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Modern Magic: How to Write a Contemporary Fantasy Story


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Contemporary fantasy gives readers the opportunity to escape the confines of reality and run away to a world that looks the same on the surface but is humming with supernatural activity or magical possibilities. As a writer, contemporary fantasy is a great choice because you get to be creative and imaginative without having to do the exhausting world building required for high fantasy. Another great aspect of contemporary fiction is that if you pick the right setting and create relatable characters, you might be able to appeal to readers who otherwise would not read a fantasy story. This is precisely what J.K. Rowling did when she created her Harry Potter series, which is possibly the most famous contemporary fantasy story.

What is contemporary fantasy?

Before we discuss how to write a gripping contemporary fantasy story, let's identify what makes a contemporary fantasy story. According to Kevin Arms of Public Libraries Online, Contemporary fantasy is defined as a fantasy story that takes place in the modern world in the modern era (or what was considered modern at the time it was released, such as C.S. Lewis). If a contemporary fantasy takes place in a city, it is considered Urban Fantasy. This is an oversimplified definition of urban fantasy, but it is important to note that urban fantasy is its own separate subgenre distinct from contemporary fantasy. Contemporary fantasy tends to have a more positive tone and can take place anywhere, while urban fantasy is darker and only occurs in dense city settings.

In addition to taking place in a modern setting or a setting that resembles the author's current time period, contemporary fantasy often contains subtle magic that is not blatantly obvious to non-magical beings. Contemporary fantasy often includes an intersection between the real world and a fantastical one that includes magic or characters with paranormal abilities.

Why write contemporary fantasy?

Writing contemporary fantasy gives you—and your readers—the opportunity to explore the world in new and creative ways. Within the framework of contemporary fantasy, you can play with the forces that shape and change people, you can envision new societies that operate behind the scenes, and you can explore how magic influences politics. You can even solve or explain a current issue (such as earthquakes or hurricanes) through supernatural or magical means. With contemporary fantasy, you're creating a new world that exists within our actual world, so you give your readers the opportunity to question everything they think they know. You're helping your readers see the world through a whole new lens.

Now that you know what contemporary fantasy is and why you might want to write contemporary fantasy, keep reading for four tips to help you write a magical and modern contemporary fantasy story.

1. Choose a familiar setting and do your research

The setting of your story is one of the most important aspects of the story, even though it primarily functions as the background. If it works for your story, it is generally a safe bet to set your story somewhere similar to where you currently live. Doing so guarantees that you are familiar with the feel of the place, how people behave, and what people tend to believe in your area. Additionally, you will be familiar with any local geographical features or local lore that might contribute to your story.

Even if you set your story in the town where you've lived for your entire life, you still need to do some research. Conducting research about the setting will prevent you from accidentally contradicting something that locals accept as true, which can alienate readers. During your research process, you might learn something that you can use as a crucial turning point to your story, or you might discover the origins about long-held local beliefs. Research will also help ensure that your setting feels real to the reader. If you provide solid grounding in your setting, readers will be more willing to suspend their disbelief and accept the magical or supernatural aspects of your story.

As you research and create your setting, consider how magic will function within the story. The existence of magic will most likely affect the setting in some way, and characters discovering and using magic will have some kind of consequences that might manifest through the setting. Examine each setting, character arc, conflict, and scene and consider how you can infuse magic and its consequences into it. This will help you build a stronger magical world and bring it to life for the reader.

2. Create well-rounded characters with relatable flaws and attributes

Readers will most likely relate easier to your contemporary setting and characters, so you can achieve a lot of your character development through how the characters interact with magic and with each other. However, just as with your setting, your characters have to feel real and familiar to readers; maybe the main character reminds readers of the kid next door, or the antagonist reminds us of that spiteful fifth-grade teacher who made us squirm with discomfort.

One way to create relatable characters is to base your characters on people in your life. If you base your protagonist on your little sister, you will be more likely to accurately portray her positive and negative character traits, so readers will see her as a well-rounded character and will understand what motivates her. Make a list of your characters and identify each character's assets and flaws. Brainstorm how these character features will contribute to each character's arc and to the overall plot.

A common character arc in contemporary fantasy involves a character discovering magic and then figuring out how he or she is going to use that magic. The reader goes on this journey with the character, which allows the reader to experience the discovery of a new world full of magic, wonder, and danger. In this kind of character arc, the character discovers magic, learns to use it, experiences challenges or limitations, wrestles with those challenges and the related emotions, and then learns to harness the magic so he or she can overcome the final challenge at the climax of the story.

In addition to the way your characters interact with magic, explore the different ways that your characters interact with each other. In real life, people influence and change each other, and they work together and work against each other. Including such dynamics in your story will help you build a richer, more complex contemporary fantasy story.

3. Create rules and boundaries for the fantasy aspects

Although the possibilities are endless when you first begin to construct your story, you will need to set parameters around the magic or fantastical elements of your story. To gain an idea of how you want fantasy to function in your story, consider the following questions:

  • Will everyone in the story be aware of the fantasy/magical elements that exist?
  • If not, how will unaware characters explain supernatural or magical occurrences?
  • Do any of your characters hold prejudices or preconceived notions about magical or supernatural creatures?
  • Do any of your characters hold prejudices or preconceived notions about non-magical or "normal" people?
  • Do barriers exist that prevent non-magical beings from discovering magic?
  • Are there limitations to the magical elements or places where magic malfunctions?
  • What character(s) or entity in the story makes and enforces the rules that govern the fantastical elements?
  • What are the consequences for disobeying the magical or fantastical rules?

4. Decide how technology will function in your story

If you're writing a story set in our current time, you have to decide how technology will factor into your characters' lives and ultimately into the plot. We live in a time where laptops and tablets are ubiquitous and just about everyone—even some kids—have cell phones. Consider whether your characters having access to technology will complicate your story or enhance it.

If you don't want technology to be a factor in your story, you need to create a believable reason to explain why your main characters are not hopping on the internet or texting their friends incessantly. Readers are perceptive and will see it as a glaring omission if you decide to omit technology from your contemporary fantasy story but fail to provide a reason, so make sure to address it, even briefly.

If you decide to include technology in your story, explore how modern technology interacts with magic or the fantasy aspects of your story. Since technology advances at such a rapid rate, consider how you can incorporate technology while keeping that technology evergreen so the story will stay contemporary and not end up feeling dated.

Contemporary fantasy is an exciting genre that appeals to a wide demographic. I hope you found the four tips in this article useful, so now you're ready to start creating your own contemporary fantasy story.

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