White-haired elves galloping on large widows, the beheadings of evil creatures, booming magic blasts, hybrid races, and blood-curdling battle will always send a thrilling chill down your spine. These are all good components of any typical work of fantasy fiction. But what I have found, discussed, and even received in feedback about my own work is that these genre markers, though awesome, aren't the driving forces that take the quality of your work to the next level. In Enigma: Awakening, my first published novel, the scenes and parts of the story that I believed were its absolute selling points actually weren't that big of a deal to my beta-readers. In fact, all of the scenes that I believed to be the weakest turned out to be fan favorites. So what was it about those particular ones that made the story stand out? They all tugged on the heartstrings of the readers' basic human emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, and surprise. I realized that striking these chords and making my readership care was more valuable than giving them something, "flashy" and/or "cool". I'm sure at one point in time we've all received some variation of, "The battles were good, but I really wish Susie would have spent more time in the garden thinking about how she was going to tell the prince that she loves him. I love their chemistry when they're together."
I know that you may be thinking that what I'm saying should be something that every writer understands, but honestly, many fantasy-fiction writers struggle with doing this simplistic thing. Our minds are often wrapped around world-building, lore, politics, and magic—you know, your typical fantasy aesthetics—so much so, that we put little emphasis on what drives the characters from their very core. We forget that Tom Smith left his family behind to go on a perilous quest, and that he struggles to go on sometimes because he misses them so. We want Tom to slay the dragon. Well, most people haven't slain dragons, but they have been torn apart from their loved ones . I once read somewhere that the fantastical elements that we conjure should be no more than details in the background, or "the icing on the cake", if you will. Never the cake. It took me a long time to learn this, and now that I have, I can never write the same again.
In the book, Eragon by Christopher Paolini, I used to think about how awesome it would be to be a dragon-rider, cast magic by speaking an ancient language, and to travel to a city of warriors hidden in the mountains. When put this way, it might make you think about how typical of a fantasy story this might be and, trust me, I understand and it's completely valid that you do. I thought the same thing until it dawned on me that it wasn't any of those things that made it one of my favorite stories of all time. It was the companionship between Eragon and his dragon Saphira, that made the story unforgettable. Paolini masterfully took the time to display the growth of their relationship in such a genuine and heartfelt way that I yearned for it to be real. This is how we want to make our readers feel. It wasn't about crossing swords, but about how exhausted and torn he showed the characters to be during the battle and in the aftermath. I'm not going to spoil all of the fun if you haven't read it, so I'll stop there.
In Lord of the Rings, I used to think that Frodo was by far, one of the worst characters in the history of fantasy-fiction. After speaking with several fans, this wasn't the case. When I changed perspectives and looked at the bigger picture, Frodo was no longer the shrimpy, unskilled hobbit that I saw him as. He became the most courageous soul to ever walk into the heart of Mordor. The most unlikely creature. And that was the best part. I gained an appreciation for him that I didn't have before and the story meant that much more. I guess, the gist of what I'm saying is, any good fantasy will have dungeons, dragons, worlds, and warcraft, but they're nothing more than stars in the sky, awesome to look at, but forgotten tomorrow. Simply put, who cares?
Just remember, it's not about Tom slaying the dragon, but about his struggling journey to get there, both psychological and emotionally, and how much he had to sacrifice in order to complete his task. When you truly understand this, only then will your fantasy become great!