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  • Writer's pictureTessa Barron

Over-Complicated Fantasy Writing: The Problem

Writing fantasy that works gives you the potential to transport readers to an entirely new world. Still, if your story is too complicated, it can be challenging for readers to keep up and truly immerse themselves in the tale.

Today, we will examine why overly complicated fantasy writing can be a problem and how you can simplify your story without sacrificing its essence.

Why Overly Complicated Fantasy Writing is a Problem

I love complex epic fantasy. The more to keep track of, the better. Complex politics, characters, relationships, storylines, and worlds make me giddy.

I've mentioned before that the Count of Monte Cristo (Amazon affiliate link to the complete unadulterated translation) is my favorite book, and its complexity is one of the reasons why. A lot is going on, and there is a ton to follow, and once it all comes together—MUAH!

It's a beautiful thing.

It, and books like it, don't insult my intelligence by oversimplifying the plot.

So what's the problem, Joe?

Complicated good. End of discussion, right? Was this article just clickbait or something?

No. Complex is good, but there is a but.

And it's a big butt.

There is a difference between complex and needlessly complicated.

Overly complicated fantasy tends to have the opposite effect. It makes both you and the reader feel dumb. (or just makes them think you are dumb.) It is rewarding for neither your reader nor you.

There are generally a few key places where "over-complication" comes into play:

  1. Magic Systems

  2. Histories

  3. Naming Conventions

Fantasy writers can overcomplicate their plots and character relationships, but that is not an issue of over-complication. That is an issue of not working through it enough. Any complex story can be good. It just takes a hell of a lot more work than one that is not.

There is no room for half-assing.

Now the above list is different. These things can be included in good stories. Two can make or break a story, and the other irritates.

You guess which, and we will start with that one.

Top 3 Overly Complicated Areas of Fantasy Writing

Naming Conventions

Here is a quick list of fantasy names that I dare you to pronounce right.

  • Nynaeve

  • Ghisteslwcholhm

  • Klbkchhezeim

  • Ghraem'lan

  • Numuhukumakiaki'aialunamor

  • F'lessen

  • Eärendil

(all from this hilarious Reddit post)

Maybe it is only me, but I don't think your reader should have to gloss over the names of your characters and places because they can't even begin to pronounce them.

Just don't.

I mean, if you really have to...I can't tell you what to do...

But it pisses a lot of people off, so maybe stick to names that sound like names? Maybe?

It astounds me that authors are still attempting to do this. I feel like sometimes I am on the wrong end of a joke. Like they know it's ridiculous, but that's the point.

Like The VelociPastor. (Amazon affiliate link to watch it on Prime.)

It is probably more likely that they want the names in their stories to sound cool and aesthetic or consistent with this strange new world/race/culture they have written and plain forget that someone has to read that name repeatedly.

So don't.

Ok, that one was easy.


Overly Complicated Magic Systems

Now we get into something with a little bit of meat on it.

And it is an issue that is tough to gauge in your writing.

I read a fantasy recently. A colossal lug of a book in which 40% of the word count was taken up explaining the magic system. This book was alright, and it didn't get (too) info-dumpy in its explanations. However, it was still a slog to get through.

I skimmed over page after page, thinking, "oh my god, I get it already!"

It WAS a complicated magic system. There was a lot to explain. But I also found that skimming all those pages didn't take away from the story. I'm sure I missed a lot about the intricacies of the magic system, but it didn't matter to the plot.

The magic system was consistent, so I could get a clear picture without needing a detailed description of its mechanics.

Here is the thing: As long as you have planned out the magic system, no matter how complicated, it will most likely come across to the reader. Because it has internal consistency.

It doesn't matter that your reader understands every little mechanism of your magic system because so long as you know how it works, it will be believable, and that is what matters.

You don't need to explain every detail of your economic or political systems to make them believable. The same goes for magic.

I firmly believe that a true form of "magic" should have a mysterious element anyway. Otherwise, it would be a technology, wouldn't it?

You probably don't agree with me on that one, and you don't have to. But your reader doesn't need to know every little detail of your magic system either.

Every magic system in nearly every fantasy book is complicated. Everything in life, upon inspection, is highly involved. But we don't need to know the details of the restaurant management to enjoy a meal.

And believe me, I worked in the restaurant biz for many years. Knowing how the kitchen worked might actually make the meal LESS enjoyable.

The same goes for your books. Telling us every detail makes the book less enjoyable for lots of reasons:

  1. It fills your pages with needless words

  2. It takes the magic out of the magic

  3. It insults the reader's intelligence and ability to follow along

  4. It strips the reader of their imagination.

Reading is a subjective experience. And while writing fantasy, having a well-defined magic system is essential. It's also important to keep it simple enough so readers can avoid getting bogged down.

Remember, less is almost always more when keeping readers engaged in your story.

Overly Complicated World Histories

: see the above discussion

Oh, you want more?

Ok, fine.

I guess I have a few things to add here. And this tip goes for everything when writing fantasy (or anything really), including magic systems.

Pin image for "Over-Complicated Fantasy Writing" post

If it has no bearing on the current plot—as in it isn't information that your characters need to succeed, nobody interacts with it, it isn't crucial for getting to the climax or completing a character arc, I don't care how cool or exciting it is, it DOES NOT belong in your book!

This is what editors mean when they tell you to kill your darlings, to cut your baby's limbs off (your book babies, don't be a sociopath).

Cut it. Cut it. Cut it.

Ok, there is some room for flare. But not overly complicated flare that draws the reader out of the story.

Remember how I said there was a difference between complex and overly complicated?

Well, here is the crux of it:

Complex = elaborate with a point. Neatly tied and twisted together toward a big, fantastic finish.

Overly Complicated = convoluted for the sake of itself. Information with no point—not connected to anything and not necessary. This information can be cut and not significantly affect the story.

And the naming convention thing...?

Dear god.

Planning Out Your Story

If you're anything like me, you tend to get too ambitious with your story ideas. It's easy to come up with grandiose plans for an epic fantasy saga, but it's much harder to actually sit down and write it all out.

That's why it's essential to have a clear plan before you start writing fantasy. Otherwise, you'll likely get lost in your own story.

You should keep a few things in mind when planning your story.

Map out the linear necessities of the plot. I call this your book's history. Everything needs to happen to get from point A to point B.

What are the significant events that need to happen? What's the conflict that needs to be resolved?

Then start tying little threads around these things, like a retired detective working on cold cases at home on his bedroom wall and realizing they are not separate but really crimes committed by one incredibly elusive sociopath.

Make sure everything you write in your story connects a thread back to those main plot points, conflicts, and resolutions.

Write a character that doesn't aid in the resolution of the overall plot? Doesn't move a character toward the climax? Doesn't create needed conflict that pushes the next plot point domino over?

Cut that character!

Writing a complex fantasy is no easy task. It requires a LOT of outlining, planning, and rewriting. Sorry pantsers, you are NOT welcome here.

And if you think you are the one person who can wing their way into a successful complex epic fantasy, you are bonkers, and I need you to get as far away from me and my children as possible.

You are unstable.

Writing Simply and Clearly

When it comes to writing fantasy, many authors make the mistake of adding too much information and writing convoluted prose to go with it. They write flowery nonsense and end up repeating themselves a LOT. Like they have suddenly become an 1870s English Gent. Take a look at this post on repetition here where I have a section on lots of words that drag out a single idea.

This fluff is a mega turnoff for readers, who may find themselves getting lost in the intricate details and struggling to follow the story. Or struggling to suppress the urge to bully you.

For the love of the gods, don't write like someone you are not. Don't put on airs. Readers catch that right away. I wrote a post about this on The Writer's Cabin you can read here.

I have an example but I'm not going to call out any names or details because this submission made me seriously worry about my safety and this writer's sanity.

But I received a fantasy manuscript submission (an unspecific amount of time ago) that went on and on and on and on and on...

...from the very beginning with pretentiousness and so many archaic words that the thesaurus on my desk blushed for not having recognized most of them.

5000 words into the submission, and would you believe it, the convoluted prose kept coming until eventually...I gasped...

Because there it was...5000 words in...the point of all those words.

At last, the meaning of the passage revealed itself.

Never have I ever read so many words to say something that could have been told in a single paragraph.

It was impressive, really. Except for the fact that once done (and because of the content), I seriously had to worry about this person's mental stability.

I'm droning...But there is a point to this too.

With a bit of care and attention, you can ensure that your fantasy stories are both enjoyable and accessible to a broad audience. So don't be afraid to keep things simple—your readers will thank you!

Keeping the Focus on Character Development

One of the biggest problems with overly complicated fantasy is that it can often lose sight of what's really important: character development.

When you add too many details and subplots, it can be easy to forget about the characters and their journey (or how those things piece together).

It would be best if you focused on character development in any story, especially in writing fantasy. The world-building and other aspects of the genre are important, but they should always serve the characters and their story.

Otherwise, the whole thing can start to feel like an exercise in world-building for the sake of world-building itself.

Read this post here on a simple way to look at the character arc in speculative fiction.

Conclusion: Writing Fantasy that Doesn't Make Readers Roll Their Eyes

Step 1: Focus on the characters.

Step 2: Tie everything into the main plot.

Step 3: Give characters names we can say.

Step 4: Write as if someone might actually read it someday.

The End.

Simple, right?



Tessa Barron is the Editor-in-Chief at Foul Fantasy Fiction and Bear Hill Publishing. She specializes in developmental editing and writes Fantasy and Science Fiction when she is able to find the time under the pen name Turi T. Armstrong.