This is a guest post by Thaddeus Nowak
I have always loved the fantasy genre. Ever since I first started reading books of my own choosing, I’ve read fantasy and SciFi novels. Perhaps, I loved the idea of being transported away to another world or to another time and place. Maybe I was fascinated by learning about beings who differ from myself. Whatever the reason, these stories felt–and still feel like–home to me.
Happily, today there is less social awkwardness attached to these genres. In fact, shows like The Big Bang Theory are helping to make being a geek mainstream. So when I hear people tell me they do not like fantasy novels, I always want to understand why. Deep down I hope it might just be a simple misconception that I can resolve; I really want others to embrace my beloved genre as much as I do.
However, the more people I talk to, the more I notice a cluster of common complaints, and honestly, I don’t entirely disagree with some of the criticism of the genre. Of course, these flaws are by no means limited to fantasy novels, but some of them are more common in fantasy.
The big issues I tended to hear include:
- Over-the-top story lines.
- Tired clichés.
- Heavy use of prophecy.
Of these, the one I find the most difficult to get past is the prophesying. Yes, the farm boy who in five minutes learns to swing a sword and ride a horse is very hard to swallow (learning to do either takes a long time). However, so is anyone who can guess a password in three tries or the couch potato who can outrun a car and does it without breathing too hard. Those plot issues often come from a lack of the author’s knowledge of given subjects, and while distracting, they tend to get mentioned and then the story goes on to something else. The prophecy issue I feel is deeper and can go on through the whole story. If done wrong, it can show some fundamental flaws in the overall story design, not just a lack of research into a topic.
I do want to say that not all stories with prophecies are done badly, but, as with anything, there is always a certain percentage that fail. Coupled with the fact that plots featuring heavy use of prophecy are more likely to show up in fantasy novels and you’ll statistically end up with a higher chance of reading a poorly done prophecy story in this genre than the others genres.
So what is a writer to do? What makes using prophecy bad?
Well, for the story to be solid, the main characters should be the driving force in the plot. Their actions, and most importantly their decisions, need to push the story forward. If the prophecy is the driving factor, simply sweeping the characters along for the ride, then the characters are not really the protagonist; the prophecy is. We as readers want to be able to identify with someone, to imagine ourselves in the character’s life. It is much harder to like a weak character who cannot make decisions for themselves than it is to identify with a strong character.
Star Wars I, The Phantom Menace is a perfect example of a story done badly. I did not like the movie (and not just because of the floppy eared fellow) because the characters were uninspiring as a whole. The reason for my dislike was even summarized within the movie itself. It was the scene when they were underwater in a ship and a sea monster tried to eat them. Did the characters do anything to affect their escape? No. They sat there and allowed fate to save them. The line went something like: “There’s always a bigger fish.” When I heard that in the theater, I wasn’t sure if the movie was making light of itself or if it was supposed to be a serious line…
The other problem with prophecy is that it reinforces the first two issues that were mentioned. So many stories already have heavy prophecy that a new one is going to struggle to be original. Based on my unscientific survey, there is an almost universal request for no more farm boys (or girls as I would prefer) that are fated to go from having no skills and position in society to being dragged around and bumble their way into saving the world and end up king or queen.
But I love the idea of fate and prophecy…
Well, if that’s the case, I don’t want to discourage you completely, but know that making it fresh and original will be an uphill battle. My suggestion would be to make sure the prophecy is simply part of the background, a minor character. Remind yourself that the story is really about the lead characters. Make them central to the plot and have them drive the story forward through their choices, not their reactions to other drivers. Make sure the reader knows it is the character deciding to act because of a personal motivation, not because some other power said they had to. A strong character does not need to be physically strong, instead they need to have a strong personality and be willing to make the tough decision when it counts. When characters are instrumental in their own lives, we are more able to identify with them; want to be like them. And very importantly, we want to see them again in subsequent stories.