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How to Write a Captivating Fantasy of Manners Story


Fantasy of manners is a subgenre of the ever-popular fantasy genre, however, it doesn't look all that similar to fantasy in most ways. It is difficult to classify as just one thing, as seems to be the consensus among even those who write this type of fiction. Jo Walton, who wrote a popular fantasy of manners book called Tooth and Claw, says this of the genre, Fantasy of Manners is a term like 'science fiction'; it's a circle you can draw and some things are definitely inside it and you can argue about edge-cases all day.

Well, let's attempt to classify the commonalities within the genre anyway, and of course, how to write it in a captivating way!

Fantasy of manners is almost a mix between the fantasy genre and the comedy of manners form, though they are not typically comedic stories. These are some of the usual aspects of a fantasy of manners story. They often take place in an urban setting and have a hierarchal social structure. The society is often post-medieval with minimal to no technology and a high level of sophistication. The protagonists are not fighting against monsters, armies, and fantastical beasts as we may think when discussing the genre of fantasy. Rather, they are pitted against their neighbors and peers. The action in the story takes place within a society, rather than with external enemies and circumstances. This does not mean that battles don't take place in fantasy of manners stories, but they aren't fought with swords or deadly weapons—their weapon of choice is wit. Magic and fantastical creatures are usually downplayed or dismissed altogether.

Some of the well-known authors that have been influences on the fantasy of manners genre are Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, and Georgette Heyer.

Another important aspect of fantasy of manners tales to keep in mind is that they involve a romantic adventure. Settings in these types of stories are entirely fictional, and if not for that they might even be considered historical fiction in certain cases as they comment on eras past.

Elaborate setting

Setting is extremely important in fantasy of manners stories. One might even say the setting should be a character in itself. This was one area of writing that Charles Dickens was famous for. His settings took on a mind of their own and became a full-fleshed character within his novels.

In fantasy of manners stories, the setting is typically urban with a hierarchal social structure, which must be crafted with great attention to detail. In creating a visceral and engaging setting, always look to appeal to the senses as much as possible. A reader should be planted directly in the setting. They should feel, hear, see all unique aspects of this fully imagined place that is purely fictional, yet familiar, and becomes entirely real through sensory descriptions.

Important social commentary

The social aspects of these stories are at the center and provide the basis for all the action. The action of the story as well as characters' motivations should be built on a social structure. In order for fantasy of manners to be successful, it needs to be self-reflexive through subtext or through irony. Therefore, we should be made to think about certain aspects of the world in a deep and meaningful way upon reading this type of fiction, but it should not be in a way where we feel we have been hit over the head with obvious viewpoints. Rather, they will be presented to us in a more obscure fashion, giving us no choice but to reflect on the world at large. This is where fantasy of manners also crosses into comedy of manners, or was inspired by the form, because in a comedy of manners story a key component is for it to comment or satirize a particular social group, especially the upper class. When writing a fantasy of manners story, witty commentary on a specific social group that brings up a point we may not have thought about in-depth before will be one of the most important aspects.

Complex plots

Before talking specifically about fantasy of manners plots, it's worth mentioning that plot in general needs to be tight, engaging, and have conflict and stakes within any story at all. These are commonly noted as the five elements of plot structure:

  • Exposition: Otherwise known as the introduction, where characters are introduced, setting is established, grounding us within the place and people we will be going on this journey with, and the main conflict of the story will be introduced.
  • Rising Action: This is still within the first half of the novel where an inciting incident occurs, setting the story into action. There will be more moments of conflict throughout the rising action, escalating, and creating tension.
  • Climax: The climax is simply the peak of tension, plot, and character within the story, typically taking place around the halfway mark or slightly after.
  • Falling Action: The story starts moving toward a satisfying conclusion, resolving conflicts and addressing new conflicts that arose as a result of the climax.
  • Resolution: Resolution is just that, tying up any loose ends and bringing the story to a conclusion whether it be happy, tragic, or somewhere in between.

With these plot elements in mind, think about what a fantasy of manners story will need to cover specifically in terms of the several influences that exist. Disguises and identity swapping should be common, as is social conflict, and romantic entanglements—all of which are influenced greatly by setting and society. The plot must weave together all these aspects within the structure foundation with interesting and compelling characters.

Well-developed romance

As in any romance story, the romance in a fantasy of manners story should also stand on its own with a sympathetic heroine that readers can relate to. Even though the romance in fantasy of manners is not the sole plot going on, there should be a great deal of emotional tension within the romance as well as the story as a whole. Just as the other obstacles that the protagonist will face in the story, they must face obstacles in their romance before the characters can be together in the end. The difficult encounters that the characters will face should usually be of a social nature and should also create tension within the romance storyline and affect that relationship directly. As we would root for the characters to overcome other obstacles, we also root for them to end up together in their romantic lives.

Wry tone

The first step to improving tone in writing seems simple, but often we get hung up on trying to sound formal and sophisticated, instead: humanize it. A more human tone would be conversational. Picture a specific person or people that you might tell your story to, not a faceless crowd.

In fantasy of manners, it's especially important to keep this in mind: voice is what you say, but tone is the way you say it. Since fantasy of manners depends on a wry and witty tone, the way that these stories are narrated are of extreme importance for them to be successful. We still have to be mindful of the all-important show vs. tell when it comes to tone. Convey the attitude or emotion of a character with carefully chosen words that emulate tone both through their speech and their actions. This is why tone goes beyond voice only.


Childhood is important to develop within a fantasy of manners story in that it contributes greatly to the formation of the adult. So, ensure you have drawn out in-depth character sketches to get to the root of who the characters are at their center and how they became this way due to their childhood. Think in specifics in terms of childhood, not vague narration about what it was like as a whole.

There should also be a great necessity for the protagonist(s) to find their place in the world while being true to themselves and their nature. Characterization in fantasy of manners takes a great deal more development than other genres within fantasy since these stories are typically more internal, whereas other fantasy is more external. Emotions of characters should be given a lot of weight, and they must be complex as they directly relate to the plot.

Ultimately, fantasy of manners is a subgenre that has really not changed over the years. Definitions of the genre remain true, as does some of the confusion surrounding it, and the niche audience. Upon looking into the genre further, readers may realize they have read tons of fantasy of manners stories and just not known this was what they were classified as. Further, writers have even written them and not realized that was what they were writing! This is why it's worth leaving on this endnote: writing a captivating fantasy of manners story is not that different from writing any captivating fiction. Keep the general guidelines of the genre in mind, but otherwise trust your writing basics in terms of compelling plot, in-depth characters, visceral settings, and a unique voice and distinct tone. Now that you're ready, write that captivating story and add to this niche subgenre of fantasy of manners!

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