7 Deadly Sins of Fantasy Writing

“The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things”, painting by Hieronymus Bosch

Writers make mistakes. They’re human after all, and that’s why there are editors. Some transgressions go beyond mere mistake, however, and reach the point of Sin. These offenses can occur either within a work of fiction or in the writer’s career, but they are deadly.

Lust

Romance is a part of life and part of many a good story. However there is such a thing as erotica, and if that’s not how you are billing your work, you need to keep the sex R-rated at most. This applies to both consensual encounters as well as sexual violence. There are lines that a lot of readers don’t want you to cross. You have to make it very clear in advance that you’re writing that sort of story, so that you don’t draw the ire of offended readers.

Another way that a more tame version of lust can damn you is in pointless romance. While love and attraction are key parts of human life, you need to pay attention to how they affect the plot. This isn’t so much a sin of commission, but a sin of omission: you’re taking away from what makes your story interesting. Romantic subplots should be precisely long enough to provide the motivation and characterization you wanted, but not so much that you lose focus.

Gluttony

Is anything is more central to human life than sex, it’s food. Everyone eats. It’s mundane to the point where unless there is something unusual about a particular food situation (starvation, poisoning, some unique ingredient), you can easily skip over all but cursory mentions of food. I’ve mentioned before how you can use food for world-building, but that doesn’t need to take a lot of space in the narrative.

Then there’s the glutton. Just when you think the casual mention of the courses on the table are over, another course appears. Whether it’s a culinary background, or diet-fueled wish fulfillment, something drives this writer to obsess on the foodstuffs the characters are consuming. While an occasional overindulge might be forgiven, but the glutton is having none of that. You will hear all about the pheasant, the mutton, the pate, and if you don’t salivate over them the way the writer seems to have, then too bad.

Greed

Not all sins occur between the covers of a book. Others occur when an author discovers that they have a cash cow on their hands. Worse, they may think that this will be the only series that will be that cash cow for them. A trilogy becomes a pentology, then a septology, then just a “series”. The same plot is there, but stretched over more books, with more filler and stagnant character development. Sub-plots may be stuffed in, but most readers of the original book would rather not bother with them.

This may or may not be intentional. It may be a result of poor planning, emotional attachment to the characters, or pressure from a publisher to continue writing a profitable series. Then again, it might not be.

Sloth

If you’re Harper Lee or J.D. Salinger, you can call it quits with one big work to your name (I know Salinger wrote more than one book, but can you name one without googling?). Most authors amass a number of books over their careers, and fantasy writers in particular are known for those books coming in series form. While 6 months to 2 years between books in a series is typical and accepted by readers, once you get beyond that there will be gnashing of teeth. Readers feel some sort of social contract with the author: they start the series before it is finished, and they expect that the author will keep plugging away working on them.

Writers “owe” their readers nothing, of course, but by the same token, those readers are what makes the writer’s success possible. There would seem to be some happy middle ground somewhere between “I’ll write them when I’m good and ready” and “You can’t leave us hanging like this!”

Wrath

There is a relatively new phenomenon called “grimdark”. In a nutshell, it means that nothing is good or pure (and if it appears to be, it will shortly be ruined), and brutality is the way of the world. This results in a lot of especially violent fiction, and the deaths of characters both minor and major in shocking numbers. Not only that, but odds are that you will be privy to all the gory details of those deaths, in an effort to portray the violence in a realistic manner.

Of course, if this is a Sin, it’s one that the writers of grimdark fantasy welcome. They aim to shock, to titillate, and to leave the reader wondering if anyone or anything is safe or sacred. This is a Sin with a future.

Envy

“Look at that hack. I could write better than that.”

This is the writer’s most damning sentiment. To look at a more successful author’s work and find it lacking compared to their own. It is not usually a sentiment of “hey, I can do this too” but rather of “why is so-and-so getting all this credit?”

This Sin is the genesis of genre-chasing, fad-hopping, copycats, wannabes and plagiarists. It is responsible for the proliferation of wizard schools and sexy, human-like vampires (and credit Anne Rice for this one, not Stephanie Myer). It gives us Hollywood rebooting every movie that was ever made. This is a Sin that plays well with Greed.

Pride

Pride can take many forms for an author.

Beyond a certain point, some authors seem to shrug off the shackles of developmental editors. There is little a publisher can do if their stud author won’t pare down a bloated monstrosity. Watch the quality of an author’s work once they become hugely successful and often you’ll find that their works become longer and start to meander rather than charge ahead.

Pride also plays into methods of publishing. Many authors would rather see their name on a published book rather than take control of their works through self-publishing. For bestselling and even mid-list authors, this is a reasonable approach. For starting authors, this is a minefield. In many cases, a small advance and token marketing support are gained at the cost of most of the profit from their work. Worse, this gets many authors sucked into the vanity press trap, paying for their own expenses out of pocket and losing full control of their work. Some starting authors still do well by traditional publishers, but for many, the validation they feel for getting published “for real” takes them down a path to obscurity.

A note:

The observant reader may have picked up on the fact that several of the above sins apply to George R.R. Martin (author of Game of Thrones). As Neil Gaiman famously pointed out, George R.R. Martin is not your bitch. You however, are his.

This Post Has 9 Comments
  1. Nice read again, good food for thought. Made me continue with Neil Gaiman’s blog right away. And even though it “steals” time I should have used for something else, it gives this warm, fuzzy feeling that tells me: Being “among” authors is a good thing for me. No matter if I myself am writing or not. As long as it stays that way (and doesn’t turn into frustration or gnawing, unfulfillable desire), I’ll keep on following your blog. Thanks! 🙂

    1. There are worse places to lose a bit of time on the internet. Neil Gaiman’s blog may be more conversational than dense with helpful authorial tips, but you’ll find few better written.

    1. WoT and ASoIaF are the two main inspirations of this one, at least in terms of series that dragged on for questionable reasons.

  2. A question about Envy: does it count as Envy to read a book that leaves you feeling really unsatisfied and think to yourself, “I could tell this kind of story better,” and use that as inspiration? For me, that has inspired some of my personal favorite stories that I’ve written, and I’m try to be careful not to fall into copycat territory.

    1. Envy would be saying “I wish I could write like that” and trying to. What you’re describing sounds fairly normal as far as sources of inspiration. Of course, if you’re saying it about a major author with a huge fan base, maybe you’d be closer to running afoul of Pride. But in this case, I think you’re probably fine.

  3. Thank you for this article. I found it incredibly interesting and a relief that I’m not (I hope) guilty of any of these sins in my own fantasy novels!

  4. Well, according to Sturgeon’s Law, it is very possible that I could, in fact, write better than many published authors. Additionally, being published today is essentially a joke. 15 years ago maybe there was some value and prestige, but not anymore. I would rather have control of my work than be ruled by a publisher and a developmental editor. It’s easy enough to find freelance editors and even friends, family, and other trusted confidants to go through your work with a fresh set of eyes. Hell, these people used to work in publishing! The story is most important. Whatever sin or virtue that gets you to the finish line is a good one.

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