Today, I'm talking about my absolute favorite genre in fiction: fantasy! A lot of you have asked me how to write a fantasy novel, and that's not the easiest question to answer seeing as it's a very broad genre. That said, after a lot of thought and research, I have compiled a list of the 10 best tips to consider when writing fantasy. This is relevant to all fantasy subgenres, so whatever you're writing, I gotcha covered!
On to the best tips for writing fantasy, and how to do it right!
This video is sponsored by WorldAnvil. As always, all opinions are my own.
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Number 1: Fantasy Is NOT One Size Fits All
Gatekeepers run amuck in fantasy. They believe if you're not regurgitating The Hobbit or worshiping at the feet of Brandon Sanderson, you're doing it wrong.
The truth is fantasy is one of the largest genres, with too many subgenres to count! Urban fantasy, portal fantasy, low fantasy, dark fantasy. If I list them all, we'll be here all day. It's great if you enjoy some of fantasy's bigger names, but you gotta acknowledge the industry at large. Trying to publish a Tolkien-esque fantasy nowadays would result in zero agency representation and dismal sales.
Reader expectations change over time, and fantasy has evolved since the days of the Shire. Plus, people are sick of fantasy purists. They cling to outdated, often narrow-minded views of the genre, and aren't interested in any new or unique insights. The point is, just because you're not info-dumping an elven world doesn't mean you're not included. Neckbeards may bark the loudest, but bestseller lists prove that fantasy readers are diverse and abundant. Don't feel like you gotta be an old white man to write in this genre. There is a place for you.
Number 2: Understand the Genre
Fantasy is not a narrow, niche genre. It's very broad and easy to define. Fantasy represents a genre of speculative fiction that takes place in a fictional world, and it's usually influenced by mythology, legends, folklore, or fairy tales. It's as simple as that.
That means you do not necessarily have to feature magic, though magic is extremely common. You also don't have to set your story in a medieval world, though medieval worlds are also extremely common. All you have to do is create a world that relies on themes that are common in myths and legends.
“But Jenna, contemporary fantasy takes place in modern times!”
It sure do! But it also contains elements that are outside of our modern world, like dragons or demon hunters. Guess where dragons and demon hunters come from? That's right! Mythology and legends. Understanding the genre is a very important first step. Not only because it'll help you classify your novel; it also reminds you that the genre isn't nearly as limiting as you might think it is.
Number 3: Understand the Subgenres
This is where shit gets specific. Dark fantasy is fantasy with dark, gloomy themes, or some underlying sense of dread. Portal fantasy is when a character is transported from one world to another, and their fantastical quest begins. You don't need to understand the precise definition of every single fantasy subgenre, but it helps to know where your story exists within the mix. It also helps to understand that many stories are multi-genre. For example, my series The Savior‘s Series is dark fantasy and romance.
Understanding subgenres is mostly helpful in two ways:
First, it'll silence the inner voice that tells you that your writing doesn't fit in anywhere. Yes, it does. There is a subgenre or multi-genre classification for literally everything. You're fine.
Second, it'll help you understand who to market your work to and how to market it. Urban fantasy typically reads differently than high fantasy, and comic fantasy isn't gonna have the same approach as dark fantasy. Understanding your niche will make the writing and publishing processes a whole lot easier.
Understanding your niche will make the writing and publishing processes a whole lot easier.
Number 4: Magic Systems Come in All Flavors
As we already covered, magic is not required in fantasy. However, it is very common and highly recommended. That means the odds are high that your story is going to include a magic system, and you'll have to decide between a soft system or a hard system.
Generally speaking, a soft system doesn't have hard and fast rules, at least as defined by the reader. A hard system is the opposite; it has very specific rules, guidelines, and limitations. What you decide to write will depend mostly on two factors:
First, which character are you following? If you're following a magical character or a character who is learning magic, then the intricacies of your magic system are going to be relevant, in which case a hard magic system makes the most sense. If your character is ignorant to magic, then a soft magic system makes more sense, because the details aren't necessary.
Second, how important is magic to your world and story? If magic is the crux of your story, then a hard magic system will help readers understand what the hell is going on. If magic is more of a background or side element, then a soft magic system is probably all your readers need.
Number 5: Build the World As You Go
I know people are obsessed with Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings is a classic, but the truth is that style of writing probably wouldn't get published today. Storytelling changes over time, and modern audiences reading modern books have modern expectations. Obviously, it will vary depending on the sub genre. For example, epic fantasy is probably going to be more world heavy than, say, urban fantasy. But typically, you introduce the world to the readers as it becomes relevant, and you do so by showing the world around the characters as they travel through your story. Not through massive info dumps.
This means if your character is trudging through the desert, this is the perfect time to describe the hot climate. It is not a good time to describe their complex system of government. If they're attending a grand party, then you can discuss their social expectations and lavish outfits. This is not the time to describe the hot climate we already talked about. And if they never not once attend a party, then there is never a point in time where you need to discuss their party etiquette. Remember, worldbuilding exists to support the story, not eclipse it.
Number 6: Your World and Plot Go Hand in Hand
A lot of aspiring writers spend years building their world before they even touch their plot, and that is a big mistake. Ya done fucked up. The plot and world go hand in hand.
The world exists to build a foundation for the plot, and the plot exists to complement the world. What is the point of creating an entire race of mermaids in a strict class structure if that's never at all going to be relevant to the plot? Maybe the story is about a high-class mermaid and a low-class merman, and they want to be together, but societal norms are ripping ‘em apart! The point is, if you're building a fantasy world, then your plot should be fantastical in nature. Utilize what you've created to build your character's conflicts and goals.
Number 7: Fantasy Can Be Character-Driven, Plot-Driven, or Both
A lot of popular high-fantasy novels are plot-driven, so people tend to assume that all fantasy has to be plot-driven. However, whether or not your story is plot-driven or character-driven is going to depend on the themes of your novel, the subgenre, and of course, the plot itself. For example, if you're writing romantic fantasy, then the odds are this is going to be character-driven, because the story revolves around two or more people falling in love. Fantasy adventure, on the other hand, revolves around–you guessed it–adventure! Which means the plot is going to be the focal point.
Basically, while the genre can point your story in a certain direction, ultimately the content of your novel is what's going to determine whether or not it is character-driven or plot-driven. If your fantasy is highly focused on character growth, arcs, and relationships, then it's character-driven. If it's focused instead on taking action, then it's plot driven. And if it's a combo, it's likely both.
Number 8: Develop Your Characters
Obviously! This should go without saying, because characters are a pivotal part of the writing process, but it is especially important to develop and plan out your characters in fantasy. Fantasy gives writers a multitude of options when planning their characters, because we are not limited by this world's narrow scope of humanity. Your characters can have magic, or super powers. They don't even have to be human!
This is why you gotta take a deep dive into your character planning process, and there are a few very important things to consider:
First, how does the world affect your character's lifestyle and personality? If your world is deeply magical, this may mean your character is familiar with magic to the point of apathy.
Second, how does society affect their lifestyle and personality? If you've created your own world, that means you've created your own customs and social norms.
And, when necessary, our third point: pinpoint the relevancy of their race. Because sometimes fantasy writers aren't writing about humans at all. They're writing about elves, or fae. Even if you are writing about humans, there's a chance you've made up completely new countries, which means brand new ethnicities. It's a good idea to understand their cultural norms and how that affects their personalities. Of course, you can't neglect the most basic elements of their humanity, whether they're human or not. Think about their backstory, their strengths and weaknesses, their beliefs, and their personality.
Number 9: Keep It Fresh
Some writers get into the game because they're a big fan of a particular author or a particular genre, and that's fine. It becomes a problem when you try to regurgitate your faves. This is an issue especially prevalent in fantasy. How many people have you met claiming that they're gonna be the next George R. R. Martin? That's why it's pivotal to remind yourself to keep your content fresh.
It's okay if your story shares similarities with other stories. Some sense of overlap is going to happen. But if you can showcase a new perspective, or introduce something original, by all means, do it! A vast majority of fantasy takes place in a medieval inspired world. Why not write a different setting? A bulk of fantasy writers right now are pumping out stories about fae. Why not try a different fantasy creature? The fantasy genre is speculative fiction, which means you get to invent whatever you want. Take advantage of this perk and try something new! Please, I beg you!
Number 10: Outline
I saved this for last, because I didn't want you shitting your pants until the end. I know pantsers are very protective of their method, and I'll concede that it can work for some writers, but fantasy is not the genre to pants. Fantasy is one of the most complex genres in fiction, because not only are you creating a cast of characters, a plot, and a subplot–you’re also creating a brand new world. Add to that the fact that a lot of fantasy writers also create creatures within that world, and those creatures have their own lifestyle and customs. And alongside those creatures, a lot of fantasy writers are creating at least one magic system, if not more!
And lastly, a lot of fantasy novels also have a large cast of characters, which means you gotta keep track of a ton of different people, and all their relationships, and all their individual stories and subplots. This is a lot of information, and if you don't keep track of it, you're gonna end up with a clusterfuck. I've lost track of the number of fantasy writers who have pantsed themselves into a corner. Either they weren't able to finish their series, or they couldn't even finish book one.
Do yourself a favor: outline your book. Create character charts. Create worldbuilding maps. You'll be glad you did!
So that's all I've got for you today!
I hope this post helps you out as you build your fantastical world and those that inhabit it. Fantasy novels can be a beast to write, but if you take the right steps and stay focused, you got this!
Are you working on a fantasy novel? What’s your favorite writing tip so far? I love to hear it!
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