I’ve been reading some great fantasy recently, so good that I read the first in a series then want to read the rest. That’s the kind of book authors want to write and readers want to read. So what makes great fantasy novels great? There are plenty of books out there that don’t have the elements they need to make their stories great, so clearly this is something worth looking at.
Of course writing a great book in any genre is not easy. You never know if what you’re writing will hit that sweet spot with readers or not, but you can know what your story needs to have if it is to have any chance of being popular.
What makes great fantasy novels great?
- Great plot,
- Great characters and believable relationships,
- Great world-building,
- Believable actions, reactions, dialogue and relationships,
- Great writing and professional editing.
What does ‘great’ mean here?
A great plot has a protagonist that readers can root for, plus a clear goal for them to achieve, and a super scary antagonist that tries to stop the protagonist achieving their goal and threatens their life. If you can’t give the basic plot in one or two sentences, and if the protagonist isn’t facing a truly dire situation by the end, it probably isn’t strong enough. Subplots can be woven in around the central plot, of course, and should be unless you’re writing for children.
In addition to this, the element of surprise strengthens a plot. Predictability does not make a great plot. Have the story take at least one unexpected turn. Also make sure that it’s not a copy-cat book, so like all the other fantasy or sci fit novels out there that it’s just more of the same.
Dire situations where the antagonist(s) escape in creative ways are really good too. Generally speaking, the harder you can make life for your characters, the better the story. Make sure they don’t get what they want too easily, but also don’t make it so hard that the story never moves forward.
Great characters and believable relationships
A great character is likeable, complex, well-drawn and realistically flawed. Flawed doesn’t mean they’re nasty or have personal habits people hate. Readers want to like the characters; flawed means that they have weaknesses. They aren’t invincible. They might become invincible by the end of the series, but if they don’t have some weaknesses you have nowhere to take the characters, and readers also want to see the characters develop through the story. The events they experience should change them.
Characters need to also we consistent. If you write someone as intelligent, you can’t have them making stupid mistakes. Yes, they can make mistakes, but ones based on intelligent reasoning as befitting the character you’ve defined.
A sense of humour is a highly endearing trait, so consider having that in at least one of your characters.
No matter who these characters are or what their culture is, their relationships with each other must be believable in terms of human expectations—because your readers are human.
This means that the world is well thought out, well described and consistent. Readers need to be able to see it with their imagination and understand how it works. Cause and effect must function in a logical way in the book’s world, even if the effects are different to what they are in this universe. The magic must be consistent and the physics, politics, and cultures clearly defined. Consistency is vital. Whatever works for the one character must work for the others unless there are clear reasons why it can’t—like the loss of a limb stopping someone from running—and characters must act as they would as a member of the society the author creates.
Believable actions, reactions and dialogue
Even if your characters are aliens that don’t look remotely like humans, for the sake of human readers they need to behave in ways that ring true for a human, and that means that they behave essentially as humans do. Anything else will not ring true unless the world building is so exceptional that the reader can understand why a character does something that seems completely wrong.
Readers need to see characters reacting as well as acting, and their speech should sound natural. If they speak in a strange way due to their culture or race, that’s fine, but it should still sound ‘right when you read it aloud, at least right and natural for that character.
Great writing and professional editing
These go hand in hand because the author and their editors are a team. Defining great writing is beyond the scope of this post, but I deal with it in depth in my book The Elements of Active Prose: Writing Tips to Make Your Prose Shine—a book that has been hailed by many reviewers as one that all authors should have. A good editor will do more than correct grammar, punctuation and spelling, they will also pick up any short falls in the author’s prose and improve it.
A few typos won’t bother most readers, but though readers mostly don’t know exactly what makes good writing, most recognise poor writing, and they all respond well to good writing.
I love to hear your comments, so tell me: what great fantasy books have you read?
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