7 Tips for Writing Fantasy
Chapter 2 “Genres” – Section 3 “Fantasy”
“Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It's a way of understanding it.”-Lloyd Alexander
My editor tells me that I have a magical super-power, one that I feel I must now share with you. I have the magical ability to look at a shelf of books and pick out the absolute worst fantasy novel there. As a result of my super-power, I used to think I hated fantasy because it was filled with so many of the most tired and overused tropes in existence that I was bored out of my skull. Having been given reading lists of better fantasy, my appreciation of the genre has risen tremendously. That being said, there is so much bad fantasy out there, that it can be difficult to find examples of the genre used well. So today, I'm going to talk about a few. Also, if you have read a fantasy book that you think stands out for how skillfully it was written, feel free to share it in the comments, along with what it did so innovatively. I know that I, and many others, would love to find more good fantasy in the sea of bad.
Tip 1: Create reason even within the fantastical chaos of your world.
One of the biggest problems in fantasy is that storytellers often forget that the world and the story actually need to make sense. When I say this, I don't mean that everything has to make logical/scientific/realistic sense, only that there needs to be some sort of method or pattern to the madness. Take Alice in Wonderland for example; the entire word exists as a play on words, conventions, rhymes, songs, games, and people that Alice or the audience is somewhat familiar with, sprinkled with dream-time madness. The chaos that Carroll creates in his stories is uniform in its style and theme. And it serves to create a functional world, with madness itself as the reason. Furthermore, every element of seemingly random nonsense actually does serve a purpose. It tells us more about Alice, or Wonderland, or maybe it just brings us closer to the experience.
Please note that I am not trying to establish an arbitrary rule that writers have to follow to be considered good. The purpose is not a determination of quality, but an opportunity to exponentially increase the power of your narrative. Lets look at the television show, “Adventure Time,” for a moment. The genre is a post-apocalyptic comedy re-spun into fantasy. At first, everything seems quite chaotic and like it doesn't quite fit together. After all, you are dealing with wraiths, zombies, and vampires one moment, and then transitions to cute little stories about candy people and their rather terrifying queen.
However, as the audience learns more about the world and the backgrounds of all the characters (going back thousands of years to when Earth was destroyed), an expansive lore is built which shows how all of the story elements exist for a definite reason and fit together in the same world, once you understand that reason. Would we still like Adventure Time if it did not contain such an intricately crafted world where even the most minor characters (Peppermint Butler, Gunther, BMO) actually have a place and a reason in the grand scope of things? Sure! But those connections take the story from beyond being a simple cartoon, into a story makes its audience frequently feel an unexpected range of emotions and levels of awe.
Likewise, if you want to empower your fantasy, create a sense of reason. If you have goblins who ride skateboards, awesome! Just create a world where those goblins can fit, and where your audience will have no problem believing in that possibility. How? You create a sense of belief in the unbelievable through a mix of genre and backstory. Adventure Time could actually get away with candy people because it meshes humor with fantasy. It then cements the candy people's place in the world by creating a backstory that believably incorporates them, given the genre. Similarly, you can blend humor, horror, sci-fi or any other genre into your fantasy story, and then establish back-stories that enlist magic, science, crazy deities, or anything else that will fit.
Tip 2: Balance the magic and levels of power of your fantasy characters.
Another problem in fantasy is an unbalanced amount of power attributed to the characters. By this, I do not mean that you should not be allowed to have high-powered characters. If that were the case, then we would not have cool stories like Dragon Ball Z or The Seven Deadly Sins. What I mean is that there has to be a reason that high-powered characters have not already conquered everything or blown a hole through the Earth. There must be some logic that takes into account all of the power, so that the world makes sense. For example, in a world where everybody can fly or leap super-high, there should be no need for cars.
So how do we achieve balance? Some stories, like the two mentioned above, create a balance by making almost everybody super-powerful. The Seven Deadly Sins redoubled that balance by also making its super-powerful heroes generally reviled by the commoners—limiting their ability to enact positive change, even with their power. On the other hand, you can employ the opposite method and make all magic subtle and limited. Other stories, like the Dresden Files, create groups and counsels that keep the magic powers in the world in check. Another common solution is to create some sort of manna system (a limited amount of magic that can be replenished, like in a video game). There are many other ways, I'd imagine. The important thing is to find a balance that will prevent you from needing stupid plot contrivances for why the heroes or villains have not already conquered all.
Tip 3: Utilize fantasy convention, without succumbing to fantasy cliches.
Magical amulets, damsels in distress, evil warlocks, white knights, dark knights, evil kings, wise wizards, good dragons, bad dragons, dragon riders, chosen ones, enchanted swords, wizarding schools. New Zealand. Most of the above things I've seen done beautifully (usually the first time they were done), but mostly they've been done as horrendous cliches. Here's the scoop on these fantasy conventions/cliches. We all love Gandalf/Merlin/Dumbledore, and want to have our very own in our story. We want our characters to ride different color dragons and to find magic swords. But those ideas have already been taken and cheaply imitated so many times that the dragon now look like roadkill that nobody can stomach looking at. It's not your fault, as a writer. You did not cause this. It's just an unfortunate truth.
That being said, you should not give up hope in ever using the fantasy conventions you have fallen in love with. Even though wise wizards have been turned into a fantasy cliché, it does not mean that you can never have a wise wizard in your story. What it means is that you have to be particularly creative and innovative in adding something new and unexpected to that archetype. Again, let's look at a show that turns many of these cliches into unique conventions—Adventure Time. Yes, Fin often finds magical swords—so many that he has a treasure trove full of them which he frequently breaks, loses, etc... It turns what is usually a ceremonious and self-important trope in many fantasy novels, into a comedic point. Adventure Time has a wise wizard—who the story gives a magical crown to turn him into a crazy penguin obsessed princess kidnapper. Adventure Time takes any cliché you can imagine, makes the cliché its own, reproduces it originally, and turns it into a beloved convention that the audience can still get excited about. So recognize the cliches in your novel, and then make them your own original conventions.
Tip 4: Be original.
While cliches can be turned into conventions, and utilized for the power they've traditionally given stories throughout the generations, there is something to be said for complete originality. One of the greatest things about fantasy is that you can do anything! And yet fantasy writers often seem to feel like they have to stay within the fictional boundaries set by previous masters of the craft. It's as if some writers believe that those worlds can never be topped so we can only aspire to derive good stories from the greatness that has previously been. Yes, Lord of the Rings, the Elder Scrolls, Harry Potter, and King Arthur were all awesome stories that will never be forgotten. Yes, you should re-purpose some of the strong elements in those stories in your own unique way. However, the most exciting elements that many readers will find in your story, will be those unique ideas that only you can come up with. The catch is that you must put the same work and care into your original story as the masters did. So be brave, and create something new. You can do it.
Tip 5: The more human a character is, the more epic they can be.
Obviously, this tip goes for any story you could possibly create; but lets look specifically at its application in fantasy. In fantasy, beginning authors often draw inspiration for their characters from the great and epic fantasy heroes they admire from other works. That makes total sense. Not only are characters like Legolas, Aragorn, Gimli, Arthur, Rand, Meliodas, total badasses that are fun to read about; but they are good characters for people to look up to and emulate in their real lives so that the world can be a better place. The problem, is that beginning writers, myself included, often mistake which qualities need to be emphasized in order to make characters that cool. In my first drafts, I thought that the things that made these characters awesome were their emotional invulnerability, their physical power, their unwavering courage, and their unbreaking virtue of character. As a result, these were the attributes that I gave to my own fantasy characters.
So what happened? My test readers told me that my characters were cool … but completely unbelievable and unrelatable. So what gives? Well, the problem was that I only understood half of what made these characters so cool. They had the awesome attributes that I gave my characters, but they also had elements that my characters did not. They had emotional strength, but also moments of total human weakness and vulnerability where they felt fear, sadness, guilt, apathy, cowardice, or remorse. They had physical power, but it was limited to being below what the story required of them so that they were ultimately unequipped to deal with what the story had to throw at them. They had virtue, but it came at the cost of past mistakes that were so painful that the characters could not bear to let them happen again.
Their strength came from their acting with inhuman valor, in the midst of their humanity. And it wasn't just that they were overcoming the less pleasant aspects of their humanity like fear, anger, and obsession. It was that they embraced the good in their humanity and actually strove to be more human, despite their nearly godlike status in the story. They were vulnerable with their loved ones. They grieved for the fallen. They wore cloaks to hide their power and be like everybody else. They played silly childish games. And these actions not only served to let the audience believe in their strength, but to be all the more impressed with it.
The pursuit of humanity may seem counter-intuitive to some writers. I know that for most of my life, I have wished to be as far from my species as possible, to turn off those nasty human emotions caused by what I experienced in my childhood. Additionally, I didn't want to act cruelly and stupidly like I perceived all of the humans around me to be doing. I wanted to turn all of those feelings off and instead be a total badass like what I perceived fantasy heroes to be. But what I ultimately found was that there was little to gain by denying one's fears, hopes, hurts, and needs. In real life, they never go away, as deeply as you manage to bury them and as much as you try to run. And even if fantasy characters could turn off their fear, their greed, their hatred, their shame, their limitations, and their desire for companionship, they would not be epic for doing so. A hero acting out of courage would no sooner run away or avoid their own sadness than they would a charging monster.
Epic heroes embrace their humanity, learn from their mistakes, let even their painful human emotions help drive them for good. They try to become emotionally whole both by themselves and with others. They are not emotional masochists who deny themselves, but complex beings who try to fulfill their needs to feel anger, jealousy, loneliness, and cowardice, without allowing those emotions to push them to hurt others. Comic books like the New 52 Batman series, as well as many renditions of Spiderman capture this sentiment, this pursuit of happiness and wholeness, quite well. And just like the bravery of heroes encourages readers to stand tall and try to fight for goodness in real life, your emotionally epic heroes will also encourage readers to be brave in the face of their own selves.
Tip 6: Avoid the romanticization and demonization of certain races/species/peoples.
When I first showed my story, involving angels and demons, to a test reader, I was fairly impressed with myself. I thought that I had come up with a totally original way to humanize demons, and make them believable and intelligent. My test readers were far less impressed. Without really realizing what I was doing, I had made my demons seem better and smarter by ironically demonizing the angels in my story. I made them stupid straw-men who could be easily wiped out without remorse or even much thought. As a result, my story came off to my test-readers as cheap anti-religious propaganda, and my heroes were not at all impressive for having beaten a stupid and one-dimensional enemy.
Angels, dragons, elves, dwarves, and many others have recently come to be races of perfect beings who can do no wrong. On the other hand, demons, orcs, goblins, trolls and other ugly races have become nothing but straw-men for the heroes to butcher by the hundreds. Just like with my angels and demons, this does not mean that writers should just trade one stereotype for another. We've seen this most recently with dragons, who were once all one-dimensionally evil but are now all one-dimensionally good.
These methods are not only a promotion of racism and skin-deep judgment in the real world, but is (in this day, when we know better) a lazy sort of writing. One of the biggest problems is that oversimplification in either extreme breaks the level of belief and immersion that a thinking reader can experience when they read your story. These readers know that real people are more complex than simple straw-figures for good or evil, and that every individual acts out of their own original motivations and experiences. Characters within clans, and clans within races, and races within the world should all be treated with realistic ambivalence—with both good and bad things about their cultures, and an abundance of individuals and sub-groups within those cultures who do not agree with those around them. Kingdom Hearts demonstrates this principals through the intrigue it creates within Organization XIII. Though each member may be acting for good or evil, they do so for their own reason.
Now, some authors will counter with the idea that this disallows them to have fun fight scenes. After all, how can we have fun committing genocide against baddies if they might not be bad? That is a problem which requires originality and thought on the part of an author. Star Wars, for example, solved this problem by create non-sentient droids for the heroes to annihilate with reckless fun and abandon. However, I do feel like writers often work too hard in order to make their fighting “fun.” I know that when I was writing my one-dimensional evil angels, that I certainly made them more horrendous so I wouldn't feel guilty brutalizing them. However, this did not make my battles fun so much as it made the battles as meaningless and one-dimensional as the characters themselves.
But then I encountered old Greek literature and poems, where the heroes purposefully sought out strong and noble opponents to fight. The effect was that the battle were even more epic, fun, and engaging. And yes, it did leave a sickly feeling in my stomach when the hero (Achilles) dragged the noble antagonist's (Hector) dead body around with horses. But that moment did not spoil the excitement of the battle. It legitimized the violence and paid tribute to the realistic horrors of war. The discomfort took what could have been just a one-dimensional exciting fight scene, and made it more epic by creating a discomforting impact that stuck with me and moves me to tears to this day.
Another complaint is the amount of tedious work that would be required to humanize each opponent in, for example, a giant war. But that isn't necessary; you just need to demonstrate that the enemy force is comprised of individuals through limited example and believable motivation. First, create a reasonable justification for the actions of each demographic that you represent. It doesn't have to be noble, just reasonable. For example, your orcs may not have enough food to eat. And though this does not excuse them from eating hobbits, you have created an acceptable reason that your readers can empathize with. Then, create exceptions where you demonstrate that all of the antagonistic race/tribe/demographic is not the same. Have the hero encounter a hippy orc who is trying to convince the rest of his people to take up eating tofu. (Or, you know, you could come up with a more sincere and less ridiculous way than that example.) And if you really want to go out of your way to give depth to your novel, give your hungry hobbit-eating orcs some cultural depth, like the ability to sing beautifully. And by making your opponents more complex, capable, and noble, your battles will attain higher meaning.
If you want some more good examples of fantasy races taken beyond simple stereotypes and archetypes, I recommend the Sea of Trolls, by Nancy Farmer. In her trilogy, she uses conventional fantasy races such as elves, hobgoblins, mermaids, and trolls—all in a way that simultaneously honors previous lore while portraying them in uniquely ambivalent ways. The result is that we care about these characters, even those opposing our heroes. We additionally develop an interest in their cultures, and the way that they are interwoven into the overarching plot. Everything involving them, including fights, becomes more interesting.
Tip 7: Don't make your dialogue weird.
With the existence of such beautifully written poetic old fantasy stories, modern writers sometimes feel compelled to match this style. We would love to mimic the poetic prose found in a Midsummer Night's Dream, or The Odyssey. Or perhaps, we realize that that people in the middle ages that inspire fantasy, spoke differently. They most certainly did, but not in a way that we can emulate unless we spend countless years in research. And if you did manage to accurately recreate that language, chances are that your readers could hardly understand the story. Most writers are aware of this, so they try to season their stories with “thees” “thous” “eths” and other words that look old and fancy. They try to use large and multi-syllabic words or archaic words. Or they have their characters speak like Yoda, with sentences that chaotically jumble word order.
Unfortunately, this will not have the effect that you desire. Readers will just think you are trying too hard to be authentic, magical, or romantic. Even if the other parts of your story are good and beautiful, this extra tapestry will be as suspicious as a work of fine art in prison cell, that is large enough to cover up a hole in the wall. Even if there is no hole, anybody who looks in your cell will think there is. Now, all that isn't to say that you can't play with dialogue, cut word contractions for certain characters, cut out words that are too modern, use complex sentence patterns for others, etc... It just means that you should treat it reasonably, and not try so hard to make your dialogue weird. Just make your dialogue good.
Weekly Recommended Reading: The Iliad and the Odyssey – Translated by Robert Fagles. (These two books are among the spiritual founders of modern fantasy. There is so much to learn from them, including the effects of strong poetic text. I recommend this translation because I find it to be the most beautiful and easy to understand. Additionally, at least one of them has an audio book form read by Ian McKellan.)
Write-a-Novel Exercise 2.3
This exercise is only for those who are writing any sort of fantasy. Write down what fantasy conventions you plan to use and how you plan on making them original. Then, write down what completely original fantasy ideas you have for your story.
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I enjoyed reading this and it's helped get the creative juices flowing. You should look into creating a youtube channel. Your episodes are already written and would be greatly enjoyed.
Jenna Moreci does this with very little competition: www.youtube.com/channel/UCS_fc…;
I think that your written tutorials could be summarised, adding the link below for those who want to read in more depth, make a great watch and promote your work.
Kind regards, Jacinta.
I'm so glad you feel that way, and that my tutorials have managed to help you.
I think you are correct inyour assessment of how my tutorials could be converted to Youtube. I actually want to do that. But I'm unable to until summer, when my travels come to an end. At that point, I will put serious consideration into whether I will attempt this. Hard as it may be to believe, I am a tad camera shy, haha.
Thank you for your kind words and consideration,
Likely I could recommend more than a few fantasy series, but the one that comes to mind now is the Empire Trilogy, starting with Daughter of the Empire. An older series (1980s, I think), it manages to withstand the test of time through its exploration of timeless themes. What probably stood out to me the most--hard to say. The world-building is top notch, the characters are interesting and realistic, and the main character, Mara, is a woman who breaks with the present trend of badass warrior ladies. Not that Mara isn't badass, or that all said warrior ladies suck, but it can be tiresome to go over that same trope over and over. (Why do women have to be capable of killing people to be seen as strong? It just doesn't sit well with me, man.)
Mara fights with words; her battleground is the political field. She starts off as an untried girl forced into a dangerous position, in way over her head, and by the end she's an experienced older woman who's survived many trials and opened her mind to possibilities that exceed the limits culture and tradition have placed on her. Something about that really inspires me. Her life is a believable balance of good and bad; happiness and sadness; personal desires and selfless sacrifice. No matter how hard things get, she and her loyal followers rise to the challenge, determined to make a victory where most would concede defeat.
If you don't mind wordy books and enjoy character development, political intrigue, exciting battles, a little heartbreak, touching romance, and a lot of variety (multiple POVs ftw), this series is for you.
That book sounds very unusual, in a good way. I will add it to my ever-expanding reading list. I've not read a tremendous amount of good political fiction.
However, I do disagree somewhat with point 6, if only because there's no harm romanticizing/demonizing if it makes sense within the world. If you just want to pit enemies against one another for fun, then yes: don't do it. However if you're creating age-old antagonism that has led to wars and two races disliking one another and/or doing the demonizing, then you're working with what the world offers you, and it wouldn't make sense not to utilize it. However, it's important to remember that never will an entire race be for/against another... Individuals do have different views. All depends on their own lives, culture, environment... Like in real life.
There are a good points in here though... Kind of eel there aren't enough XD do you plan on making in-depth tutorials on fantasy writing?
Am I correct in understanding that your objection to the point is that the characters have the right to romanticize and demonize? If so, I have no objection to that. Romanticization and demonization are things that people really do, especially in the context of war. It's a dehumanizing effort that leaders truly use (all we have to do is look at the current political climate to see it), and as that sort of tool, I have no objection to it. My point is that the Writer should not make all races one-dimensional good or evil stereotypes. Unless, of course, I am missing your point completely. If so, please feel free to clarify; I do want to actually understand any objection you might have.
Well, lots of the genre tips will cross over, and I may eventually add more tips to this tutorial (maybe in a year or so). But I don't plan to do an in-depth series on fantasy in the near-future. My current project is to create a guide that people from all genres can use. But what sort of tips are you looking for, specifically? I may be able to make a part two, address your questions privately, do a mini-tutorial, or create a tutorial that crosses genres.
You got my point absolutely right. I mentioned it because, the way the tip is written, it sounds like you're against the romanticizing/demonizing, period. I didn't think it could possibly be the case, so I thought I'd inquire. Perhaps the tip itself should have rather been a balance of what to do and not do, rather than an explanation of what not to do? Sorry if that's not how you meant/wrote it, but it's what I gathered from it.
Oh I wouldn't know what to ask, honestly... I was just curious. My biggest writing enemy currently is time XD not so much a lack of ideas or tips. But thank you for offering! I appreciate it ^^
Speaking of fantasy, have you read the series "The Infernal Devices" by Cassandra Clare (the first book being Clockwork Angel)? It can be a little girly at times but I've recently fallen in love with it (especially Will and Jem).
As for fantasy recommendations, I'm currently reading The Gentleman Bastard series by Scott Lynch, about a group of thieving con artists in a alternate version of Golden Age Venice, and it's been a long time since I had this much sheer fun reading fantasy. It's fast-paced, engaging, funny, exciting and, at times, very touching. Other tips (more in the YA genre) would be The Abhorsen Chronicles, which takes a very original approach to necromancy, and The Bartimaeus Trilogy, which is equally original in its handling of demons and wizards. For more of a classic fairy tale, I always thought Beagle's The Last Unicorn was beautifully melancholic.
And then of course there's pretty much anything by Gaiman or Pratchett, who seem to make a point out of bending common fantasy tropes out of shape.
I've read many works by Gaiman, which have always been wonderful. I've also read two out of the three Bartimaeous books (and plan to read the third soon), and it is one of my favorite works of fantasy. And I have Pratchett on my reading list (one of those recommended by my editor which I have not yet gotten to).
As for the others, I've never heard of them. The Gentleman Bastard series sounds particularly up my alley. And I'll add the others you recommended to my reading list. Thanks for the recommendations.
Judging from the way you write these Tips on Writing, I think you'll enjoy The Gentleman Bastard series. I'm only halfway through the second book as we speak, but he has a gift for action scenes and for piling up plot complications and raising the stakes when you thought they were already as high as they could go, which is heaps of fun. I'm a little less charmed by his writing style when it comes to describing setting and character appearances, but since his universe is solid nonetheless, I don't mind it much.
Anyway, looking forward to your next post, and good luck on your professional writing as well!
Granted, I will have more mundane creatures, such as cats, dogs, horses and whatnot, but I want to make them with fantasy twist to them.(think of Avatar: The Last Airbender)
I'd love to hear some advice on this huge undertaking I'm trying.