The Realities of Writing Fantasy
The best thing about fantasy is magic and its ability to transport the reader (and writer, naturally) to a different world where anything can happen, right? Well, yes and no.
Anything can happen—within limits. Although you shouldn’t restrain your imagination when you create that make-believe universe, you should exert control over the fictional elements that make up your fantasy novel or short story. As with other genres, plot, characterization, pacing, and dialogue all play key roles. But fantasy fiction introduces two other elements: magic and world-building. The following guidelines for writing fantasy should help make your job easier – and your story more compelling.
Who Gets the Magic
Even in magic, there are rules. A wizard’s staff does not guarantee the ability to perform magic, and only in rare instances can a mage or wizard or enchantress do “everything.” In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, for example, the wizards (young and old) can perform many feats that are within their ability and skills, but not to the same degree. Young wizards learn the skills of potion making, defense against the dark arts, and on, over seven years of intense study.
So, while Harry is a whiz at flying his broomstick from the first moment he sets eyes on his new vehicle, Hermione Granger has a lot of trouble trying to work the spell. But Hermione is a master of almost every other spell she learns – and a good thing, too, since she’s often rescuing the other two hooligans or helping them solve their dilemmas.
In some fantasy worlds, wizardry bears a heavy price for its use, such as physical weariness, depletion of power, or some other detriment. Or it may have a bonus, such as long life. Think about how many centuries Gandalf and Saruman dwelled in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Other aspects of magery limit the wizard to specific skills—healing, telepathy between wizards, telepathy with dragons, control of fire, and so on—whatever the writer’s imagination desires.
Magic Is Magic Is Magic … Well, Not Really
Magic requires a structure, no matter how informal. Within that framework, magic must be consistent to be believable. If the mage’s apprentice learns how to change a pig into a cow in Chapter 1, she can’t unlearn that ability in the next chapter—unless, of course, an evil sorcerer cast a spell and took her power away.
With consistency comes another key aspect of fiction writing – in any genre. It is important to show (the magic), not just tell the reader about it. Weave examples not only in the dramatic climax between good and evil but also throughout the storyline in everyday occurrences. Make it real, and make it visible.
Finally, magic needs a place in the society you create, whether it’s a political role (advisor to the queen), a benevolent social role (the country witch who conjures love potions), or perhaps a hermit’s role (who is mysterious in his or her own right).
Lions and Tigers and Wizards, Oh My…
It’s easy to get so caught up in creating a magical system that you forget to develop credible characters. Even if those characters happen to be dragons or elves, they need to involve the reader in their struggles. Although the players deal with a make-believe world and setting, their emotions and problems should still touch the reader in some compelling way.
Your characters have relationships; they have dilemmas; they have emotions—or they should. As in any good novel, characterization is an essential component that prompts the reader to stay up past midnight and read another chapter, then another, and another.
Look at what Tolkien did in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Hobbits aren’t just adorable little creatures with fury feet. They exist. They think about food all day long. They face danger with stunning courage and grace in the face of dark, life-threatening obstacles. And you, the reader (or movie viewer) care about them; in fact, you care so much that you’re compelled to read all three volumes. In the Harry Potter series, those children are alive and enchanting, showing age-appropriate behavior as they progress through the hallowed halls of Hogwarts. Why else would children and adults alike devour those voluminous novels?
The Links That Bind
Although they are not mandatory in the fantasy genre, trilogies are very popular, just as private-eye or cop series are popular in mysteries. Trilogies generally come in one of two formats:
· Stand-alone novels within a trilogy relate a complete story with hints of what could be developed in Books 2 and 3. If necessary, you could read them independently and still feel satisfied. Although Harry Potter is not a trilogy but seven books in a series, each one can stand alone. (But can you imagine reading only one?)
· Dependent novels within a trilogy keep you in suspense because the story is incomplete without the other two books, as in the Lord of the Rings. The fellowships forms and shatters in the first book, alliances come together and chess pieces are placed on the board in the second book, and the final clash between good and evil and the completion of the ring quest occurs in Book 3.
And speaking of quests, although they appear in many fantasies, they’re not mandatory either. But if a quest doesn’t drive the plot forward, the author must devise tension from an internal or external conflict as well as a satisfying resolution, with a well-developed storyline. The heroine must find the courage, the princess rescued, the evil sorcerer defeated, and the dragon’s treasure stolen.
Along with strong plot lines, character development, and a magical framework, the links among the books of a trilogy are the underlying themes. Readers who are unfamiliar with fantasy often don’t realize how they can relate to our own lives. Most tales deal with courage, honor, loyalty, friendship, self-doubt, and a hundred other significant matters.
In my Crownmage Trilogy, one of the themes focuses on forgiveness: My protagonist, Alex Keltie, struggles with the need to forgive not only her friends (who were pushing her to do something she didn’t want to do in reclaiming her magic), but also her father (who had abandoned her when she was an infant). In varying degrees, these points carry through the rest of the trilogy as Alex finds her own way through the maze of trouble in which she’s caught.
Building a World Blueprint
When you’re envisioning your fantasy world, the sky isn’t the limit. But whatever universe you create, be sure it has a firm foundation to explain the oddities that are sure to appear. Consider the whole setting – climate, social structures, government, religion, technology, and all the aspects of life as you would imagine them. But don’t design a really bizarre world simply to be different. If readers don’t believe your world is “real,” it won’t work. They have to be transported elsewhere.
Here are some world-building tips:
- If you invent words or language to fit your world and society, don’t overuse them (a bad habit of mine, unfortunately).
- When you create character and place names, don’t make them too outrageous or so much work that the reader gets disgusted because they’re too confusing. (A character list is always helpful, but not required.)
- Keep the 21st century out of your world. Remember, inkwells, not inkjet printers, unless, of course, your fantasy characters interact with the present world as in “urban” fantasy.
- Draw a map to help you know (and your reader envision) where your characters are going when they start traveling on their quest through your make-believe world. You’d be surprised how often you’ll refer to it!
It’s Your World
Above all, remember that writing fantasy should be fun. Mix a good story with engaging characters, and let your imagination roam free. Picture a world in which you might like to live. For inspiration, or to get in the mood, snuggle up with your favorite elves, dragons, wizards, kings, and queens. Then put them aside, jump on your broomstick, and set off on your own adventure.
Virginia G. McMorrow, an editor/writer for 25+ years, has
worked for business publishers on books, journals, and
newsletters and is the author of six fantasy novels published
by MuseItUp (Mage Confusion, Mage Resolution, Mage
Evolution, Firewing’s Journey, Firewing’s Shadow,
Firewing’s Hunt). As a playwright, she has had many
one-acts and one full-length play produced off-off
Broadway in a NYC blackbox theater.