Fantasy series such as George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Rowling’s bestselling Harry Potter series still win over new generations of fans. How can you also write a successful series, avoiding clichés of the genre? Here’s how to write fantasy series, the ‘do’s’ and the ‘don’ts’:
How to write fantasy series: Know your genre
An important part of writing in any genre is knowing a little about its history.
Our oldest literature is fantasy fiction. From The Epic of Gilgamesh to The Odyssey to Beowulf, the stories that have survived the disappearance of ancient civilizations are stories of powerful Gods, magic, quests and monsters. This isn’t to say that fantasy has to include all these things. There are no Gods in Harry Potter, for example.
J.R.R. Tolkien is generally considered to be the father of modern English-language fantasy fiction. There were fantasy novels written prior to Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings cycle, such as Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees and The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison, but it was the commercial success of Tolkien’s work that really mainstreamed the modern genre.
Tolkien based his own work on his study of northern European sagas and linguistics. One of the other strong influences on modern commercial fantasy fiction was the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. It was itself influenced by Tolkien, and the enormous popularity of both spawned countless works and tropes.
If your fantasy series features traditional creatures likes elves and trolls and wizards, you are going to have to do something very original with it:
Don’t reproduce fantasy series tropes without your own stamp
When writing a fantasy series, it’s easy to fall into well-known cliches. A band of travelers meet in a tavern. The hero is reluctant to fulfill a quest – these are fantasy plot tropes that can feel hollow if there aren’t additional unique elements. TV Tropes lists some of the fantasy plot and character tropes that have become clichés, for example:
- Farm boy saves the day. An innocent farm boy’s transformation into sword-wielding hero has to be earned. We need to believe his development. What makes your innocent-turned-hero distinctive?
- Secret legacy. If your farm boy is the heir to your kingdom’s throne without having ever left the homestead, this could come across as unlikely. The explanation for his unwitting royal lineage had better be good
- Carbon copy fantasy races. Just because a character is an elf, dwarf, or other race, doesn’t mean they will have the same mannerisms, views or values as the next member of their group. In Harry Potter, there are good and bad, eloquent and crass, skilled and clumsy people among muggles and wizards alike
So how do you take tropes and make them your own?
Do update old fantasy tropes with new details
There’s no rule to say you can’t have familiar creatures and genre tropes (such as wands and broomsticks) in your fantasy series. J.K. Rowling’s fantastical world, for example, contains countless tropes. Yet she also re-imagines old fantasy devices. Sure, there are broomsticks, but instead of transport for witches who fly cackling into the night, Rowling makes broomsticks sports equipment. There are different models and brands (the ‘Nimbus 2000’ made by the Nimbus Racing Broom Company). Details such as these refresh old fantasy tropes with new life.
Don’t only read new or old fantasy series
If you’re writing a fantasy series, you likely know your genre well. But do you read widely, or do you prefer a specific handful of authors?
The only way to really become familiar with the clichés and pitfalls of fantasy is to read across decades and subgenres. Try not to read only portal or medieval fantasies. Even if you think a fantasy novel is bad, note what makes it bad and remember to avoid doing the same.
Do find magic in unexpected places
If you’re writing a portal series, for example, you’ll show your characters travelling to a parallel, magical world at some point in the story. In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, the portal in the first book is the hidden ‘Platform Nine and Three-Quarters’ at King’s Cross train station.
This is not a typical fantasy portal. It’s not a magic arch wreathed in unearthly vapors or some glorious destination. Rowling’s magical passageway is something as mundane as a real, major non-fictional train platform in London. It’s outlandish, but Rowling makes it believable by explaining why ‘muggles’ or ordinary people can’t see it. And it’s hard to use the portal your first time. This makes the portal and its function detailed, believable.
Don’t neglect to show how your magic works
Take the example of magical portals in portal fantasy series:
C.S. Lewis makes magical rings portals in The Magician’s Nephew, the prequel to his Chronicles of Narnia series. Digory Kirke’s creepy uncle creates the rings. The portals to a magical forest that itself contains portals to Narnia (called ‘The Wood between the Worlds’) exist because of human meddling with magic. This human origin allows Lewis to weave in human error and oversight. One ring allows the characters to travel one way, but a different ring is needed to return. This sets up story development, the motivation for Digory to follow his friend Polly through the Portal because Digory’s uncle tricks Polly into trying on a ring without giving her a way to return.
Do avoid fantasy series clichés
Knowing the fantasy genre inside out helps you learn how to write a fantasy series that avoids cliché. The ‘reluctant orphan who is an unwitting hero’ is a classic example of fantasy cliché. Yet Rowling makes this cliché work for her in Harry Potter by creating such a vast, complex cast.
It’s easier to believe the mistreated orphan’s transformation into a courageous hero when we see the complex network of support he has in his close friends and schoolteachers. Rowling gives every character a pivotal, often surprising story arc, from her protagonist Harry to his friend Ron’s pet rat.
Don’t simply mimic favourite fantasy authors
Even if you’re a massive Tolkien fan, avoid creating maps, worlds or characters that draw too heavily on his own. Instead, learn how to write fantasy series that bear your own stamp. Learn by example and study how authors such as Sir Terry Pratchett take tropes of fantasy (such as fantasy maps) and revolutionise them:
Do focus on the details that are solely your invention
If we compare Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings cycle and Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, there is substantial difference. Even, for example, in their world maps. In this map of Pratchett’s fantasy world, we can see an important feature of Discworld. The map includes the giant turtle, the Great A T’uin, that carries the flat Discworld on its back:
The map of the world of Middle Earth where Tolkien sets his series, by contrast, is less surreal and more similar to medieval maps:
As you can see, although both authors use maps to show the lay of their magical worlds, Pratchett’s is distinctly his own. He adds unique, surreal details of Discworld (itself a parody of ancient ‘flat earth’ theories) that make his world-building so distinctive.
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