Tips for Writing a Fantasy Novel
A good writer can write anything. At least, that’s what many non-writers believe. Yes, mastering your craft in any genre allows you to develop transferrable skills, but the reality is that authors in different genres are specialised. It makes sense when you consider it from a different perspective. Doctors all have a medical degree and understand human anatomy on a surface level. That doesn’t mean a cardiologist can conduct flawless brain surgery.
Writing works similarly. Romance writers know how to build romantic tension, but they probably couldn’t write a world-class whodunnit without first studying the artform. Thriller authors can hide hints to murderer identities in plots, but you shouldn’t expect them to understand a list of military sci-fi terms from day one working in the sci-fi genre. Each genre has its quirks, so it helps to get a bird’s-eye view of what makes fans love it before you try your hand.
In today’s blog post, we will look specifically at fantasy with this approach in mind. Assuming you’re already a competent writer who can form a story, we will instead skip to the basics of writing a novel specifically in the fantasy genre. So, if you want to jump into this space or brush up on the fundamentals, use the following tips to get started. You won’t become George R. R .Martin or C. S. Lewis overnight, but it will set you on a path to writing rich fantasy worlds full of characters that readers love.
Know Your Sub-Genre
Fantasy is full of sub-genres. While some readers happily read in all of them, most have a preference and get annoyed when authors deviate from their favourite elements. Often good books suffer one-star reviews not because they’re bad, but because they attract the wrong type of readers and don’t make it clear up front that they mix themes and tropes. To avoid this wrath, it’s useful to identify your fantasy novel’s specific sub-genre early on and write it with that in mind. That way, you will amass lots of die-hard fans who read in one sub-genre rather than gaining a few lukewarm ones from a few areas and upsetting others.
One useful element to consider is your style. Urban fantasy, for example, contains a different lexicon to high-fantasy. Also, your chosen sub-genre’s tropes, romance content and capacity for bad language are important. Reading bestsellers in any sub-genre will give you an idea of what you need to include or omit to please its readers. This strategy won’t stop your book from having a broad appeal. On the contrary, Frankenstein novels rarely hit the mainstream. What being an excellent example of its sub-genre will do is help your book to succeed by giving it a core reader base who will rave about it to the wider reading community.
Build Your World
It’s easy to spot fantasy worlds that have been given little forethought. Their characters are always wandering into communities that fail to make sense in context. Weather patterns don’t show any evidence of logic. Fictitious traditions appear and vanish only when the plot requires them. These worlds pale in comparison to pre-planned ones, whose writers have included characters with pre-existing prejudices and cultures so rich that every race has a different speech pattern and frame of reference. These worlds are original yet consistent in a way that makes them immersive and believable.
Planning how your world looks and feels in advance, including nations, races, geography and climates, is worthwhile. It’s probably a foreign process if you’re used to writing contemporary romance or crime that exist in our world, but it helps you to stand out in fantasy. Just remember that while you need to build your world, not all of your prep-work has to go into your book – at least, not all at once. Nor do you need to include a wise, well-travelled character to deliver exposition. It’s okay if your characters and readers can’t explain how everything works at first in your world as long as you can to keep it consistent.
Create a Magic System
A lot of authors new to writing fantasy start their story without first working out a concrete magic system, believing that they can make up rules as they proceed. What often happens, though, is that their characters reveal new abilities as required in the plot. The problem with working on the fly is that it opens up logic holes in your story. For example, if your wizard could fly in Chapter Thirty-Seven, why didn’t he do it when chasing a thief across rooftops in Chapter Two? Plus, when your characters overcome every foe or obstacle by pulling a new, unexpected ability out of the bag, it removes all tension for your readers, causing them to stop reading.
As with world-building, you don’t have to explain your entire magic system, nor do characters need to ask a ton of questions for exposition. Having your protagonist quiz their mentor makes sense in an urban fantasy if they’ve just discovered magic in their world. But if your characters live in a world where magic is ordinary, having them ask a ton of questions isn’t authentic. After living there their whole lives, they’ll already understand what’s happening. In that case, you need to inform your readers only with enough details to ensure the story makes sense. How you reveal your magic system is up to you. The key is to maintain the integrity of your own rules once you’ve established them.
Make Your Societies Real
At first glance, fantasy seems to be all about the magic and monsters, but it’s not. Good examples that make up pop culture often contain themes that coincide with political or social developments in the real world. Take The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien, for example. That book was published in 1954 when World War II was still a fresh memory. Yes, Middle Earth was immersive and interesting, but it exploded partly because its themes of war and good versus evil were on the public’s mind. Later, mankind landed on the moon and Nixon resigned. People were more interested in corrupt politicians and societal progress than wars with clear heroes and villains. Tastes had changed, paving the way for Terry Pratchett’s more nuanced Discworld in 1983.
If you want to write a fantasy world that captivates a modern audience then incorporate the themes of current events. Don’t be overt about it, because readers often turn to books for escapism and will baulk if they realise what you’re doing. Just make your society real and your characters’ problems relatable. Do it well and they won’t even notice what you’ve done. Create a world that modern readers can imagine living in with real characters that make sense to them, and you will optimise your chances of seeing your work resonate on a global scale.
Characters are at the heart of every story, regardless of what genre you write. For there to be a story at all, they need to go through a physical or emotional challenge that engrosses the reader. That means there need to be stakes, which can be a problem in fantasy books that don’t have clearly outlined magic systems and societies. This is because these books often give the impression that anything is possible. Characters randomly get more powerful or find objects of power that can help them. At the same time, villains fall only to make way for even stronger ones.
What this does is trigger an arms race between good and evil until both sides gain god-like abilities. Problem solving and mysteries get replaced by never-ending fight scenes with no consequences. Nobody can get hurt, captured or die. And that leaves the reader with no reason to be invested. Keep this writer’s trap in mind when writing fantasy. You can’t raise the stakes forever. At some point, you must limit what’s possible. Start small and build slowly. Fabricate an event that removes magic from the world. Change the type of villain your characters face. No matter how you create a glass ceiling, be mindful not to make everyone all-powerful because, as Syndrome says in Pixar’s The Incredibles, “When everyone’s super, no one will be.”
Fantasy is arguably the most flexible genre, given its subject matter and the vast scope of the human imagination. There’s a lot of wiggle room to experiment. You can do anything in this genre, even create new subgenres and worlds that look nothing like anything that has come before. Just remember that the authors who do create something totally original that earn awards and make millions are usually masters of their craft. You first have to know the rules before you can break them effectively.
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