Writing fantasy is less painful than reading it. Some fantasy out there is good. Some is tolerable. And some is cringe-inducing. There are a number of fantasy writers who don’t seem to understand that if their “really cool monster,” or name, or whatever, sticks out too much, then whatever fantasy world they were trying to create inside the reader’s mind was just destroyed. Fantasy, at its best, should feel organic. (Unless, of course, the writer is trying to jolt the reader in some way–which is another story altogether. Unfortunately, most of the writers who jolt their readers aren’t trying to.)
When I’m looking for models on how to write fantasy, I tend to focus on epics or fairy tales, not on the fantasy genre itself. My excuse to the “Read inside your genre!” people is that J.R.R. Tolkien was guilty of the same fault–if it is a fault. In any case, reading that sort of literature feeds my imagination. (Oddly, so did Confucius, the notes to whose Analects recently furnished me with a character. But that is another story.)
Or maybe it isn’t. Myths, epics, fairy tales–the one thing they have in common is that they don’t typically come from modern culture. The Lord of the Rings has been called a prose epic, but it is the exception that proves the rule. Fantasy writing has been consciously anachronistic since Edmund Spenser borrowed medieval conventions for his Faery Queene. In other words–filling up on particularly old literature pays off.
C.S. Lewis wrote an introduction to a translation of Athanasius in which he suggested reading three older books to every newer one, just to keep things in perspective. One thing reading old literature can do that many history books don’t is giving you an understanding of another culture. For all our talk of multiculturalism today, we don’t appreciate some cultures at all–those of our ancestors.
Fiction writing is about being able to get into someone else’s world. Fantasy writing in particular can feel like anthropology at times. If you want to understand just how complicated a culture can be, try to make one up. (There is a good reason Tolkien spent so long building up his imaginary world.)
I’ve tried starting from the beginning–Norse mythology, in particular, is amazing, and it is better preserved than some mythologies have been. And if you want to see the difference between the ancient and medieval ways of viewing things, read the Norse legends about Sigurd, and then read The Nibelungenlied. There is quite a difference. And it is a difference worth seeing.