Upon recent reading on what systems can be found in different genres, I began to analyze some recent work within the progressive fantasy side of the literary world.
Often sniffed at by the academics and non-fiction readers, progressive fantasy seems to be on the up-and-up, particularly in regards to the serialized writing website royal road (link).
Because I’m a fantasy reader, lover, and writer, I wanted to take an in-depth look at what the newest forms of bestselling progressive fantasy bring to the table. The following three books are included in this analysis.
Mistborn- Brandon Sanderson (link): Brandon Sanderson is incredibly well-reviewed and many are considering him the current “word” on fantasy. Knowing him, as I do from his youtube videos and many signings, he’d likely say in humble-form that he just writes what he loves. He is the only traditionally published author on this list (TOR).
Cradle- Will Wight (link): I don’t have a large amount of information on the personality and characteristics of Will Wight in realia. I know that similar to Sanderson he has a masters in creative writing, but aside from a story or two I’ve heard in passing of the kindness he shows to new authors, I don’t know him well. Wight is self-publisher on Amazon’s kindle service.
Arcane Ascension- Andrew K. Rowe (link): Rowe is a game designer and the only one of the three who doesn’t have a degree in English (to my knowledge). I’ve written him and received a prompt response, and he runs a subreddit dedicated to his worldbuilding and novels. Rowe is a self-publisher on Amazons kindle service, as well as having physical copies on the amazon website.
Why did I pick these three?
Sanderson is the perfect traditionally published fantasy writer. He grew up on Tolkein and Brooks, Pratchet and Stashoff. He set the rules for hard and soft magic and his work is incredibly well-made. Every book he writes is a bestseller. He has a new book coming out in a few days as of this writing (Stormlight Archive book 4 Link).
Wight is a progressive fantasy icon in today’s digital literary world. His work is quoted on any fantasy blog/subreddit/forum as the best there currently is within this subgenre. The Cradles series is an amazon bestselling series at this point, and I’m surprised no traditional publishers have snapped him up (likely his choice). Wight just published book 8 in the series (Link)
Rowe is a bit of an enigma within this list, but I included him because of his blend of the two (Sanderson/Wight), and he’s very active within the progressive fantasy world (he may have been the one to “come up with” the subgenre title of progressive fantasy itself). His series, while just getting started, is already listed as a must read. Rowe is about to publish book 3 in the series (Link)
So now, finally, to the purpose of this writing. What do they have in common? What systems do they have in place and are used within these three series that I can pull for my own writing?
The core theme of progressive fantasy is the following: You have an unnaturally weak character who grows in strength throughout the series. The character must use their smarts to foil stronger opponents until, ultimately, they’re one of the strongest out there (if not the strongest). For this, I created the chart below:
As you can tell from the above, the books have different goals and means of getting there. It’s curious to note that the two higher-bestsellers, being Cradle and Mistborn, have more in common with each other rather than Rowe’s Arcane Ascension.
Here’s my takeaway, which is limited by my experience writing this way and general lack of intelligence. Rowe wrote his as a breakaway from the norms found within the progressive fantasy series, whereas Wight and Sanderson wrote keynote series. People love what they know, so in order to write a bestselling fantasy book, it must have the following:
The protagonist, as stated prior, must start out weak or with a weak power.
Starting power must come from birth (and underestimated) or trials.
There must be a wise mentor, but that’s also common with the hero’s journey in general (if you want books about the hero’s journey let me know, I’m reading 3.}
There must be a crew of people that gradually come together to travel with, and grow with, the protagonist.
There’s a major problem in the world, big bad or world-breaking issue, that the protagonist directly contends with.
The magic system can be expanded upon with great knowledge, preparation, and a ton of hard work. Think American dream. Often, only the protagonist can reach further than others, or they grow exponentially faster than their friends. This is often found in litRPG as well (whole other box of crayons).
The story can, and maybe should, be focused on one city, but as the character grows in power they’re forced to travel for further growth. They also need to travel to right the “wrongs” of their world.
The main character must change the world. I don’t know the ending of Arcane Ascension as of yet, but I’m assuming based upon Rowe’s foreshadowing that his protagonist will change the world.
The big jump is, rather than a basic “chosen one” route that’s all too common in fantasy, the protagonist’s in progressive fantasy are the “unwanted’ ones. The castoffs. The weakest of the weak. They pull themselves up and conquer the world through grit, blood, and often murder. Nothing is too powerful for their smarts and snarks (often have a snarky attitude). They’re the destroys of conformity, and the light bulbs of enlightenment. Progressive protag’s take no shit and only have themselves to blame (often with a shame trope) if not everyone gets through an event. Beware the super shaming found within this genre, it can be a bit salty.
Therein lies my basic analysis, hope you enjoyed it and let me know if you disagree or find other works that follow these systems.
I'm a high school English teacher in Texas. I also hold degrees in radiography and radio and television broadcasting. Though I obtained certain knowledge and skills from my prior degrees, I do not currently use them.