How to Write Fantasy

I saw this post, from a blog called Helping Writers Become Authors, via The Passive Voice: Genre Tips: How to Write Fantasy

My immediate reaction: Oh for heaven’s sake, you have got to be kidding me.

Does that seem fair? I’m not sure. It seems to me that the way you write fantasy is to be a fan of the genre, read a bunch of fantasy novels for a decade or more, and then write a fantasy novel without thinking “Now, what is a fantasy novel?” at any time during the process. But maybe it’s actually helpful to some writers to step back and think, “Now, how does one write a fantasy novel?”

What is the advice from this post?

Oh, it’s structured as “Five tips.” Okay, what are the five tips?

1. Is a prologue necessary?

a) First, that’s a question, not a tip; and

b) For crying out loud. No, obviously not, and by asking the question at all, the author of this post is severely dating herself OR showing her lack of broad reading in the genre OR both.

2. Know the world and magic system.

Your fantasy’s geography, culture, and magic system (if appropriate) must all feel just as concrete to readers as would a well-researched story about, say, Paris or Tetzcoco. Don’t kid yourself: research for a fantasy story can be just as extensive as for a historical story.

I think the first part of that is correct. The world has to feel like a real place. The second part is wrong. I can promise you that I have NEVER done ANYTHING LIKE as much research for any secondary world fantasy as for the Black Dog novels.

Wait, I take that back. I did heaps of research for SUELEN. But that was not because of the world or the setting, that was because Suelen is a surgeon. I also did some research on invocations of the sun in order to get ideas for the Golden Invocation. But in general, no way, you absolutely do not have to do as much research for secondary world fantasy as for contemporary fiction or historicals …

… and I realized as I typed that, this probably depends on the author having read a fair bit of fantasy, historicals, maybe sociology and history, because I do draw on all that in order to write secondary world fantasy. That’s not pausing to do additional research, but it’s drawing from decades of reading, so maybe that sort of counts as background research or something.

However, imo, historicals and historical fantasy take, in general, a whole lot more research than secondary world fantasy.

The magic system is important, but a childhood reading fairy tales substitutes for research if you’re writing fairy-tale style magic. If you’re writing magic-as-science or something close to it, then yes, you probably need to figure out how magic works; maybe not right away, but eventually.

Oh, here —

Two fast tips for planning your fantasy world:

The first is: Use Patricia C. Wrede’s amazingly extensive “Fantasy World-Building Questions” to make sure you’re thinking through every part of your world.

Been a while since I read anything by Wrede! She wrote many delightful novels, all of which I have on my shelves, I believe.

The other tip is about keeping a log of interesting tidbits you happen across in non-fantasy novels. I think that’s fundamentally the same as just reading a lot and getting a feel for those tidbits. I don’t write them down, but sure, good idea.


3. Keep track of pacing and plot beats.

The rule here is simple: Just make sure the plot is actually moving (i.e., the story is changing) in each scene and chapter.

Far too many fantasies fill their word counts with characters moving about and perhaps even fighting, but nothing happens because nothing changes. A good way to trim your word count and/or tighten up structural timing is to examine each scene for whether or not it is progressing either the plot or the character’s arc in a meaningful way.

I agree. Things need to happen, which means your protagonist needs to be moving through whatever character arc. That can be as simple an arc as “Character grows up” or much more complex, but whatever’s going on, those events need to affect the protagonist and other characters. This is probably what people mean when they say, “Wow, 200 pages of a journey in TASMAKAT, but it doesn’t drag because SO MUCH HAPPENS,” and what they mean is not exciting fight scenes, but intense conversations and — this is important — movement along the character arc.

4. Choose your protagonist and other characters carefully.

And first, I think that’s a no-brainer, but second, I think it is indeed worth mentioning.

For me, Elizabeth Moon’s Kings of the North series failed to hold my interest because I was uninterested in most of the characters and the characters I loved got too little time on the stage. In particular, I found Arcolin just boring. Stepping out of his pov into someone more interesting would have been super useful for that plotline, and I nominate the officer Arcolin hires at the beginning, the one who had lost a hand. I don’t recall that character’s name, but he was much, much more interesting and appealing, and to me he was the obvious choice to carry that point of view. So this is what leaped to mind with this tip about choosing your characters carefully. The captain of the mercenary troop may be the obvious choice, but is he the best choice? Maybe the best choice is not the guy at the top, but someone else, someone with more challenges to overcome or more inherent conflict in his potential character arc.

5. Theme is crucial

These days, fantasy has become so mainstream we accept its tropes as part of our own reality.

Emphasis in original. That’s a really interesting observation. It would be interesting to try to write an essay defending that assertion. I’m not sure this is how I would put it. I think I would say that fantasy reflects themes that are inherently central to human society, not that themes central to fantasy have unexpectedly invaded mainstream understanding of society.

One of the most magnificent features of fantasy is its ability to access this potent symbolism—I call it a “hotline to the subconscious.” Not every fantasy story will necessarily dial up this hotline on purpose, but because the genre itself exists as a sort of “metaphor” for real life, it’s capacity for symbolism is almost unavoidable. If you can wield this power consciously, you can significantly up your story’s potential.

Hmm. Is that different from storytelling in general? I believe I would say no. I think I would suggest that what the author of this post thinks is important in modern fantasy — fantasy these days , as she says — is actually embedded in fairy tales that we read in childhood, and that those fairy tales have emerged from oral traditions that go way way way back and encompass truths essential to human experience. That’s why symbolism from fairy tales can be so powerful.

I do not, of course, agree that you need to think consciously about symbolism when writing because the back of my brain handles all that below the level of conscious awareness. That’s why I frequently realize what an important theme of one of my novels is only after a reader says, “The important theme _____” and I say, RIGHT, YES, THAT’S THE THEME. These days sometimes I see important themes myself, but certainly not always.

I think advice like this — wield this power consciously — probably contributes to the way so many prospective writers seem to be inhibited about just jumping in and writing a novel. No wonder they hesitate if they think they need consciously design the story to wield potent symbolism! That would be a nerve-wracking thing to try to do!

Well, overall, maybe the linked post is worth reading and thinking about, but my feeling as I read it is that I’m glad there wasn’t so much writing advice around when I started writing. I think advice like this about how to write a fantasy novel makes it sound difficult and intimidating. I think I would rather just see advice that goes:

If you think you’d enjoy playing around with writing a novel, jump right in and try it. Don’t take it too seriously. Just take a stab at writing e a story you’d enjoy reading and see how it goes.

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3 thoughts on “How to Write Fantasy”

  1. I’m also glad there wasn’t so much writing advice around when I started writing (though Patricia Wrede, of all people, rewrote a paragraph of mine (unsolicited, I was just putting it on Usenet as an example, didn’t ask for crit) so I could never use it again, neither the original nor her version, and there’s still a visible-to-me darn in the story).

    If I’d started writing Terms of Service only a couple of years later I’d have been inhibited by questions like “is there enough diversity in the world?” As it was, I made a white woman brown (plausible, even with her background) and emphasised the fact that someone’s mentor is gay a little more.

  2. Wow, Irina, that would be startling. Though it would be interesting to see what she did with it.

    Yes, that’s yet another way that someone starting today can be inhibited. WAY too many ways to be inhibited today. I think my first and strongest advice if I were doing a workshop now is Stop Looking For Advice Online. Just Write Your Own Book. I’ll have to remember that, since it’ll probably come up.

    This would make a good panel topic for a convention, too. All the online advice: pros and cons.

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