Writing Fantasy

It’s day 6 of Blogtober, and today I’m going to talk about fantasy as a genre. I admit I am not quite as comfortable writing about fantasy as I am about science fiction. Yesterday’s post was easy. Today, I need to work harder to provide useful and cogent thoughts on the subject, which in its own way, is a reflection of the genre itself. But we’ll get to that.

Why am I Talking about Fantasy?

Nanowrimo is next month. The project I’ve decided to work on for November is a new fantasy novel about a band of adventurers reanimated from stone and sent on a quest to save the province from an oppressive force preparing an invasion at the border. Our heroes know how to swing swords, shoot arrows, and cast spells, but they don’t remember how they became encased in stone in the first place. Along the way, they will discover who they really are, the nature of power, and who it is that’s been pulling their strings for so long.

I read fantasy, though not as much as I read science fiction. I believe many of the skills needed to construct an entertaining and believable world in scifi applies directly to fantasy.

I have completed an urban fantasy novel as well as several fantasy short stories. My experiences allow me to talk about the genre, though again, I am not an authority or an educator. I’m just a writer with interest and strong opinions.

Defining Fantasy

I’m tempted to copy/paste what I wrote yesterday. Science fiction and fantasy are both genres, and genre itself is not particularly useful as a writing tool. Genre informs the publisher and the marketer in how to sell the book. Genre sets up the reader’s expectations on what they’re about to read. As a writing tool, it tells the writer what details they can skip when introducing strange or unusual elements. Dragons, unicorns, elves, mermaids… genre allows the writer to slot these ideas without a lot of prep work or fanfare. But what’s the damage if a skilled writer takes the time to fully present the awe and majesty of one of these fantastical beings?

I want to define fantasy without relation to science fiction, and I’m struggling. Fantasy is so broad it is nearly all-encompassing of all fiction. That is not a useful definition, and not what people think about when talking about fantasy as a genre.

Fantasy is Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha books, it’s Ilona Andrew’s Kate Daniels series, it’s Emma Newman’s Splitworld novels, it’s An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir, it’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell by Susanna Clarke. Arguments can be made that N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series and Ann McAffrey’s Pern novels are fantasy. Those stories have many of the hallmarks of fantasy, and feel like fantasy most of the time, even if the authors said the books are SciFi.

Of course, fantasy is also Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, Brandon Sanderson’s multiple series, and the books by J. R. R. Tolkien. But you probably don’t need me to mention those guys.

What Sets Fantasy Apart from Science Fiction?

Both genres are about wonder and spectacle. Usually, SciFi deals in the realm of possibility while fantasy is filled with the mystical. In general terms, if you use a tool or methodology to solve a problem in the plot of SciFi, it must adhere to the laws of science. If it does not, then you’ve written a fantasy.

On the surface, it sounds like fantasy is easier to write than science fiction, but I find the opposite to be the case. If I want to know how to make simulated gravity work on The Moon, I can do some research and some math and come up with a solution. It may be improbable, but it’s possible and supportable. I can rely on the already written rules of reality to support my story. In fantasy, if I come up with a magical solution to a problem, I have to establish the rules of that magic and define reality itself. That is a lot more work, necessary in order to make a more satisfying and compelling environment.

How to Write Fantasy

The first goal should be to write a good story, regardless of the genre. That means compelling characters, relationships, emotion, truth, and passion — the ingredients to all great narratives. Writing a good fantasy means doing all of that plus world building, which is the main ingredient that turns your tale into a fantasy.

When it comes to the nuts and bolts of writing fantasy, there are other, better resources online. Brandon Sanderson’s take on magic systems, for example, is complete and compelling. I’m not interested in parroting those resources or retreading that ground. Instead, I will just touch on two high-level topics I keep in mind while writing fantasy: consistency and cost.

When looking at the fantastical element of your story, the reader will be dissatisfied if the writer is inconsistent. Brandon Sanderson defines the rules to his systems thoroughly and exhaustively, and sticks with those rules while making them integral to the plot. Tolkien, on the other hand, uses magic in a more poetic fashion, and we trust that it all works because we trust Gandalf. Both approaches are wildly divergent from each other, but since the writers are consistent in the way they use magic, the stories work.

The idea of cost is a little bit more granular, and could also be described as consequences. Cost and consequence in fantasy usually refers to magic systems, but it could be any exploitation of a resource in order to achieve a goal. Unicorn blood can cure any wound, but the cured lives a half-life, a cursed existence. Pegasus can carry a hero across vast distances very quickly, but you must win the trust of the mythic beast, and there are very few of them. The sorcerer’s pen never runs out of ink, because it uses the blood of the writer to fuel it.

The cost of a magical solution doesn’t necessarily have to be obvious, but it should be present. If you do not have consequences, you do not have tension. If you have no intention of having consequences in the narrative, then you should consider how the free and abundant resource impacts the world at large. If there is no cost, the consequences are that the writer will need to work this alternative science or technology into the world building.

Parting Thoughts

Almost everything I said about SciFi yesterday applies to fantasy today. The goal of the writer is to create a great story first and foremost, which means developing compelling characters, interesting environments, inevitable but surprising twists, and emotional journeys. The tools you use to craft a good SciFi story are applicable when writing a fantasy.

Research helps ground a fantasy story when describing the elements that exist in the real world, such as horses, blacksmithing, sword fighting, and masonry. If you spend the time getting those details right, the reader will trust you when you launch into the aspects of your world that can’t exist.

The primary distinction between fantasy and other genres is the aesthetics and the feel. This doesn’t have to be based on European history, though that is common.

If you haven’t written a fantasy story, give it a try. Here’s your prompt: a mischievous character down on their luck and nearly out of money finds a magic wand. What does the magic wand do? How will they use it to improve their situation? Who is the rightful owner of the magic wand, and how will your character deal with them?

Thank you for following along along! Tomorrow we’ll talk about Writing What Matters, a topic which transcends all genres.

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