How to write fantasy series: Do’s and Don’ts

How to write fantasy series: Do’s and Don’ts

How to write fantasy series - Now Novel

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.

Create a blueprint for your fantasy series

Brainstorm strong characters, themes, settings and story arcs.

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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.

Infographic - writing a fantasy series - Do's and don'ts | Now Novel
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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:

Terry Pratchett - map of discworld
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The map of the world of Middle Earth where Tolkien sets his series, by contrast, is less surreal and more similar to medieval maps:

Map of Middle Earth - How to write fantasy series
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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.

Get feedback for a fantasy novel idea or draft in progress and brainstorm details for your fantasy world using Now Novel’s Idea Finder.

24 Replies to “How to write fantasy series: Do’s and Don’ts”

  1. Great ideas! There are so many tropes to either avoid or re-shape in the fantasy genre. It can be a lot of fun.

    1. Thanks, Jordan! It’s true, and it’s inspiring how inventive new fantasy authors often are with such time-honoured material.

      1. Hi, I’m right in the middle of my second novel, (My first one having become a little bit of a wreck) and I’m searching for ways to improve my writing technique, words, phrases, etc. Right now though, I’m facing a problem with my overarching story ideas. Originally I created my book as fan-fiction to the Redwall series, but now wish to branch off into my own world. I’m worried that I may end up writing something very similar to what Brian Jacques did. Have any ideas?

        1. Hi Huck, thanks for reading the blog and sharing your current challenges.

          I’d say, regarding your fears of coming across a Brian Jacques clone, make a bullet point list of the key ideas in Brian Jacques that would be easy to mimic and then keep it somewhere you can check you’re not doing exactly the same thing.

          For the most part, I’d say write your draft and comb through later for anything that reads as too derivative to you. You can always change isolated characters/scenes as necessary to iron out the less original parts later. I hope this helps!

          1. Thanks so much Jordan! I didn’t realize anyone would respond seeing as the last comments made were months ago.
            I actually have begun, (with my friend and editor from school) to make a list of sorts, including what I don’t want and do. It was helpful to hear that what I’m doing is good and will try to do more of it. Thanks again for responding!

          2. It’s a pleasure, good luck! Feel free to join our critique community should you desire any feedback too.

  2. “Thank you for the advice on how to write fantasy fiction.” I’m writing several short novels.

  3. This was pretty spot on for what I’m working on. I agree that it’s hard to make your own writing unique without learning what’s already been done. I’m not always able to read your articles right away, but I always make it a point to read them eventually. Thanks, Bridget.

    1. I’m glad to hear that, Mike. Correct, it’s why it’s so important to read diverse novels if you want to improve your own craft. Thanks for reading.

  4. In my novel, the protagonist believes at first that he´s an orphan, however by the end of the novel he meets them and understands why they had to leave him. I can´t tell the entire thing and the reasons because I´d be giving away my plot, but I´m doing my best to not be clíche but his parents andhis lineage are important to the plot so I can´t make it another way.

  5. I’m 12 years old and have been writing stories for a while and this information really helped me and gave me tips on what I should do on my new novel! I also agree that everyone should be able to make their own trope not copy of someone else’s hard work. Many Thanks!

  6. So I’m basically 13 and i love writing and reading. Especially YA fantasy like Red Queen or Throne of glass and stuff like that. What I’m struggling with though, is how to plot my story. I have tones of ideas but I can’t seem to put those ideas in a story. Do you have ideas of how I can organize all of those ideas?

    1. Hi Dominique, thank you for sharing that. Have you tried brainstorming a single-paragraph summary of your story idea and then expanding this into a one-page summary? Starting small and broadening out like this is a useful way to start deciding key plot points (bearing in mind these could change).

      We also have a guide to planning a story in scenes here that you may find helpful. Good luck!

  7. Hi I was wondering if I would be about book series about movies and tv shows like Pacific rim, transformers, pokemon, or bakugan

    1. Hi Leonard, did you mean you were wondering if you could write about these animated and other series? You could write fanfiction, but you might run into trouble were you to try publish a series based on these universes, since some companies protect their IP (intellectual property) fanatically. I’d say write fanfiction for fun, and out of that process take what you learn and apply it to inventing your own original lore/characters/world. Good luck!

  8. This is really great and useful information!
    I’m in the midst of writing my first ever novel, it is set in my own universe that I”ve been building up for years. I was wondering a couple of questions.

    Do you all have any useful tips on how to make traveling scenes more interesting? I want to be able to flesh them out a bit, and not just take up a singular paragraph.

    Also, do you have any tips of developing a custom fantasy race?
    Thanks in advance!

    1. Hi Troy, I’m glad to hear you found this article useful. Thank you for the interesting questions.

      A little conflict provides one option to make traveling scenes more interesting (if you think, for example, of Frodo and company getting attacked by the The Nazgûl or Dark Riders, horseback wraiths, when they’re barely out of The Shire in The Lord of the Rings). Conflict could also take the form of difficult travel circumstances, e.g. the sad river-crossing scene in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying when a horse is swept away.

      Traveling is a great time for one character to tell another or others a tall tale or other story, so it’s a useful time to add in some intriguing folklore or worldbuilding.

      As for developing a custom fantasy race, I’d suggest creating a list of categoris such as Culture, Dress, Belief system, Namng system etc. and brainstorming your way through each one. Think also of geography as environment shapes communities to a large degree (e.g. innuits living largely on specific hunting foods historically due to living so far north where the primary biome is aquatic).

      I hope this is helpful! Good luck and thank you for reading our blog.

  9. I’m 12 years old and I’m in the middle of my first novel! I love reading and writing and this information has really helped me a lot. I agree everyone’s ideas should be unique. thank you!

    1. That’s awesome that you’re already focusing on your first novel going into your teens, CJ. I hope you continue finding fun and joy in reading and writing. Thank you for reading our articles.

  10. I’m trying to write my first novel in what I hope can become a series but I’m 13 and was trying to develop a plot and maybe even develop a language. Get back with tips when possible.

    1. Hi L.W. thank you for sharing that. Developing a language is a big challenge. I would suggest studying linguistics and how languages are formed as this should help (e.g. how root words are used to create nouns and verbs, how grammar works in different language, such as gender and cases).

      For a first novel, it may be wise to develop a handful of words that imply the other language (a partial language) so you can keep this aspect straightforward to begin (you could always flesh the language out further in a sequel). Here are some tips on writing your first novel, I hope they help!

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