10 Common Mistakes I See in Epic Fantasy Writing

I recently encountered a question on Quora asking what some “fatal flaws” or mistakes in fantasy novels are. I wrote a response to it, and it got me thinking about the things that most commonly make me give up on a fantasy book, rate it poorly, or even avoid reading it in the first place. This was a helpful exercise as I want to avoid these things in my own writing, and it struck me that if I expanded and extended my answer it might make for an interesting (perhaps even useful!) blog post.

However, the things that will turn me off an epic high fantasy are often different to the things that will turn me off a paranormal romanceYA or urban fantasy. So in this post I’ll be tackling the flaws I often find in epic high fantasy novels, and I’ll handle the things that grate on me in the other genres next week.

1. Poor Writing

In any genre, stilted or badly written prose will not do a book any favours, however some weaknesses I particularly notice in Epic High Fantasy are:

  • Poor use of archaisms – when clumsily used or over used, archaisms can make a fantasy seem dry, detached, or just downright comical. (For more information on and examples of archaisms see: The ‘Ye Olde’ in Epic Fantasy: 5 Archaisms Explained)
  • Verbosity – long, indulgent, flowery paragraphs that are packed with adjectives and uninteresting descriptions will often fail to hold interest.
  • Stilted or grandiose dialogue – where characters talk less like human beings and more like gods in an ancient Greek play. Certainly, a little of this is expected in fantasy (e.g. if an ancient prophecy is being recounted) but if the main characters converse in melodramatic clichés or cryptic word puzzles for the whole novel readers will be putting it down very quickly.
  • Expository dialogue – it’s jarring where characters say things they have no logical reason to say, purely so the author can reveal something to the reader/audience.
  • Bad poetry – in fact, poems or songs of any kind in a novel annoy me and I usually skip them, but I’m sure some readers enjoy them, so I’ll limit this to bad poems – i.e. clumsily written, purposeless inclusions that get in the way of the story, and serve as a red flag for the likely presence of purple prose in the rest of the novel.

2. Unoriginal Use of Fantasy Clichés

I don’t mind a few clichés if they are handled in interesting ways or combined with more unexpected content. However, too many fantasy clichés that are used in the same tired ways will not only make me stop reading, their presence might turn me off a book before even attempting it. Here are a few examples of cliché plot elements I’d steer clear of:

  • Young “chosen one” peasant boy/girl with hitherto unknown special power/heritage/destiny is helped by mentor to escape evil black wraith-like creatures and treks across a land to save world from an evil power. This has just been done to death, and is too reminiscent of Lord of the Rings and other fantasy novels to be even remotely interesting to me.
  • Cardboard cut-out medieval setting. If the world is just a whole lot of generic inns, villages, stable boys, soldiers and castles, all with a distinctly English culture and nothing fresh or new… I’m going to find it a boring place to be.
  • Dwarves, Elves, Orcs. To be honest, the presence of even one of these in a fantasy makes me dubious, though I’ll still give it a go if it looks like it might be handled in an interesting way. But if all three are mentioned in a blurb, I probably won’t be reading the book (unless I get a gushing recommendation from someone I trust).
  • Special swords. I am personally very sick of special swords. I can overlook them if the rest of the story is good, but they always irritate me. I don’t care who the sword belonged to, how it was forged, or what magical properties it has – I’ve heard this cliché a thousand times before. It’s just a sword.

There are plenty more of course, those are just the ones that currently come to mind. Also note that the no-cliché rule also extends to cliché names, characters and phrases.

3. Long, Slow Beginnings

A slow beginning will not always make me put down a fantasy, but it will almost always annoy me. This is particularly the case if it’s a from-childhood retelling, where we are taken through virtually the whole childhood of the main character before any of the key events of the story actually unfold.

Even epic fantasies I have really enjoyed, such as The Lies of Locke Lamora and The Name of the Wind have nearly lost me at the start due to slow beginnings and flashbacks to childhoods. Had they been less acclaimed or well-written books I might have given up and missed out on these great stories. You could argue that these slow starts were necessary to get to know the character, and maybe they were, but I’ve read other high fantasy novels that succeeded without them (e.g. Sabriel, The Blade Itself, The Final Empire).  It’s a complex issue, and I have a post that covers this topic in more detail as I’m in two minds about it – Epic Fantasy Novels and Long Beginnings – but ultimately I believe authors should think twice about whether a slow, from-childhood beginning is really critical to their story.

4. Too Many Point of View (POV) Characters

I know that is a classic tradition in high fantasy – to have multiple main characters and switch to a different perspective for each chapter. I like it if it’s done well and the POV characters are limited, but when a book starts switching between too many POVs, the following problems often arise:

  • each character’s story inches along at such a slow rate that nothing much happens at all over the course of the book.
  • by the time I finally return to a character I’ve read about before, I’ve forgotten (and stopped caring) where they were and what they were doing.
  • my flow and enjoyment is constantly frustrated as each character’s storyline is cut short just when it starts to get interesting – if this happens enough my annoyance will override my desire to continue.
  • some of the characters are boring, and I want to skip their chapters.

I confess that this is in part the reason why I have not read beyond A Game of Thrones in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and only watch the TV show. I just can’t handle that many characters, and the slow pace they create. Of course, plenty of people don’t mind this, and if you’re a master craftsmen like Martin readers will stick with you regardless, but as a novice writer I’d personally be very hesitant to introduce too many POVs.

5. Indulgent Worldbuilding and Info Dumps

I love rich fantasy worlds, but I do not love them when their features are described to me in streams of long, unbroken passages or dry “info dumps” that have little to do with the story at hand. In particular, if an epic fantasy that begins with a history-book style prologue, e.g. “In the Third Age, when the four kings came down from Parlimor and contested the right of the Elves to the Forests of Xithrith, the world was forever divided… etc. etc.” it will have me rolling my eyes. You don’t need info dumps like these to create a rich fantasy world – a skilled author should be able to weave these details seamlessly into the story that is being told, blending world building with the characters and events at hand.

6. Bland, Two-Dimensional Characters

If a main character has no traits or opinions that make them unique, lacks a distinct voice, has no flaws, or is just plain dull, I will have trouble caring what happens to them, and thus caring about the story at all.

In epic fantasy, this seems to most often happen with child protagonists… they’re living their normal life until they are swept up by a mentor who helps them discover their special powers and go out to save the world.  The problem is, if they have little depth to their personality or interesting life experience, they trundle through it all wide-eyed, asking predictable questions, having no out-of-the-ordinary opinions about things and being generally rather emotionally empty and shallow.

7. Too Much Action, Too Little Story

I’ve come across a few stories where plenty of action is happening – battles, swords, fights, assassinations – but none of it is very interesting, either because I don’t care about the characters (see point 6 above) or because it feels like none of it is going anywhere. If there is little or no end goal in sight and no purpose to what they are doing, it’s hard for me to get invested. It’s like going to watch a kung-fu film and finding it consists of various unknown people battling each other non-stop for two hours… maybe if you’re really into kung-fu you’d be entertained, but most moviegoers are going to leave the cinema unsatisfied.

8. Stereotyping of Female Characters

I don’t much care if the point-of-view characters in a fantasy novel are all male. Yes, I’m more likely to read and relate to the book if there are female characters, but if it’s a good story the gender of the characters doesn’t much matter to me.

However, what will turn me off is female characters (minor or major) that are all clichéd two-dimensional stereotypes. A book full of doe-eyed brainless barmaids, insignificant wives, grumpy old matrons and gaudy prostitutes is not only unimaginative and cliché, it’s a real turn off for a female reader. Furthermore, if the fantasy world is one in which women are downtrodden or confined to domestic life,  I need to get some sense that at least one character is unsatisfied with this or rebelling/resisting the box they have been placed in, or leading an interesting life in some way… otherwise it’s just depressing.

I highly recommend this article on Tor.com: Writing Women Characters Into Epic Fantasy Without Quotas, which discusses the diverse roles women have played in different societies throughout history, and how these can be drawn upon in writing fantasy.

9. Lack of Logic or Plausibility

If characters are making illogical decisions or reacting in odd ways, or events that are happening don’t seem plausible, it will shatter my suspension of disbelief and draw my attention to the fact the author is not-so-skilfully trying to twist things to suit their plot. The same goes for any element in the story that has too obviously been “put” there by the author… in other words, anything that feels more like an artificial addition than an organic part of the story.

In epic fantasy, this is particularly a problem if the magical system doesn’t make sense, or if characters choose to complete a difficult quest/task when a quick spell or ride on dragon-back could have saved them all the time and trouble. It’s also a problem if characters withhold important information from other characters for no good reason other than that the author doesn’t want that tidbit revealed yet.

10. Too Much Obfuscation

If I immediately find myself in a thicket of made-up fantasy words whose meanings I don’t know, or trying to make sense of wordy abstract sentences, or reading passages that have me bewildered because characters are referring to events and things I haven’t heard about, giving me no clues to ground myself with, I’m going to give up.

I think this sort of thing often happens because fantasy authors want to make their characters seem mysterious and unknowable and more-than-human, or just generally to create intrigue, so they withhold or obscure or complicate things… which is fine, but if it’s overdone all it creates is confusion.

_________

So those are a few key “flaws” that can have me giving up on a book or taking my star rating down a few notches. Some are perhaps more specific to my personal tastes as a reader, but I think many would be shared by other fantasy fans. And of course, there’s undoubtedly more I haven’t included, but I’d say the above are my top ten.

Do you have any pet hates or “fatal flaws” when it comes to epic high fantasy? Are there any mistakes you think fantasy writers often make?

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25 thoughts on “10 Common Mistakes I See in Epic Fantasy Writing

  1. This is literally the best post ever!! I am a huge fan of fantasy, but I see so many of these things far too often! I absolutely abhor bad writing in any context- but for some reason too many fantasy novels seem bogged down by it. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve started reading a fantasy epic and just wanted to yell at the publishers “how did you let this get published” (actually that’s not just fantasy books- that happens a lot with YA). Either way, if a book is published the absolute minimum I expect from it is not to have bad English. Poor use of archaism, stilted dialogue and expository dialogue seem to be the main ones. I’m not wholly against poetry or verbosity in some cases- but too often it tends to be terrible in fantasy books.
    Ahh fantasy cliches- sometimes they make me laugh out loud. I have an issue with literally everything you put on that list turning up in a book! Especially orcs- call me crazy, but since they’re a tolkein invention, they have no purpose in *any* other book- when I see books about orcs I basically just think it’s lotr fanfic and don’t bother with it. Tolkein-esque elves and dwarves are only slightly more acceptable. As for special swords and chosen ones- gah!- they really wind me up at this stage!
    I totally agree about slow beginnings. And while I’m a fan of Game of thrones, I have to agree with you. The first time I heard about it, I tried reading it and gave up. It was only cos I loved the TV show when it came out that I bothered reading it at all- and that was just cos I had to know what happened next before the series came out (and in the future I’ll read the series cos I want to know how it differs to the show)
    There is nothing I hate more than info dumps and self-indulgent world building. There are books I could mention that go off on such terrible tangents just for the sake of the author being like “look I spent years writing the backstory- so I’m gonna include it whether it enhances the story or not!”
    And I hate bad, bland characters in any context!
    Oh yes the obfuscation drives me crazy too- this is a little unfair of me, but if a book has an index of made up words chances are I’ve already started judging the book- and not in a good way :/
    This was a truly brilliant post! I loved every second of it!

    Liked by 2 people

    • So glad you liked the post!! Thanks for commenting, good to know someone else gets annoyed by these things too 🙂

      I think Orcs are also highest on my warning list – they only feel right to me in Tolkien’s books (and maybe also in video games like Warcraft 🙂 ).

      With Game of Thrones I was also tempted to go back and give the books another go because people kept discussing how the TV series was diverging from the books significantly and I was curious… but my TBR list is too long and I can’t bring myself to attempt the books again yet. Maybe I will one day. I guess I’ve become an impatient reader and a huge series like that has to be more thrilling and fast-paced for me to invest time reading all of it instead of starting something new.

      Indexes and glossaries also make me dubious! As do multiple maps (one or two is fine but if I have to leaf through ten maps before I get to the start of the story I will be a little worried). Though one series I read had a character glossary (a kind of who’s who list) which I found helpful, because secondary characters kept popping back onto the scene several books after I’d last read about them and I’d forgotten who they were and how the main character knew them! There were only one or two main POV characters in the story though so it was manageable.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I really did!

        Ah definitely agree with you there- obviously I don’t have a problem with them in video games- but then I don’t play them :p

        That makes total sense- I’ve got to be one of the only Game of Thrones fans that’s completely obsessed with it, but thinks the books have a lot of flaws, so I totally get it when people give up on it. Personally, I’ve always thought the tv series was better. Even season 5- and there were some bits I didn’t like about season 5 (and I’m not talking about the Sansa bits).

        I know right! I agree with you about character lists- I don’t have a problem with that- mostly cos I’ve read a few russian books where they do that- which is totally necessary cos it takes a while to get the hang of all the different derivatives for names! But a glossary of made up words? If there are so many that it needs a glossary then I start to get worried. I mean, I’m not trying to learn a made up language when I pick up a fantasy book!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. In line with your observation of too many characters, what peeves me is when a likable character is arbitrarily killed. Or there’s a new POV that is immediately killed. I think many authors do this to raise the stakes or conceal a killer’s identity, but I hate that approach.

    Also, when the author gives a character a long, lovely fantasy name, but then goes through the book calling them a very modern name. Ie: “Crystalaina” becomes “Chris.” Long, lovely names are a hallmark of fantasy. Why wreck them?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes I hate it when a character I’ve just started to become invested in gets killed off! Especially if their POV is then replaced by a new character who I don’t care about as much. I guess if it’s one or two characters who die and their deaths are meaningful it adds emotion/tension, but if it’s arbitrary, or multiple nice characters just keep dying, I tend to emotionally retreat from the story.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I agree! For example, I was recently reading the Riyria Revelations. It’s an amazing series, but there were a few characters I was looking forward to seeing more of… and then they die.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Many many agreements! Especially on poor prose and rampant cliches, and on the “let’s tell the story from the beginning, because you can only understand this hero (who is much like every other fantasy hero) and his manpain if you see it aaaaallllll”. I would much rather meet a layered, complex, historied character in the midst of life, and then see the history bleed into the present as it’s pertinent. (In that regard, I feel like Lies of Locke Lamora did pretty well, entwining only the important bits of history with the story of the present.)

    I’m of a slightly different view with regards to many POVs, though – I love to see many different sides to a story (as long as they are different sides and different voices, not just the same voice with different names). But what turns me off a book is when we’re introduced to too many POVs in too short succession, especially when they are not related to each other at all – so essentially, I have to start six different stories all at once. That really bogs down the start of a book. So in some ways, I feel like Game of Thrones managed this one well, but starting the story smaller with a focus on the Starks and action up at Winterfell before spinning out into a wider focus… but to be honest, I can’t remember if it did that and I’m too lazy to go and find my copy and check. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • I feel like multiple characters can have their best use when the cast needs to split up, things are happening in different places, and you want the reader to know all of it. (Saves characters having to explain, later, what they’ve experienced when they meet up with other characters.)

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes I think Locke Lamora did do it well – it was more that when the flashbacks first came in I got worried it would start to be one of those “let’s start from the beginning and fill in everything about this hero” (and his manpain!) ones, and it slowed the pace in the present a bit, but it soon avoided becoming one of those and I loved it in the end.

      With the POVs I think that is definitely my personal preference showing through – the multiple POVs in Game of Thrones clearly didn’t bother most other people! The book does start with a focus on the Starks, though if I remember correctly it swaps to Daenerys occasionally… and I think my problem was I was far more interested in her story than what was happening with any of the Starks so got frustrated every time it went back to them 🙂 Anyway, you’re right that the connectedness of the different POVs, not just their number, plays a role in how easy it is to get into story. Now I think about it I realise ‘The Blade Itself’ only really started hooking me when the 3 POVs began to converge.

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    • Haha no I do like epic fantasy! Some of my favourite books are epic fantasies and I’m actually writing one at the moment – but I guess I just don’t like the ones that do the above things 🙂 (I have to admit though I’m not as much of a traditional epic fantasy fan as others I know, I tend to steer more toward fantasy romance, YA fantasy and paranormal/urban fantasy)

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Oh, and one more thing that was bothering me for a while now. It looks like in each of the books I’m reading when there is magic it’s always something that used to be a stronger force a long time ago. Why is it that magic powers always have to diminish with time and never get stronger?

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  5. One illogical theme I see far too often can be put under #9. Tell me if you’ve heard this one: A lowly apprentice knight suddenly finds himself at the head of his kingdom’s army, and his battle plan brilliantly saves the land from a more powerful invader.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha true – all those experienced decorated leaders never have any good ideas, the inexperienced newcomer is definitely the better one for the job!

      I can see why its a popular trope though in the way it plays into our appreciation of underdogs… and the drama of an undiscovered hero miraculously saving the day. Doesn’t make it any more plausible though…

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  6. I enjoyed and agreed with 75% of the article however I’m a huge fan of indulgent world building and slow/spacious beginnings. Also a sucker for special/magical weapons. I could not agree with you more about writing about orcs and elves. I once read a super rad article by the fantasy author Daniel Polansky about how ridiculous writing about elves is. They almost always Tolkien-esque. All in all, I really enjoyed reading your post! Keep up the good work!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! I do also like magical weapons, I think it’s just swords I have a problem with as they crop up so often… but I have a few friends who love magical swords so I guess I’m also just personally not that into swords 🙂 As for the worldbuilding, I know plenty of very successful books with slow beginnings and indulgent worldbuilding so I figured I’m just a more impatient reader than some. But I’m glad I’m not the only who finds elves less than thrilling… as you said, it’s rare they’re not Tolkien-esque. Will have to check out that article you mentioned, thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

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  8. I’m with you on all of this, especially #4. ASoIaF, in my opinion, is one of the worst offenders here — I hate having to wait several chapters (particularly boring chapters) to get back to a character I’m interested in.

    Annnnd I won’t even touch things with elves in it, unless it’s Tolkien.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So true, there’s nothing worse than boring chapters when you just want to get back to the more interesting character! Maybe one day I will attempt ASoIaF again (only read part of the first book), but I’m put off by all the POVs and the slow pace, and now I’ve watched the show (which I love!) I have even less incentive to go back and read it… but who knows, maybe if I hear more about the differences between the show and the books it will intrigue me enough to try.

      Haha, total elf ban! I can definitely understand that 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Nice write up. I find I instinctively avoid most of these issues with my writing and definitely had the same reaction to Game Of Thrones. Far too much to keep track of. I hope I have succeeded.
    Probably the biggest issue with my Epic fantasy at the moment is that so far it runs to 230 000 words and I often see articles saying even half that is too much. However with beta readers that give good honest feedback I have been told it holds attention throughout the book and they are keen to see it finished. The main criticism was that I need more on some characters and events that are in themselves of interest in their own right as well as being critical to the story. I am trying not to make the book too big but have been asked for more so will do so and see what happens.
    Articles like yours are of great value and help a lot.

    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, I’m glad the article was helpful! I also often end up with high word counts, but I think with epic fantasy at least it is somewhat expected (when I was writing YA fantasy it was a bit harder because word counts of 100k or less are often expected for YA). I actually wrote a post on the topic of the word lengths for fantasy books – perhaps you already saw it but if not it’s here: https://thoughtsonfantasy.com/2017/02/14/how-long-should-a-fantasy-book-be/
      Yes, many articles recommend 100-150k, but you might be surprised to see that when it comes to epic fantasy a high word count isn’t always a problem (in the post I list some fantasy publisher length guidelines that are surprisingly unrestrictive, and some popular epic fantasy books with quite high word counts).

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