“Sometimes, we need fantasy to survive reality.”
For me, and for many other readers and writers of fantasy, the great joy of it is escapism; to plunge into a world so unlike ours, populated by fantastical creatures that in reality are images in books, but in the fantasy setting are living, breathing, flesh and blood, or explore lands like and yet different from ours, where magic is as ever present a force as the air we breath and the water we drink. A great pleasure of reading fantasy is to lose yourself in the setting, where different races walk places untouched by men, where dragons, unicorns and more besides make their nests and lairs, and where the struggle between good and evil rages on, and a great pleasure of writing fantasy is being able to create and flesh out a unique setting for your characters to inhabit, for their struggles to play out in, and working out how the fantasy setting will impact the journeys of your characters, for good or ill.
So, when it comes to writing fantasy, what should you consider? Contrary to popular belief, there are many subgenres of fantasy, and if you want to write fantasy, consider what might play to your strengths and writing styles; do you favour urban fantasy, weaving the fantastical with the present day, like the Shadowhunter Chronicles of Cassandra Clare? Dark fantasy, often more visceral, with themes reminiscent of the horror genre woven together with ones of fantasy, as you find in A Song of Ice and Fire? Will your WIP be high fantasy, intricately plotted and diverse, far different from the modern day, often drawing inspiration from the medieval period or the ancient world, as you see in the writings of Tolkien, or low fantasy, where supernatural characters and themes play out in a more familiar setting, like Harry Potter? Whatever you feel would suit you best, make sure to read similar books to get a flavour for what you’re delving into before you start.
I should point out there are no clear cut rules to writing fantasy; everyone has their own unique style to writing, regardless of what genre you’re thinking of writing. What I’m going to do next is give you a few ideas to consider that worked for me and hopefully give you food for thought when you start putting down the words.
What kind of world are you going to build?
Dependent on what type of fantasy you want to write, the world you wish to set your story in can be as diverse as you want it to be, but there are a fair few things that you may want to consider. If you’re thinking of using a medieval setting or similar, be sure to do your research; I’m not saying you have to be one hundred per cent accurate, but obviously, if you’re writing a fantasy set in a world that evokes the early medieval period, it’s going to be very strange if your characters pull out semi-automatics! Will your story take place on a single landmass like Middle-earth, or span multiple continents, like Westeros and Essos? Do the laws of physics, like gravity, apply in the same way they do in our world? What is the climate like, similar to ours, colder like the New World of Esme Carmichael’s Connection series, or far warmer and arid like the desert setting of the Nagash Trilogy by Mike Lee? Do the seasons have lengths similar to ours, or are they extended? What is the system of governance in your world? A religious theocracy, an oligarchy, a democracy, even a magocracy or a necrocracy, where mages or even the undead hold power? If you’re writing a fantasy story set either in the modern day or in a world akin to it for low fantasy, are the more fantastical elements a commonplace sight for ordinary people, or is there a way that the fantastical keeps the mundane from noticing them? All these details help make your setting a far more immersive world that your readers will want to explore and see more of.
Populating your new world
A realm without people is scenery. Building on from the previous paragraph, when it comes time to flesh out the inhabitants of your WIP’s setting, there are so many things to consider. Is your world populated solely by humans, or are there other races as well? Are they more like the classic fantasy tropes of elves and dwarves, or are they different? What are race relations like? Do they get along or is there conflict? Do humans hold other races in high esteem, or look down on them? (for example the contrast between the elves of The Lord of the Rings, where they are held in high regard, with those in the Dragon Age setting, where elves are second-class citizens confined to ghetto-like alienages).
Thinking on your world is also advisable as you write its people into existence, because it will effect how the people in your setting dress, act and behave. If the climate is a cold one, then your people will wear heavy furs and leather to protect against the elements. If there’s a particular social dynamic in your setting, some members of society may wear clothing to assert their status or standing (the tokar, a garment found in A Song of Ice and Fire, for example, is a garment that serves to show the wearer is one of the elite and can only be worn by a citizen, not slaves or freedmen). Do people have religious beliefs or superstitions, and if they do, are they the same throughout the realm, or do they vary from place to place? How do they practice worship, dispose of their dead? Do people have relationships in the same way as in our world; are they openminded or are some relationships and practices taboo? Have people always lived in your setting, or have different cultural groups migrate from other regions, and if so what drove them away? How do people get about from place to place? All these elements will help
Flora and fauna
For me, one of the best bits of writing fantasy is the menagerie of fantastical animals you can release into the wilds of your setting, from the more obvious like the dragon and the unicorn, to more obscure ones like the wendigo or qilin. When you start to plan out the natural world, there are some points to consider; are these creatures sapient, or just animals? How do the people in your setting regard them, with reverence or fear? Do people hunt them, or leave them be, and if they do hunt these creatures, what are the reasons? Are there valuable natural resources to be extracted from their carcasses, or another purpose? Are these creatures considered a threat to life and limb, and if so, how do people in your world deal with them? Can they be domesticated or not?
Another point I just want to touch on here is something I’ve encountered in writing fantasy creatures; a degree of realism that readers have come to expect, that when you include fantasy creatures in your writing, they seem like believable animals, ones that could have evolved. Creatures like dragons and unicorns are more suited in that regard than more hybrid creatures like griffins and manticores, since the former can more conceivably had evolved than the latter. A Song of Ice and Fire is where I’ve found this happening most of all; in A Clash of Kings, a manticore, rather than a hybrid of human, lion, scorpion is a scorpion-like arthropod, while rather than a chicken-serpent hybrid, a basilisk is a dog-sized lizard with a poisonous bite. So when writing mythical creatures into your world, consider how they evolved? What is the biosphere in your setting and how do they fit into it; apex predator? How have they adapted to the world around them? Thick fur, warm blood, sleeping during the day to avoid extreme temperatures, camouflage to protect themselves from predators? Research into similar animals and plants to those you’re thinking of putting in your WIP and consider how they’ve adapted to the natural world, then apply that to your own fantasy menagerie.
Along with mystical beasts, magic is one of the most obvious elements of the fantasy genre; it’s tempting to immediately put in your characters having the ability to throw a fireball at their enemies or heal wounds with a snap of their fingers, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t exercise some thought when planning to put it into your writing. Magic has the potential to be a great advantage for your characters, but it’s something that should be treated with respect. Some thoughts to consider when writing magic into fantasy include; how is it regarded? Do people regard magic with awe or suspicion? Can everyone make use of it or only a select few? How do people learn of magic and how to use it safely; is there education for new mages? Is there a cost for its use, side effects and consequences of misusing magic? Is all magic available for use or are there disciplines that are off-limits or their usage considered taboo? What are the limitations for magic? Magic can’t be anything, and you should make it clear for your readers just how it works, as well as avoid using it as the fix-all for everything that happens in the story, or to get your characters out of difficult situations; magic shouldn’t be a substitute for character development.
Don’t forget the characters!
With all this talk of more fantastical elements, you should never forget that the most important part of your stories are the characters, so don’t allow yourself to get so wrapped up in the details of building your world that you forget to focus on them! Your fantasy world should enhance your story, and by all means, giving detail will help make your story more vivid, but it shouldn’t overshadow the story or the characters; the world is a part of the story, not the story itself.
In the end, there’s no set way to write fantasy; every writer follows their own path to tell the story their way. These are just thoughts to consider while you start to write, and you don’t have to follow them religiously or adhere to every one of them, as some may not fit the story you’re writing. Hopefully though, these points will give you some food for thought, and give you some inspiration for fleshing out the fantasy worlds you’re creating to tell your story in.
Meet Luke Courtney
Luke Courtney is a British Author and TWC Brand Ambassador. He is 30 years old and lives and works in London. By day, he is a mild-mannered museum assistant, working in a little military museum in London, telling stories about the men, horses and exploits of the Household Cavalry Regiment. By night, he is a self-published indie author writing primarily a range of fantasy stories, though he dabbles in other genres. He has currently published three books: Two-Horn, his debut children's book, Argent Blade, the first in his urban fantasy series, and From The Ashes, the first book of the Phoenix Saga. He is also working on a new fantasy series titled The Girl Who Sings to Dragons. When he's not writing, he enjoys running, painting, gaming, reading a good book and a spot of birdwatching.