10 Mistakes Made By Fantasy Writers
I read a lot. A real lot. I also write a lot. A real lot. This is because, even before I read On Writing, I tended to live by the dictum that a writer needs to read a lot.
Quiet aside: I know some writers poo-poo this idea. But I have never met a real writer who has not read, and not a good one who has read a lot. A writer who doesn’t read is like a musician who doesn’t listen to music. It makes zero sense. Sorry.
I’d say that is the end of an old man rant, but this is that sort of a column, I’m afraid. Prepare for further rantage!
Anyway, my preferred genres are horror, fantasy, science fiction and humour, to read and write, but I don’t limit myself. However, they are preferred. And that means I read them most of all. Well, fantasy is incredibly popular nowadays, and I have read so much fantasy I sometimes wake up wondering where my pet dragon is and why my armour looks strangely like a dressing gown. And what this means is that I have come across some things that just do not make sense.
I’d like to point out that this covers every level of publication, from self-published writers who don’t believe in spelling or punctuation to stories produced by the big four publishing houses. These mistakes seem to be there all the time.
1) Information Overload
The writer has spent weeks, maybe months, creating this world of theirs in which to set their fantasy story, doing countless hours of research and developing what they consider a fully functioning society. It is a masterwork all its own. And – daggnabbit! – they are going to tell the reader every single aspect they have developed, no matter how irrelevant to the story it is, to prove they’ve world built. The reader does not need it; save it for the sequel. Or just be happy in the knowledge you’ve done the hard yards. But maybe leave it at that, hmm?
2) Food Production
It’s a world. It’s populated, normally by creatures that might as well be called humans. They need to get energy. They need to eat. Now take a look at a map of our world before World War I and see how much of the land was given over to farming – agriculture and stock. Add into that the fishing industries and you can see how vital the food industries are to non-technological worlds. And yet so often in fantasy stories there are either no farms or they are tiny, food production and movement does not seem to come into things and you wonder why the rich minstrels don’t release their own ‘Feed The World’ charity song. Or else they are hunter-gatherers. And how long would an over-populated world last as they hunt everything into extinction and decimate all vegetation for a 1000-mile radius?
3) Clothing And Armour
I have a friend who is also a writer, but her university degree was Medieval society. She did her thesis on clothing of the Medieval era. That seems to be the sort of time stories reflect. Guess what? The general, run-of-the-mill bonded populace did not wear pants. They wore smocks made of cheap linen. Rich people might have worn pants, maybe. Getting clothes made was apparently quite expensive; to cut a hole in a piece of linen was easy. And form-hugging spandex like Robin Hood or Conan the Barbarian – forget it. And armour was really expensive! It took months to make a suit of chain mail. Leather armour or padded armour were the cheap options, but even they cost a lot. Did you know that leather workers had to supply their own urine, relieving themselves on the skins they were preparing? Sorry. Just another clothing aside. And armour was generally made for the owner; putting some-one else’s on was just really challenging. There’s a reason the Vikings wore bear-skin cloaks – it was all they had!
4) Money v Bartering
I blame Dungeons And Dragons for this, with their copper, silver, gold, etc. coins. That was for ease of game play. But in real life, bartering was the most common means of paying for goods or services. Sure, rich people might have coins – in general, they had serfs do everything for them anyway – but the general populace would struggle. Bartering was far more common amongst the people, but you just do not read about it. And that brings us to…
5) Rich v Poor
In most fantasy worlds, it seems like nothing for the poor born child to go off and seek adventure and fortune and become wonderful and great. But the poor were generally bonded into servitude. The owner of the land would not be overly pleased to find a person capable of working had just hopped it. In fact, I would guess he would be rather miffed and might take it out on said adventurer’s family. A lot. Oh, and the poor could not read. There was no reason to. And that little nerd who sat down hidden under his fur bedclothes reading some long-forgotten tome: No way. Not even the village “wise-men” could read. It was all oral tradition stuff. And don’t get me started on schools…
6) Magic Limitations
You have a fantasy world. There is magic in this world. How powerful is it? Why can it kill an enemy on page four but not even disable the bad guy’s henchmen on page 172? (I hope the author in question reads this… she’ll know…) The world of Harry Potter does this. There are inconsistencies in the potency of the magic. This is something Dungeons And Dragons (the old versions, anyway) does well – the limitations are spelt out quite clearly. Maybe writers should do their own Tome of Spells? And then Harry Potter himself can ride a broomstick and summon a griffon, but can’t fix his poor eyesight? And that leads to…
7) Overuse Of Magic
Your world has magic. Awesome! It’s everywhere! Awe… shit. This does two things. First, it takes away the mystique of magic. Second, it makes magic no more than their pseudo-science. If everyone has access to magic, then magic is just another part of the world and it does mean everyone should have access to it. And learn it. And study it. But, as I said in Rich v Poor above, the poor don’t have access to reading or learning. Unless the world is a lot like ours. And that has only come about because of democracies becoming powerful. In any other form of government, the powerful and those in charge would not allow the poor to have learning. And they especially would not like magic to be so readily available. It’s a matter of keeping power.
Religion was actually the central focus of a lot of pre-Industrial society. Even kings and other rulers bowed to the whims of their deities. (Some exceptions, of course, but even Genghis Khan worshipped his father.) And yet in fantasy, religion is given short shrift. There should be feast days and temple days and, for the poor at least, compulsory worship days. I have read some books where they claim their worlds are atheistic, but it does not make sense. Even in our world, the rules that became adapted into the Old Testament were created by a Babylonian god-king. Now, look, I am an atheist, but even my fantasy world is based on a strong religious base. It’s just there, okay?
9) Distances Travelled
Your hero has set out on foot. He has to get to the Castle of Ne’yagh within the week. Virtually unencumbered, and assuming he has had some training, he could walk, maybe 25 miles a day, and keep this up for eight days. That’s 200 miles. Where I live, if you left from the capital, that won’t even get you out of the state! Okay, give them a horse. Carrying a person, a fit horse could go as far as 50 miles a day, with a rest day every so often. Now, horses are worth a lot and so you wouldn’t want to ride one to death; just stealing one is going to get you executed. So, in 8 days (with one day of rest) that’s 350 miles. You’ve just left my state. Going four hundred leagues on a non-magical horse in a week is… stupid. Impossible! I mean impossible.
Writers, you do know that it’s okay to write a stand-alone book, don’t you? And not book one in a trilogy, that is the first in a trilogy of trilogies? I blame Wheel Of Time and Game Of Thrones for this. Even Harry Potter was seven books long! Standalone books are quite okay! Really!
So, some pet peeves from reading way too much fantasy and getting way too frustrated by make-believe things created by other people.