Genre is an important consideration for any writer. Not only can identifying your story’s genre (and perhaps subgenre) help you create cohesion and resonance amongst your plot, character arcs, and theme, it will also be a crucial piece of information when it comes time to market your story to readers. Today, I’m opening a five-part series examining major fiction genres, beginning with, “How to write fantasy?”
Last fall, I asked you to tell me what topics you’d most like to see featured here on the site. One that was repeatedly mentioned was that of genre tips. I haven’t written much about genre before, in part because most of the tips and techniques I teach here are not genre-specific and can be directly applied or modified to fit any type of story. Also, I do not consider myself a genre expert. There are some genres I read hardly at all (such as horror) that I can’t comment on. There are other genres (such as romance) that are so specialized that their guidelines are often much more specific than for other genres. And there are, simply, many genres (such as mystery) that, although I may read or watch them, I do not personally write them and therefore don’t have a great depth of experience or knowledge about their inner workings.
That said, because genre is an inevitably important topic for writers to consider and because so many of you asked for my take, I thought it would be fun to go on a whirlwind tour of five major genres: Fantasy, Romance, Historical, Mystery, and Literary. In each installment, I will be looking at unique considerations for the Big Three—plot, character, and theme—as well as any other particular pitfalls or pointers I’ve gleaned from my own experience with these stories.
5 Tips for How to Write Fantasy
We begin with one of my personal favorite genres: fantasy. Three out of five of my published novels have some element of fantasy, and the WIP I am working on at the moment is my second full-blown fantasy. The genre is broad with many subgenres but always includes some fantastical element—something magical or foreign that does not exist in reality. This fantastical element may be inserted into our own world (as in subgenres I’ve personally explored, such as portal fantasy, dieselpunk, or gaslamp fantasy). Or, more strictly, the entire world and premise may be based on a fantasy world. Classically, this fantasy world is often medieval in nature, but in recent decades fantasy worlds have become much more diverse in source inspiration.
Fantasy is a milieu genre, which means the genre trappings can provide the backdrop to many types of stories. For example, beats of a romance or mystery can take place within fantasy milieu. More traditionally, fantasy is known for its epic stories of quests and conquests in the style of myths and legends or archetypal journeys (such as the Hero’s Journey). In this post, I will be primarily talking about this more traditional type of epic fantasy. Other fantasy subgenres will draw upon classic fantasy tropes, but will blend them with those of other genres.
Beginnings in Fantasy: Do You Need a Prologue?
Back in the day, it seemed like a prologue was almost a required trope for a fantasy novel. Mostly these prologues were used to explain some of the world lore or perhaps ancient backstory, in order to get readers up to speed with the rules and history of the story. I feel like we’re not seeing quite as many prologues these days, and on the whole I count this as a good thing, since fantasy stories often seemed particularly prone to all the pitfalls of a prologue.
The most common pitfall is the prologue functioning as a prettified (and sometimes not-so-prettified) info dump. In a huge fantasy story, sometimes there is no good way around this. But usually there are much more artful ways to share information. One thing to keep in mind is that the readership of fantasy has evolved greatly over the past 70 years or so. This is now a mainstream genre with highly familiar tropes. Readers understand they are entering a new world, and they know how to pick up cues about the setting and the world as they follow the characters around. They won’t need to have everything spelled out for them in the very beginning; doing so can, in fact, harm your story’s subtext.
That said, many successful prologues exist to hook readers into the story, rather than to exercise the author’s self-indulgence or insecurity about the world details. The same rules apply to prologues as to the beginning of any story, but the chief thing to keep in mind is that whenever you include a prologue, you are asking readers to begin your story twice, since they will have to start all over with the story’s “real” scenario in the first chapter. Just make sure you’ve hooked them in both the prologue and the first chapter.
For Example: The prologues in Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles function solely as hooks, showing readers the mysterious and compelling contrast between the teenage protagonist in the main part of the book and the legend he grows into.
Settings in Fantasy: Know Your Story World and Magic System
As a milieu genre, fantasy is all about the setting. When reading these stories, readers get to enjoy seeing something new (or at least familiar elements rearranged in unexpected ways). This is also what draws many writers to the genre. Certainly, it was what drew me. My first love was historical fiction, but I grew frustrated with the confines of “the facts” and moved over to fantasy where I could retain a historical aesthetic without the constraints.
However, just because the possibilities for your fantasy world are endless doesn’t mean you’re free to do anything. The best fantasy settings firmly ground themselves within their own realities. You may not be limited, but your story should be. Your fantasy’s geography, culture, and magic system (if appropriate) must all feel just as concrete to readers as would a well-researched story about, say, Paris or Tetzcoco. Don’t kid yourself: research for a fantasy story can be just as extensive as for a historical story.
More than that, fantasy settings and magic systems must be carefully planned to create a seamless aesthetic. Magic systems, in particular, often create symbolism, whether intentional or not, so consider what the final use of magic in your story’s Climax says about your story’s theme. Everything should pull together to create a seamless big picture.
Two fast tips for planning your fantasy world:
1. Use Patricia C. Wrede’s amazingly extensive “Fantasy World-Building Questions” to make sure you’re thinking through every part of your world.
2. To help with the research load later on, keep a running log of tidbits you run onto in your non-fantasy reading. For example, as an avid reader of history, I will often come across an anecdote or fact about historical life that I might be able to use later on to make my fantasy world feel more realistic and dimensional.
For Example: No modern writer is more well-known for his incredible worldbuilding than fantasy maestro Brandon Sanderson. The Climax of his Mistborn series couldn’t have happened at all without the existence of the world’s particular type of metal-based magic—making the overall effect feel seamless and integral.
Story Structure in Fantasy: Watch Your Timing and Keep Tabs on What Happens Between Beats
One of the main questions I received about genre in general was: How does genre affect story structure? The short answer is it doesn’t. Classic story structure offers nothing more than the general shape of a story arc; the timing and the essence of the basic plot points can be applied to any genre. However, each genre then tightens itself up with even more specific beats.
In fantasy, perhaps more than any other type of story, those beats are often most aligned to that of the classic Hero’s Journey—or other archetypal journeys (such as the Maiden, Queen, King, Crone, and Mage.) I’ve talked about these beats extensively in my series on archetypal character arcs and in my upcoming book Writing Archetypal Character Arcs (coming in March!). These beats are not exclusive to the fantasy genre, but they are played out most literally in fantasy, since this genre often purposefully brings the symbolism of these archetypes to life on the page (e.g., a Dragon antagonist might be a literal dragon in a fantasy story).
One other major concept to be aware of when it comes to story structure in fantasy is the timing of the beats. Because fantasy stories are notoriously long, the timing of the story’s major structural turning points (which ideally divide the story into eight equal parts) doesn’t have to be as precise as in shorter stories. However, the potential pitfall here is that the extreme length between structural turning points, resulting from the long word count, can become tedious for readers.
The rule here is simple: Just make sure the plot is actually moving (i.e., the story is changing) in each scene and chapter.
Far too many fantasies fill their word counts with characters moving about and perhaps even fighting, but nothing happens because nothing changes. A good way to trim your word count and/or tighten up structural timing is to examine each scene for whether or not it is progressing either the plot or the character’s arc in a meaningful way.
For Example: Several well-known fantasy stories come to mind as negative examples of stories that strained readers’ patience (or at least mine) with their uneven structural timing and lack of plot-moving events. I won’t list them all, since I don’t generally like calling out negative examples, but I did offer an extensive structural breakdown of one (ironically the sequel to one of my all-time favorite fantasy novels) here. You can find structural breakdowns of Fantasy Books and Fantasy Movies in the Story Structure Database.
Characters: Choose Your Protagonist and Your Antagonist Carefully
Protagonists in fantasy are traditionally heroic, but can run the gamut as in any genre. Depending on the story’s stakes, the antagonist is usually a big bad, wielding a tremendous amount of tyrannical or even apocalyptic power. Characters are often purposefully archetypal in some way, but their humanity should never be taken for granted.
When I’m searching for a new fantasy to read, one of the first things I check is how dimensional the characters seem. Because fantasy is a genre that’s all about setting, some writers get sucked into the shiny glitziness of their world but end up with cardboard stock characters. As a reader, I am always turned off by this. I want to see characters of deep humanity moving through this exciting new world.
Less obvious but sneakily just as important is the antagonist. Antagonists can make or break the logic of a story’s plot. If the antagonist’s motive fails to make sense or support the scope of the stakes, the story will stutter, sometimes fatally. Choose your antagonist with care. You can start by examining what archetypal antagonist fits your protagonist’s arc. From there, make sure your antagonist’s motivation makes sense at every step of the plot. If the antagonist isn’t personally present with the protagonist for much of the conflict, you’ll want to make sure “antagonistic proxies” show up in a way that supports and does not diverge from the main conflict with the main antagonist.
For Example: One of my all-time favorite fantasy novels, Anthony Ryan’s Blood Song, earns that status mostly on the back of its incredibly well-realized protagonist. The book is somewhat unusual in the genre for focusing solely on its protagonist’s POV, but thanks to the depth of the character, it works stunningly.
Theme: Symbolism Is of Extra Importance
These days, fantasy has become so mainstream we accept its tropes as part of our own reality. However, the roots of fantasy are deeply symbolic. Seminal fantasy stories such as The Lord of the Rings drew directly from mythology and history to create fables that symbolized humanity’s actual structures. Other stories, such as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, took this principle even further as deliberate allegories.
One of the most magnificent features of fantasy is its ability to access this potent symbolism—I call it a “hotline to the subconscious.” Not every fantasy story will necessarily dial up this hotline on purpose, but because the genre itself exists as a sort of “metaphor” for real life, it’s capacity for symbolism is almost unavoidable. If you can wield this power consciously, you can significantly up your story’s potential.
At its simplest, what this entails is simply choosing every piece of your story with intention: its setting, its historical influences, its magic system, its protagonist/antagonist/supporting cast and their respective character arcs, its imagery, etc. In short, everything. Make sure they are all part of a seamless whole.
For Example: The magic system you create should directly interact with the protagonist’s personal arc, as in the Harry Potter stories, in which the love and friendship Harry cultivates throughout the series becomes crucial to the magic needed to defeat the antagonist in the end.
You can then take it all up a notch by purposefully choosing the metaphor you wish to convey through your story and crafting everything in the story to support that symbolism.
For Example: If the thematic premise you wish to explore is that of humans’ self-destructive relationship to nature, you might create a story such Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, in which every element is chosen for its deeper symbolism in relation to this premise.
What started as an often reviled genre “just for geeks” has become one of the most popular genres of our time. It combines its endless potential for imagination and innovation with deep roots in archetype and myth, creating the possibility for both exciting adventure and profound resonance. I hope these quick tips prove helpful as you spin fantasies of your own!
Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about Romance!
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you write (or perhaps just enjoy reading) fantasy? Do you have any further thoughts on how to write fantasy? Tell me in the comments!
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