When I begin a new fantasy series, I can usually tell right away whether or not I will be swept into the alternate world I’m entering. What makes the difference between a good fantasy and one that is not so good? Many fantasies, especially in the young adult category, can be pretty disappointing. For me, the primary characteristic that sets off a good fantasy is simply the quality of the writing, which may sound self-evident, but it can be trickier with fantasy than with other genres.
Fantasy is not set in the real world, so first and foremost it requires some sophisticated world-building. The world building should be seamlessly integrated into the plot without a lot of “info-dumping.” It should not be burdensomely complicated to figure out the rules of the new world. In spite of the fact that it will probably involve magical or mythological elements, it should seem convincing and coherent. And most importantly, it should not overwhelm the focus on characterization and themes.
In a good fantasy, themes are big and epic, universal and timeless – Shakespearean, if you will. It concerns issues that bedevil humans whether in our own universe or others – love, hate, jealousy, greed, family, friendship, loyalty, and conflicts of one sort or another – most generally, struggles for power. It’s one thing to identify with characters who are trying to find a date to the prom or meet the new student in school, but quite another to enter the mind of a character trying to save the world – even just to feel some political efficacy! The times that try people’s souls call for outstanding courage in the face of danger; sacrifice; and entail heart-wrenching losses. It may not be easy to live through such times, but it makes for great stories.
Characterization is especially important because we need to care enough about these people (or beings) to put up with the learning curve for getting around in the new world. Here we look first of all for nuance, because the great universal themes usually pit good versus evil, and it is too easy for writers to fall into the trap of limning their characters in black and white.
We also look for warmth, human values, connection, and a sense of empowerment with which we can identify. In the case of females, we want to see girls privileging their own needs versus sacrificing them for those of others. We want to see them having and using their own voices. We want to see inner worth triumphing over outer appearance.
In fact, I think part of the appeal of these books is the message that belies the importance of beautification, domesticity, passivity, or getting a boyfriend. The female heroines in good fantasy books are at least as tough, smart, and courageous as the males (if not more so), and also worthy of enduring, undying love and loyalty. But self-actualization takes precedence.
We do want to see love though. In a fantasy series, where there are generally epic struggles for survival, the struggle for love is usually just as epic – “against all odds” and generally involving heartbreak as well as soaring moments of love that transcends time and circumstances.
An added bonus to a fantasy series is a sense of humor and a sense of realism. There may be fairies and witches on the scene, but it’s easier to accept these story elements if the human characters have real needs, real weaknesses and strengths, and realistic emotions. It helps to see them get tired, bratty, crabby, and wondering how they are going to brush their teeth (as well as recognizing the irony of worrying about it in a world full of ongoing epic-scale disasters).
Those are the desiderata for me. As for happy endings, after all the struggles that ensue in epic stories, a bittersweet ending is usually the best for which one can hope. But that realism, that joy through all the pain, is sometimes the best we get, in this world or any other.