When it comes to writing a great story, there are many factors to keep in mind. One of which refers to genre, the category in which to place a story. A genre can be fantasy or thriller or sci-fi, and as an editor, I always make sure that the writer has done justice to the genre and/or brought their own original take to it. This post, the first of a series, will focus on genre writing, specifically fantasy.
When it comes to writing any genre—be it fantasy, sci-fi, drama, or mystery—it’s pertinent to understand that certain elements are of the norm for that specific genre. Fantasy generally involves magic and a fantastical world, mystery involves a terrible crime, and sci-fi tests the boundaries of reality through semi-plausible scientific eventualities.
The best way to write a genre is by understanding the norms of that genre, what readers have come to know and love about the genre, and by bringing your unique author voice into that genre. You don’t want to downright copy another writer, but you can find inspiration within the work of others. So, think about that going forward.
If you have any questions about the content of this post, feel free to reach out to me. I’m always happy to help.
“If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.” – Isaac Asimov
When it comes to writing fantasy, there are certain things that you must know about the genre. And you must know the genre. Read fantasy books and listen to the pros on how they approach fantasy writing. There are many subgenres such as High Fantasy or Urban Fantasy. Do your research to be able to determine under what subgenre your story falls. It will be very important when it comes time to marketing and distribution. One thing to note: fantasy is not interested in arguing a case for reality, logic, and natural exploration of known scientific principles. It refuses the laws of our “zero word”. It will either break into our world uninvited or suck us into its frame of reality. And your fantasy work must do the same.
While the fantasy genre can be fun to write, and it seems that the sky is the limit, there are also rules to follow. The writer must make the rules and follow their own rules to make for a compelling storyworld. Breaking your own rules can be the bane of your story and you would never want that. Not to mention, your readers will catch on.
Have a relatable theme. No, the theme can’t be “magic”. The theme can be centered around love or family or gaining power in a society. Make your theme like that of any other story. Don’t forget that your characters must have a goal and stakes must be involved. But also, there must be a reason that your story exists. What’s your message? What are you trying to convey to your readers? Keep this in mind as you work on your fantasy story.
Like with every other genre, you’ll need to be a strong writer. Know your grammar and know exactly how to articulate what you need to on the page. Many have said that fantasy is an easy genre to write, however, it is one of the more difficult genres to write. You must know when to move plot, when to develop character, and when to build the world. The worldbuilding adds another layer to the storytelling and can create new challenges. So, always come with your best work.
When it comes to writing your fantasy book, there are so many things to consider just like any other story. For this warm-up, write down or type up some ideas that will go into your story. Consider the following:
Zero World or Specific Planet?
Magic? How is it used? Where does it come from? Who can use it?
Flora and Fauna – Plant life and agriculture
Name, age, origin
Place in society
To do some planning, look at this Character Planning Sheet and Worldbuilding Planning Sheet to get an idea of what sort of things you should consider in your fantasy story. Be sure to implement a 3-Act Story and ensure that your characters have goals & motivations. Always make sure that something is at stake as well. Once you’ve done that, continue with the rest of this post.
“You must stay drunk on writing so that reality cannot destroy you.” – Ray Bradbury
Building The Fantastical World
New writers of the fantasy genre oftentimes focus a great deal more time on the storyworld but forget about the building of the main character and secondary character(s). Keep in mind that just because you are writing a fantasy, it doesn’t mean that all of the other conventional steps of creating a story should be overlooked or put in the back seat.
There is a common main character known as the “chosen one”, a character in a fantasy who is uniquely positioned to defeat the antagonist by use of specific skills or because of prophecy. Think of Harry Potter or Richard Cypher. Your main character doesn’t always have to be “special” in some way. He or she is best positioned as a flawed character who can be related to on an individual level. No, your readers can’t relate to the “magic” or “special powers”, but they can relate to emotions, feeling out of place, and being bullied.
Your main character(s) must have a goal. This goal must be prevalent throughout the book, and it can sometimes change as the character grows and changes. Ensure that there is a clear character arc for your MC. Make sure the stakes are directly linked to a failure or accomplishment of the goal and that they affect the main character.
Your character’s arc must be fun to watch. It must evoke an emotional response from the reader. Your protagonist can be a novice, an experienced magician, or someone who is looking to change the world around him. Make sure that if he isn’t changing, then the world is changing around him because of what he’s done to change it.
Avoid Tropes, but Also Embrace Them
A “trope” is a common piece of a story in any genre. Tropes are so overused and generic, that many audiences can tire of them. They are, for some, comfortable, easy, and recognizable. Try to find new ways to leverage tropes like the “prophecy” and others. Use tropes as you see fit, but seek out new ways in which to use them.
If someone is the “chosen one” by prophecy, find a unique spin on that identity. Perhaps that character hates the title or is made to be chosen by their own doing or by the actions of another. Cling to the familiar but reinvent it for something fresh and unique. A great example of this is Harry Potter, who is only coincidentally the chosen one because Voldemort made him as such by marking him out fear of the prophecy’s authenticity. Brilliant.
Also, think of common archetypes and redefine those as you see fit. So, stick to the familiar tropes as you see fit, but bring new life to them. Give your readers something more than the norm.
Worldbuilding + Rulemaking
Fantasy relies a great deal on worldbuilding, that is, building the fantastical world (or an embellished or altered version of our own world). With the world that you build there are many things to consider: climate, culture, geography, language, etc. Also, there are rules that should be established in your world. Certain things work in certain ways and it’s your job to ensure that the rules you set are followed in your story and are consistent.
Once you have made the rules, don’t break them, especially out of convenience. When you break the rules of your world out of convenience for moving your story along (or resolving it), it is called Deus Ex Machina, Latin for “God from the machine”. You want to avoid this. Work within the rules you have set and don’t bring any new rules into your storyworld that come out of left field.
A notable example of this appears on Charmed, a Fantasy Procedural Drama from the 90s, that had established the rule that vampires are immune to witch powers. Well, later in the series, the writers of that show broke that rule, and did so out of convenience. The three sisters were nearly defeated, but somehow, they’re able to effectively use their powers in the nick of time.
The writing is considered lazy here because the writers broke one of their own rules out of convenience. Don’t ever do that as a writer. Find a way to resolve a conflict by using the rules (and the norms) you have already placed inside your world.
If you want to change the rules, there must be a path that is followed where things change at times. Readers must be able to see the change and even receive hints. It should never come out of thin air—unless your work relies on using Deus Ex Machina.
Antagonists With A Purpose
Put the same care in building your antagonist that you do with your protagonist. The antagonist must have a goal that comes from a real place. There must be stakes involved in not achieving the goals and the flaw must be one of the deterrents for the villain or antagonist as it is with the protagonist and other main characters. Make sure your antagonist, or antagonist force (a storm, a setting, society, etc.), is in direct opposition of the protagonist’s goals.
Even better, allow your antagonist to have some redeemable qualities as well.
“Fantasy is totally wide open; all you really have to do is follow the rules you’ve set. But if you’re writing science, you have to first learn what you’re writing about.” – Octavia Butler
Don’t let anyone say that writing fantasy is easy or easier than with other genres. It can be very rewarding to create a whole new world for your readers that is filled with magic and wonder. Fantasy is challenging because it requires all the traditional storytelling prowess in addition to all the worldbuilding.
No matter what genre you are writing, storytelling requires a great deal of work. Your job as the writer is to use genre as a springboard to your story. It shouldn’t overpower the use of strong characters or a relatable theme, but simply complement all that you want to say on the page. Don’t get bogged down in worldbuilding and forget about all the other necessary components of your story. That’s the biggest mistake of writers of speculative fiction (fantasy, sci-fi, and horror).
Seek guidance in writing about fantasy. As always, I’m always happy to help. Shoot me an email if you’d like to discuss further.
10 Tips for Writing Fantasy by Masterclass Staff – Top tips on writing the fantasy genre
Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) – Nonprofit devoted to the business and craft of sci-fi and fantasy writing
13 Kick-Ass Tips for Writing Fantasy From Professional Fantasy Editors by Reedsy Staff – Firsthand tips of the trade from fantasy editors from all around
The Writer’s Digest Guide to Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card – A comprehensive guide to writing sci-fi and fantasy by a legendary writer
The Ultimate Guide To Worldbuilding: How To Write Fantasy, Sci-Fi And Real-Life Worlds by Claire Bradshaw – Article laying out various important aspects to building a fantastical world