As I’ve started my fiction writing adventures, I find myself drawn to
the realm of fantasy writing quite often. Even with all the podcasts
out there, it seems everyone will touch base on the mystery/romance/thriller conventions, but fantasy and sci-fi seem to be skirted over, at least in my experience so far, which I believe is
due to the complexity of these genres. I am also suspicious of the fact that fantasy fiction authors are known for their world building. It’s creative writing to a whole new level, and creative writing is an art. An artist doesn’t want rules to restrict them, so we’ll think of these things as fantasy fundamentals instead. So in an attempt to reinforce the information I find, I will share and try to teach back to you what I can collect. I will list my sources at the end so you can compare my findings to your own.
The Fundamentals of Fantasy Fiction:
There seems to be numerous conventions every fantasy novel is supposed to contain in order to succeed, which in the publishing world, is termed “to work.” Due to the complexity of this genre, these may be merely highly recommended suggestions. Again though, I am not
an editor by any means, I can’t promise that what I find will make you a profit, or even get you published. I am learning this myself and hopefully this will help someone else in their own writing struggles.
1. A system of magic
a. So maybe this is a given, but this is definitely something that is going to classify your novel as Fantasy. Essentially you have that element in your novel that couldn’t take place in reality. The magic system in a fantasy novel is an area where you can get creative, and if you can make yours unique while still meeting this convention, it may help your work stand out from the deep sea of fantasy pieces already out there.
b. Magic still has rules! You don’t have to be strict, but inconsistency does bother readers sometimes
c. Mythical creatures:
i. Another characteristic, like magic, that is found pretty exclusively in the fantasy genre.
ii. Because it is a characteristic, or a trope that is expected, get creative; you can make something truly original like your magic system.
d. New languages, words, letters, jargon. This is a subtle touch, but
a much appreciated detail in many fantasy novels. Have fun with it!
2. A well developed setting (world building):
a. Fantasy is that beautiful escape into another world, but this one I
like to think of as a spice in the cabinet we all love. Maybe its salt, maybe its pepper, or garlic (although I actually haven’t found the max on garlic yet), or thyme (yep, that one I’ve found the limit on), basically your reader is going to love this aspect of the story, but it’s the sparkle. Don’t go crazy with the glitter. Well maybe a little, but it shouldn’t be the meat and potatoes of your story.
3. Complex characters:
a. Ok, so please think of the last novel that had you fugly crying on
the floor. I’m pretty sure you weren’t swooning over the intricate description of the landscape. I’ll be the first to admit at the end of Harry Potter, I sobbed. Those books started coming out when I was eleven, I grew up with those characters, they became my friends, and suddenly, it was over.
b. Characters don’t need to be perfect, they actually shouldn’t have
their shit together.
c. You can describe a character as kind, or thoughtful, but at the end
of the day, we are what we do. Don’t tell your reader about your character, show them. This intertwines with conflict. You put your characters into situations where they have to make a choice. If a kid at school is getting bullied, we all like to think we’d stand up to the bully, but when the moment arrives, the one that stands in front of the punch gets the mark for bravery. So you can say your protagonist is brave, or that your antagonist is ruthless, but it’s much more intriguing for a reader to see an example of that and decide for themselves.
d. A lot of genres seem to avoid multiple characters, it gets busy.
Fantasy likes to make an exception to this rule, and since many are over the span of several books (series), it gives you potentially more time to build your characters, but again, this is a balance. More characters might seem like a good idea, but if you don’t have the ability to develop each one, you might end up with a multitude of watered down characters that your reader may never bond with. Giving your readers a couple complex characters that become lifelong friends leaves readers like me to sob on the floor at the end of your tale.
4. Central/global conflict:
a. Probably the whole magnet effect of your story. We love conflict, but your conflict should have purpose. Don’t just throw in a battle scene for the heck of it. Your conflicts should get progressively harder for your protagonist.
i. Example: driving down road, hear a pitiful cry in a stream. You could ignore it or check it out. You find four adorable soaking wet kittens in a box. Again, you could walk away, or take them home. They have fleas and need milk, you could let them starve or feed them, you could live with fleas or treat them. They need shots and loving homes. You could take them to the humane society or take an extra shift at
work to pay vet bills and spend time finding safe homes for each of
ii. All these are progressive complications, we have these in our
lives all the time, and the choices we make tell us something about our characters or ourselves.
b. Don’t repeat the same conflict:
i. Make sure you aren’t just repeating the same conflict. If you have to battle the army of green globs, then turn around to fight the blue blobs, then the red blobs, and the forsaken grey globs, it’s still the same thing over and over. Maybe you fight the green globs, but
discover that the blue blobs are just mad at the red blobs for not inviting them to a purple party, and the grey globs are just misunderstood but you have to find ways of resolving these conflicts.
5. A Government System, Possible power struggle:
a. Look at some common government systems. It may be a good idea to familiarize yourself with whatever you choose, this helps to make your story more believable. Fantasy genre’s commonly have some form of hierarchy in them and this often sets the tone for a form of conflict
or even the main drive of the plot itself when this hierarchy is overturned or being challenged by your protagonist.
The next categories may be able to fall into the above, or even
classify as themes or tropes in your story, but are still commonly
found in many fantasy stories…
6. Good verses evil:
a. Again touching into your hierarchy, the corruption and overturning
of bad government.
b. These novels are complex as it is, and it’s not a bad idea for your
antagonist to be one person for your readers to direct all their
i. On that note, I plan to go more into this in a later post, but your
antagonist should take as much effort to create as your protagonist.
Identify the motives of your antagonist and how they contrast to your
protagonist (again, building conflict).
7. Action, Action, Action!
a. Battle scenes and climactic clashing of arms is quite a signature
to fantasy novels.
i. As stated above under conflict though, you shouldn’t just throw in
battle scenes for the sake of conflict, give them purpose. Give your
characters a reason to put their lives or others’ lives on the line,
what is worth laying your life down for?
a. Not necessarily a requirement, but a good addition of conflict.
This can be a subplot, but it does payoff to familiarize yourself with
the common romance conventions. If you’re going to add it, do it right
so that your readers are not disappointed or confused as to why there
is a random romance in your story. You want this to strengthen the
i. There is also a science to love triangles, and doing them well, so
again do your research. Long story short though, the decision between
the two suitors should be tough, both should be ideal options, and
when the choice is made, there was some sort of loss the protagonist
had to experience in making that choice (Just killing off one of the
choices usually makes readers feel like you took the easy way out).
From my own experience of being in a love triangle, it was one of the
most stressful points in my life, and it was incredibly difficult to
make a choice, and that choice came with loss. Your protagonist’s
choice shouldn’t be too easy.
9. Theme or meaning:
a. No matter the genre, your story will have a theme whether you
intended for it to have it or not. Often times what we think we are
writing is not what our readers read. You may think you are writing a
theme of revenge; your reader may interpret it to be good vs. evil, or
courage. That’s okay. You are not restricted to any specific theme in
fantasy. You are telling a story, and stories are meant to teach us
things. Looking at your story as a whole, what do you hope your reader
will learn or take away from your novel? This often answers the
question to what the theme is in your story.
Final thoughts: I have much to learn, and will always be learning. I
hope you found something useful in here that can help you on your own
writer’ journey. If you feel I left something out, or have a question,
please leave a comment, I will do my best to address it. Happy
Fiction Writing Made Easy Podcast on Spotify by Savannah Gilbo
Story Grid Podcast on Spotify- Hosted by Tim Grahl and Shawn Coyne
AudioBook: The Great Courses: How to Write Best-Selling Fiction, James