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Fantasy book writing: 7 tips for captivating high fantasy

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:

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:

  • 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

  1. Study classic high fantasy for insights
  2. Make sure your fantasy world is developed
  3. Avoid high fantasy clichés
  4. Make characters complex rather than stock types
  5. Avoid the pitfalls of muddled fantasy book writing
  6. Write fitting dialogue
  7. 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

fantasy book writing - Now Novel quote on fantasy environments

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

high fantasy book writing - writing fantasy book characters

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?

By Jordan

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

46 replies on “Fantasy book writing: 7 tips for captivating high fantasy”

Always enjoy your posts, and this is no different.

I’ve read (and re-read, many times) the LOTR books as a teenager, but had never attempted fantasy as an adult, until I read Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy –– which was superb!

I think the advice you give here re: character names is excellent, and applies to other genres too, right? Thanks for an excellent post.

Thanks, Adrian! I’m glad you’re enjoying them. I have to admit I haven’t read Pullman’s trilogy, will have to add it to the ‘to read’ pile. But LOTR is a must for any writer, it’s so rich with vivid description.

I’d definitely say names are important. A well-chosen name makes a character that much more believable to the reader.

I love to write fantasy books and I got your all concept helpful that I am looking for . However I get benefit to come here actually I am a writer and looking for writing new things about fantasy that I got here. Thanks a lot

I just now joined this site and I already love it. I have an English project that I have to do and I decided to make my project a children fantasy novel. I also write other stories but they are more teenage based stories and I find this story to be more of a challenge for me. Thanks for your help it has really helped me start my book.

Hi Thomas – thank you so much! Glad you’re enjoying reading. Hope you got some sleep in the end.

So what if you’ve created character names based off languages you’ve created, given your fantasy world is an alien world which would have little to no contact with Earth culture, and you know the pronunciations might be a bit strange, but you include a pronunciation guide in the book? Is it fine then?

Hi Megan – that should be fine. Still, if possible, I’d suggest making the spellings as easy to pronounce phonetically as possible so the read can glide rather than stumble over each mention of a character’s name.

Thank you! Also, I was wondering if by including words and phrases from at least two languages, it would be distracting to the reader? My method is to leave all complex, incomprehensible phrases that are understood between characters in English. However, I plan to include simple phrases I know the reader will grasp over time, untranslatable words or phrases, or a language the character wouldn’t understand in the fictitious language. If needed, I could translate the phrases, given I’m using third person POV. Does that sound like a good way to integrate the languages without driving readers insane?

It’s a pleasure! That does sound ambitious, but like any device, so long as it doesn’t completely frustrate the flow of your writing or distract from the story too much it should be fine. Get beta readers’ feedback to see how others find it and decide from there. It sounds intriguing, good luck.

What if my main protagonist saw her husband dying in the first scene. How would you pen down that

Hi Yash – how would you write that? Ultimately it’s your story so ask yourself, ‘How does this event shape my character? What do *I* want to say about death, grief, love, marriage (etc.)?’

This is actually a really great article! A lot of the articles I find come off as pompous and nagging. This is definitely a good source of information. Much appreciated! ^_^

Well said. I just finished writing my first fantasy novel, and I definitely found that planning fundamentals of the world ahead of time helped tremendously with writing the story itself. This way, you’re not scrambling to figure out as many things about the world that you need to know to keep writing.

Good point, Richard. It helps to have a framework or scaffolding. It’s funny how a bit of structure and shape that might seem constraining on first look often turns out to be freeing for creativity. Thanks for weighing in.

This is really helpful, thank you! I’ve been working on a series of fantasy novels since last year but I’m really struggling. Initially, it ended up as a young adult fantasy but after seeing the repetitive tropes and criticism of the genre, I desperately wanted to change it around. So now I’m working on making the series as a high fantasy and begun creating my own species and names of locations etc. The only things left are the excessive descriptions and the teenage characters. How can I write them appropriate to the high fantasy genre? Any advice would be much appreciated!

Hi Roma,

Thanks for your question. I’d caution against writing ‘excessive descriptions’ as you put it for their own sake – a fantasy epic (e.g. as Ursula K Le Guin’s ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’) can have spare description too. So describe as much as you feel is necessary or adequate to your story.

Typically, high fantasy usually has a central heroic character or group of heroic/secondary characters. Think about what skills and flaws or personal weaknesses they might have. For example, the supporting character Samwise in LOTR is a little meek and reticent to start but also steadfast and loyal. Think about the cause and effect of your characters’ traits, and how they might either contribute to obstacles or help overcome them in the course of the story. It’s difficult to advise generally, as a lot depends on the plot and character particulars of your story. Good luck and I hope you find a path towards the end that resonates with you.

How much does a reader want tropes (afterall, that’s how trope becomes tropes) and how much do they want trope subversion?

You make a good point, Shrike. A lot depends on audience. It depends whether you’re writing for a more ‘literary fantasy’ audience (which would likely prefer trope subversion) or a more ‘genre fiction’ audience that expects more of a G.R.R. Martin type of epic/heroic fantasy approach with more substantial use of tropes.

Thanks for the answer. I’d never heard the term literary fantasy before. Have you some recommendations from that sub-genre?

It’s interesting that you’d use Martin as an example there. I’ve heard him referred to as trope subversive (though I’m not personally very on board with that).

That’s fair, Shrike. I suppose he is trope-subversive in certain elements, but factions warring over thrones is classic medieval-era fantasy material. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and ideas about it.

As for literary fantasy, although it’s more satire, I would think Pratchett borders on the literary due to the breadth and complexity of his satire. Le Guin’s Earthsea books also are subtler and less trope-heavy than some. Perhaps categorization isn’t particularly productive or useful, as so many books straddle multiple genres.

Hi, I’m trying to write a best seller fantasy series but the problem is I have all the characters ready, even the fantasy world is ready but I’m struggling with the plot. I don’t have a breakthrough plot to actually make myself a great success. Please help

My advice is to not try to model it all out before you start, but to make it up as you go along. And remember, you can always go back and edit!

Hi. I’m a little late but, I have my characters ready and basic geography. I also have an idea of the location where the story takes place. But, I have no plot. I have no idea how to go about a storyline. I’m thinking about having a underdog group of high school/ college students overthrow the social hierarchy in their equivalent of a state, but I am still not sure. Please help.

Hi Krystal,

Thanks for your question, I hope you’ve already found some more resolution for how your plot continues. If you already have character sketches and basic geography, perhaps start drafting a scene and see where it takes you? Part of the process is deciding when to move from planning to constructing the narrative. As for plot, think a little more about the social hierarchy you describe. What’s broken about it so that they’d want to overthrow it? How does it impact their individual lives? Scenes showing this impact and buliding their motivation for rebellion are possibilities.

I hope that helps!

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