Hi everyone, I hope you’re doing well.
Today, we have a special guest, Author Hannah Sandoval who’s going to do a Fantasy Writing 101.
Hannah Sandoval is a full-time freelance manuscript ghostwriter and editor, and founder of PurpleInkPen, having dedicated her life and career to her love of books and crafting stories from a single spark of inspiration.
Her debut novel, Arcamira, was published by Cosmic Egg Books in March 2020. Her passion lies in fantasy, mystery, and horror fiction. She lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA with her husband, Stephen (who’s paper-and-ink counterpart appears in Arcamira); her daughter, Lottie; and a sassy corgi named Vanellope. Hannah loves Disney movies just as much as she adores Stephen King’s entire body of work. A contradiction? She thinks not. You can connect with Hannah via her author website: https://hannahsandovalauthor.com/
Fantasy Writing 101
In the minds of most, fantasy is equated with mythical creatures like dragons, Tolkienesque races like elves, and the presence of magic.
All are common fantasy elements, but they’re not the definition of fantasy. One of the things I love most about this genre is the expansive room for creativity and new ideas. The root definition of the fantasy genre is a story where the rules of reality differ from our own.
Maybe in your story the “rules of reality” pertain to magical abilities, how one obtains them, how one utilizes them (wands, incantations, potions, or natural casting directly from the hands?), and their limitations or pitfalls. But it doesn’t have to.
Your rules of reality can be the dichotomy or conflict between two races you create.
Your rules can relate to superpowers or the unearthly conditions of a far-away planet. They can be anything you can dream up, so long as you can present that reality in a way that makes sense to and captivates a reader.
This need to shape your fantasy reality into a format that successfully immerses the reader is why my recommendations for Fantasy Writing 101 are all tied to what’s known as worldbuilding. Worldbuilding is, simply, the creation of your new reality.
WHY FANTASY REQUIRES WORLDBUILDING
In any genre, it’s important to define your setting, your historical period, etc., but worldbuilding in the fantasy genre is a whole other beast.
Even if you’re writing Contemporary Fantasy, wherein fantasy elements and creatures exist in the modern world (think The Mortal Instruments or Twilight series), you’re shaping a new reality.
To successfully drop your reader into that reality, you must make it feel “real” while they have your story open. Worldbuilding is thus the backbone of the tale. The world you create defines how characters live, their heritage, their speech, and their opportunities, not just visual setting.
Even magic must have boundaries, or your story will devolve into chaos. Imagine you’re reading a book wherein the protagonist is a warlock who casts water-based magic from his hands.
Then, halfway through the book, without explanation, that warlock suddenly whips out a wand and casts a spell that makes stone encase his enemy.
You would instantly be pulled out of the story with brow scrunched, thinking, “Excuse me … WHAT?!” That action defies the “rules” you’ve come to equate with this book’s reality. THAT is why worldbuilding matters.
HOW FANTASY SUBGENRES DICTATE YOUR STORY’S WORLD
Dedicated fantasy readers (your target market as a fantasy writer) understand the many subgenres, have expectations on what each will deliver, and have a list of tropes they’re sick of seeing overused in the same manner.
Whether those readers could put those concepts into exact terms when asked would vary by person, but all of them understand these things subconsciously through years of reading. As a writer, you must understand them on a deeper level.
A few of the most popular subgenres:
- High Fantasy: Traditionally, the fate of an entire race is threatened by an ultimate evil. A whole new world is created. It often melds with epic fantasy, spanning an entire country and many years.
- Contemporary (Urban) Fantasy: fantasy elements placed in a modern setting.
- Science Fantasy: blends traditional fantasy elements with scientific support (ex. genetic experiments created dragons). More character-driven than “event and technology driven” like traditional science fiction.
- Dark Fantasy: Horror meets fantasy in slightly less violent fashion. Supernatural or paranormal creatures/monsters like ghosts and vampires often make appearances.
First, figure out which subgenre best suits your story. Then ponder/study the tropes of that subgenre. What do readers expect? You want to meet expectations, but you don’t want everyone to feel like they’ve read this before. Work to give readers the best of their favorite tropes, but keep things fresh by flipping common scenarios on their heads or combining different subgenres.
For example, Contemporary Fantasy fans expect humans to interact with fantastical creatures and races like warlocks or elves, but they’re likely growing weary of the typical “human has taboo romance with member of a fantastical species” plot line.
Either make that romance avoid the stereotypical twists and turns or make those two characters besties rather than lovers to subvert expectations.
HOW TO OUTLINE YOUR WORLD’S REALITY
Building your world based on a mix of your own reality and your imagination is the best way to achieve balance.
It’s hard, if not impossible, to come up with a world that is entirely new. Familiar isn’t bad. In fact, it can help readers connect, and then the fantastical elements create the escape and the thrill fantasy lovers are looking for.
To begin worldbuilding, compile a master outline. Descriptions of the different features of your world can be broken into their own sections for easy reference.
The minute details (like what characters eat or what their homes look like) can come as you write, but get as much “big picture” information outlined as possible before you begin. This really helps you avoid plot incongruities that you would then have to go back and correct.
Without an outline to reference, you may accidentally run off in too many directions, forget your own rules, and confuse your readers. An outline provides cohesion, which is vital for immersion.
Basics to address when worldbuilding:
- Number and nature of races or species
- Manifestation of magic (if any)
- Cultural values (for each race/species or region)
- Landscape (continents, cities, towns, etc. —not just scenery)
- Time period (can utilize an actual historical setting or pick one as an influence for your world)
- Societal norms
- Speech patterns (for individual characters or by region; a princess won’t talk like a surly farmer)
WHAT WOLRDBUILDING LOOKS LIKE IN PRACTICE
Once you have your reality outlined, you’re ready to start writing. But writer beware.
One of the most common pitfalls I see as a ghostwriter and editor of fantasy novels is an overload of exposition, thanks to writers trying to convey all the worldbuilding they’ve prepared.
Exposition is often overused in all genres of fiction, but it is a huge pitfall in fantasy because you have so much “explaining” to do. You’ve created a whole new world with creatures and species that don’t actually exist. You’ve created your own class system and your own cultural makeup. You must let the readers know these things somehow, or they will become lost.
The danger with exposition is “telling” too much.
You lose readers with large chunks of facts that are helpful but non-immersive. Exposition has its uses, no doubt, but try to substitute it with “in scene” learning wherever you can. For instance, if there is a career vital to your plot but unique to your world, show one of your characters doing it.
Don’t have the narrator explain this career in one massive piece. For example, in Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, armies fly around in genetically modified animals called behemoths. New jobs are created related to the behemoths’ upkeep. Westerfeld’s young characters are assigned these tasks by superiors or observe their elders working throughout the main story. The reader is given snippets of information about behemoths through the characters’ actions, rather than being force-fed three paragraphs of explanations the moment the protagonists step aboard the Leviathan.
Show people interacting with the world whenever possible, even if that interaction leads into some exposition. This is always superior to random explanatory side-notes.
Another means to smart exposition is placing a character in an unfamiliar setting, where they feel a natural need to ask questions. Make sure those questions are answered with realistic dialogue rather than an information dump that reads like word vomit. Harry Potter’s confinement with the Dursley’s sets this particular solution up perfectly. Though he is technically part of the wizarding world, he knows nothing about it, and thus it is explained to him gradually through other characters and his own experiences. Hermione often serves as a source of cleverly done exposition.
Exposition is necessary and should be embraced in some cases. The key is knowing when.
A few places exposition shines:
- discussing a concept rather than an actual action that can be shown
- unpacking a character’s emotions below the surface level of what they show others
- a scenario where it would be unrealistic for the characters to talk at length or ask questions about an event or thing because they are so familiar with it. Add a paragraph of exposition explaining what that thing is after a character mentions it casually.
To break the rules in new, exciting ways, you must master them first. To create a world that defies reality, you must build it a reality of its own. The possibilities of the fantasy genre are endless, but your reader will thank you if you give those possibilities a distinctive shape. Sit down, switch on your imagination, and write your own rules.
End of Fantasy 101
Thank you so much Hannah, it really is an honour, and thank you for reading.
Remember, I love it when you send in your amazing short story or creative pieces of writing, and I give feedback and tips on how to improve it too. If you learnt how to write an awesome piece of fantasy from this post, I’d love to hear about it!
Send in your work to: firstname.lastname@example.org