• A Good Fantasy is Hard to Write

    Posted Posted by Guest Writer in WBN News & Events     Comments 3 comments

    Really guys, fantasy doesn't have to look like this.

    The end of the Harry Potter saga makes me wistful. I know a lot of fans feel the same, and I find that amazing. Harry Potter isn’t even real, yet fans mourn his passing from the limelight. Usually, fantasies lie on the periphery of popular literature. They huddle in a corner alongside D&D campaigns and erotic fanfic. However, when a fantasy achieves pop culture status, it’s often with a lasting bang. “Tolkienverse”, Harry Potter, and comic book superheroes are some modern examples.

    Furthermore, the enduring popularity of myths and fairy tales, the ancestors of fantasy, show that imagining the supernatural is part of the human experience. To this day, fantasy writers re-imagine Arthurian legend, scholars still study the Odyssey, and movie directors reinvigorate fairy tales like “Snow White.” Few stories or characters from other genres become so culturally ingrained as the likes of Aladdin or Cinderella.

    Since fantasy is a well-explored genre, knowing what’s out there is integral to originality. The fantasy genre is full of derivative material―that’s why it’s so easy to parody. You’ve typically got a hero and his gang of archetypes, a quest, and a treasure, relic, or artifact. You know, Hero with a Thousand Faces stuff. (For a full list of fantasy clichés, check out the Fantasy Novelist’s Exam.) It’s impossible to omit every hackneyed thing from your story. However, you can certainly keep it from sounding like a He-Man spin-off.

    On the other hand, just because something seems overdone doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write about it. Many fantasy stereotypes get makeovers and take on new significance to readers. For instance, in The Mists of Avalon author Marion Zimmer Bradley redeems Arthurian legend’s Morgan Le Fay and casts Avalon’s magic in a neo-pagan light.

    Besides innovative approaches to old tropes, what else makes a good fantasy? Author Lawrence Watts-Evans wrote a great web page that lists his “Laws of Fantasy.” The first four laws apply to all fiction writing, but I find the last two exclusively important to writing fantasy. First, the way magic works in your world should be consistent. Otherwise, you won’t suspend the reader’s belief in your narrative and provide an enthralling mental vacation. The desire to escape boring reality is at the heart of every fantasy-lover, so appealing to that desire is crucial. Second, the fantasy elements of your story should serve a purpose in the plot. Otherwise, you’re at risk of coming across as cheesy or superficial in your storytelling.

    Finally, I would add one more law. It’s used when writing all varieties of fiction, but it’s vital for fantasy: show, don’t tell. A fantasy world only exists in an author’s mind until he or she writes about it, so immersing readers in the action and sensory details of your story is essential. Vague, wordy depictions of frolicking elves or macho swordplay will often make readers either laugh or disassociate. Again, many fantasy readers are aware and tired of clichés, so “showing” readers your one-of-a-kind characters interact in a unique world is the way to excite the otherwise jaded.


    In addition to writing for WriteByNight’s blog, Jenna Cooper writes for BE Mag and a blog called FemThreads.  Aside from writing, Jenna served as an AmeriCorps Member from 2008-2010 and will start her M.S. in Information Studies in Fall 2012.  She graduated in 2009 with a B.A. in English from the University of Texas.


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    Wesley Belk

    I’ve written about 250 pages worth on my own take on the fantasy genre. The problem is I did it in 1st person, an amateur mistake I know, but is it worth it to try and rewrite in the 3rd person? Also I really like this article. It’s given me renewed inspiration! Thank you!


    Thank you! I think first person writing is tricky. Have you read Robin Hobb’s Farseer or Tawny Man trilogies? She writes in first-person, and I think she’s good at it (except when the main character goes all Anakin Skywalker and whines). I guess it depends on whether or not writing from a first-person perspective serves your plot and characters.

    Words from Weirder Worlds

    I’d seen the Fantasy Novelist’s Exam before and found it very useful in culling extraneous bits from my novel ideas. It really is a great resource for avoiding cliches and all that and really developing an idea to its fullest extent. However, I hadn’t encountered Watt-Evans’s rules before but now that I’ve read them I definitely agree with them. Especially with the last one. I had had an idea before arriving at the current one and that was exactly the case! I could write the story entirely without any suppernatural elements and it wouldn’t matter an iota. Later it turned… Read more »

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