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So You Want to Write Fantasy? Read This First

Tonya Thompson

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A nostalgic return to Arabian Nights is all it takes to understand that fantasy is as old as storytelling itself. Indeed, most of our mythology across cultures is fantasy at its purest, and we've told fantastical stories since the beginning of human storytelling. All that to say—sorry, Tolkien, but it's not all because of you.

The face of modern fantasy is rather due to a collection of hobby gamers and pulp writers like J. C. Henneberger, a Chicago journalist who published Weird Tales in 1923. In fact, this article in the Boston Globe discusses the reasons why Tolkien is falsely assumed to be the "father of fantasy."

It was in the feverishly penned pages of Weird Tales, and rivals such as Unknown and the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, that several of fantasy's most authoritative voices gained prominence. One was Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian; another was Fritz Leiber, one of the acknowledged inventors of "low fantasy," which emphasizes gritty realism and is skeptical as to the possibility of Arthurian chivalry in a pre-modern world.

Weird Tales also published H.P. Lovecraft, the Providence-born horror pioneer whose dystopian dread informs much modern imaginative fiction. The pulp writers were contemporaries of Tolkien, but operated in a far darker milieu. Howard's Conan stories are rip-roaring and full-blooded, a tapestry of amoral protagonists, exposed flesh, and gory action. Leiber showed fantasy could be urban—and urbane.

Ed Power, The Boston Globe
There were pulp fantasy writers who were contemporaries of Tolkien, but operated in a far darker milieu
There were pulp fantasy writers who were contemporaries of Tolkien, but operated in a far darker milieu. Photo by Monica Silva on Unsplash.

With this intricate past woven into the heart of storytelling across cultures, any potential fantasy writer should understand the massive task at hand when setting out to follow in the footsteps of the greats—whether that be One Thousand and One Nights, or Howard, Tolkien, Lovecraft, and Leiber. Simply put, it's a genre whose scope is limited only by human imagination, which has proven to be limitless so far.

So how do you get started in this undertaking? Here are a few tips that have been curated by the experts you should consider before you begin writing.

Mythology reveals the real world and the real world has multiple points of view

The ancient Greeks understood that their mythological heroes lived out the fallible efforts of humanity. Within the stories of gods and demi-gods were lessons to be learned by those of us who are presumably lesser beings. Their struggles were ours, only magnified, and put into storytelling form to make the lessons more palatable.

There really is no better advice on this topic than that given by George R.R. Martin, famed author of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, on which HBO's hit show Game of Thrones is based.

In a discussion that took place at the Sydney Opera House, Martin said :

My story is essentially about a world at war. It begins very small with everybody apart from Daenerys in the castle of Winterfell. It's a very tight focus, and then as the characters split apart, each character encounters more people and additional POVs come into focus.

It's like if you were trying to do World War 2 as a novel: do you just take one average GI? Well that would only cover the European theatre, not the Pacific. Do you make Hitler a point-of-view character to show the other side? What about the Japanese or Italy? Roosevelt, Mussolini, Eisenhower — all these characters have a unique viewpoint that presents something huge in Word War 2.

So you either need an omnificent viewpoint structure where you're telling it from the point of view of God, which is a pretty outdated literary technique, or you have a mosaic of people who are seeing one small part of the story and through that you get the entire picture. That's the path I chose to take.

George R.R. Martin

Play with fantasy clichés

To advise against using clichés in your fantasy is a slippery slope. On the one hand, agents and publishers look for fresh takes on old myths that can rise to the level of popularity of, for example, Neil Gaiman's American Gods. On the other hand, the reason why these stories are so effective is because they are ingrained into our collective psyche after lifetimes and generations of hearing them. Here's what Martin has to say about it:

I love fantasy and I've been reading it all my life, but I'm also very conscious of its flaws. One of the things that drives me crazy is the externalisation of evil, where evil comes from the "Dark Lord" who sits in his dark palace with his dark minions who all wear black and are very ugly. I've deliberately played with that, where you have the Night's Watch who even though they are filled with thieves and poachers and rapers are heroic people — but they all wear black. And then there are the Lannisters who are tall and fair but aren't the nicest people.

George R.R. Martin

Essentially, Martin understood that while fantasy's clichés might be flawed, there are always ways to toy with them and surprise readers in the process. Whether you choose to use old myths in a reimagined way or a color scheme that goes against the grain (as Martin did), realize that you always have the power as a writer to turn clichés into something less predictable.

Begin by worldbuilding

The amount of time you spend worldbuilding on the front end will likely be directly proportionate to the success of your fantasy novel. The reason why Tolkien is confused as the father of fantasy has much to do with the enormous effort he spent building worlds and including details of them in his plot.

Fantasy Worldbuilding 101: How to Bring a Fictional World to Life
Worldbuilding in Fantasy and Science Fiction Writing

One important aspect of this step of worldbuilding is to give your world a history. This history can be based on real history, but it needs that backstory to become alive in the mind of the reader. Martin notes the importance of history in his own A Song of Ice and Fire success:

Although my story is fantasy, it is strongly grounded in actual Medieval history. The War of the Roses was one of the major influences, which had the Yorks and the Lancasters instead of the Starks and the Lannisters. But I like to mix and match and move things around. As the famous saying goes; stealing from one source is plagiarism but stealing from lots of sources is research!

George R.R. Martin

Since much is involved in the process of worldbuilding, it is impossible to explain in detail how to do it for the scope of this article. However, this article about fantasy worldbuilding is a great resource and includes the multiple considerations you'll need to have in the process of creating a great fantasy world.

The amount of time you spend worldbuilding on the front end will likely be directly proportionate to the success of your fantasy novel.
The amount of time you spend worldbuilding on the front end will likely be directly proportionate to the success of your fantasy novel. Photo by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash.

Leave room for grey

The cliché of purely evil or purely good characters in fantasy is one that needs to go away. Martin put it this way:

Grey characters have always interested me the most and I think the world is full of them. I read a lot of history, and I don't see any purely heroic characters or purely evil characters. You could pick the most extreme examples — Hitler famously loved dogs. Stalin, Mao, Genghis Khan; the great mass murderers of history were all heroic in their mind's eye. Conversely you can read stories about all the saints from Catholic history and Mother Theresa or Ghandi and you can find things about them that were flawed or questionable actions that they undertook.

We're all grey and I think we all have the capacity in us to do heroic things and very selfish things. I think understanding that is how you create characters that really have some depth to them. Even when I'm writing someone like Theon Greyjoy, who many people hate, I have to try and see the world through his eyes and make sense of what he does.

George R.R. Martin

Make old things new again

If you're writing a fantasy novel with classic fantasy tropes—elves, wizards, witches, dragons, etc.—do it only if you're fascinated by the trope and only if you have a fresh, modern take. Agents and publishers in fantasy look for these types of characters but want to see that the author has taken a new slant in telling a story about them. What happens when elves are in modern-day New York City? Or when dragons are born in someone's backyard in Oklahoma? These are the types of fresh perspectives that will get your fantasy novel noticed.

Know your subgenre and read it voraciously

Beneath the genre umbrella of fantasy are several subgenres, with varying approaches to storytelling. It's important to know which subgenre you'll be writing in, see who the most popular authors are within that subgenre, and then read it voraciously. This will give you the best "education" you need to know what agents, publishers, and readers are looking for. A great resource for researching fantasy subgenres is The website offers extensive details about the various subgenres, along with list of the top-ranked books (by readers) within each.

Always remember, winter is coming

Martin's last piece of advice should be a part of any fantasy story you set out to write:

Valar morghulis — all men must die. I think an awareness of our own mortality is something that concerns most art and literature. But I don't think that necessarily translates to a pessimistic worldview. Just like in the real world, my characters are only here for a short time; the important thing is that love, passion, empathy, laughter; even laughing in the face of death, is still possible. There is darkness in the world but we don't have to give way to despair. One of the best themes in The Lord of the Rings is that despair is the ultimate crime. Winter is coming, but you can light the torches and drink the wine and gather around the fire and continue to fight the good fight.

George R.R. Martin
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