I love escaping into a fantasy world. At best, reading a fantasy novel is a vacation, a waking dream, a story you become a part of. After I finished reading through all 5 books in A Song of Fire and Ice for a second time, I started looking to scratch the Fantasy/SciFi itch. However, I often find fantasy novels frustrating. For example…

  • The Hobbit is amazing, but I’ve read it 18 times. LOTR is acceptable, but I finished it recently.
  • Neal Stephenson is pretty good, but his stories are about caricatures and ideas, not characters and relationships.
  • The Belgariad series was enjoyable, but felt juvenile - Every Character is obviously either good or bad. Nothing bad ever happens to any of the good characters. The obvious good guys “win” every single encounter.
  • I started Eye of the World on three separate occasions. I could tolerate the campyness, it moved just a little too slowly, and I lost interest every time.

I started reading Wizard’s First Rule, the first book in the The Sword of Truth series. But after the first ~5 chapters I gave up, frustrated.

In the best stories, I believe the characters and their actions as much as I believe my own personal relationships. A convincing cast pulls me in to the story better than anything else.

However, most fantasy stories do not have convincing characters. The most offensively unconvincing characters are love interests.

Let me outline the plot at the beginning of Wizard’s First Rule

Our hero lives on the outskirts of a small remote village. While investigating the mysterious sudden murder of his parents, he notices a beautiful female traveler walking in the wilderness alone. He also notices four sinister men who are surreptitiously stalking the traveler. Our hero meets the girl, helps her avoid, and eventually defeat her stalkers.

It turns out that the girl is actually a highly intelligent and powerful magician (not quite powerful enough to defeat the four men by herself), and while she maintains a tough exterior, she has been through traumatizing experiences, and occasionally needs the dependable kindness and emotional support that only our hero can provide. Our hero finds her quite attractive, but comes to consider her his friend, and having a kind and understanding disposition would never try to take advantage of her occasional weakened state.

I am supposed to relate to the main character. This is preying on the fantasy that an attractive and powerful girl will see what a good, wise friend I can be, open up to me for emotional and physical support, eventually leading to romantic, and finally sexual interactions… She comes to me (and only me) and opens herself to me because of my humility, wisdom, patience, and overall goodness. This story that plays out in the first few chapters of Wizard’s First Rule is unrealistic and aggravating. It’s an angle that’s overused and abused. I suspect it’s also alienating to non-male readers.

Why is this same story played out in so many other fantasy novels? As I was approaching the last chapter of Hyperion, I thought the story would finish inoffensively, but then the conclusion of the entire story depended completely on an improbable and unconvincing love story not at unlike the one in Wizard’s First Rule.

I concede that not every story needs to be written for all genders. They are fantasy novels after all. Romance novels (for example) are often written and marketed to a female audience. I imagine unrealistic male love interests are common in romance novels.

I’ve been reading The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. It’s wonderful. It’s imperfect. It’s like being in the other world. It’s like being drunk. While I’m reading, the current world ceases to exist. I stop noticing words on the page, and the world in the story materializes in front of me. Best of all, this is a novel that gets the love story right. How? Well, the relationship is dysfunctional, doomed, and convincing. The protagonist is in his early teens, awkward, crushed, and incompetent. There are specific things he does that I relate to doing when I was his age, or in my first relationship. Awkwardness, competing interests, and ignored instincts all get in the way of the relationship. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been there that I relate to it so strongly. Perhaps nearly everyone has.

I am optimistic there are more fantasy novels like this one out there waiting to be read.