Writing a fantasy series? Do’s and Don’ts

Bridget-Now Novel
Jul 20, 2015 · 5 min read

Authors such as George R. R. Martin and J.K. Rowling are living proof that the fantasy genre offers aspiring authors a crack at building vast fandoms and spin-off empires (hit movies, TV series, even candy products materialized from fictional worlds). If you’re planning writing a fantasy series of your own, here are do’s and don’ts for creating your own multi-novel fantasy story:

First, what is fantasy fiction? Some historical background

Our oldest literature is fantasy fiction. From The Epic of Gilgamesh to Homer’s The Odyssey to Beowulf, the stories that survive from ancient civilizations are stories of Gods, magic, quests and monsters. The word ‘fantasy’ comes from the Greek phantasia — ‘power of imagination, appearance, image, perception’ — and acquired the sense of ‘fantastic imagination’ from the 1500s onwards. From the 1920s, the word acquired stronger connotations of wish-fulfillment (‘a day-dream based on desires’).

Modern fantasy contains many of these root meanings. Its authors give us complex, imaginative worlds, supplying vivid day-dreams to fulfill our desires. Character’s have magic healing (or destructive) powers. Heroic saviours defeat powerful malevolence and restore order and goodness. It’s undeniable that fantasy remains one of the most popular genres (the ‘Fantasy Writers’ group is one of the most populous writing groups on Now Novel).

Portrait of a young J.R.R. Tolkien

Some consider J.R.R. Tolkien the father of modern English-language fantasy fiction. There were early 20th Century fantasy novels written prior to Tolkien’s The Hobbit and his Lord of the Rings cycle (such as Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees and The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison), but the commercial and critical success of Tolkien’s work (and the Chronicles of Narnia novels by his friend C.S. Lewis) launched the modern genre.

Tolkien based his own work on his scholarly interests in northern European mythological sagas and linguistics. Another source of symbolism for many modern fantasy authors is the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, which draws on Tolkien’s fantasy world of orcs and dwarves itself.

Character types of the fantasy genre such as elves, trolls and wizards create instant genre recognition, as do plot clichés such as the motley band of co-travellers who meet in a tavern. To avoid your series seeming like a mere rehash of these tropes, it’s important to add your own slant. J.K. Rowling’s wildly popular world in her Harry Potter series is full of re-imaginings of old fantasy tropes. Her reworkings range from different animal familiars (owls replace cats) to flying-broomsticks re-imagined as state-of-the-art sports gear.

Here are several do’s and don’ts for writing your own imaginative fantasy fiction series:

Do: Read widely within and around your genre

This advice is almost a cliché in itself, and yet it is common because it is so necessary.

The only way to really become familiar with the clichés and pitfalls of the fantasy genre is to read a lot of fantasy novels. As you read, think about what works and what feels obvious and overly-indebted to previous authors. The broader the scope of your reading, the better you will know what kinds of fantasy worlds, character types and plot topics are underrepresented. Of course, you can also satirize clichéd types, as authors such as Sir Terry Pratchett have done.

Don’t: Rely on worn-out fantasy character types

Clichéd fantasy character types such as the orphan-boy-who-is-chosen-for-a-great-task abound. Harry Potter is one example. Because of the strength of Rowling’s series as a whole, and the size of her series’ cast, a few clichés don’t detract much. When a fantasy series lays down one clichéd character after another (the fearful sidekick, the grumpy dwarf and the reluctant-orphan-hero), a series starts to feel more derivative.

Do: Create your own detailed fantasy world

Worldbuilding is a crucial aspect of fantasy writing. Like our own, your fantasy world should have laws and rules, from the laws of physics to the laws laid down by its magical or non-magical inhabitants.

Who can access the fantasy world in your series and who can’t? Is every character an inhabitant, or just some? J.K. Rowling handles this deftly by making her world of wizards have strict laws to prevent magic-gifted citizens from exposing their parallel world to non-magical people (whom Rowling calls ‘muggles’). The ‘Ministry of Magic’ sees to it that laws that govern magical society are obeyed.

Read these questions to ask about your fantasy world to flesh out its details and create a more immersive reading experience.

Don’t: Drag your fantasy series out

Sustaining momentum for a four or five-novel series takes careful planning. One of the most common complaints about fantasy series is that they are endless. Sometimes a story is simply too thin to stretch across so many books.

Make sure that each book in your series has its own subplots and lesser arcs that supplement and deepen the broader multi-novel arc that carries your entire fantasy series to a satisfying conclusion.

Plan complications and setbacks that delay your series’ resolution while simultaneously building suspense.

Do: Make each novel in your fantasy series self-contained

Your books must be self-contained to some degree as well. If you switch between arcs and viewpoint characters, make sure the main arc, the core set of character objectives, remains visible. The best fantasy series are so well structured that a reader can pick up any of the novels and be drawn into the author’s lovable world.

Don’t: Use impossible place and character names and spellings

Many beginning fantasy authors stray into cliché because of an effort to sound ‘exotic’ and otherworldly. Characters’ names are littered with apostrophes and other punctuation. Keep the reader’s experience in mind — the third time they stumble over nazhd’ali!ga, they might simply toss the book aside.

Think of examples of good character names from classic fantasy fiction. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, the protagonist is simply named ‘Ged’. His birthplace is the island of Gont. These Germanic names are easy to pronounce and remember. Of course, if you want to differentiate groups of people in your fantasy world, some may have more complex languages, names and titles than others. But put the reader’s experience first.

Get feedback for your fantasy series idea or draft in progress and use Now Novel’s online tools to develop your fantasy series.

Originally published at www.nownovel.com on July 20, 2015.

Bridget-Now Novel

Written by

I founded Now Novel, an online community for writers to get helpful and motivating writing resources and feedback. Read the blog: http://www.nownovel.com/blog

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