There’s good fantasy and there’s cringe-worthy, predictable, dull, rip-off fantasy. What kind would you rather be known for? Perhaps the second type if you’re going for the ironic satirical take on the genre, but at least master the craft first before you wreck it or reinvent the wheel.
Ideally, you should have a firm idea of how your fantasy novel will work out before you begin typing. Although, there’s no reason why you have to know exactly how it’s going to end yet or even every plot-detail. So, what should you concentrate on during the novel-planning stage (and you should have some sort of novel-planning stage unless you want a total mess of a manuscript to edit until your eyes bleed)?
Below I will examine three areas where you should focus most of your attention before writing.
DO: read the bestselling books in your genre, both indie and traditionally published, before you launch into an epic series. Study what has been done already, how popular authors create tension, subvert themes, and present their work. Let it sink in and inspire you, though obviously don’t copy.
Often, new writers think creating fantasy characters is a matter of sticking a pair of fangs on someone, and wham, they’re a vampire. Consider:
- Were they born different or were they created? How does society react to them?
- Family background; how were your characters brought up? Did they have a happy childhood, were they poor, rich, abandoned? Just like in real life, your characters’ childhood will determine their worldview, relationships, and behaviour to a large degree. This is especially true in fantasy because ‘what’ a character is may have affected most of his or her life, or forced them to completely break away from everyone they know and love.
- Disposition; everyone has natural tendencies towards certain modes of being. For example, some people need to be forced just to get out of bed in the morning, others will launch into an adventure without a second thought. If your character has magical powers, they may be more willing to take risks, but not necessarily. If not, why not?
- Flaws; physical, emotional, and mental. No one is perfect in real life, and just because your protagonist is an elf, that doesn’t let you off the hook. Perfect, flawless characters are so boring and readers find it hard to connect with them.
- Villains; even the bad guys often believe in the righteousness of their cause. They also inhabit many levels of ‘badness’. Some people are evil, others are just selfish. Others are battling addition – e.g. blood, magic-enhanced drugs etc. Give your protagonist a variety of antagonists. For an absolute masterclass in villains, I highly recommend watching the first two seasons of Marvel’s Daredevil (available on Netflix). Not only is it a fantastic series, but the villains are also a perfect example of human complexity. Pay special attention to Matt’s power struggle with Fisk, and his to-and-fro arguments with the Punisher, which forces him to question his fundamental beliefs and motivations. Plus, the fight scenes are epic.
Now you have a cast of well-developed, believable characters, you need to ensure that they are placed in a fully realised world. Make sure that you address all of these areas during the planning stage:
- Language; don’t overdo this. You’re writing in English, but you may need to mention the differences in language between groups. Use a few made-up words here and there, in italics, and give the language a name. But your reader doesn’t want a dictionary to memorise; this isn’t a film with convenient subtitles. However, there are many styles of speech and accents to play with to subtly point to a character’s ethnic or cultural origins.
- Environment; weather or other environmental factors would have had a large bearing on how society developed, the types of buildings people live in, and evolution. For a brilliant example of this, check out Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings.
- Culture and customs; these will affect the daily lives of your characters, especially those who stick out from society’s norms. Night-dwelling vampires are a classic example. Also think about religion. Conflict in these areas can provide a lot of fuel for fantasy plots.
- Dress; styles of clothing, accessories, and worn weaponry need to be considered. What your characters wear says a lot about them. Also, take into account gender differences and how these might be subverted.
- Food; unless of course, your characters absorb energy from the air.
- History; this will form culture and customs, and set up many obstacles for your characters. What I love about fantasy is that your antagonists can come from any era, because they don’t have to only live for a hundred years!
DON’T: feel the need to include every tiny bit of research or information into your story, especially not at once. You know how the king came to power after a long, bitter feud with his family that started three-hundred years ago, but your reader doesn’t care enough to digest an intricate account. Only mention it when it’s relevant to the story.
Mythological Background & Magic Systems
In conjunction with world-building, you need to specifically pay attention to the history and origins of:
- Magic; where does it come from, how does it work? Are powers inherited? How?
- Species; why and how do some creatures or species use magic?
- Society; did some mythological event cause its foundation or destruction? How does this relate to the present day?
You also need to ensure that you stick to your own rules. There’s nothing that will pop the ‘fictional bubble’ quicker than contradicting your own magic system. Don’t let your characters do the impossible unless you seed clues through the whole book so your protagonist can discover that world-saving loophole in a surprising yet inevitable way, just at the right moment.
That’s an awful lot of things to think about. I recommend creating a cloud-based notebook with section dividers to keep track of all the little details. Alternatively, you can try Scrivener – software created specifically for writers – as a way of organising notes. I like OneNote because I can sync it to all my devices, meaning I am able to add ideas whenever and wherever inspiration strikes.
It’s worth the time and effort. Here’s to writing an engaging and believable fantasy! If you want to learn more about self-editing, sign-up for a FREE 3-day course here, or if you’re ready for professional feedback, check out my affordable range of editing services. Remember, I offer sample edits of up to 1000 words.
Ciao for now,