I’m not a big fan of high fantasy; I never have been. I will admit to liking the old fantasy favorites like J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Terry Brooks, Phillip Pullman, etc. Those guys are some of the ones who put high fantasy on the map, but where have we gone since then? Imitators at best. I can’t tell you the last time I read a high fantasy that truly blew me away. So what’s the problem with high fantasy? Why isn’t it selling as well as it once did? High fantasy isn’t selling because the stories are all the same. To prove it, I will write one for you right now.
In the beginning of my story, my main (male) character will be threatened by an unknown danger. His parents are dead so he has no knowledge of his family history. He is bored with his current life and ready for an adventure. Suddenly, he is attacked by scary creatures. He’s saved by a mysterious, magical, male, older character who will become his mentor. This mentor will teach him about a prophecy/legend where he alone can save the world. There’s also a beautiful damsel in distress ready to be saved. She will be part of the prize because our main character will fall in love with her usually within one or two conversations. Of course, he must first find a hidden magical object that an evil one-dimensional dictator will also be looking for. Predictably, our main character goes on a journey where he will grow into our hero. During this quest, he will be trained to use magic and to fight with swords. He will join a small group of rebels just before his inevitable confrontation with the bad guy. The story will end in an epic battle where our hero will get hurt, but survive, so that we can have room for books two and three of our trilogy. The end.
So you hate me now, right? You think I just flushed an entire fantasy subgenre into one long cliché? Let’s test my theory. I need only look to the NYT Bestsellers list and see that I am not alone in my opinion. Teens are flocking to urban, dark, and paranormal romance. They have been for some time now. Not to mention that most literary agents that I’ve spoken with won’t consider YA high fantasy. Why? Because most middle grade and especially teen readers aren’t interested in world’s they can’t recognize. Sure, there are always exceptions, but not many. Two highly successful exceptions are J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson’s series, but I don’t consider them high fantasy. They both exist in world’s that are part of ours, but not seen by everyone. The characters have mostly human lives and experiences except that magical element that makes them special.
Okay, so how do we save high fantasy? Easy, come up with an original idea just like all the greats I listed in the top paragraph. They set the standards high so I want more of what they gave us and I want it on a teen level. Show me that and I will be happy to eat my own words.