Fulfilling Expectations

An author setting out in a new genre like fantasy can be delighted by the riches that it offers. Many authors dream of writing a tale populated by dragons, snarling or friendly. Hero worship, depending on the author being emulated, can be an instructive practice for a beginning writer. My own first (unpublished) novel was a fantasy, and its hero bore perhaps a slavish resemblance to Bilbo Baggins.

I mention that because I also brought an unfortunate ignorance to the writing experience. The Hobbit was about the only fantasy I had ever read, since my literary tastes back then ran more toward Heart of Darkness. Devising unexpected surprises for the reader—a boulder that contains a door!—was terrific fun to write. It was not until later, when I began to edit fantasies, that I realized the cardinal errors I had made.

The gambits I had employed were too timid for the genre. While I was being quasi-realistic about how such things could possibly happen, a Michael Moorcock was making giant leaps in credulity. The attitude of such a writer is: screw you if you don’t want to go along for the ride. You’re not my audience.

The cautious approach shows its rear end to the reader right away. That’s because, feeling that throwing up unbelievable stuff in the reader’s face will cause them to put the book down, the author does not introduce standard genre elements early. A hundred pages can pass before there is any whiff of magic. The writer may instead present copious research into the mythology from which the fantasy is drawn, such as ancient Ireland. The thought is: I’ll get the reader primed for the fantastic stuff that’s coming next.

The problem is, readers of the genre are hoping that stuff happens on page 1. If they have to wait too long before any cool stuff happens, that book is going back on the shelf. Why is that book called a fantasy? they wonder.

That error is compounded by not adding more magic consistently. If you have read the other books in the genre, you’d know that you’d better come up with fresh ideas. Dragons are so passé, even comic ones. The other authors in the genre have produced X and Y and Z; what do you got to top that?

Exercise: Before you even start, amass pages upon pages of details of what the world you are creating looks like. You should know 100 magic twists and where they’re located. If you’re borrowing a basic concept from someone else, how can you recast it to make it your own? You should already be able to walk through your kingdom—from the inside of the character—before writing the first line.

“All cartoon characters and fables must be exaggeration, caricatures. It is the very nature of fantasy and fable.”
—Walt Disney

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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