Three Things (Fantasy) Readers Want

It has been such an encouragement to me how many of you have really gotten some nugget of useful wisdom out of the One-Star Review series I've been posting here--I really appreciate the feedback and encouragement. As I troll more one-star diatribes for cohesive nuggets to post about, I thought I'd take a little detour to talk about what those who posted positive reviews state they want, at least in general terms, from their fantasy reading. After all, of the "big titles" I've been studying, the boo-hiss reviews represent less than 5% of the feedback on any of these books, so it seems prudent to at least touch on what most people are saying.

So here we go. If reviews are to be believed, fantasy readers want...

To visit your world

Fantasy readers generally revel in the opportunity to traverse the map of another land, if the tale you are telling allows for such things. Where the mountains are, how the weather changes from place to place, what rivers must be forded and how difficult that is--all of this information helps readers feel like they are "really there" and oriented in a fantasy world. If the landscape is especially unusual (for example, the Shattered Plains in Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings or the moon Pandora from James Cameron's Avatar) readers want as much detail as it takes to help them see the wonder. Granted, that <5% of readers did frown at the detailing of the world being overly detailed, but those folks tended to seem like they were just in the wrong place overall by reading fantasy. Sure, a lot of thriller readers couldn't care less the color of the veining on the poisonous balepetal plant, but fantasy readers in general, grin when you tell them.

To have a sense of a deeper history

Note that I said "a sense," which does not mean a huge dissertation, or heavens no, a ginormous prologue that dumps all that info into our unwilling laps. One of the major elements of The Lord of the Rings that helps it ensare readers generation after generation is the way Tolkien includes references to Middle Earth's history that are just that, references. None of his characters feel it necessary to explain what they're hinting at, just like if you were writing a contemporary earth-setting novel, you wouldn't feel compelled to explain what you meant if you referred to World War II or the Beatles. Your characters would talk about such things and they would know the cultural context. In the same way, Tolkien's characters talked about goblin wars or the lay of Beren and Luthien and at most, hinted at the full tales. And it works. (It helps for us uber-geeks that there are commentaries, notes, and appendices for us to go find out the full sweep of what these things are all about if we want to.) But for those who don't, the cultural references work to create a sense of water that runs deep with history and lore.

To feel smarter than your average bear

If there's any readership that doesn't mind technically specific vocabulary, archaic usage, and concepts that make them go "Oooh, I need to Google that," it's speculative fiction readers. Many of the folks who read fantasy are happy to spend  time with their like-minded buddies discussing the differences between a glaive-guisarm and a bardiche, and most of them would prefer you call those weapons what they are in fantasy, rather than you just say polearm. Reviewer complaints have included griping about authors whose worlds lack color because every castle guard carries a spear, or because the writer decided "people only read modern dialect nowadays." (I find homeschooled fantasy readers become especially irked about the language issue.) Granted, your novel shouldn't read like middle English, because that would be overkill. And if you're going to write in a "high" style, you better be sure you are second only to Shakespeare in your mastery of it, because it will show if you try and you're not. (Trust me on this.)

Whether we admit it or not, we spec-fic readers are a strange breed, generally more willing to figure something out we don't get on the first pass, and even more willing than average to accept things that we won't understand because the author made it up and no amount of Googling will offer more information.

I could continue to add bullet points to this list, but that may have to wait for another day. To conclude, however, I am deeply grateful for the people who take the time to post detailed reviews of books on-line. If we can't talk to readers one-on-one about our own work, it seems to me there's still a trove of information out there to tap for wisdom.

Comments

  1. Enlightening! Upon thinking about it, I'm the same way. If I'm gonna slog through 900 pages in this world, by gum, I'd better feel like I'm taking a tour of the place or it's not worth my while.

    And it'd better be a well-thought-out world, too. If I catch myself thinking, "Well, that's dumb, because that contradicts something said earlier," then I'll drop that author like a hot potato.

    In Peretti's Escape from the Island of Aquarius, he describes this reclusive island utopia with a number of dark secrets. He goes on about how they have so few shipments from the mainland and grow their own food and so on. Then he had a scene with guards eating off paper plates. It stopped me cold. Paper plates? In a place with little contact with civilization? Fortunately it was near the end and I wanted to see what happened, but it made my brain scream.

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  2. Ooops. Just goes to show, even the greats can have their lapses, eh? (He must have been cranking to get under a deadline. Lol.)

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  3. I thank thee, thy post was interesting and helpful extremely.

    Think thou of the first point applied to the holy scriptures (this is not to suggest that the scriptures are at all fiction). No other book draws man into the time and place it speaks of as doth the Bible.

    And do not think because I take this manner of speech that I count myself second only to Shakespeare.

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