Five Things: top tips for writing fantasy fiction
I had the idea for my YA novel, The Mapmaker's Daughter, several years ago, but it was two years before I was ready to write it and when I did the first draft was completed within six weeks. Of course, there were many, many drafts after that before the story was ready for publication, but I knew what I was writing about. Those two years were spent thinking about how my fantasy world would work. I'm not saying I had endless books of notes, but I spent the time thinking through key concepts. It's an easy mistake to think that writing fantasy is a way of avoiding doing research because you get to make up everything. In reality, a good fantasy novel is arguably as tough and demanding to write as an historical one or indeed, any kind of fiction that requires specialist knowledge. The key to writing fantasy is to make it real for your reader. And to do that you need to know the world you have created inside out.
Here are my five top tips for writing fantasy:
It's an easy mistake to think that writing fantasy is a way of avoiding doing research because you get to make up everything
Unless you are writing about the birth of a universe, your world has been operating a long time before your reader sets eyes on page one. I'm not suggesting you need to write a long history of your world before you start, but you need to know the key events in history for your story. In my heroine, Sharra's, time she knows something about the history of the dramatic events that took place in the past, but I know all of them. It's common in fantasy for some history to be lost - it may even be what your character is seeking - but just because your characters don't know the history doesn't mean you don't need to know it. I even know the big secret Sharra won't uncover till book two. Most importantly, as my readers learn more and more about the history of her world it all makes sense. It fits together. The history of my world may (and hopefully will) surprise the reader, but when he or she thinks about it they need to be able to say, 'oh right. I didn't see that coming, but it makes sense now.'
Culture defines us. We may be a multi-cultural society in Scotland, but it is an awareness of the culture we were brought up in and those that surround us that make our country a rich and exciting place to live. The same is true in any fantasy world. Don't neglect to think about how your fantasy society functions. There are so many cultural ideas you can incorporate. A few examples include whether prayer is important in everyday life, whether science is the new absolute, whether it's considered vulgar to let someone see you eat, is it a feudal society or a meritocracy? Are there several cultures living together or one? How do they get along together?
This sounds so boring, but actually we need to know how the practicalities of the world work. For example how do characters travel? The length of time does it take them to cross their country or even their world may be vital to your story. In a similar vein, is medical knowledge and help easy to come by or do characters have to be able to do things for themselves? Will it be easy for your characters to find support and help when they need it? Can you post a letter and expect it to be delivered in a few days or a few months? Is the infrastructure failing and if so why?
4. Identifiable Characters
No matter how extreme the world, the reader needs to be able to identify with the characters
It doesn't matter if your character has three blue heads, believes all animals are devils in disguise or knows they are the reborn incarnation of a god. No matter how extreme the world, the peoples or the culture, the reader needs to be able to identify with the characters. They need to care. In some way the reader needs to connect with something that, at first sight, may seem odd or even alien. The strongest connections are always shared emotions and shared trials. Even a three-headed alien may pine for love. Even the living incarnation of a god may feel lonely and confused about what their life is about. Yes, it is fantasy, but it is the concerns at the heart of the human condition such as love, loss, hope, jealousy, fear of mortality, anger and even hate that make fantasy characters real to the reader.
It's a major bugbear of mine when I'm jerked out of a story by a random collection of consonants and punctuation - or worse still, a bunch of vowels stuck together without a consonant in sight - that I cannot even imagine how to pronounce, but is apparently a name I will be seeing on a regular basis. I'm not suggesting you call your planet something dull like 'Rock World', but neither do I want it to be 'Gjkhjk'hjkhd'. Repeatedly wondering how a word is pronounced throws a reader right out of the story.
As in any novel you need a good and original story, brilliant characters and lots of emotional highs and lows, but with fantasy, you need to go just that little bit further and work just that little bit harder. Good luck!
Get more writing tips in our Five Things archive.