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 romance, YA 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?