Creating Great Fantasy

creating-great-fantasyWhile some have looked down on fantasy fiction as derivative, poorly written or childish, the fact is that our oldest literature is fantasy fiction. From The Epic of Gilgamesh or the Odyssey, or one of my absolute favorites Beowulf! All of these stories that have survived the disappearance of ancient civilizations are stories of gods and magic and quests and monsters. It’s undeniable that fantasy is one of the most popular and favorite of many across all ages.

J.R.R. Tolkien is generally considered to be the father of modern English-language fantasy fiction for adults. There were fantasy novels written prior to Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, 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 kicked the modern genre into high gear.

Like every genre, fantasy is capable of producing fiction that is well-written and thoughtful with original characters, settings and plots. Modern classics such as the Earthsea series by Ursula K. LeGuin or Jack Vance’s Lyonesse series stand as proof that fantasy series can have wide appeal among readers of all ages and reading preferences. One of the biggest hits of today’s generation is, George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series which is wildly popular with critics, readers and viewers of the TV series adaptation, Game of Thrones.

Despite the success of G.R.R. Martin, some still argue that the last thing the fantasy genre needs is more long series of novels. However, this view does not appear to be shared by either readers or writers.

Writing A Series That Contributes Something New:  A Few To-Do & Not To-Do’s

Read A Lot of Fantasy
This advice is sort of a cliché in itself, but something that is quite necessary in my opinion. If you are thinking about writing a fantasy series, then you are probably already well-acquainted with the genre, but you may only read a certain type of novel or a handful of authors.

Becoming familiar with the genre’s clichés and pitfalls means reading a lot of fantasy novels. This includes the good, the bad and the awful, and as you are reading think about the plot and what works, or doesn’t work. Read what is popular and what is critically acclaimed as the broader the scope of your reading, the better you will know what kinds of fantasy worlds and subtopics are still to be told.

In addition to reading contemporary writers, you should also read older fantasy. In part, this is important for understanding the history of the field, but it’s also important because it often provides insight on where clichés come from. When Tolkien penned the Lord of the Rings trilogy there was nothing cliché about elves and long quests and magic rings and using Northern European myth as the basis for a long fantasy series, but that is no longer the case.

Knowing the history of the fantasy genre and the realm you’ve decided to dive into will help you understand how to write a fantasy series. It also shows that elements of the fantasy genre that critics sometimes ridicule are not inherently bad but simply have been done 30 or 40 years ago and have been worn thin through overuse.

Forget The Big Guys

Tolkien, C.S Lewis, L. Frank Baum, and a countless number of others are the best the genre has ever known.  They have in sorts cast a very heavy shadow across the field. Too many would-be and actual novelists who hope to follow these giants and their footsteps have shoddily constructed languages and maps and worlds and created thinly veiled versions of his characters.  I myself have even been inspired by these authors, but it’s important you move away from big authors like this as to not get sucked into any overused work.  Burly dwarves and angelic elves can be interesting, but if you use stock characters such as these, try incorporating them in an innovative way in your fantasy books.

Fantasy Traditions

Some writers feel that using the traditions of a culture that is not your own is a kind of appropriation, but we could say that about any genre of book if we take an honest look at the author’s inspiration.  Drawing inspiration from the history, art, literature, and folk lore is just good practice for great idea churning! This does require a level of sensitivity and a lack of condescension, if you want to steer clear of possible backlash, but it’s quite possible to do without offending a culture or misusing these ideas.

Looking at a lot of culture and legends that have been used over the fantasy genre, you can look no further then Europe.  Some people say it’s been overused in the modern fantasy but George R.R. Martin turned this so called overused idea into a fantasy classic with his Fire and Ice series.  He chose a period of history that is largely overlooked and he approaches his novels as if they were historical fiction.  Martin brings something fresh and rejuvenated even though his inspiration seems to come from a part of the world that has been reworked to death by fantasy novelists before him.

Stop When It’s Time to Stop 

One of the biggest complaints about fantasy novels / series is they don’t end.  At times the story is lacking depth and stretches to broadly across many books.  Don’t overstay the book series welcome among the readers as they can quickly be burnt if you don’t know when to stop.  Leaving the audience gritting for more is the best way to end a book as it’s way better then complaints rolling in about you needing to throw the pen away ages ago. Keep track of when you write, how long the series are running and what kind of feedback you get and it will make things much easier on when to stop writing vs. continuing something that’s not working.

How Do I Get Readers Hooked Across Story Arcs?

If you are looking at having multiple books then planning is key!!!

I can’t stress enough on how important it is to have the overall story arc planned out and tracked.  Each book should be plotted out and each individual story arc should be tracked as well.   You simply cannot write a three, five or even eight book series that sustains the necessary narrative drive and focus to keep readers interested without some idea of where the story is going. Planning also helps you avoid introducing subplots and characters in earlier books that go nowhere.  Errors like this can be frustrating enough to make your reader put your books down halfway through the series and never return.

Your books must be self-contained to some degree as well. You must balance the progress of the overall arc along with the smaller arcs.  Readers will easily become frustrated and may lay the book down if you move away from the main arc for an extended period. This becomes a fine balance of holding the readers attention and being able to switch between multiple stories through a books overall story arc.  Different readers will naturally have some characters and story lines that interest them more than others, but you need to keep all of your story lines engaging enough to keep the reader turning pages. One way to do this is by writing emotionally-engaging characters. Another is to ensure that the main arc of the story is furthered through subplots.

Finally, one of the most important points to keep in mind is that writing a fantasy series is in many ways no different from writing a novel. You ultimately have to approach your series as though it is one very long novel.  This can be very tough and challenging because you need a fully realized world that engages characters to inhabit, a plot that is going to draw readers in, and the mix of conflict / tension that will keep the readers turning pages for more.

Fantasy remains one of the most popular series among readers of all ages.  Avoiding the pitfalls of clichés and planing a strong story arc that drives the story to completion and produces something readers will grab a hold of.  Keeping the main story arc central is key throughout the novel series but avoiding the addition of too many subplots is that fine balance between readers being hooked, and dropping the book like a hot potato.  Stay focused and have fun while you write which will help you move the story along.


2 thoughts on “Creating Great Fantasy

  1. Fantasy has always been my weakness, as a writer. One time I was inspired by Lewis and was pent on crafting my own fantasy story — failed miserably. :,) But it made me appreciate the genre so much more.

    While it’s not my favorite genre, when it’s done well and doesn’t try to overachieve (you can tell which authors tried too hard match the detail of LotR and others) it makes for a satisfying pastime. There’s nothing like being submerged in a fantastical world.

    Thank you for sharing this informative piece. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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