Has it ever struck you as strange how the same people who roll their eyes when you tell them you read or write fantasy adore watching Game of Thrones?
Most people who claim to hate fantasy don’t actually hate the genre, they hate stories that are told badly. The thing is that fantasy is far more susceptible to a lot of writing faux pas. Which means that many potential readers give the genre a hard pass.
Here are some of the things people hate about the genre, and how you can try to remedy that in your own writing. Not only will it make your books more likely to convert the haters, but it will offer a stronger story to fans of the genre too.
They’re skeptical about the world
Surely if magic was real it would change everything? It would impact politics, the economy, social structures… you name it. So when readers stumble into an unfamiliar world where some people have magical powers, they want to see those powers actually having some influence, not just being a nifty trick that the characters use to fight the bad guy.
In other words: they want to see good world building.
Part of the success of series like Harry Potter and Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse is the worlds are built around the existence of magic. The wizarding world in Harry Potter is a hidden society that has evolved completely differently because of the existence of magic, and JK Rowling demonstrates this superbly through Arthur Weasley and through Harry himself. In the Grisha novels, the cost of magic is right at the centre of the plot. In the Shadow & Bone trilogy, the world has literally been reshaped by magic. Those who have magic are separated from their families and made to serve the army. In the Six of Crows Duology, the main macro conflict is about how those with magic are treated and how much freedom they should have. Major wars are waged over this question.
In order to hook people into a fantastical world, it’s not enough just to have magic – it has to impact the society it exists in.
It’s not real
Many people don’t like reading fantasy because it doesn’t deal with things that actually exist, so they find it hard to relate to.
The thing is though, all good fantasy does deal with things that exist – it deals with conflict, moral codes and a struggle against evil. These are things that every person knows intimately. For many, that’s a typical day at the office.
The job of the fantasy writer is to make the troubles that the characters experience so relateable that they feel real, even if they’re technically not something that an actual person will ever go through. Hiccup and Toothless in How to Train Your Dragon appealed to fantasy fans and non-fans alike because it’s really a story about an outcast and his pet.
Oh look, another elf. Another chosen one. Another bro with a sword and a code of honour. Cool story, bro. Now let me get back to a book that I haven’t read a thousand times already.
When JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings came out, it was original. That was a large part of its success. But it sparked a flood of derivative works. Fans of fantasy love the tropes. They go straight for the cover that has the bro with a sword and a cloak. But non-fantasy fans don’t have the same sense of nostalgia associated with those tropes. To them it’s boring.
There is a middle ground, which is subverting the tropes. One of my ultimate favourite fantasy universes is Dragon Age (videogames). They have elves, they have chosen ones, and they have lots of bros with swords. Some of whom I want to marry (and have done in game a few times). What makes this series captivating is how they flip the tropes. Elves are no longer the powerful sages, but the downtrodden masses. The chosen one sometimes makes everything worse instead of better (I’m looking at you, Hawke), and the bro with a sword is really the princess in a tower who you have to save from demons and later from a drug habit.
Fans and skeptics alike enjoy being surprised and enchanted. Think about how you can play with the reader’s expectations and what your fantasy has to say about the world today, rather than about a work that was written before you were born.
It’s just too much
Fantasy can be pretty overwhelming. Not only are the books sometimes massive (I just bought an 800-pager), but they’re often a crash course in a handful of new languages and cultures. That’s a big ask before we even get to the list of complicated names no one can pronounce, or paragraph-long descriptions of leaves. And fantasy books usually travel in packs. Have you seen the size of Feist’s Riftwar Saga now? (It’s thirty. Thirty books.)
Now you’re probably thinking what I’m thinking: that’s part of the appeal! I love me a big, fat, world I can sink my teeth into!
But you can see how someone unaccustomed to fantasy might feel differently about it. That’s a lot of hours of their life you’re asking them to devote to learning about something that came out of your brain.
When you start a new fantasy series, keep this in mind. Try to ease into the world like you’d ease into a course on Latin. Start with what they already know (I’m assuming this is how it works, I’ve never taken Latin). Show them characters they can relate to, make them care about them. Show the world through the characters’ eyes and how the world affects them specifically.
In other words, show don’t tell.
And don’t assume people are automatically going to love your universe because you do. Introduce them to it, let them date it for a bit before saddling them with all of its baggage.
If you get them immersed in your universe, you might soon have them begging for the next book. Game of Thrones is the perfect example of this done well. You know that guy, Ned? You know why he (spoilers) met such an unfortunate end so early on? He’d served his purpose. His purpose was to guide you into the world. Thanks Ned!
They’re just not that into it
Everyone has their favourite genres, and for some people that is never going to be fantasy, no matter how well it’s written. So don’t be discouraged when you see people saying they don’t read fantasy and don’t like books like yours. You’re not writing stories for them. Your reader is out there and they can’t wait to explore your fantasy world.