Ten Things You Need to Know About: Writing Fantasy
Ten Things You Need to Know About: Writing Fantasy
1. Be authentic
This might sound like a contradiction, but to make your readers believe in and appreciate all things fantastic, you need to first give them a grounding in reality. This could be familiar settings or mundane, recognisable actions such as going to school or struggling to make friends. Whatever it is, make sure your reader finds something to relate to in your novel and if it intertwines with the fantasy, that’s even better. For instance, Harry Potter goes to a magical school and Briar Moss* struggles to make friends when he encounters other mages for the first time.
2. Set your limits
There are limits to everything from the maximum age a human can live, to the number of flying saucers you can fit in your mouth. There needs to be a limit to magic as well and you need to show your reader what it is. Whether your mage passes out after five spells, or your shapeshifter can only change form after studying the animal they want to be, your magic should have a limitation to add realism and tension to your novel. In addition to this, your characters’ problems shouldn’t all be solved by magic.
3. Exotic names can be cool without being ridiculous
As tempting as it might be to call your character At’an’thalu’sac the second of his name, please don’t. You can maybe get away with this for one character in ten and it helps if you later shorten their name to ‘At’ and have other characters find the name difficult to pronounce, because your reader surely will. As a general rule though, your character’s names don’t need half a dozen apostrophes to sound magical. Most of the elves in The Lord of the Rings have Welsh names and George R.R. Martin has used a range of techniques from historic names to those with roots in Sanskrit or mythology.**
4. An Outsider is a useful tool
Having a character who doesn’t know about the magic world and who can ask questions helps the reader transition more easily into this new realm. However, this isn’t always possible, but a different outsider may serve the same purpose. A character who has lived an isolated life, or who is foolish, or who is simply of another race and ignorant of the other casts’ abilities could ask all the questions a reader wants to ask.
5. One man does not make a race
A lot of fantasy novels under-represent the races they have introduced, either by leaning too heavily on a cliche or only introducing one character of each race. Not all elves should be peaceful and fond of music and not all dragons should be tricksters, in the same way that not all people are happy and not all cats like going outside. Give a sense of variety in your novel and learn to distinguish the skills of a race (maximum speed, capacity for intelligence, eye colour) from the traits of each individual. Terry Pratchett is particularly good at this and often focuses on characters who are abnormal to their race, such as Cheery the (sort of) feminine dwarf or Granny Weatherwax, the practical witch who believes in hard work over magic.
6. Wounds are really painful
Most characters don’t make it through a fantasy novel without getting hit by a fireball or knocked over the head with the hilt of a sword. When this happens, remember to have your character suffer pain and for that pain to last for a reasonable length of time. As much as you might want to have your character take hit after hit and still get up, it needs to be somewhere within the bounds of reality or explained through your character’s ability to heal faster than normal or their years of training on resisting pain.
7. It doesn’t have to be new
The obvious choices for creatures to re-use are vampires or elves, but fantasy actually has a much deeper reservoir for you to draw on. J.K.Rowling resurrected hippogriffs in her Harry Potter series and both Sidhe and the Fae make an appearance in the Dresden Files books. You can dig through old myths or build on legends like the Sandman. It’s also okay to borrow from history and refer to real events.
8. People are important
It’s easy to get carried away with the shiny new ideas of fantasy, whether you’re lost in the complexities of your magic system or desperate to explore the hundreds of places you can create. Don’t forget the people. Fantasy should be as much about characters and their struggles and apirations as any other genre is and no amount of flash can make up for a lack of character arcs and interactions.
9. Be weird but not too weird
There’s an expectation with fantasy that something different will happen and that there will be at least one cool thing which makes us wish we really could do that in real life. Or alternatively, something so horrifyingly destructive that we’re glad it doesn’t exist. It’s important to meet your reader’s expectations and to put something in your novel which has that wow factor but don’t overdo it. When you’re adding weird stuff to your novel just for the sake of it and it doesn’t advance the plot in any way then it’s probably time to pack it in.
10. Don’t explain everything
There are some parts of a fantasy world which should remain undiscovered, an area where your reader’s imagination can expand to give a sense of new wonders waiting just around the corner. In the same way that characters’ lives continue to grow after the end of a novel, with readers often wondering what they might have got up to next, a world which hasn’t been over mapped will leave the reader with discussion points and some fun ‘what ifs’ to consider.
*Tamora Pierce; Sandry’s Book