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How To Write A Fantasy Novel: Take The Road And See Where It May Lead You

2 October 2020
An extensive and clear explanation of how to write a fantasy novel

The Internet has made the unimaginable possible: everyone can become a fantasy author and a publisher without spending a buck on it. All you need is right on your fingertips – a laptop or phone, wi-fi, a pack of snacks, and the burning desire to put the world you dreamt of into existence. The web abounds in fanfics, spinoffs, stories loosely based on some famous books, and in truly interesting and original works. Those stories that engage you most have something in common – they are developed with deep care and precision that make them so credible and bewildering in their magical relatability. 

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.

General Literary Tips On How To Write A Fantasy Novel

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). 

 1. Read The Great (And Not So Great) Examples  

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). 

  • Note how the world is described, divided into areas, how opposing powers occupy opposing lands (in the sense of landscape and general territory attractiveness). Notice how mentioned landscape elements are used (or not used). If there is a sea, then there will be pirates or sea voyages, or you will be puzzled what the purpose of mentioning this water body was. Gloomy, dangerous Mordor, and gentle, welcoming the Shire are the brightest examples of geographical division so far.
  • Note the characters. Do you believe them? Do you like them? Why? Is it because they are better versions of ourselves or because they are versatile but still relatable humans? Or are they absolutely perfect and boring to death? How are they described? What are their specific traits? Do they develop? Do they make mistakes? How do they fix them? How do they face challenges? 
  • A magic world is still a world with its internal logic. Even if you plan to create a universe where everything is upside down and illogical, be consistent with it. Yet usually, an author (and readers) think by familiar and understandable categories, and the more internal logic and predictability in the fictional world, the better the story. You can bend the rules, there are exceptions in everything, but only as exceptions, and do it rarely. 

 2. Play With Different Ideas, Even The Most Absurd  

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. 

 3. Envision And Describe The Magical World As Palpable And Real

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. 

  • So first, you sketch the ‘quest,’ the general plotline, and then you practice envisioning and describing settings where it happens. Mentioning the smell of flowers is great if it prompts the change of the seasons of the year or special natural appeal of some magical elves’ habitat. Otherwise, this smell is only a distraction that raises the question, ‘so what?’
  • A separate point is the appearance of the characters. They are the core of the book, so imagine them carefully, how they look, how they differ from humans (if they do), how they are magically special. Jot down your ideas and keep them consistent across the book. It looks silly when on one page, a giant is capable of lifting a huge rock, and on another page, the same giant cannot lift a small wooden drawn bridge in the face of the enemy’s assault. In movie reviews, such flops earn the wealth of gleeful comments. You do not want the same for your book. No way.

Build The Universe 

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. 

Map of the World 

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. 

Time Span 

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:

  • Chronologically (everything happens in order from beginning to end);
  • Flashback mode (the ‘now’ time gets interrupted by narration about the past events);
  • The story within a story (a grandfather tells the grandchildren about his deeds, or an elderly person writes memoirs, or what’s not);
  • Your own version. 

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). 

Make It Social 

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. 

  • Decide on the form of social organization, rulers, upper class, lower classes, total equality, etc. 
  • Traditions and religion. Who they believe in, or how do they deal with magical stuff in their lives?
  • Decide how they mark important thresholds of life. Birth, coming to adulthood, marriage, the birth of children, loss of body power, and death have always been special points in human lives. Solstice, Equinox, change of seasons were equally important events. Think about how you would incorporate them into your story. Research on traditional cultures of people – you will find plenty of material to relate to. 
  • Culture and social conventions. Do people shake hands? Do foreigners are perceived as enemies? Do magical and non-magical creatures live in peace or in conflict? Think about how life is organized there. The more clearly you see it, the more interesting life and adventures of your characters will be.  

The Particular Fantasy Components Of The Novel

How To Write A Fantasy Novel Properly: Magical Theme 

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. 

Magical Environment 

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. 

  • Think of origin of creatures – are they old gods? Are they elves? Do they come from some folk mythology? What are the essential skills?
  • Do they have some specific weapons or objects? Do they learn magic along the way or are they already skilled? 
  • How do they act in the plot? Move it forward? Act as enemies to protagonists? Are they protagonists? Are they truly necessary in the story? If no, think about how to twist the plot to make them indispensable. 
  • Along with the magical creatures, add some non-humans that do not have magic power. It will make the magic world more plausible (and funny). Mermaids, centaurs, gnomes, vampires – they all are natural inhabitants of such a world. Just imagine – a centaur sits to rest with a cup of coffee on the sidewalk, and the magic police try to fine him for parking his ‘vehicle’ in the wrong place. How would you solve this problem? We bet you giggle now, so give your readers a chance to giggle, too. Even without magic, such non-human creatures give plenty of serious points of consideration. Invent your own ones, and that would be even more interesting.

Key Rule Of How To Write A Fantasy Novel: Keep It All Consistent 

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). 

Shape The Characters 

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.  

Plot The Sequence Of Events/Outline 

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. 

Write The Flesh Of Your Story

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. 

Gandalf’s Farewell Advice 

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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