The fantasy genre endures for many reasons. It transports us to other worlds, stimulating the imagination. It draws on powerful archetypes and symbols. Read 7 tips for writing captivating high fantasy:
Why is fantasy such a popular genre?
- Nostalgia for childhood make-believe
- The mystery and allure of magical phenomena
- The major commercial success of many fantasy authors (J.K. Rowling, Terry Pratchett, J. R. R. Tolkien and George R. R. Martin, to name only a few)
There are many fantasy subgenres (this list suggests that there are at least 64). ‘High fantasy’ is one of the most popular. Read on for tips on how to write high fantasy fiction that captivates readers and makes them reluctant to leave your fictional world:
First, what is ‘high fantasy’?
Defining high fantasy
The term ‘high fantasy’ was coined by the American fantasy writer Lloyd Alexander in 1971, in an essay published in The Horn Book Magazine titled “High Fantasy and Epic Romance”. Alexander (who wrote the Chronicles of Prydain series) used the term to describe fantasy fiction set entirely in secondary or parallel worlds. This is contrasted with books set in our own, ‘real’ world that simply have magical objects, creatures, characters or events (Brian Stableford, 2009, p. 198).
In his A to Z of Fantasy Literature, Brian Stableford says that ‘high fantasy’ as a term didn’t catch on hugely:
‘…partly because it was difficult to establish dividing lines between high fantasy and other subgenres, and partly because of the difficulty of accommodating portal fantasies to the scheme.’
Even so, many fantasy lovers still talk about high fantasy as a distinctive genre. It’s most common attributes are having an alternate world as setting, heroic or epic qualities and (often) coming-of-age plot structures.
If you’re writing fantasy set entirely in a fictional world (as opposed to, for example, a medieval fantasy based on this actual historical era), here are 7 tips:
Writing high fantasy: 7 tips
- Study classic high fantasy for insights
- Make sure your fantasy world is developed
- Avoid high fantasy clichés
- Make characters complex rather than stock types
- Avoid the pitfalls of muddled fantasy book writing
- Write fitting dialogue
- Choose names smartly
1. Study classic high fantasy for insights
It’s an oft-repeated truth that to be a good writer you need to also be an active reader. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings takes place entirely in the secondary world of Middle-earth and is widely regarded as the one of the best examples of this subgenre. How do you go about collecting insights for your own high fantasy novel?
- Examine setting: How does the author create an immersive, complex world? Think, for example of the differences between the peaceful, village-like Shire in Lord of the Rings and the desolate, smoking volcanic wastelands of Mordor where the arch-villain Sauron resides.
- Examine character development: What trials do the main characters go through and how do these events grow or change them?
- Examine the world’s internal logic: The best fantasy worlds don’t make us think ‘Why do things work this way?’ Magic systems, relationships between civilizations and other details have explicable cause and effect.
Dust off your own fantasy favourites and take notes on how your best authors approach elements of fantasy writing you find challenging. This could be keeping continuity between between books in a series or making a fictional world believable. Consciously reading this way will help you improve your writing in the long-term.
2. Make sure your fantasy world is developed
How do you feel reading a book where you can’t picture the characters’ environment? Often these books feel hollow and either dry or too preoccupied with characters’ inner worlds. You don’t have to write whole chapters of scene setting. But think of your characters’ environment as a character in itself. Just as a character grows, changes or does the unexpected, so can your fantasy world’s environment.
Compare Tolkien’s description of Mordor, the ominous domain of Frodo’s nemesis Sauron, with his description of the tranquil forest lands of the noble elves:
‘Mists curled and smoked from dark and noisome pools. The reek of them hung stifling in the still air. Far away, now almost due south, the mountain-walls of Mordor loomed, like a black bar of rugged clouds floating above a dangerous fog-bound sea.’
Compare this to the restful description of the elf kingdom Rivendell:
‘Shadows had fallen in the valley below, but there was still a light on the faces of the mountains far above. The air was warm. The sound of running and falling water was loud, and the evening was filled with a faint scent of trees and flowers, as if summer still lingered in Elrond’s gardens.’
Create contrasts in landscape and atmospheres depending on where your characters are located to heighten the reader’s perception of place in your high fantasy novel.
3. Avoid high fantasy clichés
Fantasy lovers may expect certain tropes (common features) of the genre. Even so, your world will be all the more striking if it is at least a little original. Mythical creatures such as dragons and centaurs are well-represented by now, for example. This doesn’t mean you can’t use mythical creatures that are familiar. After all, most symbols, plots and other elements of fiction are continuously recycled. Yet you can subvert reader expectations and create a strong sense of your world as a distinct place.
For example, dragons have often been described as hoarders. An extensive list of overused fantasy plots and character types includes the cliché where a girl ‘is held captive by evil dragon who finds her entertaining, thus saving her from becoming crispy fried.’
As an example, this trope could be reversed. George R.R. Martin does exactly this in the fifth novel of his A Song of Ice and Fire series: The character Daenerys Targaryen holds dragons captive herself, confining them in a cage to prevent them from wreaking further havoc.
4. Make characters complex rather than stock types
Lesser fantasy novels often rely on obvious traits that are tied to class, race or social bearing. Of course the warrior is brave. Of course the princess or elf is graceful or chaste. In real life, people often surprise us by holding contradictory beliefs or behaving differently to how stereotyping would lead us to assume. The warrior who tears into battle might run bellowing from a snake or rat, in reality. Nobody is consistent all the time. In the great high fantasy novels, characters surprise not only each other but themselves too.
5. Avoid the pitfalls of muddled fantasy book writing
Writing a realist novel set in a familiar city is a challenge itself. Writing an epic high fantasy that sprawls across imaginary continents and peoples is a mammoth undertaking. It’s easy to allow inconsistencies to creep in. To avoid this, plan your world and its inner workings in advance. Create an outline, especially if you plan to write a fantasy series in the vein of A Song of Ice and Fire, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy or Tolkien’s series.
Here are some of the elements you should sketch briefly as best you can before you start:
- The approximate geographical layout of your fictional world
- The peoples who inhabit it and their distinct worldviews, practices and customs
- Significant events from your world’s recent and more distant history
- Any global or local conflicts that affect your characters
- Outlines of characters you’d like to feature in your novel (you can create detailed character profiles when you use the step-by-step Now Novel process)
Once you have a loose idea of your invented world you can depart from this blueprint wherever you like. Create a framework to base your world on all the same, so that you can keep track of the different backgrounds and characteristics of the people and places in your high fantasy novel.
6. Write fitting dialogue
When there is an epic quest unfolding, it can be tempting to use dialogue for info dumping. Don’t squeeze the whole history of your fictional world into one long-winded conversation your hero and the local innkeeper exchange over breakfast. Good high fantasy novels manage to balance descriptive writing, dialogue and action. Most importantly, dialogue conveys not just factual information but a sense of the character of the speakers.
For example, in The Lord of the Rings, when Frodo’s friend Sam is caught overhearing an important conversation, he says ‘I wasn’t droppin’ no eaves sir’. His speech is reflective of the hobbits’ rural and plain-talking qualities. Compare this to the lyrical and flowing speech of the elves. When a white horse appears, the bowman Legolas says ‘That is one of the Mearas, unless my eyes are cheated by some spell.’ The elves tend to use passive voice and more complex forms of tense.
When writing dialogue, especially between members of different civilizations in your fantasy world remember:
- How people express themselves conveys something about their nature. Use sayings and manner of speech to strengthen the reader’s sense of your characters’ common attributes as well as differences.
- Try to use action wherever possible to advance the plot and keep lengthy conversations as breathers between sections where there is greater tension.
7. Choose names smartly
As a rule of thumb, try to create names that reader’s shouldn’t have trouble pronouncing. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea novels, the protagonist isn’t called Tir’ag’na!kan or axaxanian: He’s simply called ‘Ged’. It’s still an uncommon name and the simplicity fits the spare style of the story.
High fantasy is epic in scope and typically has a large cast of characters. Think about how you can use names to convey aspects of your characters. This will help to keep them memorable. In Lord of the Rings, for example, Sam’s simple, familiar name (abbreviated from ‘Samwise’) suits his easygoing and dependable nature. Compare this to the sibilant and arcane-sounding name of the fallen, corrupted wizard Saruman.
High fantasy book writing is challenging because of the scope of creation and invention it requires. Provided that you plan ahead, spend some time coming up with the particulars of how your world works and avoid the pitfalls of common genre clichés, you can write a fantasy novel that makes readers reluctant to leave your fictional world.
What do you think are the hallmarks of great high or epic fantasy writing?