Today it is hard to define fantasy fiction because it has developed into a huge universe of genres and subgenres that often merge with thrillers, psychological prose, and romance into astonishing borderline types. Yet what is definite about fantasy, specifically, high fantasy, is that it creates a totally new world where magical abilities and events are natural and drive forward conflicts and bring their resolution.
Do not mix it up with sci-fi (science fiction), please. Sci-fi operates on the premise of extreme technological advances and interplanetary travels, while the fantasy is about magic and magicians. Hear fantasy – think Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and you will not miss the mark.
The toolkit of traditional fairytales, myths, folklore, folk art, and cultural relics creates a solid foundation on which all current genres, subgenres, and spinoffs flourish. Thus, the fantasy begins in the half-forgotten beliefs of humanity and absorbs the mythology and conventions that exist today. In other words, first of all, it is about us as humans, and only after it comes to magic and wizards that help us make sense of things and troubles that reason and science cannot explain or fix. So before departing on the literary quest, how to write a fantasy novel, ask yourself if you would believe the story and characters without the fairy tale fleur. If yes, your fantasy is bound to be successful. So, sit down and write it.
Here we offer you the generalized guide on how to develop the writing (whether fantasy or sci-fi) so that it is credible and gripping (what exactly to write you will decide yourself, of course).
Read a lot of fantasy books, both good and trashy. Read not for entertainment but for analysis of how many elements go together in a single story. The more you read, the clearer inner rules of story building become (and flops become more evident, too).
How has fantasy started? How were the most iconic fantasy books (movies, games, etc.) born? Usually, they are born as an escape from harsh reality, from stifling conditions or rules that prescribe the single right (and outwardly boring) way of life. Hobbit and tales of the Ring were born after WWI as an alternative to wartime cruelty, hardships, and rage for all kinds of machines and automation (as opposed to nature and quest for spirituality).
The Witcher, the now legendary brainchild of the Polish writer Sapkowsky, came to be in final years of existence of the Soviet Union, amidst stifling limitations it put on all countries of the socialistic camp. When real people cannot combat the evil force that haunts them, a half-magical individual steps in. Symbolical, isn’t it?
In other words, when the existing reality somehow does not meet your needs, you begin creating your own worlds where you set the rules. You are empowered to fill this world with werewolves, wizards, knights, warrior ladies, and what’s not. So do not discard ideas on how to write a fantasy novel that come to you, no matter how strange or funny they may seem. Many years ago, a quiet professor in England imagined a shy short chubby gardener with furry feet that would join forces with elves, gnomes, and humans and go on the quest to destroy the residence of evil that 10 000 of brave men would not even approach. Funny? Yet today we believe in this story more than in the news we hear on TV.
Tolkien drew his ideas from his extensive knowledge of myths and cultural heritage, in particular, Scandinavian and old English ones. You can draw your ideas from any source you find appropriated – news, shows, posts in your newsfeed, blogs, forums, and events in life, anything that stirs your imagination.
Jot down ideas and examine them, play with them. How far will they carry you? What will happen next? If you have something important to say through your characters’ voices and deeds, settings, and rules will develop naturally. Some writers advise that you scrupulously compare and contrast magic and non-magic settings, but this rule on how to write a fantasy novel works not for everyone. Develop your ideas in the way that suits you, just remember to write everything you have imagined down.
It is often said that the more details you can provide about your fantasy world, the easier for readers to relate to it. Like, settings, nature, landscape, houses, cities, castles, etc.
Yet the point is, fantasy revolves around the idea of the quest. That is, someone departs on a journey with some big and good goal, gets into lots of troubles, finds friends, learns something, dabbles in a romance (or parts with a partner), and accomplishes the goal, to everyone’s delight. The details of huts and castles are only important if they drive the story forward. They cannot be separated from the plot, so it is senseless to envision any specific place or setting if you do not have something happening there.
Now pick a ruler and a bricklayer’s trowel, it’s high time to build the world you envisioned. Well, you may not need them literally, but technically, you should write with the same precision as a real builder.
You may have it, or you may not. Your characters may travel across half of the world, or everything may happen in a single city. Creating a real map may be a challenge in how to write a fantasy novel, especially if this is your first book, so skip it if you want. Just remember to list for yourself all areas your characters will go to, and mind that normally, each area has forests, lakes, rivers, fields, farms, and sometimes mountains. So, envision them, too. Otherwise, your land will look suspiciously bald, like a board for table games.
Besides, each additional element is an opportunity to make an additional plot twist. Add a river to the city, and you have a ready topic of animosity between fleets of fishers supporting the mayor and his opponent from a rivaling aristocratic family. Taxes, rights to fishing, guilds, politicking – and your story become vibrant with lifelike details. Besides, you can always use these fishers as assistants or enemies of characters if you are stuck in your writing and have no ideas about what happens next altogether.
Everything happens within a determined time frame. One year is one thing, 10 or 100 years are another. If you stretch the action over decades, remember that your characters grow old, children grow up, and older people die, sadly. Some magical creatures can live for centuries unchanged, but you cannot inhabit the whole world with immortals. That’s silly.
Besides, it also matters if you plan to move the action to the past or imitate some earlier historical period. We do not talk about the future here, because futuristic stories and laser blasters belong to sci-fi.
So, you locate the story in the medieval period. Decide how time would be presented:
Yet, no matter the approach to the timeline, keep the time period you describe realistically. You will have to know about societies, cultures, beliefs, traditions, medicine, technological advances of that time. When you learn about it, it will be easier to decide where to involve magic and where something will happen naturally. Anachronisms (something that does not belong to its age) are frowned upon. Knights did not have gunpowder and muskets. So, if you plan to magically give them firearms to kill the army of enemies, ask yourself, ‘why?’ You operate in the world of magic, so instead of a machine gun, a sorcerer should operate fireballs, and given he or she has not all thumbs and some aiming skills, these balls will be no less efficient (and appropriate for the world you create).
When you plan on how to write a fantasy novel, remember that there will always be people or other creatures who live together in communities. So, they will definitely have some kind of social order. Whether it is classes, tribes, families, packs, or else, there will be rules of living together and of making decisions.
You have something important to say, and magic stuff helps you do it. But what is it? Basically, all plots have few foundations as old as humanity itself – love, hatred, grief, revenge, money, death, the battle between good and bad, to name the key ones (you can find a lot of info on universal themes and plots on the web if you want). They are your true motivation to write, because when you want to write how previously competing characters fall in love and get children together – it is about love, the eternal driving force. When a grieving son goes on a quest to revenge for his killed father, you get what? Right, revenge, and grief packed together. There is nothing wrong with using these topics because they are actual drives of humanity and its actions.
But be careful. A whole bulk of now-classic fantasy rests on a rather doubtful (and disturbing) premise: a woman gets raped, and so she attempts to revenge her assaulters. Or a man goes a long way to revenge for his killed wife. Yep, the hero is always a man, and a woman can only become a protagonist if she goes through some exceptional ordeal. Today this motivation looks ridiculous and quite offensive. So look for some more plausible motivation – desire to learn magic skills, for example, or to prove that someone is mature enough to get some important position in the given society. Look around, look into your own motivation, and you will get plenty of workable ideas of how to write a fantasy novel without these banal and insulting premises.
When you know what to say, you can more easily imagine how to say it. You will develop the magical elements in your story to your taste, just be consistent, and do not try to present already existing myths and creatures as your own invention.
Whatever you write, keep it consistent throughout the story. If you set magical rules, abide by them. If a character goes to a magic school, it is weird to make him or her skilled in magic from the very beginning. If centaurs are rude and aggressive, use the features you assign them in the story (they are the main troublemakers, for example). With clear rules, it is easier for readers to get the logic of the world and to start worrying about characters when they head directly into trouble (because it is obvious in the given circumstances that they will get into trouble).
By now, you probably see them clearly, have their names and biographies. But wait: every good story has a protagonist, an antagonist, and a mentor or assistant(s) who will get the hero out of troubles. If you lack one of these key characters, consider how you may add them. Or how you can fill the place they would have in the story.
Besides, while planning how to write a fantasy novel, decide how the story will end. Of course, the end can change radically without your permission (the story will naturally take you there), but when you have a goal, it is easier to build a route to it.
When you have everything ready and imagined, set to drafting the story. Mark for yourself the beginning, the middle, and the climax/resolution. Within these parts, draft adventures, actions, events as you see them. When you see these key points, it is easier to get from one point to another. The inner logic will prompt you possible solutions and plot twists that you may otherwise overlook. The draft will also prompt you how to divide the story into chapters or sections.
The draft is only a draft. Maybe you have undertaken this investigation of how to write a fantasy novel for the sake of the final scene, where characters marry or find their love, or learn about their true family, or pass the final magic exam. You have this scene in detail, nuances, so write it down as you see it. Then write everything else as carefully as you wrote that scene. Consult the draft but write as you like and feel. You have your unique voice, so let it be heard. One and the same story can be written sentimentally, drily, satirically, or even in the gothic key. It is in this nuance, this unique vision, that the value of the story truly resides.
If you fear that you cannot embody your ideas as great as you want to, let us help you. You can provide us with a broad outline, and we will put it in the flesh. Or we can supply both ideas and their implementation if fantasy is not your cup of tea but where you were assigned this task. We are here to help you, anyway.
Take the road precisely because you do not know where it can take you. Start shaping the world, the characters, and their motivation, and see where you will get from there. There exists the unimaginable number of variations of plots and details, so let your imagination loose and follow its lead. Gandalf won’t advise you bad things, so start your wonderful journey.
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