Book Writing AdviceBook, Writing, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

A World Unlike Any Other: How To Write a High Fantasy Story


If you conduct any research into the fantasy genre, you'll quickly learn that there's much debate surrounding what constitutes high fantasy. Writing is art, and art is always difficult to define and categorize, but there is one universal truth about high fantasy that most authors are happy to accept: high fantasy is set in an alternate world outside of our own.

That alternate world can look similar to our own, or it can be a complete fabrication borne from your literary mind. That part is up to you. But there should be elements that set it apart from the world we live in. With that one widely accepted rule out of the way, here are a few general guidelines to follow as you write your high fantasy story.

Never imitate, always innovate

Hobbit house
Replicating the writing style or plot development of another author is never encouraged. But observing an author's story and admiring their skill is greatly beneficial, once the writer in question adds their own flair to what they've created. Image by Gudellaphoto.

As we've established, there are no concrete rules when it comes to writing or even defining fiction, but authors of every genre can agree on one particular writing regulation: you can't write unless you read. Active reading is key to creating a world in which your readers get lost. There are endless shelves of books detailing the craft of writing itself, but without engaging in the act of reading and gaining priceless insight into what drives a story, a writer is almost always doomed to fail.

New writers often feel that relying on classics and fan favorites to guide them through the process can feel as though they're poaching tactics or pinching storylines, but this doesn't have to be the case.

To gain insight into the high fantasy subgenre, review the stories that sparked your interest in this storytelling style and get a feel for the following:

  • How the author creates their respective worlds to mold the complex, multi-faceted environments that inspire readers to keep turning pages
  • How the author develops the characters that move their stories forward and how they handle conflict, desire, loss, etc.

Take notes as you read and focus on what made that story so captivating that you simply couldn't put it down.

Balance world development

Treetop village made out of scrap parts
The very idea of building a new world is what inspires many high fantasy authors to pick up a pen. And though imagination is a necessity when it comes to this subgenre, a healthy balance is key to retaining your reader's attention. Image by Dominick.

Your literary mind might be swimming in an ocean of detail and description — from your world's peoples, to its creatures, to its magic system — but it's best to question just how much a reader needs to know.

Just as lifeless environments and dull settings can damage a story beyond repair, full chapters of scene setting can easily kill a reader's interest. Decide exactly how much they need to know and focus on styling those scenes in a way that brings that world to light.

While the regular "muggle" world of the Harry Potter series is low fantasy, the wizarding world is very much high fantasy, given the presence of magic, goblins, dragons, etc. Hogwarts is at the very heart of this series and Rowling deftly describes it. We learn so much about the old castle that it's set forever in our minds, yet there is still a sense of mystery: why do the staircases move? How did the Room of Requirement come to exist?

These questions are never answered, and rightly so. Pages and pages of explanation and description can dull a reader's initial interest in a story, so finding a balance in what you reveal to the reader and what you choose to keep from them is key.

Avoid character predictability

Fantasy tavern characters
Just as the people around you surprise you, your characters should surprise your readers. Image by Will.

There are many similar elements found throughout the world's high fantasy stories. Among these are character similarities… The young maiden is the typical damsel in distress that must be rescued repeatedly; the sword-wielding man faces danger and death but wants to reap no rewards for his bravery; the old, bearded mentor is forever on-hand to provide wisdom and sage advice that sets the hero on his path.

There is nothing wrong with any of these character types per se; they exist in many high fantasy classics. But authors worth their salt work to bring something of their own to each character, and you should follow suit.

Characterizing your characters

George R.R. Martin first introduced Daenerys Targaryen as the soft-spoken sister to her ruthless, power-hungry twin brother. With her piercing eyes, long platinum hair, and slow-to-defy nature, she is the quintessential stereotype of the damsel in distress. But it isn't long before she finds her voice and secures herself as one of the series' strongest characters.

With another A Song of Ice and Fire character, we first see Tyrion Lannister acting as many characters viewed him, a simple imp with a fondness for wine and in constant search of a good time. He certainly isn't portrayed as a character who will one day stand beside the righteous to defeat those undeserving of power. But as time passes, Tyrion transcends as a character and recognizes his responsibilities.

Without surprise and a little mystery, your characters' actions will be predictable. Bring your own flair and ingenuity to typical character types. Don't be afraid to show people the cruel and vindictive side of your angel-faced princess. Be prepared to demonstrate the fragility of human nature when your minotaur-slaying hero flees at the sight of a wasp.

Excessive action slows the pace

Knights riding on horses into battle
Often, new high fantasy writers place too much value on the action of their story, with insufficient focus on the plot and characters that drive it. Image by Mars0hod.

When we think of high fantasy, some typical scenes emerge in our minds: swords clashing against each other as two warriors parry and thrust; two armies charge each other, ready for battle; a magical struggle between hero and enemy sees them too evenly matched to defeat their opponent.

Battle scenes and descriptive fight sequences can be written so well that the reader is humming to learn the outcome, but they can also be overused. You can spend endless hours detailing a scene to create a spectacular showdown that pits friend against foe, but putting some weapons in your characters hands and sending them to a descriptive war just isn't enough to secure a reader's interest in that scene.

To create an action-packed face-off, review how much action you're describing and limit it to what you feel is necessary to best depict that scene. Ensure that the characters involved have been so well developed that your readers will turn page after page to learn of their fates.

Plan ahead, but don't over-plan

Map of an island with kingdoms
With so much description to track and lore to keep tabs on, a framework for your world is necessity to ensure you don't get lost along the way as you write. Image by Domingo.

One of the biggest hurdles writers must overcome in the writing process is simply getting started. Over-planning can cause analysis paralysis, a state of overthinking that results in any hopeful progress grinding to a halt. To avoid this, writers are encouraged to just start writing. While this is undoubtedly solid advice, when it comes to high fantasy, planning is key to creating a consistent world.

Write a worldbuilding list that you can refer to as you move through your story; the last thing you want is to finish your final chapter and realize your protagonist's world-saving act contradicts a rule you'd established early on.

Worldbuilding in fantasy and science fiction writing

To create this framework, define the following elements:

  • The setting(s) of your world, i.e., its geographical characteristics, the climate, where it exists in the universe, etc.
  • The many cultures and traditions followed by its inhabitants across multiple societies, what has shaped their worldviews, and the history of a selection of its peoples.
  • Current happenings your characters face in real-time, i.e., the struggles they face and must overcome to drive the story forward.
  • Character profiles of prominent players within your story, in terms of each personality and mindset, personal history, relationship to fellow characters, and overall arc.

Though this process is important to prevent confusion as you write, it's best to avoid getting too caught up in the planning stage; think of this outline as a base that you'll build on. Don't get so absorbed in your writing plans that you forget to actually write.

Keep your readers in mind

Open book revealing a fantasy forest
The best way to get your readers invested in your high fantasy story is to understand each and every aspect of what makes a high fantasy story compelling. Image by Gasi.

No matter the genre they write in, their preferred style, or whether they create a standalone novel versus an epic series, writers have one general goal: to keep readers turning pages. And there's only one way to do this.

If you want to hook your readers and retain their interest in your high fantasy story, understand the subgenre completely to best meet their needs. Know inside and out what high fantasy readers expect from this subgenre and craft a compelling story that satisfies those needs.

Header image by FuryTwin.

Get in-depth guidance delivered right to your inbox.