Gabrielle Fletcher considers what good fantasy fiction is:
I remember one Christmas when my younger brother and I were no older than thirteen...it was a time that some important video game was coming out. My brother had been dropping hints to my parents the whole year about it in hopes of it being somewhere under the tree that Christmas. Early Christmas morning he scanned all the colorful presents' shapes looking for one that resembled his game, and there it was wrapped in shining wrapping paper waiting for him. He patiently waited to open the gift with a huge grin of anticipation across his face, clutching the present as if it were the answer to the meaning of his life. When it was his turn he manically ripped it open and then instantly his grin froze in an awkward position. The promising package in his hand was not the game he had been hoping for but one of The Chronicles of Narnia novels. His face dropped in disappointment as he stared at the glossy paperback book. "God damn it, another fantasy book?" he muttered under his breath tossing the book in my direction. Being the bookworm of the family I quickly snatched the rejected present, stashing it with the books my parents had given me. Later that week I finished it and recommended that he read it. "It's probably just like Harry Potter and the rest of those magic books," he responded to me, "and nothing is better than Harry Potter."
The memory of that Christmas and his reaction to Fantasy has always stayed in the back of my mind. Most people I know trash Fantasy comparing it to movie versions of Fantasy books claiming they all must be the same. When reading these books in this genre it was hard not to see the same pattern of theme and storylines. Usually when one thinks of a Fantasy story it has the usual elements of supernatural, magic, romance, heroes overcoming evil, or characters discovering themselves as they are. With all these redundant plot lines, how can you determine what makes a 'good' fantasy fiction story?
It varies with each reader's preferences and what their own personal expectations are for the Fantasy book. While reading some selected works I was able to develop a kind of way to evaluate the novels by comparing the author's fictional world and character development. If the world was unclear to me or characters were weak, I wasn't as intrigued with the books. Without noticing it I was setting up my own personal expectation I usually look for in a good book. Some questions I would ask myself: "Has it been thought out well?" "Are there any connections to reality from this fictional land?" "Can I picture this world?" "Who is this character really?" and "What can I learn from these characters?"
Fictional world development is key to any good fiction story whether it's fantasy or trashy soft-core romance novels; you know the ones that you catch your mom or some older woman secretly engrossed by. A reader can't fully grasp or enjoy a Fantasy novel if the world they are trying to imagine or see isn't fully developed. An author could write about the most realistic characters, draw out epic storylines, or imagine the most brutal battles on paper--but if the world doesn't fit, how can all these elements come together?
In Sheri Tepper's novel King's Blood Four of the True Game trilogy, she successfully paints a new world to readers where characters/players battle in Lands of the True Game. Each player of True Game has a unique power such as healing, shape shifting, necromancy, or magic used for combat. The land is divided by Kings and rulers, each having their own set of special players to fight for them.
The actual landscape of the True Game is vast and spacious marked with canyons, waterways, and lush forests. Tepper uses poetic language to help describe the True Game world and settings. For example, while Peter, the protagonist of the story, finally reaches old Windlow's castle, Tepper shows her knowledge of the land's natural beauty describing just basic nature as "trees loomed like towers, vast as clouds" (61). The trail Peter walks on is "needle-strewn and redolent of resin, sharp and soft in the nostrils. Flowers bloomed in the shade, their secret faces turned down to the mosses" (61-62). Clearly she knows exactly how her world is portrayed, and successfully can draw the reader to her imaginative landscape within the book. While reading the novel you can feel like you're taking a personal tour with Peter as he discovers his own world.
Character development is another important element in the fantasy fiction genre. Usually you see the protagonist discovering their true identity throughout the novel, watching the character grow right before your own eyes. These heroes or villains are able to identify themselves and the world around them, which most of the time is something that all readers can relate to as we try to discover ourselves in life.
In Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's Good Omens the collaboration was ingenious, being able to successfully developed well-rounded characters. Although Good Omens is considered Fantasy fiction, the story is set up in reality during Armageddon. Two unlikely characters, Crowley, a demon from hell and Aziraphale, the archangel from the garden of Eden, band together to help save humanity. Their relationship, although originally based on a mutual agreement, becomes genuine in the story. As they learn to accept each other as they are, Crowley and Aziraphale also become more human-like and develop a taste for ordinary human life. Crowley, who was created without free will, develops it while on earth describing it as almost something contagious: "you couldn't hang around humans for very long without learning a thing or two" (Gaiman and Pratchett 39).
Pratchett and Gaiman use the angel and the demon not only to satirize but symbolize individual passion for salvation of the human race. Their internal transitions throughout the novel makes them more realistic and relatable than most of the non-fantastical characters in the book even though they are supernatural creatures.
It is up to the reader to decide what makes a good fantasy fiction; it's a matter of opinion and preference. Character and world development could prove a good story for some, and others not. Going back to what my brother said to me that one Christmas--"It's probably just like Harry Potter and the rest of those magic books and nothing is better than Harry Potter"--fantasy may seem tiresome and repetitive to some people. If they allow themselves, they could see that it is the opposite--and there are books better than Harry Potter.
Gaiman, Neil, and Terry Pratchett. Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. Harper Torch, 2006. Print.
Tepper, Sheri. The True Game. Ace Trade, 1996. Print.