What do YOU look for in a great (fantasy) novel?

I find myself very interested in what other people look for in a great fantasy novel–or any novel, for that matter, but as I happen to write fantasy, and read quite a bit of it, I figured I would start with that. What aspects do you find your favorite novels share? (Any novels. Don’t hesitate to post comments if you’re not a big fantasy person yourself.)

Here’s a list of some things I find I MUST have in a novel to consider it a favorite:

  1. CHARACTERS WHO ARE LIKE ME: that is, human in sentiment and in the range of what they feel, in their flaws, in their ability to make well-thought out decisions at the same time as  they make various mistakes. This is, really and truly, the only thing that makes fantasy readable. A sorcerer can have all the magic in the world; a character can be called a hobbit and look different than human beings as we know them. I connect to characters in a foreign world, with powers I can’t contemplate and of a species unknown to me, because at the core they are the same as me. One thing I like about fantasy in particular is the ability to of conflicts between different species or races to allegorize real world conflict, such as WWII, Apartheid race relations, or trouble in the Middle East. Good characterization, depth of characterization, is key. No good guy is fully good. No bad guy can be fully bad and make any kind of conflict interesting. (Remember, while the Harry Potter books have bogey-man bad guy Voldemort, they also have the fully human and far more complex Malfoy family).
  2. SACRIFICE: I believe in the value of selflessness, of giving up something that I have or that’s a part of me for the benefit of someone else. While I cannot claim I’m as selfless as I’d like to be–not even close–I believe we are born into this world to support one another, to give and take and coexist through mutual aid. Sometimes that involves sacrifice. Looking back, all of the novels that have moved the most have a very strong element of sacrifice in them, at times taking the form of death and bloodshed, at times not: Les Misérables, Don Quixote, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter. These books are quite different from one another in many respects, but they all share a reflection of the beauty and the weakness of the human condition–a weakness that is also strength, as St. Paul so famously notes. They reflect that aspect of humanity through portraying characters who sacrifice and suffer for a purpose greater than themselves. Great books demonstrate the power and the purpose of selfless thought and action, or show, in contrast, the dangers of utter self-centeredness (see Gone With the Wind, another of my favorite books).
  3. DEEP, MEANINGFUL FRIENDSHIPS OR RELATIONSHIPS: This isn’t a profound realization, but: Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Sam and Frodo (brave little hobbitses!). Scarlett and Rhett. “Les Misérables” has The Friends of the ABC (Les Amis des Abassés), and if all Marius’s father sacrifices for the security and welfare of his son does not affect you in some way, you have no heart at all.  My relationships with family and friends are central to the meaning and the purpose of my life, and characters who exist in complicated relationships, I know, are like me. I can relate to them. (Notice how all these list components are linking together? Good literature does that. It’s complex, but every piece interweaves.)
  4. REDEMPTION: Redemption and forgiveness are so powerful, and such major aspects of the human experience. I absolutely love a story about people who make mistakes, and rather than giving up, choose to make things right, no matter how hard the process, and resolve to live a better life in the future. I once heard in a homily that a successful life is one in which you rise one more time than you fall down, and that really rang true to me. It stuck with me.  The search for redemption is a MAJOR component of “Les Misérables” in particular, my favorite novel of all time, and an important feature to the character of Remus Lupin, one of my favorites in any fiction.
  5. : WORLD I CAN FALL INTO: Whether it’s Middle Earth or the Antebellum South, I must have a footing in the world where the characters live and breathe, or I’m lost. Just lost. This goes for the physical elements as well as cultural ones. A great book allows me to comprehend a foreign place without even knowing it’s teaching me about the “rules” of the story’s universe. I don’t want to know I’m being schooled!
  6. GOOD, READABLE PROSE: This is basic, but the writing can’t feel choppy or truncated to me. The pacing must work and not make me aware things are moving too fast or too slow. Too many adverbs draw too much attention to the fact that I’m reading something someone wrote. I want to read without thinking about the fact that I’m reading.
  7. THERE IS SOMETHING CONCRETE ABOUT THE STORY THAT STICKS WITH ME AND THAT I WANT TO EMULATE IN MY OWN WAY: As a writer, this is critical for me. Reading is preparation, and lesson, and cause for inspiration. If there is not something I can identify to admire and learn from in a work, to keep in mind when I write my own fiction, the time spent reading is a waste. (On the other hand, reading something that’s horribly written can be worth its weight in gold as well, if I take the time to contemplate WHY the piece doesn’t hold together. Negative exemplars can be valuable tools.)

So, that’s my two cents. What do you think? Looking back, what are the characteristics  your favorite novels share? It’s a question worth contemplating. I’ve learned a lot about myself finding common elements among some of my favorite literature.

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3 responses to “What do YOU look for in a great (fantasy) novel?

  1. I am not so much a fan of characters that are “like me,” except for the fact that they are flawed. That is something that holds true for any genre, though.

    I also love a world that grows and expands and becomes just as real, if not more, than my own. If I am more interested in the nations of the fantasy world than I am, say, Oman or Cambodia, then that is a good start.

    -A.M.

  2. Love the idea of world’s you can ‘fall into’. For me those worlds are based on history or mythology. Am a big fan of Ursula le Guin and Juliet Marrillier. Am also partial to dragons woven into the narrative.

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