My entire Pearseus series (five books) is sci-fi/fantasy, as are some of my short stories. So I was pretty excited when I came across a post on Reedsy with some great tips on writing fantasy. I’m summarizing here (and adding a few tips of my own), but be sure to check out (and bookmark) the full post on Reedsy.
1. Identify your market
If you don’t know your market, you’ve already made a mistake. “Oh, my market is fantasy,” you might say. But is your story steampunk, urban, or dark fantasy? Are there elves or tech? Is it set in the modern world, or is it a re-imagining of an alternate past? No-one would instinctively group Harry Potter and Stephen King’s The Dark Tower in the same category.
Indeed, “fantasy” is such a broad genre that you’ll need to dig deeper to find your niche. Your subgenre not only informs your characters and setting but also allows you to identify your competition and audience. For example, if your characters are younger, you should probably be writing YA or MG, not adult fiction.
2. Develop your world through short stories
Did you know that JRR Tolkien wrote a gazillion short stories about Middle-Earth before ever starting The Hobbit? He needed somewhere to begin, and short stories that feature some of your characters are a good way to build your world. Do this with the intention of excluding these stories from your book. This gives you the freedom to create a new universe with no boundaries.
So if you can’t churn out the full-blown novel inside of you just yet, don’t sweat it. Dip your toe into the water through short stories instead.
3. Tie your worldbuilding into your plot
Plot and worldbuilding should see eye-to-eye. You want to be original, so ask yourself, what sets my world apart? A rich universe can be a major player in your plot — playing as big of a role as any other character. A great example of this may be A Song of Ice and Fire, where George R. R. Martin uses the environment as a plot point when describing both summer and winter seasons — as winter brings dark, dead things that can wipe out the entire Realm. He also adds architecture as a plot point in the form of the Wall, a massive ice edifice separating the North and the South.
And Stephen King does an expert job in Under the Dome, when a small town is suddenly cut off from the rest of the world by a giant, transparent dome.
4. Keep your story relevant through real-world themes
Yes, your story is about fantasy. But that doesn’t mean it has to be cut off from the real world. Your concerns about politics, culture, the environment, technology, violence, racism, misogyny — these issues can be explored in inventive, eye-opening ways while writing fantasy. Readers want to return to our own existences with new perspectives, new solutions to old problems, or new awareness of what’s at stake.
5. Use all five of your senses
What makes worldbuilding tick? Specific, sensory detail. You can be as inventive and magical as you want in your work if the writing is detailed enough to seem authentic.
Again, think of Game of Thrones. Crisp air, hooves clattering on ironwood planks, a warm tongue, women’s perfume, summerwine, soft fur. The writing’s full of these concrete details. So when the author expands the universe to include fantastical elements, we buy it. Dragons? Sure! Face-swapping assassins? Why not? Frozen zombies? Probably didn’t see that coming, but the author’s sensory style already established the world as believable, so we’re primed to accept anything thrown at us.
6. Give your world internal rules
To make a world feel real and functional, you also want to make sure that it’s grounded by rules — an internal rationale, so to speak. This should encompass everything from the workings of your society to, yes, your magic system (if your universe possesses magic). Become familiar with the basics of economics, politics, philosophy, and more, and you’ll create a believable world of your own.
When you have established your ground rules, be careful not to break them. Let’s say, for example, you’ve made it clear that using magic is supposed to sap energy. So don’t make your protagonist go rip magic spells left and right in the final battle without tiring at all.
Ultimately, this internal consistency matters much more than realism. That is why you may wish to jot everything down (my own book notes are usually multi-pages long). When do the suns come up? How many days on a week/month/year? Can only children under the age of 10 fly? When casting a spell, does it transform the object or create an object from nothing? Know the rules of your world (what we call physics!) when you’re writing fantasy and don’t break them — unless, of course, it’s on purpose.
7. Ask questions while worldbuilding
The most powerful tool in your world building arsenal is the question. Where do big cities pop up? At a confluence of trade routes. That’s influenced by rivers. Where do rivers come from? Where does their water go? Are there aquifers? What happens if they get destroyed? Should someone be guarding them?
Constantly ask these questions. This will make sure that everything is rationally thought-out. Fantasy works when you can read it like it is real. You want readers to read the story knowing there are stories and adventures and a world that exists far beyond the story they are currently invested in.
8. Have the mindset of a cinematographer
Sometimes writers get so caught up in their world that they write endless paragraphs of description. This is a mistake. Don’t tell your reader what your world appears to be. Give them scenery when it relates to the story by getting your characters to interact with their surroundings.
We never got an ultra-wide shot showing the whole of Middle Earth in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy! That would be boring to the viewers, not to mention meaningless. Instead, cinematographers carefully plan each shot to give you a view of where the actors are. This is exactly the way you should show your world.
9. Interview your characters to know them
Good character creation and development in fantasy is no different from any other genre. The best characters are complex and original. They possess very real motives and weaknesses, and they change over time due to events and supporting characters in the story. Take your character and interview them. What do they fear most? What are their ultimate goals, and where are they willing to go to achieve that goal? Do this with all major characters when you’re writing fantasy: craft a questionnaire and get your answers from them. Your publisher will thank you.
10. Don’t introduce all your characters all at once
Ever want a corkboard just to keep the characters in a fantasy book straight? The number of characters in many fantasy series is so infinite, it turns out to be a mad scramble to keep track of them all — especially when the reader’s still trying to differentiate between Boldon, the protagonist, and Bolgon, the shrewish elf from Book 2.
So don’t make it even tougher on the reader by dumping all your characters onto page two. Fantasy writers try to introduce too many characters on one page, or there’s an info dump to reveal how the magic system works. They make the reader sit and memorize their world or their characters before they actually introduce the story. But you end up dropping readers that way.
My personal tip? Never use the same first letter/syllable for any two character names. And get rid of as many names as you possibly can. People don’t need to remember a minor character’s name when their title (general, lieutenant, captain, sergeant etc) or their relation to the heroine (cousin, neighbor etc) will do just fine.
11. Pick a good book and read it
You should read good books, with an emphasis on good. Your writing’s only going to be as great as what you’re feeding it. So read. You’re absorbing ideas. You’re absorbing grammar. You’re absorbing sentence structure and rhythm and prose. Read books with description or dialogue you admire. Read the books that are classics—they are classics for a reason—and read the books that are bestsellers and read the books that are award winners. Read and read and read, and you’ll start to see your own writing improve.
To take a specific action, pick the 10 books that you most admire. Then, it’s just a matter of re-reading them and noting strengths in their plot, dialogue, characters, and scene structure. Learn from the best — and then go forth and tilt the arena again yourself.