Sunday Salon – What Makes A Good Fantasy Series?

The Sunday Salon.com

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.

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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.

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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.

Comic book heroines often use sex for conquest

Comic book heroines often use sex for conquest

At the very least, comic book heroines are often dressed to emphasize their sexuality (doesn't look like a good fighting outfit to me, just sayin)

At the very least, comic book heroines are often dressed to emphasize their sexuality (doesn’t look like a good fighting outfit to me, just sayin)

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.

Cinderella:  Fulfillment through marriage

Cinderella: Fulfillment through marriage

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.

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14 Responses to Sunday Salon – What Makes A Good Fantasy Series?

  1. I don’t generally care for fantasy but have enjoyed a few – like the Harry Potter books – and I’m not sure what makes them different so that I enjoy them. Does that makes sense?

  2. Athira says:

    Yes, this! What you said. I find it hard to see a good proportion of what you mention here in fantasy books. When I started watching George Martin’s Game of Thrones, I thought yay – women characters have just as much presence here as men do. And then, the sleazy aspects took over so I lost some respect for the show. But at least when it comes to YA books, I would like to see girls and boys represented equally. It is so important for young readers of both gender to know that they have equal opportunities and strengths.

  3. Excellent rules! And I vote for a bittersweet ending too. Fantasy series very often include lots of pretty awful stuff happening, and it’s easy for a happy ending to feel glib. There has to be something that acknowledges the loss and pain the characters have been through — I appreciated Mockingjay for that, at least, even if I didn’t generally love it as a whole.

    • Really it seems like with most books, a happy ending seems so unrealistic. Especially in these murder crime thriller series where the hero keeps escaping physically unscathed. And with fantasies, and all the epic struggles, it just would be crazy for it all to be happy. Agree with you on Mockingjay!

  4. Laurie C says:

    A very thoughtful post! I like humor in my fantasy, even if it’s just dark humor, and I think that’s why I often like urban fantasy. It tends not to take itself too seriously!

  5. Rita K says:

    Loved this Jill! I had to look up limning though. I would definitely agree with you about what makes a good fantasy series.

  6. Rachel says:

    I think poor worldbuilding is why I haven’t liked most fantasy books I’ve tried. It bothers me when the characters are saved at the end by some fantastical element that hasn’t been mentioned in the book right up until the end.

  7. Michelle says:

    Great post! I definitely agree that effective and efficient world-building is the key to a great fantasy novel. The ones I have not enjoyed are the ones I struggled to understand or care about the strange world within the novel. The fantasy novels I adore put me right there into the action with little need for endless descriptive explanatory paragraphs.

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