Recently, my mother found a book at a library sale with very rich writing. It was an older book, hardback, the red of the cloth cover faded and an unexciting title, the spine gently folded and indented with use. Contemporary marketing would sniff. And then my mother pointed out the first page. The prose felt rich and alive, taking a broad image of Italy and expounding on it with beautiful, subtle analogies to paint a vivid picture. I read enough to know that it was a particular strength of the writer in question.
I thought about the style and technique the author used, and after a time it pained me to realize that I can’t do the same, not easily, in fantasy. Robert Jordan might have, but then, Robert Jordan’s work could be used as bludgeoning weapons in the military if they ever ran short. Non-series fantasy writers have to contend with the fact that if they want to draw in a sense of such familiarity with their world, they’re going to have to sweat blood to weave it. One doesn’t write that the spell growled like a Harley motorcycle when using a historical setting.
I once heard it mentioned that fantasy was the easiest genre to write, because there were no rules, but that fantasy is also the hardest genre to write well. To take full advantage of the blank canvas, the author is stripped of many of their literary tools. The more original the setting and story, the less you have to work with.
I’ve found people who can do this well; Patrick Rothfuss (who is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors the more I go into his debut novel) has such an intricately built world that his novel feels like a bath, completely submerged. Rich prose, mature characters make up for the unfamiliarity. A gripping plot won’t let someone put the book down. Yet, it seems that worldbuilding aside, the process of creating familiarity from scratch is not a well covered topic.
A few things I’ve noticed about fantasy books that are exceptional (and I consider most of these inseparably linked to each other):
Maturity. People are people. As readers, we can accept mostly fleshed characters and improbable reactions to situations. But I think at some level, we know that it wouldn’t happen like that. The behavior of people around, the background and the appropriateness of their reaction to what happens around them are vital. We know if someone is pulling something contrived– it’s what bothered me in the otherwise enjoyable ‘Lies of Locke Lamora’. Convince me that your people are people, even if they’re bugs, aliens, or elves. I know all about people.
Repetition. Repeating themes, or elements in the story, bringing old settings back later in the story settles the reader down. It’s a familiar place, or a familiar situation, and since they’ve seen it before, they know what to expect. One bad fight in the dark, written well, with consequences, will set expectations up for another. Realize the effect repeating elements, themes, settings, and characters have, and use them.
Depth. Also known as world-building, character building, and just about every other sort of building that you can do for a story. Know everything– be able to write hundreds of pages on the culture, history, art, economy, geography, mythology, and religions you’ve invented. Show very little of that, and only when required by the story. This is about as easy as swallowing a ring of car keys, reaching down your own throat, and plucking them out again.
(See? Another analogy that wouldn’t work in a fantasy novel quite as well). And last…
Consistency. High king of fantasy, duke of literature, lord of all he beholds. Cross him, and your literary efforts will crumble to ash and salt in your hands. Do not break the rules that you lay down.