What Makes Fantasy Work, Continued

When I first posed the question, What makes fantasy work, my immediate thought was, an engaging character. That’s when I realized that there might not be so much difference between fantasy and other fiction.

In some of the fantasy I mentioned yesterday that I don’t think is working, I found two problems with the central character—either she/he was nondescript or whiny.

To make a character seem real, he must have a rounded personality. For fallen humanity, that means weaknesses and needs as well as strengths and things to offer others. At times, however, a character weakness can be painted with too much emphasis. I know because I created such a character.

It crushed me at first when members of my critique group told me they hated my main character. Hated him? I loved him. How could they misunderstand him so completely? Yes, he had problems, but don’t all characters? I mean, isn’t that part of the character arc?

That, in a nutshell, is the balancing act authors must achieve—give the character problems but not let him become embittered, sullen, whiny, complaining, slothful.

In some ways, Jonathan Rogers’ Grady in The Charlatan’s Boy is the perfect character. He’s got a problem—he’s an orphan, but that’s not all of it. The only person who knows anything about where he came from is unreliable—worse than unreliable. He twists the truth at will, however it suits him.

But instead of wallowing in self-pity, Grady makes the most of his circumstances. Here’s where the reader sees his real strengths. He’s loyal, hard working, and humble enough to play whatever part is given him.

So the first thing fantasy has to have in order to work is a main character that is believable and engaging.

The second thing, because this is fantasy I’m talking about, is a well-developed, consistent world. This is the aspect J. K. Rowling mastered. If I were to grade her, I might give her a C or C+ for her character. Harry wasn’t particularly believable in the first book because the abuse he suffered at the hands of the Dursleys was over the top. Nor was he particularly engaging. He didn’t whine but neither did he do anything to change his situation.

But the world Rowling created was unbelievable. Well, believably so. I mean, she did such a great job creating a magic place that the story came alive. She paid attention to detail and didn’t overlook anything.

In Hogwarts, food appeared magically on plates, the ceiling in the dining hall changed to appear like the outdoor sky, persons in portraits moved (and moved from their own frame to another’s), persons in newspaper photos moved too, and so did the figures on the cards that came with certain candy. And those chocolate frogs could actually jump away. The students had to be taught how to fly a boom and how to use their wands. And on and on and on. So many little details, everyday things twisted to fit a place where magic was real.

But there’s still more to this “What makes fantasy work” question, so I see I’m going to need another post on the topic. We’ll just say this continuation is to be continued. 😉


  1. Becky,

    Actually, I found Harry Potter, as a character, completely believable. He appeared to me to be overwhelmed by the larger-than-life Dursleys and browbeaten into submission by his aunt and uncle, who were doing their best to bully the magic out of him.

    But I think J.K. Rowling was trying to make a point with Harry too; he was a generally decent, ordinary kid who you’d typically never notice, with an amazing talent that made him special. The fact that he’s famous and his fame and destiny bewilders him makes him all the more engaging.

    I don’t think we would have liked him half as well if he’d been as splashy as the Dursleys.


  2. That is definitely a juggling act: creating a believable, likable character with strengths and weaknesses. I remember reading a book where near the end, the author made me very emotional about one of “good guy” characters. Only, the emotion I felt was disgust and anger. You want your characters to have weaknesses, but you don’t want to turn your reader off to your character.


  3. I agree with you about Harry. I never bonded with him. I think you’re right about his situation being too over the top. I loved that first book. Love Dudley diddycums or whatever his mother called him. Loved that Harry got a broken hanger for his birthday. But it had a cartoonish feel, so I laughed, rather than feeling for him the way I felt for poor little Anne Shirley, for instance.

    And I also immediately thought of Jonathan Rogers’ Grady, when you said character makes the difference between good and bad fiction. Grady was the perfect character. An impoverished philosopher, who engaged in no self-pity.

    I recently read the first chapter of my book, because it was posted on Novel Journey, and thought, “Ugh, this is all angst and melodrama.” ha ha I’m coming off of a time with sweet Grady and my character seems horrid to me now. What to do? I may have to stop reading Jonathan’s books.


  4. oh, and yes, yes, yes, about Rowlings world-building skills.


  5. I think this point is precisely the reason the recent Caprica series (a prequel to the popular BSG saga) failed: the main current was almost completely unlikeable. The world building was amazing, the mythos was rich, the story was very believable. The problem? I throughouly disliked all the characters. The ones that weren’t completely amoral and despicable were weak and pathetic. If I don’t care whether people live or die, suceed or fail, what suspense can the plot really offer?

    Oh, it’s the same reason I disliked Eragon: the character was so paper thin (and pathetic on top of that), I actually started rooting for the bad guy.


  6. Krysti, I probably wasn’t clear. I did find Harry believable. But the opening circumstances were over the top. As Sally said, they seemed humorous because they were so exaggerated. I didn’t happen to think they were funny, though. I know a lot of people did.

    But I was reading the books after much of the criticism was already out there. I saw at first what I thought was a muggles vs. wizards scenario (wizards good, muggles bad). It wasn’t that, and I figured that out as the plot unfolded, but I think that played into part of my thinking.

    If the Dursleys hadn’t been so ludicrous, I think I would have looked at Harry differently in the beginning.

    But now after 7 books, I can say I cheered for him but never loved him as a character.

    Anyway, thanks for your feedback.



  7. Morgan, I think that’s the worst—having a character do something despicable at the end after you’ve been pulling for him all along.

    The interesting thing is, one of my all time favorite books is Gone with the Wind, but Scarlett was not a nice person. I think I kept hoping for her to change. And she did—just too late. I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to make her do it right! 😆



  8. Sally, I wonder if you like Grady so much because he reminds you of Donaldson’s wee Sir Gibby. Or is that just me?

    I like Grady way more than Gibby though. Maybe I understood his choices better. Not sure.



  9. Michelle, I haven’t read either of those, but I’d say no amount of world-building could make up for unlikeable characters. They make the story, I think. With Harry Potter, he was most definitely not unlikeable. That’s why many people liked him. 😉 I just wasn’t one. But I certainly didn’t hate him, and as I said above, I cheered for him from the beginning. I wanted him to make right choices and to succeed. But let’s say the main character was Draco. Uh, no, I don’t think I would have enjoyed the book even with all the amazing world building.



  10. Umm, it’s just you.

    And that’s about enough of that. As much as I love Grady, there is no way he is going to knock Wee Sir Gibby out of first place in my heart. There is no one like little Gibby. (And the author’s name is MacDonald. I think Donaldson was the guy who wrote about the very unlikable leprous dude. Don’t be comparing anyone to Gibby and don’t be mixing Donaldson to with MacDonald, lady. :))


  11. 😆 I certainly know Grady will not knock Wee Sir Gibby from first in your heart. I’m saying you may like Grady as much as you do because of his similarities to the poor little orphan boy.

    And thanks for catching my fantasy freudian slip—MacDonald, of course, not Donaldson.



  12. What exactly was over the top about Harry’s opening circumstances? The magically part was over the top, but this is fantasy. The abuse at the hands of the Dursley’s was not over the top–worse happens to kids everyday.


  13. No, Phil, not the magic. From the first hint of magic on, I thought the book was wonderful. And I do know that abuse happens to kids every day, horrible stuff. But Rowling contrasted Harry’s treatment with the favoritism the parents showed to Dudley. And they showed Dudley’s selfishness and self-indulgence, to the point that it was hard to believe parents could be so blind and so inconsistent and so narrow minded.

    Again, I believe Rowling created that opening in part to generate humor. Exaggeration is one device humorists use. (See James Thurber’s short stories for some excellent illustrations).

    As I said above, I didn’t find the scene humorous — as a teacher, I’d seen what abuse and bullying and partiality can do. I would rather have seen the scene written in a believable way rather than an exaggerated way. But I wasn’t the author. And her choice seems to have worked out, hasn’t it! 😉



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