Tips and Tricks for Writing a Fantasy Novel
There are few genres as exciting to read or write as fantasy. Whether you’re craving a world more detailed than our own in a high fantasy story, obsessed with writing an urban fantasy about a bartender who mixes drinks for fae and orcs, or love to indulge in a shifter fantasy romance, there’s just something that sets fantasy apart from the rest of literature.
So, if you’re absolutely in love with the fantasy genre, I get you.
But writing fantasy isn’t easy. In fact, I’d argue that writing fantasy is more difficult than any other genre. There isn’t any other genre, save for maybe science fiction, where the worldbuilding, conflict, and creativity needed are anywhere near as intense.
The payoff, of course, is that you get to write fantasy stories.
If you’re about to embark on your own epic fantasy writing adventure or if you find yourself stuck in the dark dungeon of writer’s block, I’ve got some incredible advice coming your way. In this article, we’re going to cover fantasy writing tips for:
- The essential elements of writing fantasy
- Creating a setting for your fantasy story
- Putting the fantastical into your plot
Along the way, we’re going to hear from some famous fantasy authors to not only inspire you but help drive some of the points home.
If you haven’t already, bookmark our guide to writing fantasy. This article goes hand in hand with that one. Let’s get this quest started!
Essential Elements of Fantasy Writing
“Fantasy is the highest form of literature. It is the purest form of escapism. It is the original worldbuilding genre.” - George R.R. Martin
As we covered, fantasy is different from any other genre. There are some key pieces of any fantasy story that authors need a firm grasp of in order to transport their readers to a different world (or our world with magic, elves, and dragons).
These essential elements aren’t things you can tick off a checklist; they will be skills you’ll only be able to develop through practice. That means reading and writing regularly.
What are these essential elements, though? I’m so glad you asked.
“Fantasy is storytelling with the beguiling power to transform the impossible into the imaginable, and to reveal our own ‘real’ world in a fresh and truth-bearing light.” - Terry Brooks
All writing takes some creativity and imagination, but writing fantasy takes it to a whole new level. It is your secret weapon, the key ingredient to everything you write. Without our creativity, our plot, world, and characters will be flat and lifeless.
Here are some tips for strengthening your imagination.
Read. A lot. - You will see this in every article providing advice to writers, and for good reason. Read bestsellers in your subgenre. Read your favorite authors. Read whatever feels fun! Every time you read, you’re absorbing information about what works and what doesn’t, and you’re banking little details to fuel your own imagination later.
Write. A lot. - Many first-time authors believe your imagination is tied to a muse or eldritch god. Experienced (and successful) authors recognize your creativity is like a muscle: the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets and the easier it is to use. Make a habit of writing, preferably every day, and your imagination will become much stronger.
Try some creative exercises - On top of reading and writing, you can try out some exercises to get those mental gears turning. Writing prompts, character interviews, writing contests, and even people-watching can all help buff up your imagination. Just don’t be creepy about the last one. Click here to check out some exercises to strengthen your imagination.
“The worldbuilding in fantasy is essential. It’s not just a backdrop; it informs every aspect of the story.” - Robin Hobb
Even in low fantasy, which is where you take our world and make it a little more magical, you’re going to be doing a lot of worldbuilding.
Worldbuilding is more than just thinking about the landscape of your world. It includes culture, religion, politics, languages, conflicts, traditions, animals, plants, and even magic systems (a personal favorite of mine).
If you want to become a worldbuilding expert, check out these tips.
Understand worldbuilding fundamentals - There’s even more that goes into worldbuilding than the list above. Lucky for us writers, my pal Abi wrote an awesome worldbuilding guide specifically for fantasy worlds. Check it out here.
Beware Worldbuilder’s Disease - Though it’s not officially recognized in the DSM, Worldbuilder’s Disease is something all fantasy authors are susceptible to. It’s when you get so caught up in creating a really cool world and forget what you’re here to do: write! Keep that in mind when worldbuilding, and only create what you need to start your story. The rest can come later!
Research (aka read more) - I’m copping out again, but with a caveat this time. As you’re reading for inspiration and pleasure, note how the best worldbuilders have created their fantasy settings. What works? What doesn’t? What can you repurpose to fit your vision? Creativity is just as much about reinventing ideas as it is about coming up with them. Just don’t plagiarize.
If you’re looking for practical advice on crafting a fantasy world, don’t fret! In addition to the guide linked above, we’ll be covering some worldbuilding-specific tips later in this article.
“Characters are the heart and soul of any good story. They’re the ones who make us care, who drive the plot forward, who bring the world to life.” - Patrick Rothfuss
“Believable” and “fantasy” seem to be contrary to one another, right? But when you’re creating characters for your fantasy story, that’s not actually the case.
Don’t get me wrong, believable characters don’t need to be folks plopped from our world into a fantasy setting (sure, your protagonist might literally be that, but not all of your characters will be.) Rather, your reader needs to understand the motivation behind your character, and your imaginary people need to make realistic decisions.
Easier said than done, though. Right? Here are some things to keep in mind while creating your believable fantasy characters.
Begin with goals - What does your character want? Are they avenging the massacre of their village at the hands of a necromancer? Did they grow up in the slums and want to make a name for themselves? Is there a power brewing inside of them they’re struggling to understand, so they join the Mage College? If they don’t have a clear goal and equally understandable motivation, they won’t be believable.
Strengths AND flaws - I don’t know how many times I’ve typed “perfect characters are boring.” In Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, we’re introduced to Xenk, a “perfect” paladin. He’s strong, handsome, kicks some serious butt, is kind, and does things for the sake of being good. But he’s also good to a fault, resulting in some intentionally cringe-worthy moments and making it almost impossible to have a real conversation with him. That balance stops him from being boring.
Give them an arc - Any character who has major “screen time” in your book should have an arc. This is the internal journey they go through during their quest. Bilbo Baggins, for example, goes from a hobbit who doesn’t want to leave home to a daring adventurer and—dare I say it—hero. It’s only through his journey and the small challenges that lead to growth that his change is realistic and believable.
There’s a lot more that goes into crafting complex, believable characters than the three tips I can fit into this article. If you’re looking to up your character game, check out these free articles:
- The best character template ever
- Our complete guide to creating characters
- 101 character goals
- A metric ton of character ideas you can use
- 65 character development questions
- 20 original character interview questions
- A downloadable character profile
“A good story has to have tension and conflict. Without that, it’s just a bunch of words on a page.” - Joe Abercrombie
The last essential element of writing great fantasy is the story’s primary conflict.
Now, conflict comes in two different forms: internal and external. We’ll cover internal conflicts later in this guide, but let’s first discuss external ones.
Your primary external conflict will be the big fight or obstacle getting in the way of your protagonist’s goal. It could be an invading army of goblins sweeping through the country, a tyrant ruling with the aid of an ancient relic, or a rival warrior vying for a spot in court.
The external conflict is the sexy selling point of your novel. It’s going to be what draws people in so you can sink your worldbuilding and well-developed character hooks into them. So here are a few tips to help you create a great story conflict.
Make it relevant - Yeah, it’s cool to pit your heroes up against a powerful wizard, but what’s the point? Your characters should be tied into the primary conflict in a way that forces them to push forward. Avoiding the conflict should feel impossible or have consequences direr than enduring it.
Continually up the stakes - Right from the inciting incident, your conflict should continually ramp up in intensity and repercussions. Every time the heroes succeed, something should set them back or threaten the progress they’ve made. This back-and-forth not only adds tension, but it makes your characters’ progress more believable.
Integrate and subvert tropes - Tropes can sometimes have a bad reputation. People often mistake tropes for clichés, but that’s not really the case. Unlike their overdone cousins, tropes are more like ideas and commonalities readers want in a book. As you’re reading other fantasy works, note which recurring tropes in their conflicts (betrayals, the hero doubting themselves, empathetic villains, etc.) make it more exciting. How can you use those tropes in your work?
Creating the Setting
“The key to worldbuilding is to create a sense of depth and history, a feeling that your world exists beyond the boundaries of the story you’re telling.” - Brandon Sanderson
People read fantasy because they want to get lost in an imaginary world, even if it’s a version of our own. Most authors write fantasy because they want to bring those very worlds to life.
It’s a pretty good relationship we’ve got going on here.
But since the setting is so important to your fantasy story, here are some helpful pieces of advice to immerse your readers.
Describing the Environment
“In worldbuilding, the devil is in the details. Little touches can make a big difference in creating a rich and believable world.” - Scott Lynch
The most obvious way to craft an incredible world is to describe the world itself. I linked to Abi’s great fantasy worldbuilding guide above (here it is again, just in case), but let’s talk about three different ways you can bring your world’s physical environment alive for your readers.
Show, don’t tell - This is advice for all of your writing, but it really matters when describing your setting. It’s easy to drop three or four paragraphs describing the flora, fauna, stars, and geography of your setting, but that isn’t going to engage your reader. Show them the animals, the bioluminescent fungi reacting to the presence of your hero, and the glow of the three moons illuminating their path. Want some help? Check out these show, don’t tell worksheets.
Make a map - Even if you’re like me—completely devoid of artistic talent—it can help to draw a map of your world. This doesn’t have to be a map that goes at the front of your book. It never has to be seen by anyone other than yourself. But plotting out your world and adding details about the environment. This visualization will make sure you have a good variety of physical details in your world. As a D&D player, I personally love this dice method to get started on a new map.
Tie it into your story - In real life, our societies and civilizations have always been tied to our geography. Towns and villages were settled on rivers. Nomadic peoples follow animals and natural resources. Agricultural products vary based on where you can plant your crops. Beyond just thinking about how pretty or scary your world is, consider how the environment impacts other elements of your story.
Developing the Culture
“The most important part of worldbuilding is to make it feel real. Even if the world is fantastical, the details should feel authentic.” - N.K. Jemisin
Your fantasy setting is more than the physical environment. The culture of the people within your setting, while influenced by the geography, plays just as important a role in your world. It’s best to give the cultures of your world some thought before you start writing, so you can work these cultures into your fantasy epic.
Culture has deep roots - Beyond the influences of your world’s geography, cultures are shaped by their history. It’s up to you, as an author writing a fantasy novel, to understand the impact your world’s history has had on the people and civilizations in your setting. You don’t need to write textbooks’ worth of history, but add some notes into your Worldbuilding folder in Dabble for easy reference and add to it as you go.
Variety is key - Remember our map? How have different cultures sprung up and evolved across your world? Differences create obstacles, add room for growth, can complement each other, and make your world feel more alive. Consider variances in language, religion, tradition, military, uses for magic, intercultural relations, etc.
Don’t be harmful - There’s nothing wrong with basing your fantasy cultures off real-world civilizations or cultures… as long as you do it properly. Don’t take harmful stereotypes—like “savage” tribes or “mystical people of the East”—and think that’s good enough. It’s lazy writing and reinforces stereotypes that have done actual harm.
Establishing the Rules
“Fantasy isn’t just epic quests and dragons; it can be the small, everyday things that make a story come alive.” - Juliet Marillier
Lastly, make sure your setting has concrete rules and limitations. For some settings, your rules will set it apart from other stories more than any other features.
Establish your magic system - Most fantasy stories will have magic in them; I think we can agree on that. If you’re going to include magic in your world, you need to understand how that magic works. That means building a full-fledged magic system. Lucky for you, we have a guide on how to do just that (plus some examples of great magic systems).
Natural limits - Hey, look, we’re back to the physical geography again. What rules does the environment put on your world? Does winter cut off travel between countries? Is a storm of shadows dividing the continent? Do creatures in that forest over there make it forbidden (unless you’re sending kids in there, I guess).
Societal limits - If there’s anything people, even fantasy people, love doing, it’s telling each other what we can and can’t do. Think about how the rules of your world’s societies affect your characters. Does a religion maliciously enforce gender roles? Is magic restricted to the ruling class? Is murder legal?
Crafting the Story
Now it’s time to talk about some best practices when you’re bringing your story to life. Specifically, we’re going to focus on your plot, the characters, and even the words you choose.
Plotting the Story
“A good story should be like a good meal - satisfying, filling, and leaving you wanting more.” - R.A. Salvatore
While a good book balances a great plot and incredible characters, fantasy stories need a stronger plot than most to grant that epic feeling fantasy readers are looking for. This applies to all subgenres, though “epic” in urban fantasy or fantasy romance is different than the grandiose feeling of epic fantasy.
Understand story structure - All stories have (or should have) some form of structure. Without knowing where to put your story beats, you risk a meandering, incomplete plot riddled with holes that will frustrate your reader. The Hero’s Journey is the most-used structure in fantasy, but you can get the rundown on all story structures here.
Invest in subplots - If you really want to bring the world you’ve lovingly crafted to life, spend the time and creative effort into weaving your subplots into your story. This will allow you to show the reader more elements of your fantasy world and cultures while developing your characters. It adds extra layers to the story without feeling cheap. Plus, who doesn’t like a good side quest?
Always move forward - Even with subplots, your primary plot line should always be moving forward. If your party of adventurers goes to visit the druid’s conclave, it should be to look for help or a magic item to aid them against the monsters swarming from the north. If you’re writing a scene that isn’t relevant to the main story, don’t include it.
Developing the Characters
“Characters should be flawed, but in a way that makes them relatable and human. No one is perfect, and that’s what makes us interesting.” - Naomi Novik
Within this incredible world, pushing through this epic story, are your characters. These characters will lead your readers through your book, but only if you get them right. So here are some tips for developing fantasy characters.
Weave internal and external conflict - So, we already talked about the big external conflict, and you’ll have other conflicts tied into your subplots, but internal conflicts are just as important to great characters and effective storytelling. Your main characters should all have some sort of internal conflict to make their journey more difficult and force them to change. To learn how to weave internal and external conflicts together, click here.
Villains matter, too - The fantasy genre is full of villains that push the boundaries of what’s possible. Powerful necromancers, world-ending deities, and vengeful assassins are just some of the antagonists your heroes will go up against. Don’t treat this character like some one-dimensional source of evil. Learn how to craft a villain worth rooting for with this article.
Understand archetypes - There are few genres that make use of archetypes more than fantasy. From old, wisened mentors (the Sage) to down-on-their-luck underdogs (the Orphan), this genre begs for you to harness the power of archetypes. These characters aren’t cookie-cutter, though. Rather, they’re a handful of traits that readers instantly recognize and relate to without spending chapters explaining it all. Check out our masterclass here.
Writing the Narrative
“Good fantasy is written in the language of dreams. It is alive as dreams are alive, more real than real.” - George R.R. Martin
Last but certainly not least, we come to some advice on writing your fantasy novel. I mean, everything before this has been about writing, too, but this is more about the words you choose to type.
More than any other genre, your writing matters in fantasy. You are taking your readers to a place that defies logic and everything we know to be true and believe in the incredible. That’s no small feat.
So here are some things you can do to write your best fantasy novel.
Research your subgenre - Though many subgenres make up fantasy, they aren’t all written the same. Urban fantasy focuses on action, a faster pace, and sassier characters. Dark fantasy integrates elements of horror into a slower pace and more macabre descriptions. Epic fantasy spends more time on exposition than any other subgenre. Research your subgenre and write accordingly.
Don’t overdo it - Just because you’re writing fantasy doesn’t mean you need to write like Shakespeare. Yes, most fantasy requires more eloquent, drawn-out language. But that’s not an excuse to see how many paragraphs you can use to describe a kitchen table.
Find your voice - Though your author voice will be an amalgamation of your experiences, your favorite authors, other multimedia, and more, you will eventually refine it into something that is uniquely yours. Your fantasy shouldn’t just sound like every other fantasy author. It should contain your quirks and strengths. The best way to find your voice? Check out this article and just write!
Dabble is a Magic Writing Tool for Fantasy Authors
“Creating a great story requires a balance of plot, character, and worldbuilding. All three are important, but none can stand alone.” - Mary Robinette Kowal
If you ask me, there are few writing tools out there that feel like they were really made with authors in mind, and even fewer that seem to cater to fantasy authors, specifically.
Dabble is one of those tools. Let me break down just some of the features that can help you on your quest.
The Plot Grid lets you seamlessly manage all your plot lines and their scenes. This includes your primary plot, subplots, character arcs, romances, settings, and anything you want to include in it, and all of that will be one click away from your scene when you’re writing.
Worldbuilding and character folders to store all your notes, character profiles, and worldbuilding bibles. Saving them in different documents is too much of a pain in the butt for you, adventurer.
Goal setting and tracking breaks your lofty goal into manageable, daily writing pieces. Fantasy books are, on average, longer than most other genres. Writing 120,000 words is a daunting task, but Dabble’s goal setting can help you get there in small, manageable chunks.
And that’s just a few of the features meant to help bring your fantasy novel to life. The best part? You can try it for free, no credit card required, for 14 days by clicking here. Good luck, hero!
TAKE A BREAK FROM WRITING...
Read. Learn. Create.
Book marketing. Those two innocuous words instill fear and loathing into the hearts of so many writers. You just want to write your books and have them sell themselves. Why do you have to tell people about it? Well, Susan, because you do. I know you want to write, but if your goal is to write, publish, and make money from your books, then you’re going to have to find a way to make them visible. Thousands of new titles are uploaded to Amazon every single day. Millions of books are being published every year, and no matter how good your story is, without marketing, there’s not much chance very many people will find it.
What kind of writer are you? Are you the sort who writes a meticulous outline that tips into the five digits or the type who sits down in front of a blank sheet of paper and lets the words pour out of you like a runaway train? Did you know there are specific terms for this kind of writing? Writers will come up with words for anything, I swear. Plotters are the first type of writer. They like to have detailed outlines that tell them exactly where their story is going. Pantsers are the other type of writer, which is kind of a weird name, but the term was coined by Stephen King (a famous pantser) to describe writing by the seat of your pants. Cute, eh? There is no right or wrong way to write your book, and I’m going to repeat this so many times. The right way is the way that works for you.
Dystopian fiction is one of the darker subgenres of science fiction and fantasy. It takes us into dark, foreboding worlds, where oppression and bleak landscapes are the norm. Books like 1984 by George Orwell, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley have become classics that shine a light on political corruption, environmental disaster, and societal collapse.Why do we love these stories? Maybe it's because dystopian fiction allows us to explore worst-case scenarios, to grapple with the idea that the world we know and love could be lost forever. It's a way for us to confront our fears and anxieties about the future, to see what could happen if we continue down a certain path.