The idea that there is a genre of novels called ‘fantasy’ is a lie.
Every bookstore worth its salt has such a section, generally stuffed to overflowing with your basic swords and sorcery.Those books and the genre they reside in exist solely because somewhere, someone decided that fantasy novels were, fundamentally, about fantasy. What’s missing here is the understanding that all great novels—fantasy or not–are about people.
Take any random mass-market fantasy paperback and strip it of all the mythic history, ancient languages, lost or dying races, and enchanted weaponry, and you’ll find, at best, a story that is merely good. These stories have failed to reach their full potential, and the tragedy is that such potential isn’t all that hard to realize.
There’s no secret here—in fact, you’ve probably already reached the following conclusion: to achieve truly compelling fantasy, all effort and emphasis must be placed on the characters. Consider this your foundation; everything else should be the delightful fondant on a superb cake. This fondant is, of course, important—without it, there’s no fantasy, and fantastic elements are appealing.
For years there has been a need for fresh material. So many promising writers of fantasy and science fiction have allowed their visions to be shaped and dictated by pre-existing material, when all a reader really wants is something fresh, even if it’s just a new take on an old theme (urban fantasy, bless its soul, has helped fill that particular void). Fantasies are not about the possible, the prevalent—they are by definition about the impossible and the unlikely. With this in mind, armed with compelling and original characters, how could you go wrong?
How, though, to create a deeply believable character? How to write strong heroes and despicable villains while avoiding the trap and the temptation of the Hero and Villain archetypes? Simply put, perfect characters are defined by imperfection.
There is beauty in flaw. Without a villain, we need no hero, and this concept is no less applicable when applied to the mechanics of a single character. A sophisticated reader longs to see the hero triumph not only over outward predicament but over internal strife. We are all imperfect people, and we empathize most with those most like us. If we don’t know what it is to be purely noble or utterly evil, we cannot empathize, and if we cannot empathize, we can’t become involved—we can’t put ourselves in the character’s place, and what good is fantasy if it doesn’t provide an effective, enthralling escape from reality?
So, you have living characters and a healthy dose of individualism. At this point or well before it, you may be tempted to engage in a little light world-building. Don’t. Readers have a remarkable and invaluable ability to ‘fill in the gaps, and I can almost guarantee that the more effort you put into creating an involved history, comprehensive language, and detailed geography, the more readers will feel lectured to and put-upon. This is not to say that you shouldn’t have a firm grasp of your story and its setting—if you don’t, the whole thing is liable to fall apart—but in fantasy, less is more. Detailed descriptions of anything from clothing to location deprives a reader of the pleasure of imagining these details for himself. Extensive explanation of your world’s history is likely to bore your reader; if he’s picked up your book, he’s already accepted your story. Strive only for clear simplicity, and the rest will follow naturally.
As a final encouragement: as a writer or soon-to-be writer of fantasy or science fiction, it can be difficult to submit a piece for editing. The reader enjoys your book in private, and no one else need ever know he read your work, but the journey to publication requires you to submit your manuscript to a number of potentially critical eyes. After all, this is fantasy! What if your editor scoffs at your ideas, reprimands you for a failure to adhere to reality, and tells you to come back when you’ve written a decent psychological thriller?
Set those fears aside. Your book isn’t silly or absurd—it is, or can be, desirable and highly marketable. We WANT to read your work—if we didn’t, we’re certainly in the wrong profession.