10 tips on how to write fantasy novels

By Angela Slatter.

Fantasy novels seem to be everywhere at the moment! As a fantasy author, I’m not complaining. We’re also seeing a knock-on effect in the number of screen adaptations: Game of Thrones, Shadow and Bone, Good Omens, and of course The Lord of the Rings. I’m not here to argue about its ‘worth' – if it’s a good story well told, then the reader’s the winner.

Why are we seeing this rise? I can only speak for myself when I say it’s to escape, however briefly, the cares of the world. A time away from obligations. Not everyone wants to read books that cause depression – you can watch the news for that! We’re looking for amusement, escape, and entertainment. We want to enjoy magical tales that take us back to childhood and (hopefully for some of us) a time of less concern and responsibility. Wouldn’t it be nice to not worry about paying the bills for a while? Not having to do the dishes or feed anyone?

But as with any genre, readers want a well-written story. So, how do you make sure your fantasy novel isn’t terrible? Apart from doing our popular course in Fantasy, Science Fiction and More, here are 10 top tips to get you on the right path.

1. Read – a lot!
I think the best place to start is to read broadly in the fantasy genre – see what’s out there, what the classics are, and what’s in the market today so you know the landscape. Also read widely in other forms of speculative fiction (horror, science fiction, and all the hybrids in between) as well as crime and thriller stories and romance and comedic tales. “Why?” I hear you cry – because there are techniques of style and pacing and characterisation that you can learn in those genres which can be applied to your fantasy story, making for a more richly layered tale.

Fantasy novels are on the rise.

2. Start small
Ambition is a great thing to have, but how about beginning with manageable goals? Especially if you’re a first-time author, you might start out big (a seven-book series, 150,000 words each!) but find that your energy begins to wane. Writing a novel is hard and sometimes what you really need when you’re a newbie is to finish something. So: maybe write a short story set in the world of your novel. Perhaps about an aspect of the world or a plot seed that will feed into the larger novel narrative.

When you finish it, it may not be perfect (I can pretty much guarantee it will not be!), but it will be finished. You’ll have a sense of achievement, and you’ll have something laid out that you can refer back to and assess. My Verity Fassbinder three-book series began with a short story called “Brisneyland by Night” and I was able to start scoping out the world of the novel in that shorter work. This can give you the confidence to tackle bigger things – and remember: the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.

3. Plan your story
Planning is your friend. You don’t want your story to be formulaic or cliched, but you do want it to proceed at a good pace and in a rational fashion. You want to make sure that you close off all the arcs that you’ve set up in the novel – you definitely don’t want a reader saying at the end, “But what about the killer owl thread? What happened there?” This would be especially problematic if you’ve written a standalone book, with no sequel to explain the killer owls!

Planning and outlining mean that you are better able to keep track of all your plotlines and bring them to a satisfying and logical conclusion for the reader. My personal planning strategy is to use an Excel spreadsheet and split my novel into four quarters. At the end of each quarter, I know there are particular ‘beats’ I need to hit (i.e. first turning point, etc.). I don’t follow it slavishly, but it gives me guidelines and goals to aim towards (even if I meander for a while on the way).

Planning is key!

Planning is a good way to get an overview of all the elements you’re putting into your book – and to figure out if they work together or not. Readers of fantasy are often the most willing to suspend their disbelief – but they’re also among the most judgmental if you let them down. A cake that has everything thrown in simply won’t work – the ingredients won’t mesh together.

So think about the themes you want to explore and what events in the story will help them come through most clearly?

4. Motivation drives everything.
You, as the writer, need to know why your characters are doing the things they’re doing (and this applies to all genres). Not just your protagonist, but also your antagonist; your secondary characters as well, and the tertiary background characters. What’s their motivation for destroying the world, saving the world, taming dragons, hunting mermaids, wooing the Werewolf Queen?

Motivation is intrinsically linked with how the plot moves; what the characters want, the choices they make will change the outcome of the story. A character motivated by greed and a character motivated by altruism may well lead to different consequences for the conclusion. But maybe, just maybe, what if the actions of both characters lead to a bad result? I tend to think that the best and most interesting plots are driven by desire – that is, motivation – what does the character want? What will they do to get it?

Remember: we don’t need to know everything about characters as soon as we meet them. Character development doesn’t only come from seeing how they cope with the obstacles we throw at them, but also in a gradual reveal of a character’s past experiences that happens through the story at relevant moments.

For example: part of the quest might require characters to travel to, say, the Cliffs of Doom, then scale said cliffs because at the top is the only place they can find the critical healing ingredient for the dying queen. What we don’t find out until we get to the base of those cliffs (after several other trials that build in difficulty) is that our protagonist has a crippling fear of heights – for reasons in their past, which we will dramatically reveal the moment the plucky band of heroes arrives at base of the cliff and our protagonist says, “Actually, chaps, I’ve thought about this and decided I can’t go through with it.”

If we knew this at the start it might not have the same impact. Although if the reader knew it and the members of the plucky band did not, then we’ve also got a build of tension for different reasons: the reader doesn’t know what’s going to happen to the group dynamic when this is revealed.

5. Who’s the best person to tell the story?
Think carefully about your narrator. Is a privileged person who’s never suffered a day in their life going to be the best character to tell a tale of deprivation and suffering? Is a male protagonist going to be the best narrator for a story about female suffrage? Ask yourself: Who has the most to gain by telling this tale? Who will be the most believable voice to convince the reader that the story is ‘true’?

Is ‘The Chosen One’ going to be the most interesting narrator? But what if ‘The Chosen One’ is killed in the first act? Who steps into the breach? Might they be a more interesting character to watch?

6. How many characters do you really need?
Some fantasy – for example epic or high (think a band of heroes with a quest like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings) or sword and sorcery (sword-wielding heroes like Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian) can tend towards a cast of thousands.

Other types – for example, urban (supernatural elements in a city setting like Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files), dark (combing unnerving elements of horror and fantasy like Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles), fairy tales and fables (The Brothers’ Grimm, The Arabian Nights), etc. – are often a bit more reasonable about the number of characters.

Consider carefully about how many characters you really need – how many points of view do we need in order to get the story across? Are there so many that a reader won’t remember names? Are you inventing a new character every time someone needs directions? Or could you perhaps splice a couple of characters together?

Or instead of sending the protagonist to a new location and a new character for something, could they perhaps go to someone we’ve already met? Which would make that character have more weight in the story, giving them more layers and character development. Ask yourself if the removal of a particular character would change the story, or could another character (or book, or map, or signpost) just as easily take their place.

Beware of writing stereotypes – they are unfortunately prevalent in a lot of fantasy – busty wenches, grubby peasants, social orders based on racial superiority, good guys-v-bad guys with no moral grey areas.

7. How do your characters sound?
It’s a mistake to make accents part of characterisation because it is often badly done. If you’re using how someone talks to make them a figure of fun, then think again. Don’t write your characters as ‘the amusing foreigner’. It not only comes off as insulting, but it can also make the writing hard to read. If your phonetic spelling of an accent is such that a reader has to spend more time trying to decode the dialogue than they do concentrating on the plot, then the story will fail. How people speak will be part of characterisation but it shouldn’t be (a) an insult or (b) a barrier to understanding the narrative.

8. Avoid All The Capitalisation, All The Time!
Something that will make me roll my eyes as both reader and writer – and also as a developmental editor – is the fantasy manuscript filled with a million (I might be exaggerating) capitalised words. It’s designed to add grandeur, importance and portent to an object, position title or location, but it often just ends up reading like a joke. Descriptions like “The Princess of the Golden Palace who answers only to the Council of the Emerald Throne in the Great City of the Sacred Spoon” are hard to take seriously.

9. If you make the rules, obey the rules.
Worldbuilding is important to writing fantasy because you want your readers to believe in your world. So whether you are making it up from scratch or taking a version of our reality and adapting it (like Game of Thrones being sort of medievalish), it needs to be convincing.

You want them to be immersed in the narrative and not be thrown out because you’ve mentioned someone’s iPhone in an otherwise thoroughly medieval story. If you’ve got a magic system in your tale, don’t make it overly complex because the reader needs to be able to follow it and remember it. You, the writer, must lay out the rules and boundaries, and you really need to remember the way it works – especially if you’re writing a multi-volume series – so you don’t break the laws you’ve set up.

You need to convince the reader you’re the authority about this place – this secondary world. Then, if you’re going to break one of those big rules or boundaries? You must work out how to do it in a believable way AND it must have consequences for the characters – you can’t just deploy the magical element of Handwavium and explain the change by mysteriously saying, “Because, that’s why”. If breaking a law costs nothing then why should a reader care? If it’s easy, if the result can be achieved without sacrifice, then what’s the risk? Where’s the tension? And remember: if magic can fix everything, then why should we fear anything?

You can google Tolkien’s essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’ to read online, and this is a useful article by Brandon Sanderson about creating magic systems that might be of interest.

10. Feed your horses!
One of the big problems with epic or quest fantasy is that no one seems to feed the horses even when they’ve been ridden on a trip that lasts days or weeks or months. Remember what I said in worldbuilding about convincing your reader that the world is real?

This is what I call the ‘Tuesday bins night’ aspect of fiction (all fiction). By that I mean if you want to persuade a reader that your story world is real then you need to add in some action that isn’t all excitement or dragon riding. Because at some point in the tale, someone has to put the bins out on Tuesday night – that is, someone has to do one of the tasks that convinces the reader that there’s a degree of the mundane that rings true. Like if your character is going to eat, at some point they need to buy groceries. It’s called ‘verisimilitude’ – making something appear to be true or real.

It’s a hard thing to do in say, a thriller, because they are generally all about pace and movement and someone having to flee, so the everyday action isn’t really going to be so evident – but if your character is trying to stay under the radar, pretend they’re normal, hide out in someone else’s house … They might want to put the bins out on Tuesday night to convince the nosy neighbours that things are happening as per normal. So, don’t forget the ordinary actions that make the story believable – feed the horses.

So go do it!

Now, those are absolutely not the only tips for writing fantasy! But I think they’re a good place to start.

Author Angela Slatter’s favourite stories as a child were fairy tales.

Why do I like fantasy as both reader and writer? It’s my happy place – my favourite stories to get lost when I was a kid were fairy tales, and for me they’re the forerunners of today’s fantasy stories. I love being able to imagine worlds that aren’t like this one. I love the imagery that descriptions in stories like The Lord of the Rings and Tanith Lee’s Flat Earth series create in my mind. I love how it fires my imagination. And in my own writing, I love to have the same effect on readers.

Find out more about the Australian Writers' Centre’s course in Fantasy, Science Fiction and More.

This article was written by Angela Slatter:
Angela Slatter is an award-winning writer of dark fantasy, including All the Murmuring Bones and the forthcoming The Path of Thorns. She has a PhD and an MA in Creative Writing and teaches creative writing and novel writing for the Australian Writers' Centre.

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