Keeping it Simple, Stupid, In the Fantasy Genre
Updated: Nov 14
*K.E. Barron is the award winning author of the fantasy novels, The Eye of Verishten and The Immortal Serpent: Book 1 of the Bloodstone Dagger series. Book 2, Queen of the Skour, is set to be released early 2021.
Writing fantasy is anything but simple. There are entire societies, cultures, and landscapes to invent, not to mention magic systems, religions, and the actual story itself. With all these balls in the air, it’s no wonder reading fantasy novels, as brilliant and epic as they may be, is often a slog.
The fantasy genre is my absolute favorite, and yet it is the one I struggle with most as a reader. Fifty percent of the fantasy books I pick up go unfinished. However, when I do find one worth finishing, it goes right to the top of the list of best books ever! No power on this earth; not work, not family, especially not my spouse can pull me away from it. Many of the reasons why I devour some books while leaving others to rot on the shelf often come down to one simple reason: The fact that they are just that—simple.
I’m in no way saying that fantasy should be dumbed down, that you can’t have a thousand characters like George R. R. Martin or weave intricate, interconnected plot lines like Steven Erikson. When done well, that stuff is gold! But there are a few unnecessary hurdles within these books that can turn the casual fantasy reader off. The hurdles I’ll be dealing with here have to do with realism at the expense of plot and character development.
Realism in world building is important, of course. If a reader has to suspend their disbelief too much, then the book will come off as juvenile and lazy, but too much realism can be boring and downright annoying. Where I’m sure many fantasy readers love pages of detailed descriptions of various species of plants native to the made-up country of Whateverdor, I and many others just want to get to the story.
This brings me to the three main areas where I’ve chosen to sacrifice some realism to make the worlds I write more accessible to fantasy and non-fantasy readers alike. Note that the following is based on my personal preferences for what I read and write. I understand that my style may not jive with some book-lovers and that’s okay. The important thing is that we all love the fantasy genre, just in different ways, and for different reasons.
Those crazy, impossible to pronounce names are the most obvious hurdle for many of us. It can also be part of what makes fantasy great, however, so I expect to see some unique permutations of the alphabet when I glance at a map or glossary. But if every single name for every person or place requires having to make up a simpler version of that word in your head and mentally embed it into the narrative because there’s no possible way you can ‘sound it out’ then that leaves less mental capacity available to follow what’s actually happening in the story. For my own novels, I take inspiration from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy, which is a great example of names kept simple even if it may make the world a little less realistic.
This can be done by:
Choosing names that either exist or have existed in the real world, or simple variations of those names. For example, the Fae’ren people in The Immortal Serpent all have common real-world names that I’ve modified by changing a consonant or using alternate spelling. (e.g. Jeth is Seth with a J; Serra is Sara, but spelled differently.) I also use random name generators online. If you want to create a tribe with ancient Babylonian naming conventions, you can run a bunch of random Babylonian names in a generator, choose a few favorites and modify them until something clicks. Another example is using real world last names as first names. Genealogy sites are great for this. Simply look up a list of surnames from 1700’s Great Britain, pick one you don’t hear so much anymore, and voila, a unique, yet pronounceable name is born.
If you want to make up a name entirely, try to stick to the cultural naming convention off which the people who live there are based and always spell them in a way that makes phonetic sense. No tricks. Where I got a teeny, tiny bit carried away in my own books was with prefixes and apostrophes (Del’Cabria, Nas’Gavarr, etc.) A lot of fantasy authors do this, and I’ve since learned it’s annoying for many readers. So be better than me. Use sparingly or not at all.
If you absolutely must have a long and phonetically complex name, I suggest not making them a main character or use a short version that is used in the narrative, leaving the long version to be used only by character’s scolding wives and/or mothers.
The most significant way that I (and Brandon Sanderson) simplify the names of characters is having no last names. It’s hard enough to keep track of all these strange names, why add a whole other name to the end of each one? Keep in mind that last names can be crucial to a story. In A Song of Ice and Fire, last names are how we determine who belongs to which family. As my stories focus more on individual characters with small families or no families at all, first names work fine. When I do need to remind readers of who is related to whom, I do the ol’ So and so, son of so and so. For more formal address, I use their name followed by where they live, like Someone of Somewhere. In the real world, societies with status hierarchies and property ownership developed surnames to aid in transferring wealth down the family line (among other things). But in the interest of keeping it simple in my series, I’ve chosen to let this bit of realism go.
Travel time (not to be confused with Time travel).
Endless pages of boring travel scenes are another painful aspect of reading fantasy, in my opinion. With a vast and mysterious world to explore, characters need to traverse it at some point, but there’s no need to devote the entire book to it. I’m looking at you, Lord of the Rings! Realistically, to create a diversity of climates and landscapes, there needs to be considerable distances between regions. However, if it takes too long for characters to zip across the world, then it can ruin suspense, affect pacing, and make for a longer and more tedious read. There are various ways one can solve this problem, two of them being:
Cheating. Unlike Little Finger’s jet pack in the HBO’s Game of Thrones, you can give a few characters actual abilities or technologies to aid in travelling faster, such as flying or teleportation.
Make countries close together. I have a world building rule in my series. It should take an average of 7 days to get from one end of a country to another on horseback. If I need my characters to cross two countries end to end, that’s 14 days average. Ultimately, such a small world can cause its own problems. The ash from the volcano in The Eye of Verishten should realistically cover every mountain range around it and nations beyond. But I’d rather be unrealistic in that regard, than deal with characters having to carry mountains of supplies with them, give birth on the way, and become whole new people by the time they reach their destination. Whoever your hero is trying to save or kill will be dead/married/grown up/have won the war/have forgotten all about him before he gets there. Not good for the ol’ character arc, is it?
Whether you’re cheating or making your world smaller it shouldn’t matter, as long as you’re consistent (wags finger at GOT S8). Set up the rules and stick with them and readers will be more willing to suspend their disbelief.
Diversity of language in books can add to the fantastical realism in the world, but it’s realism that can be completely ignored without affecting the overall enjoyment of the story. In my opinion, the existence of multiple languages can be a significant obstacle to both readers and writers of fantasy, unless the author uses specific plot devices to limit this obstacle. Those plot devices almost always include:
Ensuring that no matter where the hero goes, there is always someone either in the hero’s party or the foreigner’s group that can translate. The downside to this method is annoying dialogue scenes like: Khal Drogo said something in Dothraki. “What did he say?” asked Daenarys. “He said he thinks you’re hot,” grumbled Ser Jorah. And on and on like this. It’s more efficient to say: “You’re hot!” said Khal Drogo, making Daenarys blush. Ser Jorah hung his head and frowned. Take out the middle man and get to the real meat of the exchange.
Making the hero well-versed in all the languages she will come across on her journey. This requires that she be highly educated, a diplomat, spy, or has an otherwise good reason to learn all these languages organically. This method puts limits on who characters can be or the type of story you can tell. What if I want a lesser-educated, illiterate, underdog character in a fish-out-of-water story set in a place completely foreign to him? I’d have to either elicit a) above, which is annoying, or c) below.
Create a history where a dominant culture conquered the majority of the world, spreading their language throughout. Everyone, regardless of education or origin can communicate in a ‘common tongue.’ This solves the two problems above while keeping everything realistic. This would work fine if you don’t want unexplored, isolated territories for your characters to discover later on. What if your characters travel to other realms or through time? Therein lies the limitations of multiple languages in fantasy.
For my world, I’ve opted to ignore the concept of language altogether. The word ‘language’ doesn’t even appear in any of my books. People speak with different ‘dialects’ instead, indicating where they are from. Again, I understand this is not how cultures and societies work. With any amount of geological separation for a long enough period of time between populations, languages will evolve separately along with physical and cultural traits. So, even though my races differ in physicality and culture, they all conveniently speak the same language. No matter how close or far, whether the population is yet to be discovered, or whether the population is in a whole other plane of existence, there will be no language barriers to worry about. So far, I’ve had no complaints in this area.
So there you have it. I’ve come clean about the three main areas where I’ve sacrificed some realism for simplicity: No last names, short travel distances, and zero language diversity.
Readers: What level of realism do you expect in your sci-fi/fantasy and how far are you willing to suspend your disbelief for the sake of the plot?
Writers: What sort of devices do you use or completely ignore to keep it simple in your fantasy world?
Let me know in the comments.