So I was going through queries today, as is my wont, and came across a book description in an email that looked a little like this:
It’s a world of breathtaking beauty and despicable horror, of adventure, magic, and death-defying duels, with an ordinary boy-turned-hero and his compatriots, most of them wonderfully three-dimensional female characters. The land they must cross in their quest is both bucolic and deadly, sometimes both at the same time; nonetheless, it is above all else utterly realistic. It is a place where good and evil are at constant odds, no one side ever winning, where nice people don’t always finish last, the bad guy is drawn in shades of grey, and the hero’s battle to victory isn’t an easy upward climb.
In other words, as Rexroth says in Movie Preview Guy voice, “Imagine a place where everything you need to believably generate a believable story is believably present.”
So what’s wrong with this? Well, nothing, if your goal is to describe any of a billion possible plots. But we don’t want generic adventure! We want specifics.
I often joke that I don’t want to represent any novel I could play as a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, but the serious fact behind that witticism is this: all too often, particularly with a newbie GM/author, the elements of a D&D campaign feel like they were assembled out of that red box from 1981, and you don’t want your novel to feel similarly pieced together. Your half-elven adventurer and the friends he meets in a tavern and convinces to help him on his quest feel a lot like hundreds of other half-elven adventure stories.
So how do you fix it? How do you tell a fantasy story that doesn’t feel like a pre-generated campaign? Get into the details. Don’t waste a full paragraph in your query telling me nothing about the characters! I want to know who they are, why they’re on a mission to save the world, or whatever. Tell me about the bad guy that thwarts their every move — not in generalities like “evil wizard”, “power-mad sorcerer”, or “inept king”, but in specifics that could only refer to YOUR character.
To bring this back around to gaming terms — level your characters up! Put your points into skills and traits that make them unique, that add up to a build no one’s ever seen before. Not that they can’t be level ones, but if they are, spend some time with their backstory so that you know where you’re going to spend your experience points on the way to the level cap.
Don’t just pick an archetype and stick with it — make it yours, and have fun on the way. If you do, maybe you’ll interest me in playing/reading along.