Obviously, the answer to this question varies from reader to reader. Each individual has their own tastes and stipulations when it comes to reading fantasy.
Nonetheless, a few elements stand above the rest, acting as the signature mark of fantasy novels. Today, we will take an extended look at 11 factors that answer what makes a good fantasy novel.
The most prominent factors that make a good fantasy novel is the emotional connection between the reader and the fantastical subject matter, the presence of thought-provoking content, and the ability to pull the reader into the fantasy world.
The factors listed above do not encompass all of the factors that make a good fantasy novel. However, they are a good place to start. The factors listed above and several additional fantasy components are discussed below in greater detail.
1.) Emotionally Connecting with the Reader
The foremost element that separates a “bad” fantasy novel from a “good” fantasy novel has to do with emotions.
Fantasy novels that are considered “good” invoke strong emotions in the reader. Quality fantasy books are an emotional roller coaster. There are ups, and there are downs that toy with the feelings of the reader.
Emotional investment on the part of the reader shows that they actually care what happens in the story.
If they lacked interest in the narrative, they would be unfeeling toward whatever mayhem is thrown at them.
Indifference is by far the worst enemy of writers.
Writers want their reading audience to experience what their fictional characters experience. They want their audience to tag along on the fantasy journey every step of the way.
Readers that do not respond emotionally to major plot events in a particular story will most likely abandon the novel sooner rather than later. On the reverse end of the spectrum, readers that fully empathize with the fantasy narrative will most likely read their novel all the way through.
For these reasons, I consider this to be the biggest ranking factor of whether a fantasy novel is good or not. The ability of a novel to appeal to the reader’s emotions is a substantial indicator of the overall story quality.
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2.) Thought Provoking Content
Another major factor that makes a good fantasy novel is the presence of thought-provoking content. Now you are probably asking yourself the question…
What is thought provoking content?
It is a good question that has many answers. I personally interpret thought-provoking in one particular way.
The way I see it, thought-provoking content as it relates to fantasy books is the subject matter that stays with you long after you put the book down and stop reading.
The subject matter that stays with you can take on a variety of forms. For instance, you might be thinking about the most recent plot twist or a moral dilemma that a character is facing.
As long as the subject matter pertains to the composition of a fantasy novel, I consider the book’s content to be thought-provoking.
This factor is key to making a good fantasy novel because readers want to get the most out of their fantasy reading experiences.
They do not simply want to put the book down and wipe the story from memory. Readers yearn for stories that dwell with them and forever change how they interact with the world around them.
Good fantasy stories do not merely present a tale.
They become an integral part of the reader long after the tale has been said and done.
3.) Pulling the Reader into the Fantasy World
Descriptive world-building is pivotal to the quality of a fantasy novel. The fantasy setting must be jam-packed with meaningful details to paint a picture for the reader.
They want to be able to visualize the fictional environment for themselves.
Providing fantasy readers with a vast repertoire of scenic images will make it easier for the reader to accomplish this visualization. From the rocky highlands of the mountains to the green pastures of the plains, readers want the little details about practically everything.
Some readers not only demand that they be able to visualize the fantasy world.
They also demand that they be pulled from reality into the fantasy world itself.
This is arguably the toughest task for fantasy writers to perform. Creating a picturesque fictional world from scratch is challenging enough. However, designing a scenic fantasy universe and fully immersing the reader into the fictional environment is something very few writers can muster.
Nonetheless, good fantasy novels are somehow able to pull it off. Although it is a tall order, there is nothing that even comes close to the feeling of forgetting about reality and entering the realm of fantasy.
4.) Fresh and Original Subject Matter
This is another huge element that makes a good fantasy novel.
Readers do not want to read the same reworded fantasy narrative over and over again.
They crave fresh, original fantasy content that is different from anything else they have read prior.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Drawing inspiration for fantasy writing is no small task by any stretch of the imagination.
If you are looking for effective means to stumble upon the inspiration for your fantasy work, check out my article, 15 Ways to Draw Inspiration for Fantasy Writing. These tips may help you uncover the next big thing in fantasy.
Writing fresh and original subject matter involves a bit of risk on the part of the author. To write something the fantasy reading community has never seen before…
You must stray away from the norm.
Most of these original fantasy concepts will flop, but there are a select few that strike gold. The novels based on these “golden” fantasy concepts are the fantasy works that revolutionize the genre for generations to come.
The bottom line is that recycled fantasy content never usually bodes well with seasoned fantasy readers. Good fantasy novels always incorporate some one-of-a-kind concept that separates them from the competition.
5.) Literary Themes that Teach Life Lessons
Fantasy book fanatics like to have a bit of complexity in what they read. They like a challenge.
Fantasy readers want to take away something from the fantasy they read and apply it to their own lives.
The entertainment and allure of a fantasy narrative should be the primary objective. However, it never hurts to have the bonus of practical elements that transition nicely to the real world.
For example, most young adult fantasy novels integrate the coming of age theme to better appeal to their target audience.
Young adult readers can discover much about themselves from the coming of age theme alone. The trials and hardships that the young protagonist experiences serve as a model of what to do (or not to do) during the maturation process.
Such priceless knowledge will carry with them for a long time, ultimately shaping who they will want to become.
All of this stems from just one example of the coming-of-age theme. But, could you imagine what sort of effect several of these themes could have on a reader?
Good fantasy novels share precious life lessons time and time again through their literary themes.
These life lessons alter numerous lives for the better. This priceless wisdom deserves its due credit for setting the bar high for good fantasy novels.
6.) Eye-Catching Uses of Magic
Good fantasy novels feature spectacular, clever uses of magic.
This largely has to do with the creativity and ingenuity of the magic system itself.
Magic systems that are mere copycats of other renowned fantasy works are easily sniffed out and rebuffed. However, supernatural concepts that are completely original are what distinguish the good fantasy novels from the pack.
The thing with magic is that there are an overwhelming amount of opportunities a writer can take advantage of. Since the laws of nature do not apply, fantasy writers can quite literally bend nature to their will.
This amount of creative freedom is a blessing and a curse.
It is a blessing in that the writer has the freedom to write whatever their heart desires. They can showcase the extent of their creative artistry without any restrictions to hold them back.
On the other hand, there is a certain expectation that goes along with this creative writing freedom. Readers call for fresh, cutting-edge magical concepts every time they pick up a new novel. If they feel that the use of magic is not “inventive” enough, they may drop the book right then and there.
Thus, the use of magic has been growing increasingly significant over the years as more and more supernatural concepts flood the fantasy genre.
Writing a good magic system is not easy.
Then again, no one ever said that writing a good fantasy novel was easy either.
7.) Sophisticated Yet Understandable Story Line
I mentioned before that a complex storyline is virtually a prerequisite for good fantasy novels. Although authors should rightfully seek a complex storyline after, this should not come at the expense of comprehension.
The storyline should not be overly complicated.
No good ever comes from a fantasy novel that is impossible to understand. If the reader has no grasp of what is going on, the reader will abandon the novel without a second thought.
Do not get me wrong. Good fantasy novels definitely have multiple moving parts. Nonetheless, the web of plot developments should be organized and presented to minimize confusion as much as possible.
A bit of confusion here and there is inevitable. However, if it gets to the point where every couple of pages, the reader has to backtrack, that will knock the writing quality down several notches.
A remarkable example of this balance is seen in A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin.
Although a lot is happening all at once, Martin categorizes all the action by separating the chapters into first-person character perspectives. This way, you know exactly what sort of action is happening and to whom it is affecting.
From an omniscient perspective, these plot developments may have gotten a bit dicey. But, luckily for us, Martin is thoroughly educated in what makes a good fantasy novel.
8.) Relatable Fantasy Characters
Another crucial factor to consider is whether or not the reader can relate to the fantasy characters.
Although people flock to the fantasy genre for superhuman feats, they do not want invincible characters.
Flawless fantasy characters that are perfect in every way lack relatability. In reality, everybody has strengths and weaknesses. We learn to deal with our weaknesses because it is a part of life. Thus, fantasy characters that lack any vulnerabilities whatsoever fail to be human in the reader’s eyes.
Readers want characters that they can empathize with.
Fantasy is great and all, but it should not overshadow the human nature of the main characters.
In the most renowned fantasy works, the insecurities, self-doubt, and failures of fantasy characters are put on full display. It reveals that even these seemingly invincible fantasy characters have chinks in their armor too.
There is no real character depth if a fantasy character never stumbles along the way. The failures of a character inform their later successes.
To put it in a nutshell, both the characterization and the plot in general benefit from the presence of dynamic characters whose thoughts and actions fluctuate throughout the novel.
9.) Clever Use of Dialogue
Dialogue is another variable that has a major influence on well a fantasy novel is received.
The interactions between characters must check a lot of boxes to raise a story to the next level. The dialogue must provide insight into the mindset of characters, reveal how characters view one another, and shed light on cultural intricacies.
These are but a few of the many areas writers must address via character dialogue. There are countless other fantasy aspects that dialogue can address. It is only a matter of what literary areas the author wants to prioritize.
The routes that an author elects to take with dialogue will impact every other facet of the story.
There is nothing left untouched by character dialogue.
This is why an author must pay their due diligence when it comes to dialogue. Not only must the dialogue have meaning and depth, but it must also be presented in a witty, clever manner that will keep the reader entertained.
Not every conversation should revolve around the meaning of life and the purpose of human existence. Instead, novelists should throw friendly banter in now and again to illustrate an element of realism to the story.
Combining all of these elements into one novel is a formidable undertaking. When done right, however, clever use of dialogue can take the quality of a fantasy novel to the next tier.
10.) Steady Pacing of Story
The narrative’s pacing is another factor to be considered when determining the quality of a fantasy novel.
The best fantasy books in the business pace their stories marvelously. The story has slow sections and fast sections meticulously calculated to make for an optimal reading experience.
It is blatantly obvious when a story is excessively slow-paced.
In these sorts of novels, there are excessive tangents and meaningless content. This “fluff” adds extra subject matter to the story but takes away from the reading experience.
I can understand wanting to provide the reader with as much time as possible with their favorite fantasy stories, but not at the expense of hollow writing.
On the contrary, fantasy stories that are too fast-paced overwhelm the reader with too much content at once.
This is equally as bad as a novel that is too slowly placed
Fast-paced novels will scare off potential readers. Having a constant carousel of characters and an excessive turnover in the setting does not give the reader enough time to settle into the story.
A breakneck pace severs any potential emotional connection a reader may have with the story, which goes back to the first factor mentioned on this list.
Most everything in a fantasy story should be included with a purpose in mind. Keeping a steady pace that is neither too fast nor too slow is essential to making a good fantasy story.
11.) Epically Satisfying Conclusion
Good fantasy novels almost always end on a high note. The story finale is a massive determinant of whether or not the fantasy novel will be well received.
As the suspense builds higher and higher, so do the expectations of the reader.
This means that even if the beginning and middle of the fantasy narrative are rock solid, the book may still flop if the ending is weak.
Reading audiences long to have closure with their favorite fantasy works. The conclusion should have twists and turns, shocks and thrills, and happiness and sadness above all else.
The ending wraps up everything that the narrative has been leading up to. For this reason, authors must tie up all the loose ends. Good fantasy novels leave no room for ambiguity.
Fantasy writers do not want to leave the questions of their loyal fans unanswered. Instead, they want to satisfy all of their queries and curiosities in one clean sweep.
This is not to say that the conclusion is just a list of things to be checked off the list. On the contrary, the finale should be the portion of the novel where the reader is the most emotionally engaged. It is where characters finally get to see their happy resolution…
Or meet their tragic end.
How an author attacks the conclusion varies from novel to novel, but the general principle remains the same. To put it bluntly, pretty much every good fantasy novel has an epically satisfying conclusion.