The commercial success of fantasy series such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books and George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones saga mean that the fantasy genre is more popular than ever—both among readers and authors. The shelves of any good bookstore (physical or online) are stacked with tales of quests and adventures in new worlds, magical powers, and fantastical beings. It’s easy to see why escaping into the imagined worlds of Middle Earth or Discworld remains a popular pull for book lovers.
But with a plethora of fantasy novel authors and titles already out there, how will your book stand out on the shelf? Here we consider how to write a fantasy novel that offers something original for the avid readers of a much-loved genre.
- Know your genre
- Build your world
- Develop your characters
- Outline your plot
Know Your Genre
Before you even put pen to paper, you need to decide what kind of fantasy novel you are going to write. As you might expect from such an imagination-filled genre, there are a number of fantasy sub-genres, each with their own unique characteristics.
A few popular fantasy sub-genres include:
Epic fantasy – sweeping stories of good versus evil e.g. The Lord of the Rings fantasy series by J.R.R Tolkien
Dark fantasy – containing elements of horror e.g. The Dark Tower fantasy series by Stephen King
Contemporary fantasy – set in the known modern world as opposed to a more traditional medieval-style world e.g. Harry Potter fantasy series by J.K Rowling
Deciding which one your fantasy novel will fall into will help you learn how to define your setting, characters, and storyline later on.
Common fantasy clichés and how to avoid them
There are a few common tropes within the fantasy genre such as:
- An innocent character being transformed into a hero
- A secret legacy or unknown heritage
- Stereotypical characteristics of fantasy beings such as elves or dwarves
Steering clear of these cliché fantasy themes or learn how to reinventing them in new ways will result in a more original story. There are a couple of ways you can do this:
- Add new, unexpected details to traditional elements of the genre. Could ancient runes or broomsticks be used in new ways?
- Blur the lines between good and evil. George R. R. Martin does this particularly well in the Game of Thrones stories, with characters such as Theon Greyjoy playing the role of both villain and hero at different points.
- Find inspiration in lesser known myths, legends, and fairy tales. Expanding your reading material will help stoke your imagination beyond the traditional themes and features of the fantasy genre.
- Try combining elements of different cultures or beliefs with different groups from different periods. See what new races, religions, or laws you can conjure up.
Build Your World
Once you’ve determined the focus of your fantasy novel and have some ideas for avoiding replicating existing stories, it’s time to start setting the scene. World-building is perhaps the most crucial step in the development of your fantasy novel. The work you put in to this will determine the depth of experience for your readers.
Before you begin to write your fantasy story you should have a fully formed world, including details of its inhabitants, landscapes, history, beliefs, laws, possibly even languages.
Introduce some logic
One of the golden rules of writing a fantasy novel is to make the world you create as authentic as possible. Although readers will be suspending belief in the reality we know, your characters and plot must still be shaped by some limitations, rules, and logic that make your story ‘believable’. For example, magic being able to solve any and every problem does not make for a very exciting read. Where does the magic your characters wield come from? Does it need to be replenished? How? Details such as these can introduce elements of tension and danger and offer potential for character development, as well as grounding your imagined world in some form of reality that your readers can relate to.
Don’t reveal it all
Although you might spend a large chunk of time developing your world, try to avoid including too much descriptive detail about it in your fantasy novel. Backstory, lore, history, and commentary on the physical features of your world should only be used to explain character motivations and behavior or plot development. It can also increase suspense if readers are aware of a context to an unfolding situation that the characters, themselves, are not.
That does not mean that all your creative work goes to waste. There is plenty of potential to self-publish additional books about the lore, history, races, creatures, and languages of your fantasy world, for true fans to purchase. Or, why not offer these supplements as a free gift to encourage people to buy your novel?
Develop Your Characters
Just as important as your fantasy world are the beings and creatures that inhabit it. Your fantasy novel’s characters must be engaging enough that your reader cares about them and their quest or adventure on a personal level, beyond the sweeping themes and messages in your book.
Your characters are also the way that readers navigate and experience your imagined world. This means they must have a strong and defined identity that the reader can use as an anchor in what may otherwise be a disorientating setting.
The key players:
Remember to consider blurring the lines between good, evil and other traditional characteristics for a more interesting take on each of these archetypes.
The “Bilbo Baggins” – your protagonist and hero.
The “Voldemort” – the villain.
The “Gandalf” – a mentor to aid your hero’s development.
The Ron “Weasley” – a relatable sidekick to ground your hero and perhaps provide comic relief.
The “Arwen” – a love interest who introduces new dimensions and challenges to the quest of your hero.
To create engaging characters with real depth, consider using a character development tool. Most of these take the form of an interview or questionnaire. By answering questions in the voice of your character, you’ll begin to build up a picture of their hopes, fears, motivations, skills, and flaws. You can then use this profile to determine how your character might react to events in your story, how you introduce them to the reader, and the role they might play in unfolding events.
Outline Your Plot
As with any type of novel, your fantasy story should have a cohesive narrative arc.
- Set the scene and introduce key characters
- Introduce the source of conflict
- Your characters develop and grow in response to a threat or problem
- The conflict reaches its climax
- The problem is resolved
Now comes the fun part! This basic structure introduces questions that you then answer in the context of your developed characters, the world you’ve built, and pure imagination. What is the source of conflict? Why has it arisen now? How do your characters react? Do they need to learn new skills to resolve the conflict? Do they need to work together with former enemies?
As you answer these questions, you might find that your fantasy novel has, in fact, become a fantasy trilogy. Great news! You don’t need to have finished the whole story before you publish the first installment. Releasing one book while you’re working on the second part is a great way to build up a loyal following of fans.
Learning how to use this formula of establishing the setting and characters before you jump into the story itself will help you bring your ideas and imagination to life in a coherent story, with a spark of originality.