--your readers are onto you.  If you write about creatures who are disgusting, primitive-ish yet still speaking some form of language, barbaric, vaguely humanoid, etc., you might be falling into the orc trap.  (We know you totally did this, Christopher Paolini.  Urgals, anyone?  Though, to his credit, he did have them work for good, in the end.)
  • Good guys win the war for no apparent reason.  Let's see...the evil army is ten times larger, better equipped, better fed, has better training, more capable leaders, better strategies.  The good guys have a tiny army with little to no training, unskilled leaders, and a horrible case of bad luck.  And yet, the good guys win.  Um...what?  Yes, you do need to take note of the motivation factor (people are more willing to fight and will fight harder to defend something they care about), but that only works to a certain extent.  No matter how driven they are, your army of 1,000 can't stand up to an army of 999,999,999.  Be reasonable.
For more on what to avoid, check out The Fantasy Novelists' Exam.  (And even if you don't really need the fantasy info, it's still amusing.)   That exam is a brilliant way to weed out stereotypes and illogical (or inaccurate) aspects of your novel.

Where did I learn this stuff/how do I know this happens?  I've read close to 300 fantasy novels.  I have observed many patterns.

What things like this do you notice in fantasy novels?  Do you have troubles with these things?

*This is totally what needs to happen.  And they can put Hodor on the throne.  He'd be a better king than...basically anyone else.
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  1. The last cliche always bugged me! I understand if you have the big dragon or something, but you can't just randomly have the good guys win! I'd LOVE a story where it featured just the bad guy and the bad guy won.

    1. Exactly! (And I know of at least one case where having a dragon probably still shouldn't have been enough, but it was.) I'd love a story like that, too. This isn't exactly that story, but I recently read Marie Lu's The Young Elites, which is partly a villain's origin story. Here's more info, if you feel like checking it out:

  2. I don't use this in writing but the ripping of clothing while does vary based off of material thickness and type. Being an intermediate sewer and all, putting fabric on a grain when pattern is off kilter is easier to rip than cut to fix the problem. So ripping material isn't really all that hard. This is a technique people commonly use. Ripping rope is impossible unless extreme force is applied and leather depends on how thin or how reinforced it is. If it's thick leather or reinforced it won't damage easily. Thin decorative leather can rip easy or have holes poked into it. I have worked with leather. So all of this knowledge is personal experience and long study of fabric manipulation through the years. Hint for gauze or gauze replication materials it can be difficult to rip because of the weave, it's more likely to stretch than rip. Look up knits verse wovens for a better idea and textiles science for a better idea on working​ with materials while writing.
    While I might add it may seem like a cliche to rip clothing in battle or fantasy. It does serve a purpose. Can always dig through you pack immediately after being slashed open. Sometimes unfortunately people lose their gear or don't pack properly in real life when camping. Leads to issues. So all in all I think it's not a complete don't. I would use it sparingly in writing though.
    Great article by the way hope this helps a little.


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