How To Write Fantasy

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It is an exciting time to be a fantasy writer! On the one hand, the literary establishment has come to accept it as a genre (if only grudgingly). On the other hand, we have an unprecedented abundance of work out there. There are huge commercial successes, more sub-genres than ever, and more ways to get your story out into the world than ever before. With huge hits in fantasy like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, there’s a lot of people jumping on the bandwagon. What can I say? It’s a helluva time to be a writer of fantasy. But it’s also a helluva time to be a reader. Anyone with access to a bookstore can plunk down 20 bucks and find a ton of books to read. Even Amazon can overwhelm with its 100+ “featured fantasy” picks. With so many books to choose from, you are going to have to work to get your work noticed. In this article, we hope to give you some strategies to help you get started on your fantasy writing journey.


How To Get Started

So, where to begin? First, figure out what you want to write. Let’s pretend we are about to drop you in a fantasy world and give you complete creative freedom. What are you going to write about? Think big. Don’t limit yourself to something set in some Dungeons & Dragons-type world. You have to remember that other people out there may be thinking of doing something similar. So don’t think of your world as a backwater planet in the Marvel universe, where characters go to battle the ever-popular Hulk, but instead, think of a world with its own internal consistency. The comic-book-style world is too restrictive and otherworldly to have its own set of rules. For example, if your world is in the far future, far away from Earth, and you give your characters spaceships, then it will be expected that they would have genetically engineered the residents of that world for space travel. You’d have to be ready for that. Think of a world that is believable. Think of an idea that excites you. And then, start writing.

Brainstorming Ideas

As mentioned above, let’s consider a blank slate. What should your fantasy world be like? One way to get started is to decide on the type of story you want to tell. There are four basic types of fantasy: straight medieval, alternate history, steam punk, and urban fantasy. We’ll discuss these in more detail later. For now, here are some questions you might consider for each type of fantasy:

Medieval Urban fantasy: What kind of city? What kind of society is it? Is it similar to Earth or is there an important difference (perhaps the characters can fly)?

Alternate history: Is it similar to the history of our Earth? Is there a big difference?

Steam punk: What is the timeline of your world? Are there trains? Telephones? Walkers? Do they have awesome guns?

Once you’ve decided on the basic type of world, you can get to the fun part: making it up.

Making It Up

Once you’ve decided the basics of your world, now you get to build it. This is where the fun begins. Once you’ve decided on the basic types of elements you want to use in your fantasy, you have the task of deciding what the reality of your world will be. That doesn’t mean it has to be realistic, necessarily. It just has to make sense, be internally consistent. Why? Because it will save you so much trouble when writing your book. For example, if you have a particular technology in your world, it would be best to know ahead of time if you will explain it to your reader or if it will be taken for granted. Because if you will be explaining it, you have to make sure you explain it well, or else you may confuse your reader or worse, lose the readers’ interest. What if you don’t explain it at all? That’s fine, too. But you need to make sure that there are no contradictions in the fantasy world you’ve created. A good way to do that is to write an outline of the world. Even if you decide to change things as you go along, it’s a great way to get everything straight in your head. Then, once you’ve made your fantasy world, you can get started writing.

A Little Thing Called “Plot”

Now that you’ve finished your world, you have to put people in it. The question is: what are they going to do? This is where we discuss plot, which is what will get your characters doing stuff. Don’t think of plot as a mechanical exercise, but more of a natural unfolding of events. Now, there are different kinds of plot. These include, but are not limited to, romance, political, murder mystery, and even plotless (don’t even think about it unless you are willing to be truly experimental).

Once you’ve thought of the plot for your novel, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how you’ll structure it. This is where you can be creative. For example, a lot of books have multiple viewpoints. But you might not want to do that. You might just write from the first person and be done with it. There’s nothing wrong with that, either. It all depends on what you want to do. Here is where you can get as crazy as you want.

Once you’ve decided what kind of plot you’ll have in your fantasy, and you have some idea how you’ll structure your story, you are almost there.

Characterization: Who Are These People?

So, you’ve got your plot and your world, but what about the characters? This is where you are going to define who your characters are, their motivations, and how they interact with each other. Remember, characters are important. Sure, your story could work without them, but why bother? It’s always better to put characters into a story rather than try to do it without them.

The key thing here is to remember to develop your characters well. That means you need to figure out their personalities. But personalities aren’t that simple. They are complex. And to understand them, you need to ask yourself some questions. You’ll be writing about more than one character, too. Don’t forget that. What are the characters like? Are they heroic? Are they funny? Are they serious? Are they conflicted? What is their story? Who do they love? What do they hate? What are their flaws? Their dreams? Their goals? Their motivations? The characters will need to have a few of those things. If they don’t, you’ll have problems.

Consider the following questions as you create your characters: Why do they have the personality they have? Where do they come from? What is their life like? What’s their job? What do they want? What is their family like? What is their problem? What do they think about? How do they feel about this conflict? How are they going to resolve it?

Once you’ve figured out your characters, you can start putting them into your story. But don’t forget, it’s a complex world and the characters will need to interact. So, let’s talk about the way they will do that.

Dialogue & World Building

Don’t forget dialogue! That’s where characters interact with each other. Think about it: your characters are going to be talking a lot. So, make sure they have interesting things to say. That means you are going to have to work on how you characterize your characters through dialogue. What do they like? What do they dislike? What do they want? What do they need? How do they feel? How do they talk? Remember, dialogue is a good way to give clues about what kind of people your characters are. That means that you can start developing the world you’ve made through your dialogue. Your characters are going to say something that gives some insight into the world they live in. In this way, dialogue helps world building.

What makes great fantasy?

Once you’ve got an idea and you’re ready to start writing, how do you go about making it great? What makes something great fantasy? First, it must feel “real.” It should have its own rules and internal consistency. This seems like a simple point, but I find it frequently lacking in most fantasy writing. So many writers try to be too grandiose, creating a world that is simply too big to hold itself together. But you don’t need to do that. Rather than setting your fantasy world in the far future, why not write a fantasy that takes place on Earth, but say, in the time of the British Empire? You can still get away with huge magical battles and strange creatures. But there is so much more power and majesty when you can say, “It really happened. We have proof.”

Another way to create a great fantasy is to put in a lot of subtle elements. What do I mean by subtle elements? Small details that make the reader feel like you really put time and effort into the world you’ve created. Imagine the best of fantasy worlds. What do you see in your mind? I think about the fantasy world in the first Lord of the Rings movie. It’s a mixture of gritty, scary, and beautiful. At the same time, it’s magical, but also intimidating. The feeling of living in that world is inspiring, but it’s not comfortable. It’s got the perfect blend of beauty and danger. I think a lot of the reason why the book and movie did so well was because it managed to capture a feeling of adventure in that world. It’s also got that perfect balance between magical and real.

Writing The Story

After all that, you’ve got a world that’s ready for stories. Now it’s time to start writing. Again, there’s a lot of controversy over what the best way to do it is, but here’s a few tips we’ve found helpful: Make notes. Even if you have the story in your head, you will be surprised by things you forget. This is where an outline can help. It doesn’t have to be fancy. You can put down quick notes for key ideas on index cards and build up your story from there. This is also a good way to make sure that the story you tell in your book follows the flow of events you’ve mapped out in your outline. Again, you don’t have to stick to the outline exactly, but this is a good way to make sure you haven’t forgotten something. Another great way to make notes is to set up an outline in Microsoft Word. Word makes it easy to use headers and make sub-headings. As you write, you can put in notes about characters, places, and things. As you start writing, write what you know. Start in the middle of the action. Don’t spend too much time with the boring stuff. No one cares about the character waking up and having breakfast, but they might care about what happens when a villain attacks the hero. Another way to think about this is to ask yourself how the average person in your story would tell it. Remember, people like stories that follow a good plot line. So make sure you have something going on. Perhaps it’s not the final conflict you want, but maybe the hero has just figured out that there is a bad guy and is now trying to decide what to do about it. When you’re done, ask yourself “What happens next?” You don’t have to write the entire book, but you can ask yourself questions and make notes about things that need to be filled in or explained later. Finally, write. If you don’t know what to write next, get up and write about something else. Set a timer and write for 30 minutes. Then, if you haven’t finished the chapter you were working on, write about another chapter. And if you are just stuck, write something else! For example, write about a character. Write about what they did this morning. What did they have for breakfast? Did they argue with their spouse? Did they go jogging?

Learn from what you read

When you write, don’t be afraid to try new things. But don’t forget to pay attention to what works and what doesn’t work. When you’re done, do something else for a while. Read some more fantasy. Read other books that are similar to yours. Be aware that you’ll write differently than other fantasy writers, so the way you learn how to write fantasy is to read it. And here’s a bonus tip: read a lot. The more you read, the more things you will have to pull ideas from. You’ll get to see different ways of doing things. But, mostly, you’ll be exposed to lots of different words. And reading is one of the best ways to learn how to write better.

When you’re done writing, revise your work. This can mean taking a few days off and coming back to it with fresh eyes. It can mean working with someone else. It can mean letting someone else read it and getting their opinion. This is important, because some of the most important parts of writing are invisible to the naked eye. We have an entire section on revision to help you learn to revise your work. Learn what other authors are doing. Read forums and blogs to see what your fellow writers are talking about. For example, have you ever wanted to write something that included realistic dialogue? If so, you can go to forums to find out how people write it. Another place you can learn is through book clubs. You can join one of these or you can start one yourself. You’ll learn from books, and you’ll learn about writing.

If you haven’t read any fantasy, now is the time to start. There are a lot of great books out there, so get to it!

Advanced Tips

Here are some ideas for ways to spice up your fantasy story. If you’re stuck on something, try these techniques. A lot of these ideas have to do with keeping the action moving. These are ways to keep the reader interested in your work. Maybe you’ve finished the book and now you want to do some rewriting. Here are some ideas for doing it:

Build Tension – There are many ways to do this. One way is to keep your characters worried about something. For example, if there’s a war going on in your story, there’s lots of tension there. Even if you know how the war is going to turn out, the characters in your story don’t know. This is an easy way to keep your reader turning the page. If you’ve got an evil villain who’s out to kill the hero, there’s lots of tension there.

Teach a Lesson – We love to learn about people and places. Fantasy is a great place to teach about a different culture. Consider using some of the ideas you’ve picked up about writing fantasy to teach a lesson. For example, take a lesson you’ve learned about writing and put it in your story. Maybe you’ve learned that sometimes you should have a character try something and fail. That’s a great opportunity for a lesson. Or maybe you’ve learned that it’s important to show some background for characters. That’s another opportunity for a lesson.

Unusual Setting – If you want your fantasy story to be interesting, try to come up with an unusual setting. For example, in Star Wars, the setting is a desert planet. In Harry Potter, the setting is a school for wizards. Be sure to pick a setting that makes sense in your story. For example, if you’re telling a story about a war, maybe it makes sense for it to take place near the woods where both armies have camps. This makes it easier for a spy to pass back and forth. Of course, you might want to make some modifications for the sake of the story. For example, maybe the trees are filled with magic.

Occasionally it’s okay for your main characters to do stupid things and for everything to go wrong. People like to read about characters who are in danger. If everything goes right, there’s no story. But things go wrong. So make sure things go wrong for your main characters. Also, sometimes it’s okay for a character to do something evil. It’s the actions of your characters that make them interesting. You can always redeem them later in the story. Keep your characters active. They should be going from one place to another, getting into trouble and getting out. A good way to do this is to be sure you have a map for your story. You don’t have to use it in your novel, but having it around will help you keep the action moving. Use description to paint a picture of the scene and to keep your reader hooked. The average reader is attracted to description. If you don’t describe the place your character is, they might not be able to picture what’s going on. But if you go on and on, you might bore the reader. Instead, paint a picture, use evocative language, and then get on with the action.

Final Thoughts

Writing fantasy can be a lot of fun. Whether you’re writing a few short stories or an epic series, you’ll love the feeling of satisfaction you get when you finally finish your story. In the end, it’s really up to you to make your story great. Good luck and have fun!

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