Fantasy is a genre that’s always amazing to read. How crazy is it that a simple block of paper can transport us to a whole other world? You may even want to write your own fantasy story, to build your own world set in the ancient past or the distant future. If you are, here are my top tips for writing your story!
1 Read, Read, Read
The more you read, the better you’ll write. Read with a focus on what grabs you about a book—worldbuilding, character development, plot twists—and how the author approaches these aspects. Study what you find daunting about writing and make note of how other storytellers use them.
Read books in the Fantasy genre—your favourites but also new books—and in other genres as well. Good writing comes from everywhere, so don’t just limit yourself to your writing genre. Often, it’s better to branch out so you can learn on a broader spectrum. Fantasy stories tend to fall into the same patterns of character tropes and story structure, after all.
Goal: Choose the 10 books you most admire, and read/reread them, making note of strengths in their plot, dialogue, characters, and sentence structure.
2 Get to Know Your Market
Keep in mind that the Fantasy genre is huge, so the first thing you need to know is who you’re writing for. You wouldn’t group Stephen King’s The Dark Tower with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, would you? So, are you writing for children, for young adults, or for a more mature audience? Is the story high fantasy, steampunk, dystopian, or supernatural? What time period are you writing in—modern day, the distant past, or your own made-up world?
Goal: Narrow down the following: audience age group, real or imagined world, story subgenre. Next, research your market. What other books cater to your target audience? Who specifically are your readers and what do they enjoy?
3 Write Small Before Writing Big
When writing non-fiction or writing fiction in the real world, you must do a lot of research. You need to make sure your facts are correct and ensure realism the entire way through. This is even more important when building your own fictional universe.
Goal: Consider not just the geography of your world, but ask yourself how the world and its history affect customs, culture, and lifestyle.
Frank Herbert’s Dune takes place on the desert planet of Arrakis. Because of the planetary lack of water, moisture becomes such an important part of the way of life. Their culture is built around it; it affects the way they eat, speak, clean themselves, their values—everything about how they live and survive in a world with very little moisture.
Also consider how to get to know your world better. You can write articles about religion and biographies about characters and creatures all you want, but the best way to learn your world is to jump down and dig in with both hands. A novel is a massive undertaking, especially in a world you’re still getting to know. Smaller stories allow you to get into the world with very little pressure and help illuminate parts of the world you’d otherwise not consider.
Goal: Write at least 5 short stories (1000-7500 words) including characters and settings from the world you’re creating. These characters and locations can be part of the bigger novel you plan to write, or not.
4 Choose a Point of View
There are many perspectives a story can be told from, but the most popular are third person omniscient, third-person limited, or first person. How do you want your story to be told?
First person means the reader sees the world through the eyes of a single (usually the main) character, seeing only what they see and knowing only what they know.
Third Person Limited is told by a separate narrator and follows a single character, telling the story from their perspective like with first person, but using he/she/they. The narrator can either be a godlike character looking down, like the storyteller around a campfire interacting with their audience. Opposingly, they can be a narrator without a face—your more traditional third-person limited style, in which it’s much like first person but without ‘I’.
Third Person Omniscient comes from a narrator who knows the thoughts of every character. I haven’t seen it done often, though it works best if the narrator is a godlike character of their own, making remarks while they dive into the thoughts of their characters.
Goal: Write a point-by-point version of your story from each perspective you think might work. Try writing a scene or two from each perspective. How does the perspective change the story? Which one works best for what you’re trying to say?
5 Write Complex and Captivating Characters
When writing characters, you want them to be realistic, believable, and unique. Avoid tired fantasy tropes; give your characters depth and complexity. Write down everything you can about them—if you can even sketch them, do it, no matter how good or bad you are as an artist.
A good strategy is to imagine yourself in a room interviewing them. Ask them a standard set of questions (see downloadable PDF below!) and answer in the role of the character. Use this interview to learn more about your characters’ background, emotions, habits, motives, and connections.
When creating your cast of characters, make sure they’re diverse as well. You don’t want two characters with the same name (unless having the same name is the point of the names), nor do you want characters to merge into one another (again, unless that’s the point).
Think of things that you love about a person, what you hate and what confuses you. To make sure you show these aspects of your characters, you can make a list of actions and words they should use throughout.
For example, if a character is brave, don’t have them waxing poetic about how brave they are. This is not a trait of bravery, it’s a trait of narcissism. Instead, show that they’re brave in what they say and do. Do they rush into battle with the goal of saving people? Do they say what others are afraid to voice?
Your characters should always have real motives for what they do, so consider their greatest desires. Do they want to be loved? Appreciated? Celebrated? Feared? Everyone has these desires, though it’s only when exaggerated that we often notice it. Narcissists like Gilderoy Lockhart from Harry Potter think they’re the best and want to be seen that way, so every action they take will be motivated by that, whether for the good or ill of others.
Villains also have these motivating desires. In The Hunger Games, many of the citizens of the Capitol don’t see the wrongness of the Games, but those who do and don’t care continue to allow and celebrate the Games because they don’t want to lose their power, influence, or privilege. Coriolanus Snow himself (as we gain insight from the prequel) shows that he wants to retain his privilege because of his family’s reputation, and he’s shown he will do whatever it takes to get back on top.
Your main goal is to make characters your readers can connect with emotionally more than anything. Whether you’re writing fantasy or something else, all genres need characters that readers can love, hate, relate to.
Last thing is names. Unless you’re writing a comedy, don’t give your characters pun names (still avoid even if you are writing a comedy). Don’t give them names that are impossible to pronounce, either. Keep it simple.
6 Outline Your Story
Keep in mind, this method doesn’t always work for everyone. If you’re the type of person who writes without an outline, that’s fine; you don’t need one. Making sure you’ve done the proper research and editing to give your book depth and consistency is a different story!
That being said, outlines are super helpful when writing stories, especially fantasy stories, as they can get quite complicated. The best fantasy stories focus on only a few storylines at a time, instead of 99+ different things that could be going on—which only makes things confusing for the reader. You don’t want to get to the end of your book, only to realize it’s full of knots and loose ends. Outlines help you keep track of not only the plot of the story, but timelines, settings, and characters as well. Having an outline can even take off some of the pressure of writing because you have an idea where you’re going.
Outlines keep track of everything from the big plot points to the small details; they’re excellent tools for revisions and for sequels, but also for tracking character movements, behaviour, and growth.
If you’re the type of person who doesn’t work well with outlines, consider trying other methods to help you keep track of everything that’s going on in the story. You can even blend the two methods—if you need to write first, you can draft a few chapters, then write the outline in bullet points for each chapter after.
7 Make the Laws, then Uphold Them
“Fantasy stories don’t need to be realistic, but they must be believable.”
And to heighten and ensure your story’s believability, it must be consistent. When you’re creating your world, you must build the laws into everything—laws of magic, like laws of physics, should not be broken. Keeping these laws will allow your fantasy story to remain grounded in its own reality, so even though it’s based in a fictional world, readers can be fully immersed.
Sometimes you just don’t know what kinds of questions to ask while worldbuilding, so consider doing research for real-world societal basics first—politics, economics, geographics. Ask obvious questions first, then narrow things down. Questions like “where does magic come from?” and “how would dragons evolve over time?” or even “how does magic remain hidden? (if the world takes place in our time and place)” are excellent starting points.
Even the most obscure magic system should follow some rationale.
Keep the rules and laws of the world in an Excel spreadsheet, a collection of documents, a journal, or even on some scrap paper. Being able to look up and remind yourself of these rules are essential when writing because you’re always creating new scenarios. You don’t need to know everything right away—just the basics are fine—since you can always add and refine the rules as you write. (Note: if you refine the rules, do not make big changes, and ensure that you modify anything in the worldbuilding/story that are affected by those changes.)
Once you’ve set the rules, become familiar with them. Economics, politics, philosophy, fundamental systems, and more. The more confident you are in what you’re saying, the more that shows through in your writing. If you’re hesitant because you don’t know the rules as well as you should, it shows.
The worst thing you can do is break the rules you’ve set; it takes the reader out of the story. Keep up the internal consistency of your world and consider every scenario you can think of. If something breaks the rules, it better be for a very good reason, because it might just kill the fantasy.
8 Write Authentic Dialogue
You may not be generally aware, but everyone has their own distinctive style of speaking. Different characters often use different words, say things in different ways, and focus on different things. The way they speak can even show moods and motivations—for example: if a character asks if someone is okay after they fall, or if they immediately check for damage on the valuable thing that person was carrying.
Speech can also be used to show cultural differences, though excessive use of jargon or accented speech can become annoying to a reader, so avoid too much of this unless you’re purposefully making a character’s dialogue confusing for the other characters (and reader).
Also avoid using dialogue for excessive exposition.
If your world is complicated, reveal things to younger readers slowly through action, or jump right in and reveal things as they come for older readers. Books like Dune and The Broken Earth trilogy (adult reading level books) have complicated worlds that don’t stop to explain things to readers. Often, the characters know exactly what’s going on, and context clues plus repetitions of words or phrases help clue the reader in on what’s happening. Books intended for children or younger audiences are typically less complicated, and things are revealed or expanded upon as the story progresses.
9 Take Your Time
It can be tempting to want to reveal everything to your readers at once, especially after all the worldbuilding you’ve done in creating a world and filling it with characters.
Pump the brakes.
You have all this research and planning done so you, the author, can write the story with confidence. The reader only needs to know what’s necessary to the story in the moment. With every bit of information you include, ask yourself “can the story be understood without this?” and if not, include it. If the story can be understood, don’t—even if that missing information may be something the readers may want. Keep them in suspense; you might even be able to include it later.
For example, in a book about a ghost I was writing, the ghost opens a bedroom door, then goes down a hallway but cannot physically interact with the door leading to the kitchen. The ghost can also pick up cookies when alone but cannot pick up a sandwich later when another character was in the room. Someone in my writing group thought they’d caught an inconsistency but retracted the comment since it’s later addressed by the ghost herself, who questions the same thing. The explanation is something I worked into the fabric of the story, but it won’t be revealed right off the bat; the answer comes through natural discovery. It creates a spark of curiosity and compels the reader to keep going if only to find out why.
10 Getting It Down and Fleshing It Out
Writing the first draft of your book is a daunting task, no matter how prepared you are. Planning and preparedness can only take you so far, of course, and while they make writing easier, you still need to write. It’s often hard for writers to get the first draft down because they think it needs to be perfect. Even for those who know it can be flawed, the mentality is still there, and a lot of authors (myself included) struggle against it.
Get your ideas down in the way that feels most natural to you, whether that’s building a story map, writing the entire plot of the story in a super condensed block, starting the first draft, or just jotting down a list of things you want to take place and characters you want to include in the story.
The first draft doesn’t even need to be completed once you write the last chapter. It’s okay to leave blank spots where you say “big battle here” or “characters escape dragon” or whatever. Sometimes scenes just need more research, and you’ve left them for later because you were on a roll and didn’t want to get sucked down the endless hole that is the internet.
The thing is, though, that once you have the barebones of your manuscript, you can begin filling in the picture of that puzzle. Rearrange scenes so that they make more sense; fill in gaps in the plot; expand on or delete that character that showed up for one scene and was never mentioned again. Yo can always refine a draft, but if there’s nothing on the page, the story won’t ever be good.