Fantasy writing is loved by authors and readers of all ages. It offers the wish and wonder of portals, potions, and portents. Dragons, battles for thrones, and magical artifacts. Bends laws or makes its own so that readers may explore other, imaginary worlds and ‘what ifs’. Use the links above to jump to the subtopic on how to write fantasy that interests you now.
Fantasy writing terms and definitions
In this section, read definitions of fantasy. Why it falls under the genre umbrella ‘speculative fiction’ (but differs from science fiction). Keep reading to explore why fantasy is fun to write, worldbuilding, creating magic systems, and more.
What is fantasy? Core genre features
What is a fantasy story? How does the genre relate to other imaginative fiction genres? Fantasy is a genre that falls under the umbrella term ‘speculative’ fiction and is often grouped with sci-fi under the abbreviation ‘SFF’.
What is speculative fiction?
Speculative fiction is storytelling which hypothesizes, predicts, or imagines otherwise. It creates other worlds, technologies, human or non-human abilities and powers, realities.
Speculative fiction ‘encompasses works in which the setting is other than the real world, involving supernatural, futuristic, or other imagined elements.’ (Oxford Languages)
Ursula K. Le Guin defining fantasy fiction
Celebrated SFF author Ursula K. Le Guin, in her essay collection No Time to Spare, writes about how fantasy is subversive. It bends the rules (without being ‘anything goes’):
It doesn’t have to be the way it is. That is what fantasy says. It doesn’t say, “Anything goes” – that’s irresponsibility, when two and one make five, or forty-seven, or whuddevva, and the story doesn’t “add up,” as we say. Fantasy doesn’t say, “Nothing is” – that’s nihilism. And it doesn’t say, “It ought to be this way” – that’s utopianism, a different enterprise.Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘It Doesn’t Have to Be the Way It Is’, in No Time to Spare (2019), p. 81.
The definition of ‘speculate’ shows the close relation between speculative fiction and mythology. It means to ‘form a theory or conjecture about a subject without firm evidence’.
Many myths arose from human societies’ desire to explain and understand. For example, the Greek myth of Persephone explains why we have the seasons (Demeter neglects her crops while her daughter Persephone is kept captive in the underworld).
This same curiosity runs through speculative fiction stories that feature secondary worlds or other inventions. In fantasy, symbolism is used to explore and imagine cause and effect, human nature and other ‘real-world’ concerns with the language and imagery of dreaming.
Fantasy versus science fiction and horror
Fantasy, science fiction, and even horror are all speculative genres in how they ask ‘what if?’
What genre elements distinguish them?
You could argue science fiction explores what is probable or plausible (as a result of, for example, technological change, or how relatively little we know for sure about our universe – ‘the truth is out there’). Fantasy, meanwhile, explores what is possible within the realm of imagination or an invented secondary world.
Rod Serling, screenwriter and narrator for cult sci-fi series The Twilight Zone, describes it thus:
It’s been said that science fiction and fantasy are two different things: science fiction, the improbable made possible; fantasy, the impossible made probable.Rod Serling, narration from The Twilight Zone, via IMDB.
Fantasy explores what is possible if we take a scenario as a given starting point, maybe putting some laws of physics aside.
Horror explores the macabre, paranormal or supernatural as a force for destruction (or as a manifestation of dark events in the normal world, such as a haunting by the victim of a crime).
Fantasy tends not to dwell on the macabre in quite as visceral a way as horror (few shapeshifting clowns and haunted TV sets here). Although there is plenty that is macabre in George R. R. Martin and many other fantasy authors’ work (especially in grimdark and dark fantasy subgenres).
What are the main fantasy subgenres?
Fantasy subgenres are often confusing because many terms are used interchangeably (e.g. epic and high fantasy) by many authors and readers.
A list of popular fantasy subgenres includes:
- High fantasy: Typically is set in an entirely fictional secondary world with detailed lore and a story of epic scope.
Example: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin.
- Low fantasy: Contrasts from high fantasy in being set in the ‘real’ world or a rational fictional world which is similar to our own. Typically, magical events ‘intrude on’ a regular/non-magical world.
Example: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan.
- Dark fantasy: Fantasy which has a marked horror element. Sometimes used for fantasy stories in which the protagonist is anti-heroic or morally-ambiguous in a darker way than an epic, heroic protagonist.
Example: Fairy Tale by Stephen King.
- Urban fantasy: This subgenre puts fantastical elements such as magic or mythical beasts within modern, urban settings. Magic may be a hidden layer of life that only some see, existing in secrecy, or out in the open. It often incorporates detective fiction elements.
Example: Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews.
- Heroic fantasy: Fantasy stories that detail heroic battles between good and evil, or a heroic figure and their nemesis. Differs from epic fantasy mainly in the conflict often being the hero’s own personal grievance or vendetta, rather than something affecting the entire world’s fate or wellbeing. ‘Sword and sorcery’ is a category of stories in this subgenre.
Example: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.
- Science fantasy: Stories combining elements of science fiction and fantasy (for example, secondary worlds set on distant planets in our solar system).
Example: Dragonflight by Anne McCaffery.
- Comic fantasy: Fantasy that uses comedic techniques such as parody or satire, often sending up tropes and traditions of the genre. Sir Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ novels are a good example.
Example: Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett.
For further niche subgenres, see TV Tropes’ detailed guide to fantasy genre.
There is also a helpful flowchart created by user Lyrrael covering subgenres such as grimdark, fairy-tale and weird fiction in the Fantasy subreddit here.
Useful terms in fantasy literature
Writing fantasy means getting to know a wide range of terms. Here are several useful ones:
Lore: A body of knowledge and tradition. A particular fantasy universe may have its own ‘lore’ that is stable or added to in subsequent books in a series, thus becoming ‘canon’ (see below). Fanfiction writers often use elements of an author’s existing lore to create their own spin-off characters or plotlines (for example, setting new stories in Pratchett’s Discworld universe).
Worldbuilding: Creating the defining physical, geographical and other features of a fictional setting. For example elements such as maps, biomes with individual fauna, flora, social and political history, and beliefs and traditions (more on this in the Fantasy worldbuilding section).
Secondary world: A term Tolkien uses to refer to a world that is not a primary ‘reality’ but an other place that has a life of its own (important in, for example, portal fantasy).
Canon: A ‘canon’ broadly is a body of ‘principles, rules, standards, or norms’. In the context of the fantasy genre, it is the elements considered as ‘official’ parts of lore and established worldbuilding (especially important in fantasy series where internal rules need to be somewhat consistent – though not even all of Tolkien’s were).
- Elements of fantasy: Writing a more magical story
- The difference between fantasy and science fiction
Why write fantasy? The joys of the genre
If you comb through fantasy-dedicated web communities such as /r/fantasy on Reddit, Facebook groups and forums dedicated to the genre, common loves regarding the genre become clear.
Authors and readers alike love fantasy because it often has:
The thrill of adventure
Who wouldn’t want to go to a magical academy to learn how to fly, cast spells, or turn invisible? Or go through a portal (as a younger reader) where children have substantially more power and say?
The escape of visiting imagined worlds
Many answers to the question ‘Why do you love fantasy?’ such as this discussion talk about the joy of escapism, of visiting imaginary worlds.
High stakes of revenge/vengeance
Fantasy is no low-drama genre. Throne succession battles? It has them. Fire-breathing dragons? Check. Swords, sorcery, mythical beasts and where to find them? All the fantastical is present, with high-stakes to boot.
Fantastical refraction of reality
One of the joys of fantasy is that the cracked mirror of invention lets us see our own world from an intriguing ‘elsewhere’.Tweet This
Like Alice through the looking glass, we don’t just see the grey everyday reflected. Instead, we get glimpses of the impossible made plausible.
The wonder of magic
Magic is fun. Potions, spells, or broomsticks whizzing past weather balloons. There’s an unpredictability when you say ‘abracadabra’. There’s wonder and inherent suspense.
The hope of heroism
Many fantasy stories show ordinary people who have to rise to acts of all-or-nothing heroism. Novice David who has to face off against a magically adept Goliath with overpowered abilities. Fantasy is full of the pluck of the underdog (and the suspense and optimism of rooting for them).
Wish, wonder and surprise
The fantasy genre is filled with wish, wonder and surprise. If you’ve ever said, ‘I wish I could fly’ or ‘I wonder what would happen if hideous witches turned children into mice’, fantasy has images and answers.Tweet This
Timeless, dramatic themes
Fantasy is full of themes such as the battle of good versus evil, the power the individual has to overthrow tyranny, the value of friendship and loyalty, and more. These are timeless themes that stay relevant to modern life.
The above give helpful insights into how to make a fantasy story appeal to lovers of the genre.
🗣️ What do you love about fantasy? Let us know in the comments, and keep reading for tips on how to write a fantasy novel, fantasy worldbuilding and timeline template docs, info on kinds of fantasy magic, and more.
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Fantasy worldbuilding: Creating new worlds and realities
Worldbuilding in fantasy is a vast topic and a lot has been written about it.
Worldbuilding in storytelling generally is important. Even if you’re writing ‘realist’ fiction (if you’re setting a story in modern-day Chicago, for example) you still need to create the sense of place. Landmarks, culture, and other elements.
Who are celebrated fantasy world-builders?
Fantasy authors who are often held up as bastions of detailed and imaginative worldbuilding include:
J.R.R. Tolkien and his Legendarium
The legendarium is the name given to the sum of all Tolkien’s works set in his secondary fictional world, Arda.
Tolkien started worldbuilding for this world in 1914, writing poems and story sketches, drawing maps, and inventing languages for the purpose of building a richly layered fantasy world.
Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings
The Guardian describes Hobb’s fantasy worldbuilding as ‘irresistible’ and she was awarded the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2021. George R. R. Martin’s testimonial for her novel Assassin’s Apprentice (the first book in her Farseer trilogy, 1995), says ‘in today’s crowded fantasy market, Robin Hobb’s books are like diamonds in a sea of zircons’.
Although some readers quibble with Hobb’s pacing, others emphasize how she ‘gives great descriptions and makes a fantastical world feel very real’.
Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld
On the lighter side of comic fantasy, Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is beloved by many for its sly wit and the way it pokes fun at fantasy and worldbuilding conventions. After all, Discworld is a flat world perched on the backs of four elephants, themselves standing on a giant turtle as it travels through outer space.
It is worldbuilding that doesn’t take itself too seriously, with a funny bone, in the tradition of comic speculative fiction authors such as Douglas Adams.
C.S. Lewis’ Narnia
C.S. Lewis’ beloved Narnia series is a portal fantasy featuring worlds sung into existence by a magical lion, a narcissistic witch with an appetite for destruction, and more.
Narnia is an example of a secondary fantasy world with its own separate rules of time (the protagonists grow older in this world, only to become children again when they return to our real one).
Anne McCaffrey and her dragon-filled world of Pern
Anne McCaffrey’s science-fantasy world features humans who ride intelligent, fire-breathing dragons to combat a consuming, destructive spore known as ‘Thread’ on a distant planet.
The series contains 22 books as of 2022 (some co-authored with her son Todd).
N.K. Jemisin, the Stillness, and the politics of oppression
NK Jemisin (who teaches worldbuilding workshops) brings the reality of politics, inequality and ecological issues into her worldbuilding in interesting ways.
She was the first author to win the Hugo Award three years in a row for her Broken Earth series. In this series, her characters live on a planet featuring a supercontinent called ‘The Stillness’ which experiences catastrophic climate change every few centuries.
Says Jason Parham for Wired, ‘Jemisin’s realms are epic, lush, and peculiar. They feel lived in, painstakingly thought-through. The power relations between her characters are often a direct result of the lands they inhabit.’
George R. R. Martin and the kingdom of Westeros
According to George R. R. Martin’s fandom wiki, the fantasy kingdom of Westeros is based loosely on medieval Britain, yet if it were a continent the size of South America.
The author is lauded for his world’s mystery (how he has withheld as much as he has revealed in readers’ estimation, leaving room for further tales in his world).
He is also admired for his characters’ moral ambiguity (and the morally ambiguous nature of his world at large), and using (and altering or enlarging to make more epic or fantastical) historical referents.
J.K. Rowling and the world of Hogwarts
In recent years, JK Rowling has divided and even lost readers (especially among the often more progressive Gen Z) due to sharing her views on trans rights on Twitter. It’s a good reminder to invest in a good publicist and social team if you can afford both, or stick to less divisive, sensitive subjects in what you air about your personal beliefs on your author platform.
Controversy aside, a large part of Rowling’s publishing success in fantasy is the detail she put into the wizarding world of Harry Potter. The author drew extensively on her background in classics and recast familiar fantasy objects (such as the flying broomstick) in novel ways that captured young readers’ imaginations.
The author was also shrewd in having her world grow darker and more dangerous as her protagonists and initial fan base grew up.
🗣️ Who is your favorite fantasy world builder, and why? Tell us in the comments.
Keep reading for tips to build imaginative, rich fantasy worlds.
How to build fantasy worlds: 8 creative ideas
How to plan a fantasy novel and create a fantasy world that is detailed, intriguing, mysterious? Read eight ideas:
Start with a fantasy worldbuilding process you enjoy
There’s no single, correct way to invent fantasy worlds.
Tolkien, per the above, began with story sketches, poems, inventing language, and maps. Lois McMaster Bujold (a four-time Hugo Award winner), per a reader’s contribution, wrote about ‘just-in-time’ worldbuilding – creating the world detail you need as your story requires it in the drafting process. (It is perhaps still advisable to keep a record of what you’ve added to your world, unless you have an incredible memory!)
Others swear by starting with planning geography, or deciding what biomes make up a world and how they affect habitation, what kinds of characters live in a secondary world or dimension.
Try different worldbuilding methods to find what works for you.
Use fantasy worldbuilding tools and prompts
When you’re ready to start inventing world details, Now Novel’s own ‘World Builder’ is a structured, prompt-based process to start stories.
Build worlds and locations of three scales: Large-scale (such as a universe, world or continent) mid-scale (such as a single country, town or region) and small-scale (individual story locations, e.g. a tavern in one of these places).
You can nest locations within one another and give them representative avatars. Your worldbuilding is added to your automatically-generated outline PDF as you go.
Now Novel members also have described using worldbuilding tools such as World Anvil to build detailed fantasy world wikis (or you can start with the free worldbuilding wiki template below).
Try making a well-organized fantasy world wiki
When you look at fantasy research portals such as ‘Tolkien Gateway’ or fantasy authors’ wikis, it’s clear how useful a wiki-like database is for keeping track of (and looking up) established details about a fantasy universe.
You don’t necessarily need a world builder like our own or World Anvil (though they help). You could use Google Docs, too (or combine these different resources).
Use headings in alphabetical order and brief descriptions of each worldbuilding category with sidebar jump links to make a fantasy encyclopedia that’s easy to navigate. You can use this fantasy worldbuilding template as a starting point (just make your own, private copy once signed into Google):
Build in credible cause and effect
Ultimately, believable fantasy worlds come down not to how much they mimic earthly reality or physical laws but how they obey their own, consistent laws. One thing leads to another.
Ursula K. Le Guin writes:
The child “telling a story” roams about among the imaginary and the half-understood without knowing the difference […] But fantasies, whether folktales or sophisticated literature, are stories in the adult, demanding sense. They can ignore certain laws of physics but not of causality. They start here and go there (or back here), and though the mode of travel may be unusual, and here and there may be wildly exotic and unfamiliar places, yet they must have both a location on the map of that world and a relationship to the map of our world. If not, the hearer or reader of the tale will be set adrift in a sea of inconsequential inconsistencies.Le Guin, ‘It Doesn’t Have to Be the Way It Is’, p. 81.
As you brainstorm your fantasy world, in short, and decide ‘it is this way’, ask why. Know why your world is the way it is (and make whatever is mysterious or inexplicable that way for a reason).
Explore popular science for fantasy worldbuilding ideas
Science is full of interesting and surprising facts.
For example, that you can make a box of sand behave as a liquid under the right physical conditions.
Fantasy author Brandon Sanderson and former Nasa and Apple engineer Mark Rober explore just that (and how Sanderson used this idea in his novel Tress of the Emerald Sea) in an interesting video.
Becoming a good worldbuilder is a matter of staying curious, asking questions about how things, systems, magics work (and why). Ripping back the curtain in Oz.Tweet This
Science may supply not only ideas for how ‘reality’ works in your world, but magic, too.
Investigate history for inspiration
Many fantasy authors have drawn on history to write fantasy worlds rich with intrigues. G. R. R. Martin drew on medieval Britain and the War of the Roses. C.S. Lewis drew heavily on religious history (The Bible) in creating Narnia and its themes of temptation and resurrection.
If you’re worldbuilding and thinking about historical or present wars, investigate famous wars and find interesting details about the nature of war.
The same goes for researching ecological history. Or the history of gender and children’s rights, or any other aspects of human and planetary development.
You never know what gleaming piece of your fantasy world you could find in reality.Tweet This
Create world timelines or other summary references
Whether you enjoy sketching maps or like the idea of a detailed timeline, these secondary sources are useful for planning a fantasy world.
They are secondary sources that you could include within the book itself, to help your reader maintain a clear overview (plus they’re fun to make).
Diversify your fantasy worldbuilding sources
Readers cotton onto references such as Martin being inspired by the War of the Roses easily because he changed the names of the warring parties very little (from Lancaster and York to Lannister and Stark).
If you want your fantasy world to maintain mystery, pull from diverse sources. Entire genres (see steampunk) have been born from acts of fantastical combination.
🗣️ What’s your favorite worldbuilding resource? Let us know in the comments.
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Fantasy characters: Populating imaginary worlds
For all their worldbuilding and often wonderful setting detail, fantasy novels – like every other genre – have character at their heart. It may be the unlikely hero and their even unlikelier sidekick. Or else a grim, immoral anti-hero – an assassin, dark magician, or other figure.
Fantasy characterization has many tropes, types, and facets. Read on for a list of common fantasy character types and tips for creating a compelling cast of fantasy characters.
Common fantasy character types in the genre’s history
Fantasy authors draw character inspiration from as many sources as authors in other genres. Here are common roles in fantasies that recur:
Mentors, guides, guardians and conduits of wisdom
Frodo has Gandalf, Arthur has Merlin, Syenite has Alabaster.
The word ‘Mentor’ comes from the eponymous character in Homer’s Odyssey. The Goddess Athena disguises herself as an old family friend to guide Odysseus’ son Telemachus while Odysseus is away.
A mentor is often described as one who instills a heroic mentality, the courage to go on (a writing coach functions similarly).
Heroic figures and zeroes to heroes
Many SFF stories feature protagonists who are relative ‘nobodies’ who are called on to achieve world-changing tasks.
Often in SFF genres (from epic fantasy to sci-fi space opera), heroes have been orphans (so that this has become a recognizable fantasy protagonist cliché).
For more on this type, see ‘The Hero’s Journey’ under Story structure in fantasy.
Mortal and immortal antagonists
The fantasy genre is full of mortal and immortal antagonists. Pulling puppet strings as an evil eye? That’s Sauron for you. Possessing teachers with speech impediments? That’s He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.
Some fantasy antagonists are subtler, more shadowy (such as the fugitive shadow Ged the protagonist accidentally summons by disregarding the rules of magic to impress a girl in Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)).
See a robust Reddit discussion on the best villains in fantasy for many more examples.
Sidekicks, companions and familiars
Even witches toiling over cauldrons (or doing magic by more modern means) need friends and allies.
Fantasy is full of a beloved fantasy type – the sidekick-meets-companion.
Think of Frodo’s dependable friend Samwise Gamgee, in The Lord of the Rings. Or Mildred Hubble’s hopeless cat who won’t sit on flying broomsticks like her classmates’ felines in Jill Murphy’s beloved ‘The Worst Witch’ children’s books. (The latter are some of the most successful titles on Puffin Books’ Young Puffin backlist.)
Many fantasy stories feature the tyrannical, monstrous, villainous or magical unknown and buddies add coziness and often comic relief to perilous adventures.Tweet This
Corruptible family, friends and allies
Many fantasy books and series are interesting in featuring betrayers hiding in plain sight. The Pevensie children’s own brother selling them out for some Turkish Delight in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) for example.
In fantasy, we may meet mean aunts and uncles who can’t be bothered to make comfortable living arrangements. Or that one companion who wants to ‘just borrow’ a dangerous magical ring the protagonist is on a mission to destroy (we see you, Boromir).
This fantasy character type is a little like fantasy’s answer to the ‘double agent’ in spy fiction. Slippery, deceptive – an antagonistic force too close to home.
Fantasy rivals and foils
Often fantasy protagonists compete with rivals, creating secondary conflict arcs. There may be similar goals. For example all of Arthur’s knights of the round table seeking the Holy Grail in Arthurian legend. Rivals supply:
- Added narrative tension and suspense: Who will get to the goal first?
- Secondary conflict: Your protagonist in a fantasy story may have a rival who creates extra obstacles or problems for them, or even aids or supports their adversaries
Foils are characters who throw aspects of other characters into stark contrast. In comedy writing, for example, you often see the so-called ‘straight-man’, the straight-laced, ‘square’ figure who contrasts to the confirmed kook.
Fantasy is full of these foils. For example, gruff dwarves who differ in voice and temperament to courtly, sensitive elves in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. In the most richly developed worlds, these differences are often linked to characters’ environments, cultures, ways of life; the same way our environments shape our own self-expression and identities.
Tips for writing fantasy characters who stand out
How can you make your fantasy characters feel real, not cookie-cutter types?
Subvert stock fantasy character types
Who’s to say elves have to speak in mellifluous tones, as though they’re at a king’s stately court? Or that dwarves have to be Grumpy, Dopey, Bashful or Sneezy?
Pratchett, for example, takes elves over to the dark side, so that they become ‘bad faeries’:
Discworld’s elves aren’t the noble creatures of some Roundworld myths. If an elf told you to eat your own head, you’d do it.Ian Stewart, Jack Cohen, Terry Pratchett, The Science of Discworld IV: Judgment Day (2013), p. 5.
Have fun playing with or subverting expectations of ‘type’. There are many ways to use familiar fantasy archetypes (if applicable to your world) but make them your own.
Maybe the monster wouldn’t hurt a soul and humans are the real bloodthirsty ogres and cretins in your world (this is common in grimdark, dark fantasy, and comic fantasy).
Explore goal, motivation, and conflict (as you would in other genres)
Fantasy characters’ goals, motivations, and the conflicts their paths encounter are crucial, the same as in other genres.
In a quest-based, epic fantasy, each member of a rag-tag party should want something (even if some of these wants are shared or similar).
The same wants may be motivated by different things (one character wants to save the world out of idealistic do-gooding, the other just wants their promised bag of coin). Mercenaries and heroes have different outlooks (though may appreciate or have a little of each other’s points of view).
Avoid only reading fantasy or one fantasy subgenre
Pratchett gave the excellent advice to read widely, not just in the fantasy genre, if you want to write it.
The danger of reading one genre is you may start to ape its most obvious forms, tics, and tropes. This can lead to form without the content of your original voice, archetypes without flesh and blood.
If you do mainly read fantasy, read across a selection of subgenres at least, or authors who write in plain English alongside those with more epic/heroic stylings.
Understand your fantasy villains and mentors
Many fantasy villains appear to be destructive for its own sake initially – cruel figures who enjoy destruction or vast power.
Yet many fantasy authors have developed and humanized their villains as series progressed.
One Redditor says of Robin Hobb’s antagonist Regal Farseer:
Regal is terrible for sure – Hobb has a great hand at writing horrible villains that you hate, but then also managing to make you understand them by the end./u/matgopack, via /r/fantasy
In pure action, you may have villains who do bad things ‘just because’ – they’re almost like MacGuffins to get the explosions going. In some genres, your reader/viewer may come along for the explosions, not the nuanced character insights.
Yet in fantasy, we often get villains’ backstories, deeper human insights into where morally grey choices come from.
Like villains, mentors may make mistakes, too. Even the strongest fount of wisdom may be fallible.
Avoid Mary Sues (and Marty Crews)
Sometimes readers dislike fantasy characters because they are written to be morally reprehensible antagonists or complex and flawed main characters.
Other times, readers dislike characters because they are poorly-written. Avoid the latter and check for characters who are:
- Perfect, ‘chosen-one’ cutouts – Mary Sues or Marty Crews who have over-skilled or over-idealized natures compared to other characters, or compared to what seems credible for your world. Even the greatest wizards, mentors and others make mistakes and have flaws
- Out of place in your fantasy setting (if you’re basing your world on a medieval culture, for example, it will be odd if your characters use modern-day slang or have very unlikely mores for the time, unless they are ahead of their time and this is contextually credible)
🗣️ What do you love or find annoying about fantasy characters?
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Story structure in fantasy: Episodes, heroes’ journeys, and more
Story structure in fantasy is an interesting subtopic.
Many fantasies derive their structure from the episodic, ‘twelve tasks’ formats of myths and oral storytelling traditions.Tweet This
Mythological storytelling devices shape Odysseus’ stops on his journey homewards, or the episodic structure (due to it being steeped in oral traditions and Yoruba mythologies) of Amos Tutuola’s The Palm Wine Drinkard.
The hero’s journey (and modifications of this form identified and theorized by Joseph Campbell) is also popular, because it suits quest-like stories of voyage and return.
Keep reading for further ideas on how to structure a fantasy novel and make sure it has a well-developed arc (as well as tips for structuring fantasy series).
The hero’s journey in fantasy: A plot structure for voyage and return
Professor of literature Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (first published in 1949) identified and described patterns across varied mythologies.
Campbell mapped heroic stories into three main stages, which align to the broad story structure of ‘voyage and return’. Each of the following three categories is subdivided into four stages.
- Departure: The heroic figure leaves behind familiar beginnings to fulfil their heroic destiny or call to adventure.
- Initiation: The heroic figure is tested on every level and succeeds in their primary task.
- Return: The heroic figure returns home to merge what they have learned or undergone with new understanding or awareness.
See how this maps to beloved fantasy classics (for example, Frodo’s departure from the Shire tasked with destroying the One Ring, to his trials far from home such as facing the monstrous Balrog, to returning to the Shire with greater wisdom and courage).
Within these three broad story segments (which could align to ‘three-act structure’, beginning, middle and end), there are multiple other stages Campbell identified and later authors and screenwriters expanded upon.
The twelve stages of the hero’s (adapted) journey
Joseph Campbell’s original text actually divided the hero’s journey into seventeen stages.
Hollywood screenwriter Christopher Vogler (who contributed story material to classic Disney animations such as The Lion King) divides Campbell’s structure into a more symmetrical, succinct twelve.
In the 25th anniversary edition of his book The Writer’s Journey, Vogler stresses that the hero’s journey is a ‘form, not formula’ (not something meant to churn out stale repetition but a means to think about what happens, when, in heroic sagas).
The twelve stages are (four each for the hero’s departure, initiation and return):
Act 1: Departure
The Ordinary World: The reader/viewer sees the heroic figure’s ordinary world, an environment they will have to leave.
The Call to Adventure: Heroic figure is presented with ‘a problem, challenge, or adventure to undertake.’ Vogler uses the example in detective stories of a PI being called to take on a case.
Refusal of the Call: Due to fear or other reasons, heroic figure is reluctant to accept the call to adventure and get going.
Meeting with the Mentor: The heroic protagonist meets with a mentor-like figure (Vogler compares this to the bond between teacher and student, doctor and patient, or parent and child).
Act 2: Initiation
Crossing the First Threshold: Often the turning point between acts one and two, the heroic figure accepts their vital task/calling.
Tests, Allies, Enemies: Once over the threshold, heroic figure naturally encounters greater tests, challenges and dangers.
Approach to the Inmost Cave: Heroic figure arrives at the edge of a dangerous place, e.g. the outskirts of Mordor, the dark magician’s HQ, the outer trenches of the battlefield.
The Ordeal: Confrontation between the heroic figure and their greatest fear – rock bottom is reached.
Act 3: Return
Reward: Having come through the ordeal, heroic figure may claim their reward, be it a magical weapon or object, new power, or eliminating a major threat or evil.
The Road Back: The road back in the ‘return’ phase has its own perils (such as being pursued by the consequences of the ordeal, e.g. an enchanted castle starting to collapse in on itself or angered secondary adversaries wanting vengeance for a primary antagonist’s slaying).
The Resurrection: The heroic figure undergoes a transformative experience that purifies them of what they have gone through. For example, Odysseus being bathed so that he is once again recognizable to his wife after his journey.
Return with the Elixir: They return with a boon, treasure or outcome that may benefit their place of origin, the ordinary world.
Do fantasy stories have to follow story structure templates?
In a word, no. In genre romance, you may need to write to a specific template or format (for example, in feel-good romance you must have the happily ever after or happily, for now ending).
In fantasy though, there are so many subgenres. Fantasy stories’ structure should serve the story (for example, whether it is a quest narrative in a voyage and return format, or more open ended, leading to a sequel perhaps, a deferred return or further venturing to an even more fantastical place).
The hero’s journey and other story structures can give you ideas for story beats to hit (or tropes to subvert), but ultimately each story does find its own structure, departing from templates where it serves the story.
What about fantasy series’ structure?
Writing a fantasy series makes a lot of sense if you have taken the time to develop a detailed world or magical cast of characters. Each book in a series can advertise your backlist and readers will typically buy or loan and read the whole set if they enjoy one title.
Trilogies and quartets are two of the most popular numbers for books in series (though Pratchett wrote a whopping forty-five Discworld books).
To structure a fantasy series:
- Give your fantasy series an overarching plot. Your protagonist may have specific initiations, ordeals and rewards in each book, but there should also be ones that span the entire series for a series-wide arc that keeps some mysteries to unmask or deepen from book to book.
- Read fantasy series and sagas. How does the author create an arc from book to book? Is each book set in a different location in their world? How do the titles echo one another? (‘Noun of the Noun’ or ‘The Noun that Verb’ are common grammatical structures that repeat across titles; e.g. The Tree That Sat Down and The Stream That Stood Still children’s fantasy books by Beverly Nichols about a witch who sets up a rival shop to the protagonist).
- Apply story structure ideas series-wide and within each book. For example, you could structure a trilogy like three acts, with a book focusing on departure, a book focusing on initiation, and a book focusing on return – while each individual book may include elements of these stages.
If you prefer not to plot much, write a discovery draft and refine a clearer structure in rewriting. For a series, though, it is wise to do more plotting as otherwise keeping track of worldbuilding and not repeating or contradicting yourself could prove challenging.
- Story plotting and structure: Complete guide
- How to start a fantasy story: 6 intriguing ways
- How to plot a series: 8 steps for multi-book arcs
Magic in fantasy writing: Developing a magic system
Although magic in fantasy writing falls under Fantasy worldbuilding, it’s a broad enough topic to warrant its own section. No discussion of fantasy would be complete without talking about magic systems, types of magic, and magic’s origins.
Where does the idea of magic in fantasy come from?
Fantasy has its roots in mythological folk tales, fairy-tales and legends. If there’s any genre that tells us humans have been dreaming and asking ‘what if?’ for centuries, it’s fantasy.
Magic, too, is found in many myths and legends. Transfiguration, for example. Gods who change their shape to trouble mortals in creeks in Ancient Greek mythology, or gorgons with snakes for hair who turn foolhardy men into stone. And these are only to speak of European examples – world cultures are full of imaginative magics, Gods with many arms.
An interesting book (though problematic to a modern reader due to the text’s paternalistic and dated language) is James Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion (1890). Frazer’s anthropological text had a substantial influence on modern literature in English around the turn of the 20th Century.
Frazer catalogued how many world cultures have performed rites and rituals, a kind of practical magic. For example, practices intended to control the weather. He describes a tribal figure dipping a branch in water and shaking it to mimic rain, as an encouragement for rain to come during drought.
Rites and rituals suggest how magic in storytelling comes from need and desire; the way people across centuries have often been at the mercy of forces or natural processes beyond their control, and their resulting desire for change.Tweet This
Creating a magic system: 9 questions to start
In stories that feature magic, there are many things to consider about how magic works, who uses or possesses it, and to what end they use it.
Sometimes in stories, magic is a tradition passed down between generations (such as in a matriarchal coven).
In academic fantasies, magic is learned at school (such as in Murphy’s ‘The Worst Witch’ series for young readers or in Harry Potter).
To build a magic system of your own, try answering these questions around magic’s who, what, why, where and when:
Who is able to use magic in your world?
Is it everyone or a chosen (or involuntary/random) few? What gives magic-wielders their power?
What is the cost/price of magic in your fantasy story?
For example, does its user or an initiate have to pay something to be able to use it? This may be something physical, like a blood sacrifice, or figurative, for example accepting the lonely life of a shut away scholar.
This goes back to Le Guin’s assertion that fantasy obeys internal rules and is not a case of ‘wishful thinking’ in which ‘two and one make five, or forty-seven, or whuddeva’ (No Time to Spare, p. 81). There is cause and effect.
Why does magic exist?
What is its origin story? Do people know why magic in your fantasy exists, or is it mysterious in some ways? Do some people have conspiracy theories or dissenting views on its origins or nature (is there consensus or divided opinion about it)?
When does a person acquire magic?
For example, is it when they perform certain magical rites, reach a certain age, don specific magical garb such as a ring, pendant, hat, pair of shoes?
Where does magic exist or not exist?
For example, will your story feature a primary, non-magical world and a secondary one where there is magic?
Are there specific places where magic (or magical beings) can pass between the two, as in a portal fantasy like the Narnia series?
Who is constructive with magic and who is destructive?
Or is magic singularly utopian/dystopian in how it’s used?
Example: In the HBO dark fantasy series Carnivàle (2003-2005), the protagonist is an ordinary man who discovers he can heal people using surrounding life energy (going back to the idea of ‘cost’ mentioned above). The antagonist in the series is a preacher who deceives his congregation in dark ways with illusory magic.
What amplifies or diminishes magic?
Are there conditions that must be met for magic to have a stronger or weaker effect? Magical wards or protections?
Why is magic on the rise or fall?
For example, is your protagonist a novice becoming an adept? Is something causing a change of magic in your world itself?
When will magic be its most trying, testing or dangerous?
If you think of the hero’s journey story structure, for example, this would typically be during the ordeal – the face-off to end all face-offs.
These are just some ideas. Read writers on how they develop their magic systems (many fantasy authors have given excellent speeches at conferences, or have given interviews).
For an interesting discussion of magic systems in fantasy (e.g. ‘hard’ vs ‘soft’ systems), see a Reddit thread in the /r/fantasy community.
- ‘Worldbuilding tips for speculative fiction’ in ‘Writing coach Nerine Dorman on YA, sci-fi and fantasy’
Fantasy story conflicts: No dreams without nightmares
It stands to reason that if we’re to dream of flying, we might dream of falling. That below Icarus, there’s a treacherous sea.
Fantasy story conflicts not only give protagonists reasons to strive, master abilities, leave cozy, round-doored dwellings. They are part of yin and yang, the balance of forces. For every dark mage, a light-bringer’s born.Tweet This
Common sources of conflict in fantasy
An archetypal struggle between good and evil is the most obvious and common fantasy conflict in subgenres such as epic fantasy which build towards epic confrontation.
Another common source of conflict in fantasy is quite simple – the protagonist going where they ‘shouldn’t’ go (or never have gone before).
Alice down the rabbit hole in Lewis Carroll, for example, or Lyra Belacqua (in Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy) into the Master’s rooms in The Golden Compass. Girls, boys, and others behaving badly.
Says Pullman (in his collection of non-fiction essays and speeches Daemon Voices (2017)):
One day I found myself beginning to write a long story of a sort I hadn’tPhillip Pullman, ‘Grace Lost and Regained’ in Daemon Voices (2017), p. 73.
tried before, a sort I could only call fantasy. There was another world, and there were landscapes of Arctic wildness and Gothic complexity; there were gigantic figures of moral darkness and light engaging in a conflict whose causes and outcome were invisible to me. And it began with a little girl going into a room where she shouldn’t go, and having to hide when someone comes in.
Often, especially in academic fantasy about the discovery of magical powers, internal conflict is about typical concerns of school life (friendships, rivalries, crushes, exams), alongside the struggle for magical mastery.
Writing fantasy conflicts: Making conflicts credible
How can you make conflict in your fantasy story intriguing as well as credible?
Borrow fantasy conflict ideas from the Hero’s Journey
Although it has its critics, to echo Vogler the hero’s journey is a form, not a formula. What is hard when a person leaves a place or state of comfort? Or difficult about a rite of initiation or first trial that may require great sacrifice or work? Disappointing about coming back to your ordinary world after a place of magic, life-or-death deeds or struggle?
Dipping into the stages of the hero’s journey could help you find striking conflicts.
Diversify fantasy conflicts’ sources
Internal and external conflict. Close friends vs rivals. Conflict in fantasy story may come from unexpected or unpredictable sources.
Subplots such as Boromir trying to wrest the One Ring from Frodo in The Lord of the Rings cycle keep us on our toes. Conflicts close to home, for example, remind us that allies and foe’s can switch sides.
This blows open the possibilities for how characters may act, betray, or surprise.
Avoid rehashing the same old fantasy conflicts
Will the parents of your fantasy heroes die? Many fantasy readers might grumble, ‘Seen it!’
Obvious fantasy conflicts that flirt with tropes and cliches may make your writing feel imitative rather than fresh. However, Sir Philip Pullman offers a contrasting view (keep reading for his take on the obvious in fantasy).
What conflicts are unique to your character, though? How do they connect to their backstory, desires, limitations?
Explore motivations other than revenge
Revenge can be a juicy theme for drama and stakes, yet it’s another very common motivation for fantasy protagonists (avenging deceased parents who the antagonist killed is the classic combo).
What if your protagonist’s motivation isn’t eye-for-an-eye, motivated by righteous anger? There are many other motivations to choose from for pursuing a showdown with an antagonist, such as:
- Misunderstanding or being misled
- Conviction in personal beliefs
- Ecological or other threats to existence
Credible fantasy conflicts (as in other genres) come down to obeying the laws of cause and effect, action and reaction.
Not every story has to involve high adventure, by any means; but no successful storyteller is afraid of the obvious – of conflict and resolution, faithfulness and treachery, passion and fulfilment.Pullman, ‘Stories Shouldn’t Need Passports’, in Daemon Voices (pp. 177-178).
🗣️ What’s your favorite fantasy conflict, and why? Tell us in the comments.
- Using conflicts in a story: 6 helpful conflict examples
- What The Hobbit characters teach us about character development
- Plot conflict: Striking true adversity in stories
Fantasy writing tips from authors and editors
What do published fantasy authors and fantasy coaches and editors say about how to write a good fantasy story?
Read insights from Now Novel’s writing coaches who’ve helped many aspiring fantasy authors as well as celebrated fantasy authors.
Writing fantasy? Ask the coaches
We asked Now Novel writing coaches and SFF authors Nerine Dorman and Masha Du Toit the one piece of advice they’d give aspiring fantasy authors.
‘Read, read, read. Find the books that are similar to the one you’re writing, so that you are aware of the conventions. Read books that are outside of your genre, be it a classic, a best seller, or historical fiction. Read comic books. Listen to audiobooks. If you have time, play video games with strong storytelling structures. Pay attention to story structure, characterization, description. Ask yourself what works for you, what doesn’t. A good writer of SFF isn’t just reading their own genre, but they’ll dip into a range of genres to inspire and inform their favorite genre.’ – Nerine Dorman
‘Your job, as a writer, isn’t to avoid making mistakes. Your job is to tell stories. The only way to get better at that, is to make those mistakes so that you can learn from them. Don’t keep fiddling with one story in the belief that you can polish it till it’s perfect. Write it as well as you can, and move on to the next story you have to tell.’ – Masha Du Toit
Ursula K. Le Guin on the risks of imitation without understanding and style
In a speech published in Fantastic Literature: A Critical Reader by David Sandner, Le Guin cautions against imitative fantasy writing that parrots rather than understands its inspirations. Writes Le Guin:
There is a great deal of quite open influencing and imitating going on among the writers of fantasy. I incline to think that this is a very healthy situation. It is one in which most vigorous arts find themselves. Take for example music in the eighteenth century, when Handel and Mozart and the rest of them were borrowing tunes and tricks and techniques from one another, and building up the great edifice of music like a lot of masons at work on one cathedral: well, we may yet have a great edifice of fantasy. But you can’t imitate what somebody does until you’ve learned how he does it.Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie’, in Fantastic Literature: A Critical Reader, p. 149 (1973).
Le Guin, in the same essay, goes on to say this about style in fantasy writing:
Most epics are in straightforward language, whether prose or verse. They retain the directness of their oral forebears. Homer’s metaphors may be extended, but they are neither static nor ornate […] Clarity and simplicity are permanent virtues in a narrative. Nothing highfalutin is needed. A plain language is the noblest of all. It is also the most difficult. Tolkien writes a plain, clear English. Its outstanding virtue is its flexibility, its variety.Le Guin, ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie’, p. 152.
Sir Philip Pullman on not overcomplicating fantasy by avoiding the obvious
Although there are obvious fantasy tropes some readers may groan at, many fantasy authors have a gift for revitalizing tropes.
Philip Pullman says, regarding avoiding the obvious, not to overcomplicate by always trying to reinvent the wheel:
Now here’s a very important rule. It’s so important I’ve written it on a piece of paper and stuck it above my desk. It says: ‘Don’t be afraid of the obvious.’ Because it’s very tempting, once you’ve begun to tell stories seriously, to over-complicate. Part of the reason for this, I think, is the natural wish of everyone who aspires to be a good writer not to be mistaken for a bad one. You don’t want them to think you’re writing trash, so you try to avoid the stock situations, the stereo-typed characters, the second-hand plot devices, all the obvious things that trashy books are full of. But the habit of resistance has to be supervised and kept in check. Your ‘built-in, shockproof bullshit detector’, as Hemingway called it, is a good servant but a bad master. It should warn, not decide.Philip Pullman, ‘The Practice of Writing’, in Daemon Voices, p. 191.
N.K. Jemisin on remembering the purpose and contribution of each book in a fantasy series
In a reader Q&A for Goodreads, science fiction and fantasy author N.K. Jemisin gives a great answer to why she writes series mainly, giving a good insight into how to write a fantasy series in the process.
I’m an epic fantasy writer at my core, so I like lengthy stories with multiple arcs. […] It’s popular to malign the second book in a trilogy, I’ve noticed, but I think that’s facile. Second books have a particular job to do, and that job is not to be as “hook”-y as the beginning or explosive as the ending. If it does its job well, however, a good second book gives important layers of meaning to the hook and climax.N.K Jemisin, via Goodreads.
Robin Hobb on fantasy writing and research
In a post from the author’s blog simply titled ‘Fantasy and Research’, Hobb outlines why research is important even if you are not writing realist or historical stories:
You’ve probably heard me say elsewhere that the writer has the task of lowering the threshold of disbelief so that the reader can easily step into the story.
Research is how you do that. Research says that you know the bus route number for your urban fantasy or you know how many miles a horse can travel in a day in rough country or that you know a sickle is not the same as a scythe. Not knowing those things can catapult a knowledgeable reader out of your story, and the book across the room!Robin Hobb, ‘Fantasy and Research’, author’s blog, posted November 15, 2022.
Sir Terry Pratchett on where ideas come from
Sir Terry Pratchett reminds us a great fantasy story can develop from even the most mundane, real subjects:
Ideas come from anywhere and everywhere, particularly, it seems, offbeat non-fiction. Neil Gaiman is exactly the same, which is why we had so much fun doing Good Omens. Anything that looks vaguely interesting is worth reading. It could be the history of washing up. Something in there would make it worth reading and it would pop up someday when we needed it.Sir Terry Pratchett, Writing magazine, quoted by Writers Online
🗣️ What’s a great piece of writing on fantasy or advice you’ve come across? Share it with us in the comments!
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Sources and further reading
Le Guin, Ursula, No Time to Spare: Thinking about what matters, (New York: Mariner, 2019).
Pullman, Philip, Daemon Voices, (New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2019).
Sandner, David, Fantastic Literature: A Critical Reader, (Westport, CI: Praeger, 2004).
- The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association is an excellent resource for SFF authors including writing and publishing advice
- /r/fantasywriters offers this list of books on writing (fantasy and general) and more.
- The 3.1 million members-strong /r/fantasy subreddit is a great source for interesting fantasy-related Q&As and genre discussion.
- Have a read too of Nerine Dorman’s list of women SFF authors that often get overlooked in the ‘Best of …’ lists for a comprehensive list of SFF women authors to try.
Interviews with our SFF coaches
Have a read of Masha du Toit’s interview in which she discusses inspiration, imparts some tips for writing a series, cover designs and more.
In an interview Nerine Dorman talks about worldbuilding pointers, writing YA fiction and common errors SFF writers make.