Writing a fantasy story is like nothing else you’ll ever experience. It seeks your understanding not only of human thoughts as does any other genre, but of every aspect of reality. Without knowing what’s the force that keeps our world spinning through the universe, you won’t be able to create one.
Writing fantasy means inventing every rule that we here take for granted. Once you start from a basic idea such as magic exists, you’ll start going backwards and discovering the reasons why it is so.
Plotting is the same, more or less, but with much more freedom to experiment and break rules. It includes many pages of descriptions and subtle explanations, that you need to understand before you start writing.
There’s a feeling of going on journey through the Middle Earth when you plan on writing a fantasy. Possibly because there’s no one else who comes to mind faster than professor Tolkien when mentioning fantasy.
You will be tempted, more than once, but you should forget about Tolkien, Martin, Rowling and everybody else. This is a hard genre to write because of the iconic influences from the last hundred years.
I’m a huge fan of this genre. I even plotted a whole novel but never get around to writing it. Waiting for better days, I suppose. As everything else, I fear I’d ruin it if I do it right away.
There is much more work to be done before you can start writing. This isn’t a genre where you can just sit down and start discovering it as you write. Still, many start from an interesting scene that gets written.
You should pay attention to a few major points:
- Writing it
As you see, the first six points are in the before you start writing part.
1. World In Fantasy
Writers usually use our world as a reference when creating worlds. Our imagination is an extraordinary thing, even in our wildest ideas you can see the roots. Nothing wrong with that – it’s actually very exciting to discover the reality in fantasy genre.
Take a note here, you’ll do the same. Your job is to build a world never seen before but by all means, use ours as a source.
It’s not just the map, it’s everything physical, and metaphysical for that matter. Start from a scratch, imagine a place. It could be a village, a town, a city or a kingdom or anything in between.
New authors make a common mistake I’ve seen many times, they draw a map before they figure how much land they’ll need or how many kingdoms, towns, villages, etc. That’s wrong for one obvious reason: a lot of empty space. If your story takes place during a war between two provinces, why would you need the whole continent?
Of course, if you’re planning a series, then by all means, develop the whole world. I’ll just remind you of Tolkien’s maps – small and weirdly shaped but full of imaginative things.
So, the lesson here is to decide on your story and see how much space you’ll need. Feel free to leave some space for the future if you don’t know if you’ll come back to the same world.
But also, pay attention to the climate and the geography and all the details you’ll find help for on world-building sites such as this.
Even though you won’t put the number of your population in your novel, you need to know it. But, to help you calculate your population and get some ideas, I found a fantasy population calculator. It’s an interesting tool, free to use, and it can help you at least spark your inspiration when you see your ideas unfold (in a form of numbers).
Don’t rely on the generators on that site, they are interesting but aren’t that original. Use them only to get inspired.
The population will affect your story, the level of development, social behaviors.
The beauty of writing characters in fantasy is in an infinite number of possibilities, as it’s the case with everything in fantasy. You’re free to create beings that don’t exist but are possible in your world.
Decide on the connections between your characters before you start writing, and don’t focus only on the characters but nations as well. That is, if you have nations – it could be species, classes or anything you can imagine.
Relationships between different nations will impact your story. But make the relationships real, plausible and understandable.
Are you giving them languages? Think about that. I’ll have to warn you, making a language is perhaps the most difficult thing you’ll encounter but to me it was a joy (to be honest, I never developed it enough to use it – I have rough rules and outlines for it, though).
What level of development is your world at? Which period from our history does it resemble?
It’s quite obvious you’ll decide on this before you do anything else.
Research carefully the time-frame, technological developments, population count, etc. Even if you want to make changes to the pattern seen in our world, you need to know that pattern and when breaking it, you need to have a reason – nothing is done just to be done, it needs reasons that relate to your story.
The first thing anyone who writes or comments on fantasy will ever tell you is that you need a set of rules known to you. Before you do anything, you need to decide on these rules. You can start developing your ideas if you don’t have the rules set.
For start, make a simple list of those rules. Those are the ones that will create your world. Decide on the most important things (is your gravity much stronger than on Earth; if so, then you know your people look differently) and let the rest unfold naturally.
A set of rules is made by deciding on those things that affect the major aspects of your world. If you don’t have a rule that everyone can fly (but you have to limit it in a way) and someone flies away from a difficult situation – that’s mostly considered bad storytelling.
A very important aspect here is magic, of course. If you are going to have magic, even if you don’t plan on explaining how your characters acquired and use magic, you’ll need to know the origins of magic. For example: in my drafts, magic exists for over two thousand years and it appeared when a wise Ellerin met the trickster god who walks on the ground, cheating people into death – they had a bet and the wise man outsmarted the trickster god. The god had to show him how to use elements from nature to create ‘magic’.
It’s simple, it’s inspired by our own myths in a way, but most importantly – it explains the origin of magic.
You need to know that and you need to know what is allowed and what is not. There isn’t a story where you have an all-powerful wizard who just saves the day before there’s a day to save.
Play around with ideas, and as always, write down the first three ideas for everything, scratch them and come up with the fourth. Trust me, that’s how we get rid of used ideas.
You need folklore, your need mythology, the sense of realness in your world. It’s best achieved by giving your characters deities but there are other ways, too.
Myths come from two sources in our cultures: our fears and our ideals.
For example: if you have an island, the most likely god to be worshiped there is a kind of watery god who protects people from the wild sea. It’s not because they are fond of the sea but because they fear it. On the opposite note, there might be a cult worshiping fire. Think of some reasons for that and leave them in a comment so we can have a discussion.
But, apart from fears making deities, there are the ideals. These sorts of deities come from personal notions of good and evil, beautiful and ugly (it’s not how you should portray any of your characters, beautiful isn’t good, even ‘good’ isn’t always completely good).
Develop your people’s myths, their idea of how the world was created, how life came to be (for example, I had a goddess of life, Arathera, trying to create a perfect population, thus resulting in having different species).
Apart from myths, how much of the history of your world are your characters aware of? Do they write? When did they start writing, then? What did they write about? How much time has passed since they started counting days or months or years?
These are the question that will enrich your world. I had a king who was fascinated by folktales to the point he stopped ruling and only wrote ‘history’ until his death.
Do you have dynasties? How old are they? How many generations are known?
Create a list of major historical events that impact your story (war, peace, death, birth). After you do that, spread them naturally through time. Then, fill the gaps by other, less important events.
This way you’ll have a set stage for everything that happens. Your characters will have a reference for their actions, you will have a rich fantasy novel.
7. Writing it
Writing a fantasy novel is different. Pick a style, first! Are you going to write high fantasy? It’s a completely different language, then. Are you writing is as a god or a detached witness? Will you do PoV writing – first or third person?
Before you really start writing it, decide on these. But worry not, you can always change it.
Fantasy themes are a bit different so do work on that a bit more, find some abstract notions to apply to your story – mine was ‘god complex’.
Folktales will be your friend as it’s the case in every piece of fiction, but you can learn so much from folktales and you can develop your world in detail if you use them as a source of inspiration.
The main thing is to sit down and work. That’s what writing in this stage is – working. It’s about discipline, about schedule. Of course you should spark your creativity, but even if you can’t, just write!
Author: Mladen Reljanović
Mladen Reljanović is the founder and lead writer at Writer to Writers. He is the author of Oaktown stories, senior student of communication and a pianist.