It's always important to lead off a discussion on writing with one of my favorite YouTube clips.
When people are talking about fantasy or write about writing fantasy it's hard not to picture a lot of things in your head. Swords and sorcery and dragons and hero's journey and what have you. Then there's talking about literary fiction, which like Rothfuss above mentions sometimes has the stereotype of someone sitting in a room drinking tea and talking about their mother.
Neither case is entirely representative of the genre.
My fiction that is published or soon-to-be-published lands right smack in the middle of the spec-fic genre and the lit-fic "genre" since it is magic realism. But I don't think I want to be stereotyped as a predominantly magic realism writer (although it would put me in very, very, good company) and so that's why I want to write literary fiction (my manuscript is literary fiction with only the teensiest bit of magic realism in one story) and why I am pushing to write fantasy.
But man, writing fantasy is hard.
Writing, in general, is hard. It's fun. But it's hard. I enjoy writing the same way an engineer would enjoy figuring out a complex science problem.
But writing fantasy?
The challenge in writing non-genre fiction is coming up with a good story. Really, that's it. Easier said than done, naturally. You don't have to deal with a lot of tropes. You are limited to what the real world can do. Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of material out there to draw from, but you are limited to the boundaries of what humans are able to do, in this dimension, in this world.
Some could say it's kind of boring, but it really is not. As horribly mundane as some of you might perceive your existence to be, there is always drama, there is action, there is adventure, there is conflict and CONFLICT DRIVES PLOT.
Here are two novels I heartily recommend:
Wally Lamb's The Hour I first believed
There aren't any ghosts, any swords, or any spaceships involved in either book and the authors were working out of the confines of what they saw in the real world. Although Lamb had to tread very carefully as he wove the Columbine tragedy into his narrative.
Now the challenge in writing fantasy is doing everything I just said to do AND do it in an empty playground of a world or galaxy.
Spec fic authors aren't just creating a story, they're creating a story inside a world of their own imagination. With different races, with different peoples, different cultures. Some people would say "well GRRM ripped off the Wars of the A Song of Ice and Fire" but ignore that it's not ripping off. It's doing a lot of research into one subject and taking only a little bit from it. He was inspired by the Wars of the Roses and metric shitton of other things.
This is what George R.R. Martin did:
- Took a whole bunch of disconnected historical and mythological ideas
- created multi-dimensional characters who exhibit character growth
- added dragons, zombies, spells, potions to the mix without falling prey to the tropes endemic of his genre
- laughed at the idea of a main character plot armor
- greyed out a genre that is very black and white. Spoilers: Eddard Stark is a good guy, but what he does in the name of being a good guy basically fucks over 90% of Westeros
That's hard to write. Jim Butcher takes the idea of the lost Roman Legion and fucking runs with it in one of my favorite series (Codex Alera, which I still maintain is his best work).
Detractors could say "well, for any conflict, some wizard just needs to go POOF ABRACADABRA and it's fixed" and sure. There's some shitty fantasy where conflict is solved through deus ex machinas (or dei ex machinas?) like that. But to make good fantasy you have to avoid it. You also have to create a system of magic that is "believable" even in a world where you're suspending disbelief. I agree with Rothfuss in that 85% of everything is shit, regardless of what genre (or non-genre).
As a future fantasy writer it is my goal to somehow get into that 15%.
I'm also in the market for book recommendations in the fantasy genre! :)
Song title from Nightwish - Nemo