Writing fantasy: Creating a spellbinding story (complete guide)
Fantasy is one of the most popular genres due to the wish, wonder, and surprise that fills this speculative fiction genre. Learn more and find helpful worldbuilding templates in this fantasy writing guide.
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Fantasy writing is loved by authors and readers of all ages. It offers the wish and wonder of portals, potions, and portents. Dragons, battles for thrones, and magical artifacts. Bends laws or makes its own so that readers may explore other, imaginary worlds and ‘what ifs’. Use the links above to jump to the subtopic on how to write fantasy that interests you now.
Fantasy writing terms and definitions
In this section, read definitions of fantasy. Why it falls under the genre umbrella ‘speculative fiction’ (but differs from science fiction). Keep reading to explore why fantasy is fun to write, worldbuilding, creating magic systems, and more.
What is fantasy? Core genre features
What is a fantasy story? How does the genre relate to other imaginative fiction genres? Fantasy is a genre that falls under the umbrella term ‘speculative’ fiction and is often grouped with sci-fi under the abbreviation ‘SFF’.
What is speculative fiction?
Speculative fiction is storytelling which hypothesizes, predicts, or imagines otherwise. It creates other worlds, technologies, human or non-human abilities and powers, realities.
Speculative fiction ‘encompasses works in which the setting is other than the real world, involving supernatural, futuristic, or other imagined elements.’ ( Oxford Languages )
Ursula K. Le Guin defining fantasy fiction
Celebrated SFF author Ursula K. Le Guin, in her essay collection No Time to Spare , writes about how fantasy is subversive. It bends the rules (without being ‘anything goes’):
It doesn’t have to be the way it is . That is what fantasy says. It doesn’t say, “Anything goes” – that’s irresponsibility, when two and one make five, or forty-seven, or whuddevva, and the story doesn’t “add up,” as we say. Fantasy doesn’t say, “Nothing is” – that’s nihilism. And it doesn’t say, “It ought to be this way” – that’s utopianism, a different enterprise. Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘It Doesn’t Have to Be the Way It Is’, in No Time to Spare (2019), p. 81.
The definition of ‘speculate’ shows the close relation between speculative fiction and mythology. It means to ‘form a theory or conjecture about a subject without firm evidence’.
Many myths arose from human societies’ desire to explain and understand. For example, the Greek myth of Persephone explains why we have the seasons (Demeter neglects her crops while her daughter Persephone is kept captive in the underworld).
This same curiosity runs through speculative fiction stories that feature secondary worlds or other inventions. In fantasy, symbolism is used to explore and imagine cause and effect, human nature and other ‘real-world’ concerns with the language and imagery of dreaming.
Fantasy versus science fiction and horror
Fantasy, science fiction, and even horror are all speculative genres in how they ask ‘what if?’
What genre elements distinguish them?
You could argue science fiction explores what is probable or plausible (as a result of, for example, technological change, or how relatively little we know for sure about our universe – ‘the truth is out there’). Fantasy, meanwhile, explores what is possible within the realm of imagination or an invented secondary world.
Rod Serling, screenwriter and narrator for cult sci-fi series The Twilight Zone , describes it thus:
It’s been said that science fiction and fantasy are two different things: science fiction, the improbable made possible; fantasy, the impossible made probable. Rod Serling, narration from The Twilight Zone , via IMDB.
Fantasy explores what is possible if we take a scenario as a given starting point, maybe putting some laws of physics aside.
Horror explores the macabre , paranormal or supernatural as a force for destruction (or as a manifestation of dark events in the normal world, such as a haunting by the victim of a crime).
Fantasy tends not to dwell on the macabre in quite as visceral a way as horror (few shapeshifting clowns and haunted TV sets here). Although there is plenty that is macabre in George R. R. Martin and many other fantasy authors’ work (especially in grimdark and dark fantasy subgenres).
What are the main fantasy subgenres?
Fantasy subgenres are often confusing because many terms are used interchangeably (e.g. epic and high fantasy) by many authors and readers.
A list of popular fantasy subgenres includes:
- High fantasy: Typically is set in an entirely fictional secondary world with detailed lore and a story of epic scope. Example: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin.
- Low fantasy: Contrasts from high fantasy in being set in the ‘real’ world or a rational fictional world which is similar to our own. Typically, magical events ‘intrude on’ a regular/non-magical world. Example: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan.
- Dark fantasy: Fantasy which has a marked horror element. Sometimes used for fantasy stories in which the protagonist is anti-heroic or morally-ambiguous in a darker way than an epic, heroic protagonist. Example: Fairy Tale by Stephen King.
- Urban fantasy: This subgenre puts fantastical elements such as magic or mythical beasts within modern, urban settings. Magic may be a hidden layer of life that only some see, existing in secrecy, or out in the open. It often incorporates detective fiction elements. Example: Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews.
- Heroic fantasy: Fantasy stories that detail heroic battles between good and evil, or a heroic figure and their nemesis. Differs from epic fantasy mainly in the conflict often being the hero’s own personal grievance or vendetta, rather than something affecting the entire world’s fate or wellbeing. ‘Sword and sorcery’ is a category of stories in this subgenre. Example: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.
- Science fantasy: Stories combining elements of science fiction and fantasy (for example, secondary worlds set on distant planets in our solar system). Example: Dragonflight by Anne McCaffery.
- Comic fantasy: Fantasy that uses comedic techniques such as parody or satire, often sending up tropes and traditions of the genre. Sir Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ novels are a good example. Example: Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett.
For further niche subgenres, see TV Tropes’ detailed guide to fantasy genre .
There is also a helpful flowchart created by user Lyrrael covering subgenres such as grimdark, fairy-tale and weird fiction in the Fantasy subreddit here .
Useful terms in fantasy literature
Writing fantasy means getting to know a wide range of terms. Here are several useful ones:
Lore: A body of knowledge and tradition. A particular fantasy universe may have its own ‘lore’ that is stable or added to in subsequent books in a series, thus becoming ‘canon’ (see below). Fanfiction writers often use elements of an author’s existing lore to create their own spin-off characters or plotlines (for example, setting new stories in Pratchett’s Discworld universe).
Worldbuilding: Creating the defining physical, geographical and other features of a fictional setting. For example elements such as maps, biomes with individual fauna, flora, social and political history, and beliefs and traditions (more on this in the Fantasy worldbuilding section).
Secondary world: A term Tolkien uses to refer to a world that is not a primary ‘reality’ but an other place that has a life of its own (important in, for example, portal fantasy).
Canon: A ‘canon’ broadly is a body of ‘principles, rules, standards, or norms’. In the context of the fantasy genre, it is the elements considered as ‘official’ parts of lore and established worldbuilding (especially important in fantasy series where internal rules need to be somewhat consistent – though not even all of Tolkien’s were ).
Find a discussion on common fantasy character types under Fantasy characters and questions for creating magical systems under Magic in fantasy below.
- Elements of fantasy: Writing a more magical story
- The difference between fantasy and science fiction
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The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow sharp as swords. J.R.R. Tolkien
Why write fantasy? The joys of the genre
If you comb through fantasy-dedicated web communities such as /r/fantasy on Reddit, Facebook groups and forums dedicated to the genre, common loves regarding the genre become clear.
Authors and readers alike love fantasy because it often has:
The thrill of adventure
Who wouldn’t want to go to a magical academy to learn how to fly, cast spells, or turn invisible? Or go through a portal (as a younger reader) where children have substantially more power and say?
The escape of visiting imagined worlds
Many answers to the question ‘Why do you love fantasy?’ such as this discussion talk about the joy of escapism, of visiting imaginary worlds.
High stakes of revenge/vengeance
Fantasy is no low-drama genre. Throne succession battles? It has them. Fire-breathing dragons? Check. Swords, sorcery, mythical beasts and where to find them? All the fantastical is present, with high-stakes to boot.
Fantastical refraction of reality
One of the joys of fantasy is that the cracked mirror of invention lets us see our own world from an intriguing ‘elsewhere’. Tweet This
Like Alice through the looking glass, we don’t just see the grey everyday reflected. Instead, we get glimpses of the impossible made plausible.
The wonder of magic
Magic is fun. Potions, spells, or broomsticks whizzing past weather balloons. There’s an unpredictability when you say ‘abracadabra’. There’s wonder and inherent suspense.
The hope of heroism
Many fantasy stories show ordinary people who have to rise to acts of all-or-nothing heroism. Novice David who has to face off against a magically adept Goliath with overpowered abilities. Fantasy is full of the pluck of the underdog (and the suspense and optimism of rooting for them).
Wish, wonder and surprise
The fantasy genre is filled with wish, wonder and surprise. If you’ve ever said, ‘I wish I could fly’ or ‘I wonder what would happen if hideous witches turned children into mice’, fantasy has images and answers. Tweet This
Timeless, dramatic themes
Fantasy is full of themes such as the battle of good versus evil, the power the individual has to overthrow tyranny, the value of friendship and loyalty, and more. These are timeless themes that stay relevant to modern life.
The above give helpful insights into how to make a fantasy story appeal to lovers of the genre.
🗣️ What do you love about fantasy? Let us know in the comments, and keep reading for tips on how to write a fantasy novel, fantasy worldbuilding and timeline template docs, info on kinds of fantasy magic, and more.
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The best fantasy is written in the language of dreams. It is alive as dreams are alive, more real than real … for a moment at least … that long magic moment before we wake. George R. R. Martin
Fantasy worldbuilding: Creating new worlds and realities
Worldbuilding in fantasy is a vast topic and a lot has been written about it.
Worldbuilding in storytelling generally is important. Even if you’re writing ‘realist’ fiction (if you’re setting a story in modern-day Chicago, for example) you still need to create the sense of place. Landmarks, culture, and other elements.
Who are celebrated fantasy world-builders?
Fantasy authors who are often held up as bastions of detailed and imaginative worldbuilding include:
J.R.R. Tolkien and his Legendarium
The legendarium is the name given to the sum of all Tolkien’s works set in his secondary fictional world, Arda.
Tolkien started worldbuilding for this world in 1914, writing poems and story sketches, drawing maps, and inventing languages for the purpose of building a richly layered fantasy world.
Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings
The Guardian describes Hobb’s fantasy worldbuilding as ‘irresistible’ and she was awarded the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2021. George R. R. Martin’s testimonial for her novel Assassin’s Apprentice (the first book in her Farseer trilogy, 1995), says ‘in today’s crowded fantasy market, Robin Hobb’s books are like diamonds in a sea of zircons’.
Although some readers quibble with Hobb’s pacing , others emphasize how she ‘gives great descriptions and makes a fantastical world feel very real’.
Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld
On the lighter side of comic fantasy, Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is beloved by many for its sly wit and the way it pokes fun at fantasy and worldbuilding conventions. After all, Discworld is a flat world perched on the backs of four elephants, themselves standing on a giant turtle as it travels through outer space.
It is worldbuilding that doesn’t take itself too seriously, with a funny bone, in the tradition of comic speculative fiction authors such as Douglas Adams.
C.S. Lewis’ Narnia
C.S. Lewis’ beloved Narnia series is a portal fantasy featuring worlds sung into existence by a magical lion, a narcissistic witch with an appetite for destruction, and more.
Narnia is an example of a secondary fantasy world with its own separate rules of time (the protagonists grow older in this world, only to become children again when they return to our real one).
Anne McCaffrey and her dragon-filled world of Pern
Anne McCaffrey’s science-fantasy world features humans who ride intelligent, fire-breathing dragons to combat a consuming, destructive spore known as ‘Thread’ on a distant planet.
The series contains 22 books as of 2022 (some co-authored with her son Todd).
N.K. Jemisin, the Stillness, and the politics of oppression
NK Jemisin (who teaches worldbuilding workshops) brings the reality of politics, inequality and ecological issues into her worldbuilding in interesting ways.
She was the first author to win the Hugo Award three years in a row for her Broken Earth series. In this series, her characters live on a planet featuring a supercontinent called ‘The Stillness’ which experiences catastrophic climate change every few centuries.
Says Jason Parham for Wired , ‘Jemisin’s realms are epic, lush, and peculiar. They feel lived in, painstakingly thought-through. The power relations between her characters are often a direct result of the lands they inhabit.’
George R. R. Martin and the kingdom of Westeros
According to George R. R. Martin’s fandom wiki , the fantasy kingdom of Westeros is based loosely on medieval Britain, yet if it were a continent the size of South America.
The author is lauded for his world’s mystery (how he has withheld as much as he has revealed in readers’ estimation, leaving room for further tales in his world).
He is also admired for his characters’ moral ambiguity (and the morally ambiguous nature of his world at large), and using (and altering or enlarging to make more epic or fantastical) historical referents.
J.K. Rowling and the world of Hogwarts
In recent years, JK Rowling has divided and even lost readers (especially among the often more progressive Gen Z) due to sharing her views on trans rights on Twitter. It’s a good reminder to invest in a good publicist and social team if you can afford both, or stick to less divisive, sensitive subjects in what you air about your personal beliefs on your author platform.
Controversy aside, a large part of Rowling’s publishing success in fantasy is the detail she put into the wizarding world of Harry Potter. The author drew extensively on her background in classics and recast familiar fantasy objects (such as the flying broomstick) in novel ways that captured young readers’ imaginations.
The author was also shrewd in having her world grow darker and more dangerous as her protagonists and initial fan base grew up.
🗣️ Who is your favorite fantasy world builder, and why? Tell us in the comments.
Keep reading for tips to build imaginative, rich fantasy worlds.
How to build fantasy worlds: 8 creative ideas
How to plan a fantasy novel and create a fantasy world that is detailed, intriguing, mysterious? Read eight ideas:
Start with a fantasy worldbuilding process you enjoy
There’s no single, correct way to invent fantasy worlds.
Tolkien, per the above, began with story sketches, poems, inventing language, and maps. Lois McMaster Bujold (a four-time Hugo Award winner), per a reader’s contribution, wrote about ‘just-in-time’ worldbuilding – creating the world detail you need as your story requires it in the drafting process. (It is perhaps still advisable to keep a record of what you’ve added to your world, unless you have an incredible memory!)
Others swear by starting with planning geography, or deciding what biomes make up a world and how they affect habitation, what kinds of characters live in a secondary world or dimension.
Try different worldbuilding methods to find what works for you.
Use fantasy worldbuilding tools and prompts
When you’re ready to start inventing world details, Now Novel’s own ‘World Builder’ is a structured, prompt-based process to start stories .
Build worlds and locations of three scales: Large-scale (such as a universe, world or continent) mid-scale (such as a single country, town or region) and small-scale (individual story locations, e.g. a tavern in one of these places).
You can nest locations within one another and give them representative avatars. Your worldbuilding is added to your automatically-generated outline PDF as you go.
Now Novel members also have described using worldbuilding tools such as World Anvil to build detailed fantasy world wikis (or you can start with the free worldbuilding wiki template below).
Try making a well-organized fantasy world wiki
When you look at fantasy research portals such as ‘Tolkien Gateway’ or fantasy authors’ wikis, it’s clear how useful a wiki-like database is for keeping track of (and looking up) established details about a fantasy universe.
You don’t necessarily need a world builder like our own or World Anvil (though they help). You could use Google Docs, too (or combine these different resources).
Use headings in alphabetical order and brief descriptions of each worldbuilding category with sidebar jump links to make a fantasy encyclopedia that’s easy to navigate. You can use this fantasy worldbuilding template as a starting point (just make your own, private copy once signed into Google):
Now Novel fantasy worldbuilding template starter
Build in credible cause and effect
Ultimately, believable fantasy worlds come down not to how much they mimic earthly reality or physical laws but how they obey their own, consistent laws. One thing leads to another.
Ursula K. Le Guin writes:
The child “telling a story” roams about among the imaginary and the half-understood without knowing the difference […] But fantasies, whether folktales or sophisticated literature, are stories in the adult, demanding sense. They can ignore certain laws of physics but not of causality. They start here and go there (or back here ), and though the mode of travel may be unusual, and here and there may be wildly exotic and unfamiliar places, yet they must have both a location on the map of that world and a relationship to the map of our world. If not, the hearer or reader of the tale will be set adrift in a sea of inconsequential inconsistencies. Le Guin, ‘It Doesn’t Have to Be the Way It Is’, p. 81.
As you brainstorm your fantasy world, in short, and decide ‘it is this way’, ask why . Know why your world is the way it is (and make whatever is mysterious or inexplicable that way for a reason).
Explore popular science for fantasy worldbuilding ideas
Science is full of interesting and surprising facts.
For example, that you can make a box of sand behave as a liquid under the right physical conditions.
Fantasy author Brandon Sanderson and former Nasa and Apple engineer Mark Rober explore just that (and how Sanderson used this idea in his novel Tress of the Emerald Sea ) in an interesting video.
Becoming a good worldbuilder is a matter of staying curious, asking questions about how things, systems, magics work (and why). Ripping back the curtain in Oz. Tweet This
Science may supply not only ideas for how ‘reality’ works in your world, but magic, too.
Investigate history for inspiration
Many fantasy authors have drawn on history to write fantasy worlds rich with intrigues. G. R. R. Martin drew on medieval Britain and the War of the Roses. C.S. Lewis drew heavily on religious history (The Bible) in creating Narnia and its themes of temptation and resurrection.
If you’re worldbuilding and thinking about historical or present wars, investigate famous wars and find interesting details about the nature of war.
The same goes for researching ecological history. Or the history of gender and children’s rights, or any other aspects of human and planetary development.
You never know what gleaming piece of your fantasy world you could find in reality. Tweet This
Create world timelines or other summary references
Whether you enjoy sketching maps or like the idea of a detailed timeline, these secondary sources are useful for planning a fantasy world.
They are secondary sources that you could include within the book itself, to help your reader maintain a clear overview (plus they’re fun to make).
Diversify your fantasy worldbuilding sources
Readers cotton onto references such as Martin being inspired by the War of the Roses easily because he changed the names of the warring parties very little (from Lancaster and York to Lannister and Stark).
If you want your fantasy world to maintain mystery, pull from diverse sources. Entire genres (see steampunk) have been born from acts of fantastical combination.
🗣️ What’s your favorite worldbuilding resource? Let us know in the comments.
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Fantasy characters: Populating imaginary worlds
For all their worldbuilding and often wonderful setting detail, fantasy novels – like every other genre – have character at their heart. It may be the unlikely hero and their even unlikelier sidekick. Or else a grim, immoral anti-hero – an assassin, dark magician, or other figure.
Fantasy characterization has many tropes, types, and facets. Read on for a list of common fantasy character types and tips for creating a compelling cast of fantasy characters.
Common fantasy character types in the genre’s history
Fantasy authors draw character inspiration from as many sources as authors in other genres. Here are common roles in fantasies that recur:
Mentors, guides, guardians and conduits of wisdom
Frodo has Gandalf, Arthur has Merlin, Syenite has Alabaster .
The word ‘Mentor’ comes from the eponymous character in Homer’s Odyssey . The Goddess Athena disguises herself as an old family friend to guide Odysseus’ son Telemachus while Odysseus is away.
A mentor is often described as one who instills a heroic mentality, the courage to go on ( a writing coach functions similarly ).
The Atlantic explores this classical mentor figure’s modern relevance .
Heroic figures and zeroes to heroes
Many SFF stories feature protagonists who are relative ‘nobodies’ who are called on to achieve world-changing tasks.
Often in SFF genres (from epic fantasy to sci-fi space opera), heroes have been orphans (so that this has become a recognizable fantasy protagonist cliché ).
The heroic figure typically goes through trials to gain courage, understanding, or powers. These character types include the Alannas , Belgarions , Luke Skywalkers, and Frodo Bagginses.
For more on this type, see ‘The Hero’s Journey’ under Story structure in fantasy .
Mortal and immortal antagonists
The fantasy genre is full of mortal and immortal antagonists. Pulling puppet strings as an evil eye? That’s Sauron for you. Possessing teachers with speech impediments? That’s He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.
Some fantasy antagonists are subtler, more shadowy (such as the fugitive shadow Ged the protagonist accidentally summons by disregarding the rules of magic to impress a girl in Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)).
See a robust Reddit discussion on the best villains in fantasy for many more examples.
Sidekicks, companions and familiars
Even witches toiling over cauldrons (or doing magic by more modern means) need friends and allies.
Fantasy is full of a beloved fantasy type – the sidekick-meets-companion.
Think of Frodo’s dependable friend Samwise Gamgee, in The Lord of the Rings . Or Mildred Hubble’s hopeless cat who won’t sit on flying broomsticks like her classmates’ felines in Jill Murphy’s beloved ‘The Worst Witch’ children’s books. (The latter are some of the most successful titles on Puffin Books’ Young Puffin backlist.)
Many fantasy stories feature the tyrannical, monstrous, villainous or magical unknown and buddies add coziness and often comic relief to perilous adventures. Tweet This
Corruptible family, friends and allies
Many fantasy books and series are interesting in featuring betrayers hiding in plain sight. The Pevensie children’s own brother selling them out for some Turkish Delight in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) for example.
In fantasy, we may meet mean aunts and uncles who can’t be bothered to make comfortable living arrangements. Or that one companion who wants to ‘just borrow’ a dangerous magical ring the protagonist is on a mission to destroy (we see you, Boromir).
This fantasy character type is a little like fantasy’s answer to the ‘double agent’ in spy fiction. Slippery, deceptive – an antagonistic force too close to home.
Fantasy rivals and foils
Often fantasy protagonists compete with rivals, creating secondary conflict arcs. There may be similar goals. For example all of Arthur’s knights of the round table seeking the Holy Grail in Arthurian legend. Rivals supply:
- Added narrative tension and suspense: Who will get to the goal first?
- Secondary conflict: Your protagonist in a fantasy story may have a rival who creates extra obstacles or problems for them, or even aids or supports their adversaries
Foils are characters who throw aspects of other characters into stark contrast. In comedy writing, for example, you often see the so-called ‘straight-man’, the straight-laced, ‘square’ figure who contrasts to the confirmed kook.
Fantasy is full of these foils. For example, gruff dwarves who differ in voice and temperament to courtly, sensitive elves in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. In the most richly developed worlds, these differences are often linked to characters’ environments, cultures, ways of life; the same way our environments shape our own self-expression and identities.
Tips for writing fantasy characters who stand out
How can you make your fantasy characters feel real, not cookie-cutter types?
Subvert stock fantasy character types
Who’s to say elves have to speak in mellifluous tones, as though they’re at a king’s stately court? Or that dwarves have to be Grumpy, Dopey, Bashful or Sneezy?
Pratchett, for example, takes elves over to the dark side, so that they become ‘bad faeries’:
Discworld’s elves aren’t the noble creatures of some Roundworld myths. If an elf told you to eat your own head, you’d do it. Ian Stewart, Jack Cohen, Terry Pratchett, The Science of Discworld IV: Judgment Day (2013), p. 5.
Have fun playing with or subverting expectations of ‘type’. There are many ways to use familiar fantasy archetypes (if applicable to your world) but make them your own.
Maybe the monster wouldn’t hurt a soul and humans are the real bloodthirsty ogres and cretins in your world (this is common in grimdark, dark fantasy, and comic fantasy).
Explore goal, motivation, and conflict (as you would in other genres)
Fantasy characters’ goals, motivations, and the conflicts their paths encounter are crucial, the same as in other genres.
In a quest-based, epic fantasy, each member of a rag-tag party should want something (even if some of these wants are shared or similar).
The same wants may be motivated by different things (one character wants to save the world out of idealistic do-gooding, the other just wants their promised bag of coin). Mercenaries and heroes have different outlooks (though may appreciate or have a little of each other’s points of view).
Read more about GMC in our complete guide to creating chara ct ers .
Avoid only reading fantasy or one fantasy subgenre
Pratchett gave the excellent advice to read widely , not just in the fantasy genre, if you want to write it.
The danger of reading one genre is you may start to ape its most obvious forms, tics, and tropes. This can lead to form without the content of your original voice, archetypes without flesh and blood.
If you do mainly read fantasy, read across a selection of subgenres at least, or authors who write in plain English alongside those with more epic/heroic stylings.
Understand your fantasy villains and mentors
Many fantasy villains appear to be destructive for its own sake initially – cruel figures who enjoy destruction or vast power.
Yet many fantasy authors have developed and humanized their villains as series progressed.
One Redditor says of Robin Hobb’s antagonist Regal Farseer:
Regal is terrible for sure – Hobb has a great hand at writing horrible villains that you hate, but then also managing to make you understand them by the end. /u/matgopack, via /r/fantasy
In pure action, you may have villains who do bad things ‘just because’ – they’re almost like MacGuffins to get the explosions going. In some genres, your reader/viewer may come along for the explosions, not the nuanced character insights.
Yet in fantasy, we often get villains’ backstories, deeper human insights into where morally grey choices come from.
Like villains, mentors may make mistakes, too. Even the strongest fount of wisdom may be fallible.
Avoid Mary Sues (and Marty Crews)
Sometimes readers dislike fantasy characters because they are written to be morally reprehensible antagonists or complex and flawed main characters.
Other times, readers dislike characters because they are poorly-written. Avoid the latter and check for characters who are:
- Perfect, ‘chosen-one’ cutouts – Mary Sues or Marty Crews who have over-skilled or over-idealized natures compared to other characters, or compared to what seems credible for your world. Even the greatest wizards, mentors and others make mistakes and have flaws
- Out of place in your fantasy setting (if you’re basing your world on a medieval culture, for example, it will be odd if your characters use modern-day slang or have very unlikely mores for the time, unless they are ahead of their time and this is contextually credible)
🗣️ What do you love or find annoying about fantasy characters?
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So given all these myths, all these examinations of the possible… how can I not imagine more? How can I not envision an epic set somewhere other than medieval England, about someone other than an awkward white boy? How can I not use every building-block of my history and heritage and imagination? N.K. Jemisin
Story structure in fantasy: Episodes, heroes’ journeys, and more
Story structure in fantasy is an interesting subtopic.
Many fantasies derive their structure from the episodic, ‘twelve tasks’ formats of myths and oral storytelling traditions. Tweet This
Mythological storytelling devices shape Odysseus’ stops on his journey homewards, or the episodic structure (due to it being steeped in oral traditions and Yoruba mythologies) of Amos Tutuola’s The Palm Wine Drinkard .
The hero’s journey (and modifications of this form identified and theorized by Joseph Campbell) is also popular, because it suits quest-like stories of voyage and return.
Keep reading for further ideas on how to structure a fantasy novel and make sure it has a well-developed arc (as well as tips for structuring fantasy series).
The hero’s journey in fantasy: A plot structure for voyage and return
Professor of literature Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (first published in 1949) identified and described patterns across varied mythologies.
Campbell mapped heroic stories into three main stages, which align to the broad story structure of ‘voyage and return’. Each of the following three categories is subdivided into four stages.
- Departure : The heroic figure leaves behind familiar beginnings to fulfil their heroic destiny or call to adventure.
- Initiation : The heroic figure is tested on every level and succeeds in their primary task.
- Return : The heroic figure returns home to merge what they have learned or undergone with new understanding or awareness.
See how this maps to beloved fantasy classics (for example, Frodo’s departure from the Shire tasked with destroying the One Ring, to his trials far from home such as facing the monstrous Balrog, to returning to the Shire with greater wisdom and courage).
Within these three broad story segments (which could align to ‘three-act structure’, beginning, middle and end), there are multiple other stages Campbell identified and later authors and screenwriters expanded upon.
The twelve stages of the hero’s (adapted) journey
Joseph Campbell’s original text actually divided the hero’s journey into seventeen stages.
Hollywood screenwriter Christopher Vogler (who contributed story material to classic Disney animations such as The Lion King ) divides Campbell’s structure into a more symmetrical, succinct twelve.
In the 25th anniversary edition of his book The Writer’s Journey , Vogler stresses that the hero’s journey is a ‘form, not formula’ (not something meant to churn out stale repetition but a means to think about what happens, when, in heroic sagas).
The twelve stages are (four each for the hero’s departure, initiation and return):
Act 1: Departure
The Ordinary World : The reader/viewer sees the heroic figure’s ordinary world, an environment they will have to leave.
The Call to Adventure : Heroic figure is presented with ‘a problem, challenge, or adventure to undertake.’ Vogler uses the example in detective stories of a PI being called to take on a case.
Refusal of the Call : Due to fear or other reasons, heroic figure is reluctant to accept the call to adventure and get going.
Meeting with the Mentor : The heroic protagonist meets with a mentor-like figure (Vogler compares this to the bond between teacher and student, doctor and patient, or parent and child).
Act 2: Initiation
Crossing the First Threshold : Often the turning point between acts one and two, the heroic figure accepts their vital task/calling.
Tests, Allies, Enemies : Once over the threshold, heroic figure naturally encounters greater tests, challenges and dangers.
Approach to the Inmost Cave : Heroic figure arrives at the edge of a dangerous place, e.g. the outskirts of Mordor, the dark magician’s HQ, the outer trenches of the battlefield.
The Ordeal : Confrontation between the heroic figure and their greatest fear – rock bottom is reached.
Act 3: Return
Reward : Having come through the ordeal, heroic figure may claim their reward, be it a magical weapon or object, new power, or eliminating a major threat or evil.
The Road Back : The road back in the ‘return’ phase has its own perils (such as being pursued by the consequences of the ordeal, e.g. an enchanted castle starting to collapse in on itself or angered secondary adversaries wanting vengeance for a primary antagonist’s slaying).
The Resurrection : The heroic figure undergoes a transformative experience that purifies them of what they have gone through. For example, Odysseus being bathed so that he is once again recognizable to his wife after his journey.
Return with the Elixir : They return with a boon, treasure or outcome that may benefit their place of origin, the ordinary world.
Do fantasy stories have to follow story structure templates?
In a word, no. In genre romance, you may need to write to a specific template or format (for example, in feel-good romance you must have the happily ever after or happily, for now ending).
In fantasy though, there are so many subgenres. Fantasy stories’ structure should serve the story (for example, whether it is a quest narrative in a voyage and return format, or more open ended, leading to a sequel perhaps, a deferred return or further venturing to an even more fantastical place).
The hero’s journey and other story structures can give you ideas for story beats to hit (or tropes to subvert), but ultimately each story does find its own structure, departing from templates where it serves the story.
What about fantasy series’ structure?
Writing a fantasy series makes a lot of sense if you have taken the time to develop a detailed world or magical cast of characters. Each book in a series can advertise your backlist and readers will typically buy or loan and read the whole set if they enjoy one title.
Trilogies and quartets are two of the most popular numbers for books in series (though Pratchett wrote a whopping forty-five Discworld books).
To structure a fantasy series:
- Give your fantasy series an overarching plot. Your protagonist may have specific initiations, ordeals and rewards in each book, but there should also be ones that span the entire series for a series-wide arc that keeps some mysteries to unmask or deepen from book to book.
- Read fantasy series and sagas . How does the author create an arc from book to book? Is each book set in a different location in their world? How do the titles echo one another? (‘Noun of the Noun’ or ‘The Noun that Verb’ are common grammatical structures that repeat across titles; e.g. The Tree That Sat Down and The Stream That Stood Still children’s fantasy books by Beverly Nichols about a witch who sets up a rival shop to the protagonist).
- Apply story structure ideas series-wide and within each book. For example, you could structure a trilogy like three acts, with a book focusing on departure, a book focusing on initiation, and a book focusing on return – while each individual book may include elements of these stages.
If you prefer not to plot much, write a discovery draft and refine a clearer structure in rewriting. For a series, though, it is wise to do more plotting as otherwise keeping track of worldbuilding and not repeating or contradicting yourself could prove challenging.
- Story plotting and structure: Complete guide
- How to start a fantasy story: 6 intriguing ways
- How to plot a series: 8 steps for multi-book arcs
But there are as many stories that take the hero on an inward journey, one of the mind, the heart, the spirit. In any good story the hero grows and changes, making a journey from one way of being to the next: from despair to hope, weakness to strength, folly to wisdom, love to hate, and back again. It’s these emotional journeys that hook an audience and make a story worth watching. Christopher Vogler
Magic in fantasy writing: Developing a magic system
Although magic in fantasy writing falls under Fantasy worldbuilding , it’s a broad enough topic to warrant its own section. No discussion of fantasy would be complete without talking about magic systems, types of magic, and magic’s origins.
Where does the idea of magic in fantasy come from?
Fantasy has its roots in mythological folk tales, fairy-tales and legends. If there’s any genre that tells us humans have been dreaming and asking ‘what if?’ for centuries, it’s fantasy.
Magic, too, is found in many myths and legends. Transfiguration, for example. Gods who change their shape to trouble mortals in creeks in Ancient Greek mythology, or gorgons with snakes for hair who turn foolhardy men into stone. And these are only to speak of European examples – world cultures are full of imaginative magics, Gods with many arms.
An interesting book (though problematic to a modern reader due to the text’s paternalistic and dated language) is James Frazer’s The Golden Bough : A Study in Comparative Religion (1890). Frazer’s anthropological text had a substantial influence on modern literature in English around the turn of the 20th Century.
Frazer catalogued how many world cultures have performed rites and rituals, a kind of practical magic. For example, practices intended to control the weather . He describes a tribal figure dipping a branch in water and shaking it to mimic rain, as an encouragement for rain to come during drought.
Rites and rituals suggest how magic in storytelling comes from need and desire; the way people across centuries have often been at the mercy of forces or natural processes beyond their control, and their resulting desire for change. Tweet This
Creating a magic system: 9 questions to start
In stories that feature magic, there are many things to consider about how magic works, who uses or possesses it, and to what end they use it.
Sometimes in stories, magic is a tradition passed down between generations (such as in a matriarchal coven).
In academic fantasies , magic is learned at school (such as in Murphy’s ‘The Worst Witch’ series for young readers or in Harry Potter).
To build a magic system of your own, try answering these questions around magic’s who, what, why, where and when:
Who is able to use magic in your world?
Is it everyone or a chosen (or involuntary/random) few? What gives magic-wielders their power?
What is the cost/price of magic in your fantasy story?
For example, does its user or an initiate have to pay something to be able to use it? This may be something physical, like a blood sacrifice, or figurative, for example accepting the lonely life of a shut away scholar.
This goes back to Le Guin’s assertion that fantasy obeys internal rules and is not a case of ‘wishful thinking’ in which ‘two and one make five, or forty-seven, or whuddeva’ ( No Time to Spare , p. 81). There is cause and effect.
Why does magic exist?
What is its origin story? Do people know why magic in your fantasy exists, or is it mysterious in some ways? Do some people have conspiracy theories or dissenting views on its origins or nature (is there consensus or divided opinion about it)?
When does a person acquire magic?
For example, is it when they perform certain magical rites, reach a certain age, don specific magical garb such as a ring, pendant, hat, pair of shoes?
Where does magic exist or not exist?
For example, will your story feature a primary, non-magical world and a secondary one where there is magic?
Are there specific places where magic (or magical beings) can pass between the two, as in a portal fantasy like the Narnia series?
Who is constructive with magic and who is destructive?
Or is magic singularly utopian/dystopian in how it’s used?
Example: In the HBO dark fantasy series Carnivàle (2003-2005), the protagonist is an ordinary man who discovers he can heal people using surrounding life energy (going back to the idea of ‘cost’ mentioned above). The antagonist in the series is a preacher who deceives his congregation in dark ways with illusory magic.
What amplifies or diminishes magic?
Are there conditions that must be met for magic to have a stronger or weaker effect? Magical wards or protections?
Why is magic on the rise or fall?
For example, is your protagonist a novice becoming an adept? Is something causing a change of magic in your world itself?
When will magic be its most trying, testing or dangerous?
If you think of the hero’s journey story structure, for example, this would typically be during the ordeal – the face-off to end all face-offs.
These are just some ideas. Read writers on how they develop their magic systems (many fantasy authors have given excellent speeches at conferences, or have given interviews).
In the video linked under Fantasy worldbuilding , Brandon Sanderson says ‘I like to keep one foot in science, one in fantasy’. Here is Sanderson on worldbuilding in SFF , too.
For an interesting discussion of magic systems in fantasy (e.g. ‘hard’ vs ‘soft’ systems), see a Reddit thread in the /r/fantasy community.
- ‘Worldbuilding tips for speculative fiction’ in ‘Writing coach Nerine Dorman on YA, sci-fi and fantasy’
When I write my books, actually, I’m known for very logical rule-based magic systems. I write with one foot in fantasy and one foot in science fiction. Brandon Sanderson
Fantasy story conflicts: No dreams without nightmares
It stands to reason that if we’re to dream of flying, we might dream of falling. That below Icarus, there’s a treacherous sea.
Fantasy story conflicts not only give protagonists reasons to strive, master abilities, leave cozy, round-doored dwellings. They are part of yin and yang, the balance of forces. For every dark mage, a light-bringer’s born. Tweet This
Common sources of conflict in fantasy
An archetypal struggle between good and evil is the most obvious and common fantasy conflict in subgenres such as epic fantasy which build towards epic confrontation.
Another common source of conflict in fantasy is quite simple – the protagonist going where they ‘shouldn’t’ go (or never have gone before).
Alice down the rabbit hole in Lewis Carroll, for example, or Lyra Belacqua (in Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy) into the Master’s rooms in The Golden Compass . Girls, boys, and others behaving badly.
Says Pullman (in his collection of non-fiction essays and speeches Daemon Voices (2017)):
One day I found myself beginning to write a long story of a sort I hadn’t tried before, a sort I could only call fantasy. There was another world, and there were landscapes of Arctic wildness and Gothic complexity; there were gigantic figures of moral darkness and light engaging in a conflict whose causes and outcome were invisible to me. And it began with a little girl going into a room where she shouldn’t go, and having to hide when someone comes in. Phillip Pullman, ‘Grace Lost and Regained’ in Daemon Voices (2017), p. 73.
Often, especially in academic fantasy about the discovery of magical powers, internal conflict is about typical concerns of school life (friendships, rivalries, crushes, exams), alongside the struggle for magical mastery.
Writing fantasy conflicts: Making conflicts credible
How can you make conflict in your fantasy story intriguing as well as credible?
Borrow fantasy conflict ideas from the Hero’s Journey
Although it has its critics, to echo Vogler the hero’s journey is a form, not a formula. What is hard when a person leaves a place or state of comfort? Or difficult about a rite of initiation or first trial that may require great sacrifice or work? Disappointing about coming back to your ordinary world after a place of magic, life-or-death deeds or struggle?
Dipping into the stages of the hero’s journey could help you find striking conflicts.
Diversify fantasy conflicts’ sources
Internal and external conflict . Close friends vs rivals. Conflict in fantasy story may come from unexpected or unpredictable sources.
Subplots such as Boromir trying to wrest the One Ring from Frodo in The Lord of the Rings cycle keep us on our toes. Conflicts close to home, for example, remind us that allies and foe’s can switch sides.
This blows open the possibilities for how characters may act, betray, or surprise.
Avoid rehashing the same old fantasy conflicts
Will the parents of your fantasy heroes die? Many fantasy readers might grumble, ‘Seen it!’
Obvious fantasy conflicts that flirt with tropes and cliches may make your writing feel imitative rather than fresh. However, Sir Philip Pullman offers a contrasting view (keep reading for his take on the obvious in fantasy).
What conflicts are unique to your character, though? How do they connect to their backstory, desires, limitations?
Explore motivations other than revenge
Revenge can be a juicy theme for drama and stakes, yet it’s another very common motivation for fantasy protagonists (avenging deceased parents who the antagonist killed is the classic combo).
What if your protagonist’s motivation isn’t eye-for-an-eye, motivated by righteous anger? There are many other motivations to choose from for pursuing a showdown with an antagonist, such as:
- Misunderstanding or being misled
- Conviction in personal beliefs
- Ecological or other threats to existence
Credible fantasy conflicts (as in other genres) come down to obeying the laws of cause and effect, action and reaction.
Not every story has to involve high adventure, by any means; but no successful storyteller is afraid of the obvious – of conflict and resolution, faithfulness and treachery, passion and fulfilment. Pullman, ‘Stories Shouldn’t Need Passports’, in Daemon Voices (pp. 177-178).
🗣️ What’s your favorite fantasy conflict, and why? Tell us in the comments.
- Using conflicts in a story: 6 helpful conflict examples
- What The Hobbit characters teach us about character development
- Plot conflict: Striking true adversity in stories
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Fantasy writing tips from authors and editors
What do published fantasy authors and fantasy coaches and editors say about how to write a good fantasy story?
Read insights from Now Novel’s writing coaches who’ve helped many aspiring fantasy authors as well as celebrated fantasy authors.
Writing fantasy? Ask the coaches
We asked Now Novel writing coaches and SFF authors Nerine Dorman and Masha Du Toit the one piece of advice they’d give aspiring fantasy authors.
‘Read, read, read. Find the books that are similar to the one you’re writing, so that you are aware of the conventions. Read books that are outside of your genre, be it a classic, a best seller, or historical fiction. Read comic books. Listen to audiobooks. If you have time, play video games with strong storytelling structures. Pay attention to story structure, characterization, description. Ask yourself what works for you, what doesn’t. A good writer of SFF isn’t just reading their own genre, but they’ll dip into a range of genres to inspire and inform their favorite genre.’ – Nerine Dorman
‘Your job, as a writer, isn’t to avoid making mistakes. Your job is to tell stories. The only way to get better at that, is to make those mistakes so that you can learn from them. Don’t keep fiddling with one story in the belief that you can polish it till it’s perfect. Write it as well as you can, and move on to the next story you have to tell.’ – Masha Du Toit
Ursula K. Le Guin on the risks of imitation without understanding and style
In a speech published in Fantastic Literature: A Critical Reader by David Sandner, Le Guin cautions against imitative fantasy writing that parrots rather than understands its inspirations. Writes Le Guin:
There is a great deal of quite open influencing and imitating going on among the writers of fantasy. I incline to think that this is a very healthy situation. It is one in which most vigorous arts find themselves. Take for example music in the eighteenth century, when Handel and Mozart and the rest of them were borrowing tunes and tricks and techniques from one another, and building up the great edifice of music like a lot of masons at work on one cathedral: well, we may yet have a great edifice of fantasy. But you can’t imitate what somebody does until you’ve learned how he does it. Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie’, in Fantastic Literature: A Critical Reader , p. 149 (1973).
Le Guin, in the same essay, goes on to say this about style in fantasy writing:
Most epics are in straightforward language, whether prose or verse. They retain the directness of their oral forebears. Homer’s metaphors may be extended, but they are neither static nor ornate […] Clarity and simplicity are permanent virtues in a narrative. Nothing highfalutin is needed. A plain language is the noblest of all. It is also the most difficult. Tolkien writes a plain, clear English. Its outstanding virtue is its flexibility, its variety. Le Guin, ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie’, p. 152.
Sir Philip Pullman on not overcomplicating fantasy by avoiding the obvious
Although there are obvious fantasy tropes some readers may groan at, many fantasy authors have a gift for revitalizing tropes.
Philip Pullman says, regarding avoiding the obvious, not to overcomplicate by always trying to reinvent the wheel:
Now here’s a very important rule. It’s so important I’ve written it on a piece of paper and stuck it above my desk. It says: ‘Don’t be afraid of the obvious.’ Because it’s very tempting, once you’ve begun to tell stories seriously, to over-complicate. Part of the reason for this, I think, is the natural wish of everyone who aspires to be a good writer not to be mistaken for a bad one. You don’t want them to think you’re writing trash, so you try to avoid the stock situations, the stereo-typed characters, the second-hand plot devices, all the obvious things that trashy books are full of. But the habit of resistance has to be supervised and kept in check. Your ‘built-in, shockproof bullshit detector’, as Hemingway called it, is a good servant but a bad master. It should warn, not decide. Philip Pullman, ‘The Practice of Writing’, in Daemon Voices , p. 191.
N.K. Jemisin on remembering the purpose and contribution of each book in a fantasy series
In a reader Q&A for Goodreads, science fiction and fantasy author N.K. Jemisin gives a great answer to why she writes series mainly, giving a good insight into how to write a fantasy series in the process.
I’m an epic fantasy writer at my core, so I like lengthy stories with multiple arcs. […] It’s popular to malign the second book in a trilogy, I’ve noticed, but I think that’s facile. Second books have a particular job to do, and that job is not to be as “hook”-y as the beginning or explosive as the ending. If it does its job well, however, a good second book gives important layers of meaning to the hook and climax. N.K Jemisin, via Goodreads .
Robin Hobb on fantasy writing and research
In a post from the author’s blog simply titled ‘Fantasy and Research’, Hobb outlines why research is important even if you are not writing realist or historical stories:
You’ve probably heard me say elsewhere that the writer has the task of lowering the threshold of disbelief so that the reader can easily step into the story. Research is how you do that. Research says that you know the bus route number for your urban fantasy or you know how many miles a horse can travel in a day in rough country or that you know a sickle is not the same as a scythe. Not knowing those things can catapult a knowledgeable reader out of your story, and the book across the room! Robin Hobb, ‘Fantasy and Research’, author’s blog, posted November 15, 2022.
Sir Terry Pratchett on where ideas come from
Sir Terry Pratchett reminds us a great fantasy story can develop from even the most mundane, real subjects:
Ideas come from anywhere and everywhere, particularly, it seems, offbeat non-fiction. Neil Gaiman is exactly the same, which is why we had so much fun doing Good Omens. Anything that looks vaguely interesting is worth reading. It could be the history of washing up. Something in there would make it worth reading and it would pop up someday when we needed it. Sir Terry Pratchett, Writing magazine, quoted by Writers Online
🗣️ What’s a great piece of writing on fantasy or advice you’ve come across? Share it with us in the comments!
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Sources and further reading
Le Guin, Ursula, No Time to Spare: Thinking about what matters , (New York: Mariner, 2019). Pullman, Philip, Daemon Voices , (New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2019). Sandner, David, Fantastic Literature: A Critical Reader , (Westport, CI: Praeger, 2004).
- The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association is an excellent resource for SFF authors including writing and publishing advice
- /r/fantasywriters offers this list of books on writing (fantasy and general) and more.
- The 3.1 million members-strong /r/fantasy subreddit is a great source for interesting fantasy-related Q&As and genre discussion.
- Story planning and outlining: Complete guide
- Writing process: From discovery to done (complete guide)
- Tags fantasy genre , writing genres
Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.
54 replies on “Writing fantasy: Creating a spellbinding story (complete guide)”
Great ideas! There are so many tropes to either avoid or re-shape in the fantasy genre. It can be a lot of fun.
Thanks, Jordan! It’s true, and it’s inspiring how inventive new fantasy authors often are with such time-honoured material.
Hi, I’m right in the middle of my second novel, (My first one having become a little bit of a wreck) and I’m searching for ways to improve my writing technique, words, phrases, etc. Right now though, I’m facing a problem with my overarching story ideas. Originally I created my book as fan-fiction to the Redwall series, but now wish to branch off into my own world. I’m worried that I may end up writing something very similar to what Brian Jacques did. Have any ideas?
Hi Huck, thanks for reading the blog and sharing your current challenges.
I’d say, regarding your fears of coming across a Brian Jacques clone, make a bullet point list of the key ideas in Brian Jacques that would be easy to mimic and then keep it somewhere you can check you’re not doing exactly the same thing.
For the most part, I’d say write your draft and comb through later for anything that reads as too derivative to you. You can always change isolated characters/scenes as necessary to iron out the less original parts later. I hope this helps!
Thanks so much Jordan! I didn’t realize anyone would respond seeing as the last comments made were months ago. I actually have begun, (with my friend and editor from school) to make a list of sorts, including what I don’t want and do. It was helpful to hear that what I’m doing is good and will try to do more of it. Thanks again for responding!
It’s a pleasure, good luck! Feel free to join our critique community should you desire any feedback too.
“Thank you for the advice on how to write fantasy fiction.” I’m writing several short novels.
It’s a pleasure. Best of luck with your work(s) in progress!
This was pretty spot on for what I’m working on. I agree that it’s hard to make your own writing unique without learning what’s already been done. I’m not always able to read your articles right away, but I always make it a point to read them eventually. Thanks, Bridget.
I’m glad to hear that, Mike. Correct, it’s why it’s so important to read diverse novels if you want to improve your own craft. Thanks for reading.
In my novel, the protagonist believes at first that he´s an orphan, however by the end of the novel he meets them and understands why they had to leave him. I can´t tell the entire thing and the reasons because I´d be giving away my plot, but I´m doing my best to not be clíche but his parents andhis lineage are important to the plot so I can´t make it another way.
I’m 12 years old and have been writing stories for a while and this information really helped me and gave me tips on what I should do on my new novel! I also agree that everyone should be able to make their own trope not copy of someone else’s hard work. Many Thanks!
It’s a pleasure, Ann, we’re glad to help. Keep writing and making it your own 🙂
So I’m basically 13 and i love writing and reading. Especially YA fantasy like Red Queen or Throne of glass and stuff like that. What I’m struggling with though, is how to plot my story. I have tones of ideas but I can’t seem to put those ideas in a story. Do you have ideas of how I can organize all of those ideas?
Hi Dominique, thank you for sharing that. Have you tried brainstorming a single-paragraph summary of your story idea and then expanding this into a one-page summary? Starting small and broadening out like this is a useful way to start deciding key plot points (bearing in mind these could change).
We also have a guide to planning a story in scenes here that you may find helpful. Good luck!
Hi I was wondering if I would be about book series about movies and tv shows like Pacific rim, transformers, pokemon, or bakugan
Hi Leonard, did you mean you were wondering if you could write about these animated and other series? You could write fanfiction, but you might run into trouble were you to try publish a series based on these universes, since some companies protect their IP (intellectual property) fanatically. I’d say write fanfiction for fun, and out of that process take what you learn and apply it to inventing your own original lore/characters/world. Good luck!
This is really great and useful information! I’m in the midst of writing my first ever novel, it is set in my own universe that I”ve been building up for years. I was wondering a couple of questions.
Do you all have any useful tips on how to make traveling scenes more interesting? I want to be able to flesh them out a bit, and not just take up a singular paragraph.
Also, do you have any tips of developing a custom fantasy race? Thanks in advance!
Hi Troy, I’m glad to hear you found this article useful. Thank you for the interesting questions.
A little conflict provides one option to make traveling scenes more interesting (if you think, for example, of Frodo and company getting attacked by the The Nazgûl or Dark Riders, horseback wraiths, when they’re barely out of The Shire in The Lord of the Rings ). Conflict could also take the form of difficult travel circumstances, e.g. the sad river-crossing scene in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying when a horse is swept away.
Traveling is a great time for one character to tell another or others a tall tale or other story, so it’s a useful time to add in some intriguing folklore or worldbuilding.
As for developing a custom fantasy race, I’d suggest creating a list of categoris such as Culture, Dress, Belief system, Namng system etc. and brainstorming your way through each one. Think also of geography as environment shapes communities to a large degree (e.g. innuits living largely on specific hunting foods historically due to living so far north where the primary biome is aquatic).
I hope this is helpful! Good luck and thank you for reading our blog.
I’m 12 years old and I’m in the middle of my first novel! I love reading and writing and this information has really helped me a lot. I agree everyone’s ideas should be unique. thank you!
That’s awesome that you’re already focusing on your first novel going into your teens, CJ. I hope you continue finding fun and joy in reading and writing. Thank you for reading our articles.
I’m trying to write my first novel in what I hope can become a series but I’m 13 and was trying to develop a plot and maybe even develop a language. Get back with tips when possible.
Hi L.W. thank you for sharing that. Developing a language is a big challenge. I would suggest studying linguistics and how languages are formed as this should help (e.g. how root words are used to create nouns and verbs, how grammar works in different language, such as gender and cases).
For a first novel, it may be wise to develop a handful of words that imply the other language (a partial language) so you can keep this aspect straightforward to begin (you could always flesh the language out further in a sequel). Here are some tips on writing your first novel , I hope they help!
Hi, my name is Astral and I am attempting to write a fantasy novel, what are the most important things I should keep in mind?
I’m glad you’re writing your fantasy novel. If it’s your first draft, the most important thing is to have fun and try not to edit too much as you go. The first draft is for you and for discovering your story’s world.
In fantasy, worldbuilding is particularly important so spend some time brainstorming how elements such as magic (if there are magic powers or objects in your world) work. Outlining details about your world will help you imagine the terrain your characters move through and live in, even if not every detail makes it into your story, it’ll give you a private understanding of your fantasy world; its systems and how they work. You could start with this list of questions .
I’d suggest reading through some of the articles on fantasy on TV Tropes as these will help you remember some of the things in fantasy that have been done to death that you could either omit or give your own twist on. Good luck!
Hi, I’m a young writer and artist. I started writing two fantasy stories, but now I just feel frustrated. Sometimes I get good ideas, and sometimes I feel like I’m copying my favorite author, Tolkien. I feel like I’m leaning too heavily into my antagonists story than my protagonist also. Do you have any advice for me?
Hi Danielle, thank you for sharing that. As you mentioned being a young writer, take heart in the fact it takes time to develop your own voice. As you write and rewrite you will get better at writing stories that are unmistakably in your voice. And remember that readers want to know what you have to say and are passionate about, more so than what your best Tolkien impression is.
As for your struggle with keeping the balance of focus on your protagonist, I’d suggest writing your draft until it’s finished and then making deliberate cuts or moving parts around to make sure the protagonist’s arc is the focus.
Perhaps if you can pinpoint why this is happening (e.g. do you have a better sense of your antagonist’s arc than your hero’s own?) then this will help (maybe you’d then need to spend some time brainstorming further developments for your main character so that you know them – their goals, motivations, and forseeable conflicts – as well as you know your antagonist’s changes). I hope this helps!
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I wanted to use swords and axes and bows and arrows as weapons, but I also thought of introducing characters with guns as well. The gun would be like a weapon that people rarely used and it would be expensive. Do you think this is okay?
Hi Danielle, thank you for your question. It would depend on how technologically advanced the world in your story is. Firearms began with gunpowder’s invention, so as long as the conditions of your characters’ world fit it having this technology it should work.
I would suggest reading up about the history of guns and the pre-conditions that were necessary for them to be possible so that you can make sure the rest of your world’s features fit with the notion of guns existing. Good luck!
When it comes to avoiding magical and fantasy cliches, any advice?
Good question. One of the biggest clichés is the ‘conveniently an orphan’ trope (it seems almost every other fantasy protagonist is an orphan as this gets parents out the way and enables the protagonist to go on an adventure).
At the same time, many readers are absolutely fine with these tropes (Buzzfeed recently posted a list of the worst tropes in fiction and Twitter was not having it – one user commented ‘you can prize fake dating out of my cold, dead hands’). So I would browse something like TV Tropes’ excellent list of fantasy tropes but then decide for yourself which clichés you can live with and which you’d like to avoid. I hope this helps!
I find that the easiest cliches to avoid are “the orphan hero” or the villain being evil “for the sake of being evil”.
Great, Katie. It sounds as though you already have a good idea of how you’ll proceed.
I was going to base my world in a Victorian setting, but someone told me in order for it to be a real fantasy world, it has to be medieval. Do you think this is the case?
Hi Danielle, not at all. Although settings analogous to medieval times are common (especially in high fantasy) there are fantasy worlds set in all times, from pre-Christian to contemporary parallel world -type settings. The only thing that determines if it’s a ‘real’ fantasy world is if your setting uses elements of fantasy (e.g. magic, myth, magical or mythological creatures, etc.).
Hi, I’ve written a fantasy novella. Though the world is from older times (candle chandeliers, taverns, dirt roads, no guns), I use some modern language to make things easier for the reader- like at a tavern, somone sits at the “bar” and calls the serving person “bartender.” Is that ok? Also, can i make up the lifespan of different magicians and also their powers? Like I have a sorcerer that has a lifespan of thousands of years and can turn people into potted plants, etc. Thank you.
Hi Ameena, congratulations on finishing your novella. That is fine, as you say it makes things easier for the reader as they do not have to grapple with a neologism/invented word every other sentence. In fantasy you can suspend all manner of ordinary physical ‘laws’ such as usual lifespans, indeed. Perhaps weave into the story why it is that your sorcerer has such an extended lifespan. Good luck!
Thank you Jordan!
It’s a pleasure, glad to help.
I’m writing a story where all the animals have element-related powers and in rare occasions, humans get them too. I want to avoid cliches but I’m thinking of having a main whose Dad is dead but the Mom is still living that wouldn’t be cliche, wouldn’t it?
Hi Nika, thank you for your question and a Happy New Year. I don’t think a main character having a single deceased parent is cliched, as it’s not exactly the ‘orphan trope’ in fantasy stories where both parents are deceased. It sounds an interesting story! Enjoy writing it and a happy year ahead.
I have written a story about a young man’s coming of age. His is a Halfbreed. He does things without knowing why he has them. He changes every world he visits. His father’s gift besides the ship is a voice overlay that gets in his face.
Hi Darryll, thank you for sharing that. I’d maybe caution against using terms such as ‘halfbreed’ since that could read a bit antiquated or even offensive, perhaps there’s another term that would substitute well suggesting your character’s hybridity?
I’m not sure what you mean by ‘He does things without knowing why he has them’ (I think you meant ‘without knowing why he does them’, or are you referring to inexplicable powers that realizes he has?). If the former, I would say ensure he has goals that he knows and are intentional too, otherwise the character could read a little passive as a main character if he doesn’t understand his own motivations. If the latter, this is a common fantasy trope so it has been used a lot before, so definitely think about how you’re going to make your version of the trope distinctive.
When you say ‘a voice overlay that gets in his face’, do you mean some kind of technology that enables him to hear his father’s or another voice? Some of this reads a little unclear, but it certainly sounds imaginative. Good luck.
Hello! Thank you for this interesting and useful article. I’m working on a concept for my first fantasy novel and I’ve been struggling for some time. The core of the story seems to have some cliché parts that I’m not happy about and I’m trying to twist them in order to make them more genuine and interesting. Although I have many ideas about how to do so, I’m worried that my novel won’t have some typical fantasy elements (tropes) that the potential readers would maybe expect. Which made me wonder, what actually do fantasy readers expect? Perhaps I’m just trying to play safe too much. Whichever way I go, I end up thinking that I need a big dark powerful villain and a protagonist’s heroic quest so that my story justifies the genre. Ironically, my initial motivation for writing a fantasy novel is to create something unique, subtle, less epic (without big battles, without killing dragons with magical weapons, etc.), and to avoid the overuse of magic.
Hi Marko, it’s a pleasure, thank you for reading our blog and taking time to share your question. That’s a very good question to ask: What do readers of fantasy expect today of fantasy novels?
To answer it, read widely among contemporary releases (and also spy on what Goodreads reviewers are saying about the most acclaimed fantasy novels, as well as the less well received books, of the last while). Note what readers tend to comment positively or negatively on.
Readers, like authors, differ though, so some may love/expect a certain trope, while others deplore it. So ultimately, write the book you want to and are currently capable of writing based on what you know, and an editor could also help you to later pinpoint what parts may be too trope-indebted and isolate what to work on to attain the subtlety you desire. Don’t let fear of parts being clichéd stop you from writing the whole story. First drafts are messy, clichés like prose style can be tidied up.
This was great! I love all the links to make further investigation easily accessible. I now have a GoogleDoc to play with and a YouTube video lined up to watch! Interesting advice and insights. (I might only request a recap of questions at the end to make them easier to find/answer. I tried to include them all below👇 )
Lois McMaster Bujold and Terry Pratchett are my favorite authors for different reasons. Pratchett has a childlike openness of mind combined with an adult subtlety that can leave you stunned and giddy. Bujold tackles adult realities and complexities head-on in a mixed bag of sci-fi and political backdrops.
“I assemble details of the setting as the story passes through it; the story itself creates its world. This system has been dubbed “just-in-time world-building.”” — Sidelines: Talks and Essays by Lois McMaster Bujold
“But really, I change the world every time I change viewpoint characters, which can sometimes be every scene in a multiple-viewpoint novel. Because each character is the center of his own universe, which stretches out from him equally in all directions as far as his eye can see.” — Sidelines: Talks and Essays by Lois McMaster Bujold
1. Who is your favorite fantasy world builder, and why?
2. What’s your favorite worldbuilding resource?
3. What do you love or find annoying about fantasy characters?
4. What’s your favorite fantasy conflict, and why?
5. What’s a great piece of writing on fantasy or advice you’ve come across?
That’s a great suggestion, Margriet! And thank you for reminding me to read some Bujold again as I’m a newcomer to her work and it’s high time. Bumped her to the top of my TBR list. I like her idea of ‘just-in-time world-building’, a good compromise for incorrigible ‘pantsers’ 🙂
thank you for the lightbulb moment! the hero’s journey layout and the comparison to Odysseus just made multiple factors of my book click together. great article and a huge help.
I’m so glad to hear that this helped, Freefly. The Odyssey is so rich, I have a beautiful Penguin Clothbound Classics edition. Good luck with further development of your book.
Wow, this so comprehensive! I wish I’d read it BEFORE embarking on my fantasy series, but so it goes. I still have all the links to get through, but I can’t thank you enough for taking what must have been ages to put this together! It’s EPIC. 😉
Hi Jess, I see what you did there 🙂. It’s a pleasure! I hope it is useful; it will be a living guide (like our other complete guides) we add to and finesse when we can. From what I’ve read your fantasy series is doing just fine without it, though. Thanks for taking the time to share feedback.
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How To Write a Fantasy Novel: The Full Guide
by Gatekeeper Press | Dec 2, 2022 | Blog , Writing
For aspiring authors with rich imaginations and a tendency toward writing magical elements, the fantasy genre can be a perfect fit. Writing a fantasy story allows you to stretch the limits of your creativity, spinning tales of dragons, mystical worlds, magic, or elves — whatever your vivid imagination might conjure up. And, as fantasy authors will attest, fantasy happens to be a niche that is both rewarding and profitable.
However, along with the limitless possibilities that fantasy fiction provides are sometimes daunting challenges. Indeed, the intense world-building process for fantasy worlds, longer than average book length, and a full cast of characters can feel a bit overwhelming to the budding fantasy writer. This guide of helpful tips will show you how to write a fantasy book step-by-step.
How To Write a Fantasy Novel: 9 Tips for Aspiring Authors
Writing fantasy novels can be the perfect outlet for authors wishing to express their abundant creativity. With a fantasy story, you are at the helm of your own world, a world you have created out of whole cloth. The fantasy genre can be both exhilarating and complicated, so if you are wondering how to write fantasy fiction, just follow these steps:
1. Choose Your Audience
You may be surprised at the number of subgenres that exist within the fantasy genre. There is a whole host of fantasy readers that enjoy different types of fantasy. Will your fantasy story fall into the dystopian, paranormal, steampunk, medieval, superhero, high fantasy, dark fantasy, or one of a dozen other subgenres? Are you writing for children, young adults, or adults? Decide on your subgenre and your audience before you write a single word.
2. Study Other Fantasy Novels
You can glean much about the fantasy genre and essential elements just by reading and analyzing popular books in this space. Re-read some of your all-time favorite fantasy novels, too, but this time with an eye for the unique aspects that made these books special. Does the author write relatable characters? Or maybe it’s the unique supernatural elements that make it stand out.
3. Choose a POV
Decide on the point of view (POV) from which you wish your story to be told. The most common POV for fantasy is the third person, but the first person perspective is also a viable and interesting option.
4. Start World-Building
The fun begins when you start creating an amazing fantasy world for your characters to inhabit. World-building is the literary process of imagining and crafting a fictional world, including its systems, religion, culture, climate, history, customs, and more. For some helpful tips, check out this world-building guide .
5. Develop Interesting Characters
Now it’s time to add an intriguing cast of characters to your world. Characters for fantasy novels are especially fun to develop. Consider using common archetypes and make sure to include some character flaws for well-rounded characters .
6. Craft an Exciting Plot
Because fantasy novels are generally more plot-driven than character-driven, give your characters an exciting plot with some problems to solve, as well as good doses of tension, conflict, and meaning. Convey the importance of what is at stake, and also what solving the central conflict will mean to the characters.
7. Create an Outline
Fantasy novels can be so layered and character-rich that it is very helpful to start the project with an outline in place. An outline helps you stay on track, avoiding problems like plot holes and vanishing characters.
8. Try Writing Sprints
You have now reached the point when you get to start your fantasy writing! To jumpstart the writing process, try using writing sprints. Writing sprints are an effective technique to stimulate the writing process using timed writing sessions. Set a timer for 25 minutes and write, don’t stop — just let the words flow. Take a 5-10-minute break and repeat.
9. Edit, Edit, Edit
Free online tools and paid tools like Scrivener or Milanote can help you organize and keep track of your ideas and character notes. You will discover that fantasy writing can get a bit cluttered with a multitude of characters, so do not hesitate to edit, edit, edit. While free online writing tools can help you with some basic editing, the serious editing of your manuscript is best performed by a professional editor.
Get a Professional Edit from Gatekeeper Press
After learning how to write a fantasy novel following the steps above, you must now begin the task of editing your epic fantasy book. Even if you have painstakingly performed self-edits along the way, you are sure to miss some grammatical and spelling blunders. Prepare your fantasy novel for publication by enlisting the help of Gatekeeper Press . Our team of expert editors and designers will polish your manuscript and make it the best it can be. Contact us online today!
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Rules in fantasy writing
The lovely thing about writing fantasy is that you can make your world and your characters anything you want them to be. This is the reason I love writing it.
However, I'm acutely aware that these 'magical' worlds must have some rules for them to function. E.g. where's the 'reality' - if you will - if I made a character who could shoot lightning bolts to their heart's content and put them up against someone who could only use melee. Obviously lightning-girl/guy is going to win hands down.
My rule would be some sort of cool-down or a tiredness factor (you can tell I used to be a gamer). Something to make it seem a bit more 'real'.
I have many rules in my books. They're in place to make it harder for the characters to just kick-ass with no questions asked.
Rules can be character rules, like the one I just mentioned, or world rules like 'this power can only be used in certain places'.
I think it's important to establish the rules ASAP. There's nothing I hate more than a writer (and I see this more in TV shows than anything else) creating a really powerful bad-guy and then 2 seasons down the line, having the MC 'discover' an even more powerful widget to kill him/her.
What do you all think? Do you have rules too?
Personally I believe there is one rule to fantasy writing: It contains elements of the fantastic.
From there there are styles, or subgenres that have commonality. Like your D&D rules and stock characters, or strict rule magic systems like Sanderson's Allomancy.
But such is not the only way, and I would caution against believing this is definitive of genre. It is an option and if you wish to write something derivative, go for it though make sure you make it your own. Just don't let it hem you in.
In ur example Debbie I would argue that Melee would arrange an ambush situation, narrow geographical area, lots of water. Lighting would risk frying herself and companions.
Also, are your in-world rules pertinent to the story? Perhaps how the situ arose is irrelevant, the reader must accept that this is the world, and the charas reactions are what the story is about.
Robert, you inspired by Jim Butcher, Ben Aaronovitch?
I write all of my stories in this genre and, yes, I agree: there have to be rules. One of my characters was recently promoted to Sorcerer-hood by inheriting some of his mentor's powers, which came with a whole raft of issues, not least of which was that he now has enough power to destroy a small city, so how on Earth do I put limits on it so that he can't?
I wrote a few core rules for magic in this world, which loosely are:
1) Magic can cost you your life. The more powerful the spell, the more magic you use, the less magic you have to keep you young. The older you are, the more dangerous it becomes to cast big, falshy spells. (Magic-users in this universe can live for 400 years if they control their magic well. It gives age-defying properties to its bearer).
2) Robes can block spells. They're more than a fashion statement - they're magical armor.
3) Spells can backfire if not cast accurately.
4) Magical solutions to everyday problems do not always have the intended effect. For example, although in this universe trolls were captured by magic uploaded to the internet by the magical branch of the government to make travelling in rural areas with lots of bridges safer, they now make a nuisance of themselves on blogs and chat rooms.
5) Magic cannot influence computers.
6) The magical world's government is, to put it mildly, inept.
7) Magic was forced underground during the witch hunts of the 16th century so cannot be used openly.
There are lots of other rules, but these are the core ones.
Sooner or later, the MC will have to develop a powerful widget in this story to deal with what he's dealing with, but the hoops he has to jump through to obtain permission to use his full powers are often not worth the bother.
I have rules. I created a culture and belief system for the characters in my novel. My good characters are governed by the chivalric code of honour. My novel is historical but its not set in a particular place or time. This is because I wanted to alter history slightly and couldn't do what I wanted any other way. My book does have a little magic so you could say it has elements of fantasy. But I strongly believe that my novel is grounded in reality.
Fantasy is about strange lands, fauna, peoples, creatures, weapons, but the storyline and plot still has to be character-driven. It's important to ground your characters in a reality that the reader can relate to. Fantasy world settings and objects can be given credibility when they're skilfully portrayed. Besides, every time we read a novel we are asked to suspend belief.
Most fantasy novels have the protagonist on a quest for something.
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Turn Fantasy Into Reality: How to Write a Fantasy Novel
Between you and me, fantasy is the best genre out there. Others may argue that fact, but they’re wrong . You just can’t argue with facts, right?
Another inarguable fact is writing a fantasy book isn’t easy, especially if you’re just beginning your writing career.
The scope of fantasy books ranges from large to outright gargantuan. No matter how you slice it, the fantasy genre forces us writers to harness our imagination and create things that have never existed before, all while making them seem real.
It sounds like a daunting task, but it’s totally worth it. And if you aren’t sure where to start or just need some help bringing your fantasy story to life, you’ve come to the right place. In this article, we’re going to cover:
- The basics of the fantasy genre, including subgenres
- How you can learn from fantasy greats
- Building fantasy worlds
- Crafting compelling characters
- Telling the perfect story
Then we’ll bring it all together to write your best fantasy story. Sound like a plan? Let’s get going.
What Makes Fantasy Fantasy?
Before we can dive too deep into all the elves, wizards, dragons, and everything in between, we need to know the genre we’re writing. Let’s break this down into a few easy-to-understand parts.
Defining the fantasy genre
Up first, let’s figure out what defines the fantasy genre. How about this:
A fantasy story is one that incorporates magical, supernatural, or mythological elements in ways that can not be explained with our current knowledge or with knowledge we might feasibly attain.
There are two parts to that definition. The first claims that your story involves some sort of magical, supernatural, or mythological element. This is likely a no-brainer for most people who have read or written fantasy. Magic or the fantastical are hallmarks of the genre.
The second part is important, too: those elements are unexplainable based on our current understanding of things or our plausible future understanding of things.
Adhering to both parts of this definition helps you steer clear of science fiction and stay in the awesome realm of fantasy.
This goes to Arthur C. Clarke’s famous quote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” If your “magic” can be explained by science, then it isn’t really magic, right? Furthermore, if your non-human species could be explained via genetic manipulation that is only a century away, it’s not really supernatural.
Though fantasy is part of the larger category of speculative fiction, it is a massive genre itself. Even within its own boundaries, there are subgenres that are largely different from one another. But understanding your subgenre is just as—if not more —important than understanding your larger genre.
High or epic fantasy are usually interchangeable terms to describe your traditional fantasy stories that are huge in scope. These fantasy stories can have complete worlds, religions, history, languages, races, and political systems, and usually involve large quests, a varied cast of characters, and are long . The most well-known books in this genre are Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings series.
Low/urban fantasy are other interchangeable terms, with urban fantasy becoming the more common term in recent years. Stories in this subgenre take place in the real world—or something very similar to our real world—but with fantasy elements incorporated. Often, but not always, our protagonist discovers this magical aspect of their world through their journey.
Paranormal romance is a blend of low fantasy and romance. In most cases, the main romance arc of the story involves a human character and a supernatural character, with one or both coming to understand the other’s world. As with all romance, these stories need a happy ending.
Fantasy romance combines high fantasy and romance. Unlike paranormal romance, these stories exist in a world entirely of your own creation, borrowing the vast worldbuilding of epic fantasy. Remember, romance is a core subplot of this subgenre, but it is still (usually epic) fantasy first and foremost.
Young adult and juvenile fantasy are two different subgenres marked by their target audience. Young adult fantasy will usually feature teenage protagonists set in another fantasy subgenre, while juvenile fantasy will have children protagonists. Make sure your tone, theme, and pacing are all appropriate for the target audience.
Fairy tale retellings are new takes on classic fairy tales. What if Sleeping Beauty could dreamwalk? What if the dwarves were protecting the outside world from Snow White? Put your own twist on an otherwise familiar fairy tale.
Historical fantasy is a combination of historical fiction and fantasy, giving us an alternative form of real historical events… if there was magic, orcs, etc. In this subgenre, you must pay particular attention to details. Anyone who reads this subgenre is looking for accuracy (in the non-fantasy elements, of course).
Grimdark fantasy takes epic fantasy and does away with all those uptight heroes and knights. Instead, this subgenre uses anti-heroes and characters with questionable morals to contrast the usual tropes of fantasy stories.
Dark fantasy combines elements of horror with fantasy, bringing in horrifying creatures and a chilling atmosphere to unsettle the reader while providing that fantasy fix. It’s dark, gritty, and—in this author’s humble opinion—the best fantasy subgenre. Admittedly, I’m a tad biased (and I’ve been challenged to an arm wrestling competition by my coworker Nisha who claims the same about romance).
Learn from the Greats
I don’t know how many times my fellow writers and I have said this, but the best writers are avid readers. So, if you want to write awesome fantasy stories, you should be reading awesome fantasy stories.
Read a mix of authors who helped define the genre and those who continue to do so. Need a quick batch of suggestions? Here’s a list of awesome fantasy writers, old and new. It’s by no means complete, but any of these names are a great place to start.
- J.R.R. Tolkein
- V.E. Schwab
- Brandon Sanderson
- Leigh Bardugo
- Patrick Rothfuss
- Sarah J. Maas
- Neil Gaiman
- George R.R. Martin
- Nalini Singh
- Joe Abercrombie
- Tomi Adeyemi
- R.A. Salvatore
- B.B. Alston
- N.K. Jemison
- Rebecca Roanhorse
You can also just check out the bestsellers in your subgenre and devour all the books there.
Whoever you choose to read (and make sure you read a decent variety), take note of their word choice, how they write action scenes, their worldbuilding, how they handle magic, their character arcs, and what scenes work best for you.
As artists and creators, our work is a combination of everything we consume. So, if you’re going to fill your brain with a bunch of books, choose some of the best!
Know your market
No matter what subgenre you decide to write, it’s important to understand your market.
Some real talk: whether your goal is just to get people to read your book or write a bestselling fantasy novel, you need to understand your readers and your market.
Do some research. Figure out what works best in your subgenre. Understand why those best practices work. Analyze the bestseller lists, read reviews of those books, look at the way they’ve crafted the cover and the book blurb.
Knowing all of this can help you form an effective marketing plan for your book, but it can also help create the book that you and your readers want. There’s a reason certain things work in certain subgenres .
Use that information to your advantage and write a killer book with it.
Invent an Immersive World
So you know what you’re going to write and you’ve been inspired by some of the greats. Now it’s time to start bringing your fantasy story to life.
Up first, we need to invent an immersive world.
No matter what subgenre you’re writing, the world you build is a defining feature of your fantasy book. If you don’t make it the best you can, then you’re starting with a weak foundation. A lot of fantasy readers are here for the world you create. It’s kind of a big deal.
Because it’s such a big deal, we have an entire article dedicated to building a fictional world. Click here , read it, bookmark it for later. For the sake of this article, here are the things you need to know about crafting fantasy worlds.
Start with your story. Listen, we could spend days, weeks, even years creating the ultimate fantasy setting. You can cram literal eons of information into your worldbuilding folder until you have continents, cultures, and settings as intricate as our own. But remember that you’re writing a story. Your world should be built to serve your story.
Get physical. What does your world look like? I’m talking about the physical terrain, cities and towns, the climate and weather, plants and animals, maps and political boundaries, space and the world beyond that which your characters know. Make sense of how your world looks, feels, smells, sounds. Heck, even how it tastes while we’re at it.
Cultures make worlds real. Unless you just want a pretty backdrop to your story, you need to bring it to life with culture. This means thinking of things like notable historical events, socioeconomic conditions, the political landscape, past and current religions, languages and their uses, and traditions. It also includes things we might take for granted, like currency, entertainment, architecture, fashion, and cuisine.
Bring your magic to life. Whether you’re crafting a magic system or including supernatural creatures, figure out what makes your fantasy a fantasy. For those diving into magic, consider reading up on Brandon Sanderson’s Laws of Magic . Then figure out how these magical elements tie into the other aspects of your world.
How do your characters live? Your plot is driven by your cast of characters, so take some time to figure out how they fit into this fantastical world you’ve made. Where do they fall on the social ladder? What happens when they go against norms? What cataclysmic events are coming and what role do your characters play?
It can’t be understated how important your worldbuilding is for your fantasy story. It’s what defines the genre. It’s the basis for your entire series or book. So make sure you play god and make an incredible world.
Create Compelling Characters
Next, you need characters that exist in your freshly crafted world. Characters will help push your story forward and make the reader care about what’s going on in that world you worked so hard to develop.
To create compelling characters, think about some of the following.
Understand what makes a good character. While reading all those books by all those incredible fantasy authors, take notes on what makes characters stick with you, for both good and bad reasons. Understand character archetypes —which feel like they were made for the fantasy genre—and how you can use them to create instantly relatable and recognizable characters.
Your protagonist(s) and antagonist(s). While it’s the entire ensemble of characters who will make your story memorable, your main characters are your salespeople. Who will be your hero and your villain ? What relationship will they have? How will they push each other to change and grow? Even if they don’t know each other, these two characters should be like distorted reflections of one another.
Plan your character arcs. Every main and secondary character should have an arc of some kind. It’s how your characters face obstacles and change from them—whether by overcoming or failing the challenges presented—that will define your characters. How does the story influence them and how do they influence the story?
Make living, breathing characters. Boring, two-dimensional characters are about as much fun to read as eating plain iceberg lettuce. You want your readers to care about these characters, even the bad ones! So use these resources to take your character game to the next level:
- Character interview
- Character profile
- Character traits
Your characters will be like guides through your fantasy world. It’s through their actions and journeys that you will immerse your reader in this strange, magical place you’ve created. So give them the time and attention they deserve.
You Need Narrative
We have the stage. We have the cast. Now we need to know what the heck is going on.
Your fantasy story isn’t a story without a plot. And, with the fantasy genre, we can go real big with our plot.
Like all books, there are some core elements you need, but we’re going to put a fantasy spin on it.
Choose your conflict. A story is nothing without conflict. This crucial story element pushes your protagonist into action, drives character arcs, and adds tension to your world. For your fantasy story, determine a primary external conflict that creates the inciting incident, then focus on internal conflicts and other external conflicts to keep the story moving. Learn more about writing conflict here .
Select a story structure. Some writers cringe at the mention of the word “structure,” but every story has one… sorry. And every writer can benefit from understanding different story structures and the beats that go with them, even pantsers! Some structures lend themselves to fantasy more than others; Tolkien, for example, used the Hero’s Journey when writing The Lord of the Rings . Click here to learn more about story structures and choose one that interests you.
Pick a point of view. When it comes to the perspective or point of view (POV) your story is told from, you have a few options. You can read about all of them here, but the most common in fantasy are third-person limited and first person. Both of these options have their own strengths, with the former allowing you to include details of your world that a first-person narrator wouldn’t know, and the latter providing more intimacy with your narrator. In either case, you can switch narrators in between scenes to help develop characters and your world (a common trait in fantasy novels).
Theme is tantamount. Without a theme, your story is just a series of events. Theme adds meaning to your book, connecting readers to a human truth that you share through your characters’ actions. And, even though you’re writing a fantasy novel, your themes should be grounded in real life. Good vs. evil, misogyny , racism, hope, loss—your message takes the incredible and makes it resonate with your readers. Click here to learn more about writing themes.
See, your story is more than just your plot. It’s the bigger narrative that runs much deeper than that. Use these elements to add depth to your fantasy story.
Weaving World, Character, and Narrative Together
If you spend the time working through all the information presented in this article, you’re going to have a lot of pieces to your fantasy puzzle. But how do we put all these pieces together and write a book?
Well, the good news is that you already have been. From the second you started thinking about your story, you’ve been putting this puzzle together. When you thought about your subgenre and what it entails, your mind started whirring with ideas.
When you read books by your favorite fantasy authors, you started to generate more pieces that snapped together.
Once you started building your world, those pieces became clearer and more appeared.
And when you created those characters and worked more on your plot, those pieces fell into place, too.
Does that all sound familiar? It should. The minds and imagination of writers are wonderful things.
But that doesn’t mean that we’re done writing our fantasy story or that it will just magically come together. So here are some things to help finish your puzzle.
Write smaller pieces first. Because writing a fantasy novel, especially one in a world completely of your own making, can be a massive task, it can be easier to write some short stories first. These stories never have to be published or read by anyone else, but they can do wonders to help your worldbuilding and character development. And, not to continually bring him up, but Tolkien did this a lot before writing The Lord of the Rings .
Don’t forget about dialogue. The tone and word choice of fantasy characters can run the whole gamut. Unfortunately, it’s easy for writers to fall into robotic, clunky writing to make it sound “medieval” in your fantasy setting. This can be fixed by paying attention to the way the pros do it and by making each of your characters unique in their communication.
Use just the right amount of detail. In general, fantasy stories include more detail than most other genres. It’s these details that can bring a new world to life or add a sense of magic to the seemingly normal. Too little detail, and your world won’t be enchanting (or horrifying). Too much, and it will be difficult to read. Use beta readers and those handy reading eyes of yours to find the sweet spot.
Remember the laws of your world. Whether we’re talking about magic, physics, politics, or social norms, keep track of all the laws in your fantasy world. This might seem obvious, but it can get complicated keeping track of an entire world that only exists in your mind, and no one likes those wonky anachronisms in a fantasy book. Luckily, you can get all those ideas out and keep them in the Notes section of Dabble, which is always just one click away from your manuscript.
Avoid deus ex machina. Literally translating to “god from the machine,” deus ex machina is a literary term referring to something new that comes out of nowhere, usually at the climax of a story, to get the characters out of an impossible situation. It’s lazy writing that usually renders conflict and character arcs meaningless, and is all too easy to do when you’re throwing magic left and right in your story. Make sure everything makes sense and is consistent in your fantasy story.
Get writing. Yeah, I’m going to be that guy. But the only way you can actually bring all these elements together is by writing. Get those words down. Finish a chapter. Set a goal and crush it.
The best way to get writing is with Dabble. With built-in goal tracking, focus mode, the famous Plot Grid, and so much more, Dabble makes writing your fantasy story easy and fun.
For us fantasy writers, it provides a great place to keep all of our research and made up information. Keep track of your characters, your world, your magic rules, and your very specific form of plant life that is used for that really neat potion.
When you’re creating an entire world—either from scratch or to layer on our own—you need to keep track of it all so it’s there when you need it.
If you’re already a Dabbler, you know I’m preaching to the choir. But for everyone else, click here to try everything Dabble has to offer for fourteen days, completely free, without even entering your credit card details.
Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.
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Book marketing. Those two innocuous words instill fear and loathing into the hearts of so many writers. You just want to write your books and have them sell themselves. Why do you have to tell people about it? Well, Susan, because you do. I know you want to write, but if your goal is to write, publish, and make money from your books, then you’re going to have to find a way to make them visible. Thousands of new titles are uploaded to Amazon every single day. Millions of books are being published every year, and no matter how good your story is, without marketing, there’s not much chance very many people will find it.
What kind of writer are you? Are you the sort who writes a meticulous outline that tips into the five digits or the type who sits down in front of a blank sheet of paper and lets the words pour out of you like a runaway train? Did you know there are specific terms for this kind of writing? Writers will come up with words for anything, I swear. Plotters are the first type of writer. They like to have detailed outlines that tell them exactly where their story is going. Pantsers are the other type of writer, which is kind of a weird name, but the term was coined by Stephen King (a famous pantser) to describe writing by the seat of your pants. Cute, eh? There is no right or wrong way to write your book, and I’m going to repeat this so many times. The right way is the way that works for you.
Dystopian fiction is one of the darker subgenres of science fiction and fantasy. It takes us into dark, foreboding worlds, where oppression and bleak landscapes are the norm. Books like 1984 by George Orwell, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley have become classics that shine a light on political corruption, environmental disaster, and societal collapse.Why do we love these stories? Maybe it's because dystopian fiction allows us to explore worst-case scenarios, to grapple with the idea that the world we know and love could be lost forever. It's a way for us to confront our fears and anxieties about the future, to see what could happen if we continue down a certain path.
12 Essential Tips for Writing a Gripping Fantasy Novel | A Guest Post Written by Nicole Gaudette
Updated: Sep 2, 2022
Are you thinking about writing a fantasy novel? First, congrats on making that decision (it’s a hard one!). Now that you have, you’re probably thinking, how do I write a fantasy novel when I’ve never done it before?!
If you’re thinking about writing a fantasy book, you probably didn’t just stumble on this all of a sudden. You’ve read fantasy books, you love the genre, and now you’re inspired to write one yourself. Well, you’re in a better place than you think.
Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links, which means that I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you if you decide to make a purchase through the products and services I recommend. I only recommend things that I truly love and use, so I hope I can recommend something to you that you can love too! :)
What is the Fantasy Genre?
Fantasy is a genre that goes beyond the natural, and often involves the supernatural in some way. For example, a typical fantasy book may include your standard werewolves, witches, and vampires, or it may be set in a supernatural world, and magic may or may not be a significant element.
Fantasy doesn’t have the same limits that other genres have due to its lack of restrictions. Most of us are fans of this genre because it gives us a break from real life.
No limits can be freeing for a fantasy writer, but that freedom also makes fantasy one of the hardest genres to write. It’s so easy to go off the rails, but you still need to write something that people can connect to in some way.
So, here are 12 tips for writing a gripping fantasy novel readers will love!
1: Know Your Fantasy World Like the Back of Your Hand
If you’re creating a brand-new world for your fantasy setting, you need to know everything about it down to the smallest detail. You obviously won’t share every single one of those details, but you as the writer still need to know them.
You may want to think about creating a map (yes, a literal map) for your world so you always have an idea of where your characters and scenes are set, and what each part of your map is like (e.g. different climates? Geography? Trees and landscape? Animals? Bugs? Seasons? Inhabitants?).
You may also want to think about keeping a book bible, which can help you to keep track of all of your characters (including the ones only mentioned once) and all of your locations (including the ones only featured briefly). A book bible will also help you to remain consistent, and is especially important if you’re writing a series. You don’t want to be scrambling around trying to remember the name of your protagonist's dog in book one when you're writing book six.
2: Don’t Get Lost in Describing Your Fantasy World
As I said in the previous point, you need to know your fantasy world completely, but that doesn’t mean you’ll actually share all of those details. That’ll be boring!
It’s very easy to get stuck in the details of fantasy novels, and many newbies tend to write blocks of chunky text that describes the most trivial, unimportant aspects of their fantasy world, thinking it’s better to be thorough and be as vivid as possible. However, that is NOT the way to do it.
You want to leave some room for your readers to use their own imagination. They don’t need to know what every character is wearing in every scene (unless fashion is somehow important to the story), and they don’t need to know every bite of food they’re eating (unless the character is choking on it or something like that).
You’re the one creating the world, so you need to know these things, but that doesn’t mean they’re important to the actual story you’re writing.
3: It’s All About Your Characters
For the most part, fantasy still comes down to one thing: your characters. Think of Frodo and Sam, or Harry Potter, in recent memory.
Even though you’re writing a fantasy novel, your readers won’t necessarily connect with the magical, supernatural elements of the story (and even if the plot is parallel to our human lives, they may not connect those dots). This means that they are more likely to connect with your characters instead.
Make your characters, especially your main character, someone your readers will connect with emotionally. Are they relatable? Lovable? Heck, even hateable? (hello anti-hero - but do be careful not to make them *too* bad).
Related Post: 30 (Ish) Questions to Ask Yourself When Creating Your Own Fantasy Species
There should be some good and some bad, and there should be something about your villain that we love, relate to or understand. It may be in a relationship they have with someone, their motivations for why they’re doing what they’re doing, or something about them personally that they have experienced or currently suffer from.
For your good guys, the same applies. Y ou shouldn’t make them too good because readers won’t be able to relate to them (no one is perfect). Give them a believable flaw, and don’t make everyone fall in love with them (especially if your main character is a female). No one is loved by everyone.
4: Keep the Story Moving
Some fantasy writers often feel that just because their story is full of magic (e.g. magical occurrences, magical creatures, magical characters, and so on), that they don’t need to have as much going on.
However, your story will get boring if you fall into that trap. This point also wraps in with not getting lost describing your fantasy world, since both of these will make your story boring.
Think about what is happening in every scene. Each one should move the plot forward in some way. If you just have two characters sat talking, their conversation should be important to the story. Dialogue shouldn’t exist just because it’s funny, because it’s exposition, or because it’s a filler.
Keep the story moving, have something happening constantly, and keep your readers engaged to the end.
5: Always Remember Your End Game Goal
Before you write your fantasy novel, you should already know how the story ends (whether it's a standalone or a series). Everything you write until then ties into how it all ends, which is what the reader is ultimately waiting for!
Keeping the ending in mind will help you to make crucial decisions along the way. If you think of an idea you like and think it's cool, you have to think about whether it's relevant to your ending. If it doesn’t make sense to include it, save it for another story. Don’t screw up your ending before you even get there.
6: Use Tropes, but Put Your Own Spin on Them
The fantasy genre has like, a zillion tropes (maybe a little less than that), but it probably has more tropes than any other genre. Well, maybe romance can rival it, but there's still a lot.
Some will slam fantasy because of this, complaining about all the same old tropes that repeat themselves in so many books. But the reality is, readers of fantasy love those tropes. They work because we all love them!
So, use the fantasy tropes that stand out to you, but give them your own unique spin. Don’t worry about using the trope, worry about how you’ll make it your own. The chosen one is a fantasy trope that’s been used over and over again, but with pretty good results - because you can spin it many different ways. Keep that in mind.
7: Adhere to Your Magic Rules
This one kills a lot of fantasy stories! When you’re building your world and book bible, make sure you’re paying attention to the rules you’re creating when it comes to magic. You have to create rules, and you have to stick with them.
Fantasy is a genre that’s beyond the natural human experience, so to get people to buy in, you need to make rules and stick to them. If you don’t, readers will have a hard time making sense of your story.
What are the rules when someone dies? What are the rules when someone uses specific types of magic? What are the rules for spells? Don’t have one character punished for doing one thing, then another excused for doing exactly the same. Be consistent.
Related Post: 5 Unique Ways the Developmental Editing Process Differs for Fantasy Novels
8: don’t go too crazy with names.
Fantasy writers like to get a little too cutesy when it comes to naming their characters and towns, but if it’s difficult to read or pronounce, that might turn off readers. Keep it simple!
9: Understand the Fantasy Subgenre You’ve Chosen
Fantasy is the umbrella term for a bunch of subgenres. I’ve heard there’s a crazy amount (50? 100?), but you’ll probably want to focus on which ones your book will fall under with Amazon (especially if you’re going to self-publish). Just head on over to Amazon and search their categories under Fantasy Books.
For example, there's urban fantasy (set in this world, usually in cities), contemporary (also set in this world/time, but not necessarily a city), epic (the super quests), sword & sorcery (speaks for itself), and more. My own series is both urban fantasy (set now in Washington D.C.) and Arthurian fantasy (a spin on Arthurian Legend).
Related Post: How to Write Engaging Fiction Using Folklore and Fairy Tales
10: but don’t get stuck in only the fantasy genre.
Your book is going to have plots and subplots and all of that, which means you’re kind of weaving together multiple stories, but they shouldn’t all be fantasy! You want to add other genres into your story to make it more interesting.
The most common subplot is involves romance, but for a fantasy novel, you may also see mystery and horror fairly often. Think about how your plot could incorporate other genres (and make sure to read those genres, too).
11: Have Fun with Your Magical Creatures
Magical creatures are one of the fun parts of writing fantasy. There are so many magical creatures you can use in your story, if you’d like any. Research the different types of magical creatures out there, the different mythologies of the past, or create your own species.
I f you use a known creature, try making it a little different in some way, especially for ones that are used often. For example, dragons are pretty common, but I’m adding them to my series in book 2. To make them a little different, my dragons aren’t going to be animal-like or monsters. Instead, they will operate like humans with their own politics, society, ruling class, education, and magic. They’re like smart dinosaurs (ha!).
Also, maybe don’t use every magical creature out there (unless it serves some purpose in the story). Try to choose a few and stick with them.
12: Know Your Why
This one gets a little sappy on you, but why do you want to write this story? What’s the main theme or key takeaway you want readers to have? We usually write stories, not because we want to entertain, but for some personal reason. Always keep that in mind.
So, there are your 12 tips for writing a fantasy novel. If you'd like to learn how to perfect your novel writing skills and master the art of creative writing, try out this amazing eBook all about the novel writing process!
But if you want to learn more about fantasy writing specifically, definitely try this course!
Good luck on your writing journey!
Nicole Gaudette is currently working on the second instalment of her Arthurian fantasy series, Long Live the King , while managing an odd day job and even odder family in the Florida 'burbs. She shares some of her marketing knowledge with fellow writers on Instagram ( @nicolegaudettewriter ), and you can find out more about her and her writing at www.nicolegaudette.com/ .
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