Turn Fantasy Into Reality: How to Write a Fantasy Novel
Between you and me, fantasy is the best genre out there. Others may argue that fact, but they’re wrong . You just can’t argue with facts, right?
Another inarguable fact is writing a fantasy book isn’t easy, especially if you’re just beginning your writing career.
The scope of fantasy books ranges from large to outright gargantuan. No matter how you slice it, the fantasy genre forces us writers to harness our imagination and create things that have never existed before, all while making them seem real.
It sounds like a daunting task, but it’s totally worth it. And if you aren’t sure where to start or just need some help bringing your fantasy story to life, you’ve come to the right place. In this article, we’re going to cover:
- The basics of the fantasy genre, including subgenres
- How you can learn from fantasy greats
- Building fantasy worlds
- Crafting compelling characters
- Telling the perfect story
Then we’ll bring it all together to write your best fantasy story. Sound like a plan? Let’s get going.
What Makes Fantasy Fantasy?
Before we can dive too deep into all the elves, wizards, dragons, and everything in between, we need to know the genre we’re writing. Let’s break this down into a few easy-to-understand parts.
Defining the fantasy genre
Up first, let’s figure out what defines the fantasy genre. How about this:
A fantasy story is one that incorporates magical, supernatural, or mythological elements in ways that can not be explained with our current knowledge or with knowledge we might feasibly attain.
There are two parts to that definition. The first claims that your story involves some sort of magical, supernatural, or mythological element. This is likely a no-brainer for most people who have read or written fantasy. Magic or the fantastical are hallmarks of the genre.
The second part is important, too: those elements are unexplainable based on our current understanding of things or our plausible future understanding of things.
Adhering to both parts of this definition helps you steer clear of science fiction and stay in the awesome realm of fantasy.
This goes to Arthur C. Clarke’s famous quote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” If your “magic” can be explained by science, then it isn’t really magic, right? Furthermore, if your non-human species could be explained via genetic manipulation that is only a century away, it’s not really supernatural.
Though fantasy is part of the larger category of speculative fiction, it is a massive genre itself. Even within its own boundaries, there are subgenres that are largely different from one another. But understanding your subgenre is just as—if not more—important than understanding your larger genre.
High or epic fantasy are usually interchangeable terms to describe your traditional fantasy stories that are huge in scope. These fantasy stories can have complete worlds, religions, history, languages, races, and political systems, and usually involve large quests, a varied cast of characters, and are long. The most well-known books in this genre are Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings series.
Low/urban fantasy are other interchangeable terms, with urban fantasy becoming the more common term in recent years. Stories in this subgenre take place in the real world—or something very similar to our real world—but with fantasy elements incorporated. Often, but not always, our protagonist discovers this magical aspect of their world through their journey.
Paranormal romance is a blend of low fantasy and romance. In most cases, the main romance arc of the story involves a human character and a supernatural character, with one or both coming to understand the other’s world. As with all romance, these stories need a happy ending.
Fantasy romance combines high fantasy and romance. Unlike paranormal romance, these stories exist in a world entirely of your own creation, borrowing the vast worldbuilding of epic fantasy. Remember, romance is a core subplot of this subgenre, but it is still (usually epic) fantasy first and foremost.
Young adult and juvenile fantasy are two different subgenres marked by their target audience. Young adult fantasy will usually feature teenage protagonists set in another fantasy subgenre, while juvenile fantasy will have children protagonists. Make sure your tone, theme, and pacing are all appropriate for the target audience.
Fairy tale retellings are new takes on classic fairy tales. What if Sleeping Beauty could dreamwalk? What if the dwarves were protecting the outside world from Snow White? Put your own twist on an otherwise familiar fairy tale.
Historical fantasy is a combination of historical fiction and fantasy, giving us an alternative form of real historical events… if there was magic, orcs, etc. In this subgenre, you must pay particular attention to details. Anyone who reads this subgenre is looking for accuracy (in the non-fantasy elements, of course).
Grimdark fantasy takes epic fantasy and does away with all those uptight heroes and knights. Instead, this subgenre uses anti-heroes and characters with questionable morals to contrast the usual tropes of fantasy stories.
Dark fantasy combines elements of horror with fantasy, bringing in horrifying creatures and a chilling atmosphere to unsettle the reader while providing that fantasy fix. It’s dark, gritty, and—in this author’s humble opinion—the best fantasy subgenre. Admittedly, I’m a tad biased (and I’ve been challenged to an arm wrestling competition by my coworker Nisha who claims the same about romance).
Learn from the Greats
I don’t know how many times my fellow writers and I have said this, but the best writers are avid readers. So, if you want to write awesome fantasy stories, you should be reading awesome fantasy stories.
Read a mix of authors who helped define the genre and those who continue to do so. Need a quick batch of suggestions? Here’s a list of awesome fantasy writers, old and new. It’s by no means complete, but any of these names are a great place to start.
- J.R.R. Tolkein
- V.E. Schwab
- Brandon Sanderson
- Leigh Bardugo
- Patrick Rothfuss
- Sarah J. Maas
- Neil Gaiman
- Tasha Suri
- George R.R. Martin
- Nalini Singh
- Joe Abercrombie
- Tomi Adeyemi
- R.A. Salvatore
- Zen Cho
- B.B. Alston
- N.K. Jemison
- Rebecca Roanhorse
You can also just check out the bestsellers in your subgenre and devour all the books there.
Whoever you choose to read (and make sure you read a decent variety), take note of their word choice, how they write action scenes, their worldbuilding, how they handle magic, their character arcs, and what scenes work best for you.
As artists and creators, our work is a combination of everything we consume. So, if you’re going to fill your brain with a bunch of books, choose some of the best!
Know your market
No matter what subgenre you decide to write, it’s important to understand your market.
Some real talk: whether your goal is just to get people to read your book or write a bestselling fantasy novel, you need to understand your readers and your market.
Do some research. Figure out what works best in your subgenre. Understand why those best practices work. Analyze the bestseller lists, read reviews of those books, look at the way they’ve crafted the cover and the book blurb.
Knowing all of this can help you form an effective marketing plan for your book, but it can also help create the book that you and your readers want. There’s a reason certain things work in certain subgenres.
Use that information to your advantage and write a killer book with it.
Invent an Immersive World
So you know what you’re going to write and you’ve been inspired by some of the greats. Now it’s time to start bringing your fantasy story to life.
Up first, we need to invent an immersive world.
No matter what subgenre you’re writing, the world you build is a defining feature of your fantasy book. If you don’t make it the best you can, then you’re starting with a weak foundation. A lot of fantasy readers are here for the world you create. It’s kind of a big deal.
Because it’s such a big deal, we have an entire article dedicated to building a fictional world. Click here, read it, bookmark it for later. For the sake of this article, here are the things you need to know about crafting fantasy worlds.
Start with your story. Listen, we could spend days, weeks, even years creating the ultimate fantasy setting. You can cram literal eons of information into your worldbuilding folder until you have continents, cultures, and settings as intricate as our own. But remember that you’re writing a story. Your world should be built to serve your story.
Get physical. What does your world look like? I’m talking about the physical terrain, cities and towns, the climate and weather, plants and animals, maps and political boundaries, space and the world beyond that which your characters know. Make sense of how your world looks, feels, smells, sounds. Heck, even how it tastes while we’re at it.
Cultures make worlds real. Unless you just want a pretty backdrop to your story, you need to bring it to life with culture. This means thinking of things like notable historical events, socioeconomic conditions, the political landscape, past and current religions, languages and their uses, and traditions. It also includes things we might take for granted, like currency, entertainment, architecture, fashion, and cuisine.
Bring your magic to life. Whether you’re crafting a magic system or including supernatural creatures, figure out what makes your fantasy a fantasy. For those diving into magic, consider reading up on Brandon Sanderson’s Laws of Magic. Then figure out how these magical elements tie into the other aspects of your world.
How do your characters live? Your plot is driven by your cast of characters, so take some time to figure out how they fit into this fantastical world you’ve made. Where do they fall on the social ladder? What happens when they go against norms? What cataclysmic events are coming and what role do your characters play?
It can’t be understated how important your worldbuilding is for your fantasy story. It’s what defines the genre. It’s the basis for your entire series or book. So make sure you play god and make an incredible world.
Create Compelling Characters
Next, you need characters that exist in your freshly crafted world. Characters will help push your story forward and make the reader care about what’s going on in that world you worked so hard to develop.
To create compelling characters, think about some of the following.
Understand what makes a good character. While reading all those books by all those incredible fantasy authors, take notes on what makes characters stick with you, for both good and bad reasons. Understand character archetypes—which feel like they were made for the fantasy genre—and how you can use them to create instantly relatable and recognizable characters.
Your protagonist(s) and antagonist(s). While it’s the entire ensemble of characters who will make your story memorable, your main characters are your salespeople. Who will be your hero and your villain? What relationship will they have? How will they push each other to change and grow? Even if they don’t know each other, these two characters should be like distorted reflections of one another.
Plan your character arcs. Every main and secondary character should have an arc of some kind. It’s how your characters face obstacles and change from them—whether by overcoming or failing the challenges presented—that will define your characters. How does the story influence them and how do they influence the story?
Make living, breathing characters. Boring, two-dimensional characters are about as much fun to read as eating plain iceberg lettuce. You want your readers to care about these characters, even the bad ones! So use these resources to take your character game to the next level:
Your characters will be like guides through your fantasy world. It’s through their actions and journeys that you will immerse your reader in this strange, magical place you’ve created. So give them the time and attention they deserve.
You Need Narrative
We have the stage. We have the cast. Now we need to know what the heck is going on.
Your fantasy story isn’t a story without a plot. And, with the fantasy genre, we can go real big with our plot.
Like all books, there are some core elements you need, but we’re going to put a fantasy spin on it.
Choose your conflict. A story is nothing without conflict. This crucial story element pushes your protagonist into action, drives character arcs, and adds tension to your world. For your fantasy story, determine a primary external conflict that creates the inciting incident, then focus on internal conflicts and other external conflicts to keep the story moving. Learn more about writing conflict here.
Select a story structure. Some writers cringe at the mention of the word “structure,” but every story has one… sorry. And every writer can benefit from understanding different story structures and the beats that go with them, even pantsers! Some structures lend themselves to fantasy more than others; Tolkien, for example, used the Hero’s Journey when writing The Lord of the Rings. Click here to learn more about story structures and choose one that interests you.
Pick a point of view. When it comes to the perspective or point of view (POV) your story is told from, you have a few options. You can read about all of them here, but the most common in fantasy are third-person limited and first person. Both of these options have their own strengths, with the former allowing you to include details of your world that a first-person narrator wouldn’t know, and the latter providing more intimacy with your narrator. In either case, you can switch narrators in between scenes to help develop characters and your world (a common trait in fantasy novels).
Theme is tantamount. Without a theme, your story is just a series of events. Theme adds meaning to your book, connecting readers to a human truth that you share through your characters’ actions. And, even though you’re writing a fantasy novel, your themes should be grounded in real life. Good vs. evil, misogyny , racism, hope, loss—your message takes the incredible and makes it resonate with your readers. Click here to learn more about writing themes.
See, your story is more than just your plot. It’s the bigger narrative that runs much deeper than that. Use these elements to add depth to your fantasy story.
Weaving World, Character, and Narrative Together
If you spend the time working through all the information presented in this article, you’re going to have a lot of pieces to your fantasy puzzle. But how do we put all these pieces together and write a book?
Well, the good news is that you already have been. From the second you started thinking about your story, you’ve been putting this puzzle together. When you thought about your subgenre and what it entails, your mind started whirring with ideas.
When you read books by your favorite fantasy authors, you started to generate more pieces that snapped together.
Once you started building your world, those pieces became clearer and more appeared.
And when you created those characters and worked more on your plot, those pieces fell into place, too.
Does that all sound familiar? It should. The minds and imagination of writers are wonderful things.
But that doesn’t mean that we’re done writing our fantasy story or that it will just magically come together. So here are some things to help finish your puzzle.
Write smaller pieces first. Because writing a fantasy novel, especially one in a world completely of your own making, can be a massive task, it can be easier to write some short stories first. These stories never have to be published or read by anyone else, but they can do wonders to help your worldbuilding and character development. And, not to continually bring him up, but Tolkien did this a lot before writing The Lord of the Rings.
Don’t forget about dialogue. The tone and word choice of fantasy characters can run the whole gamut. Unfortunately, it’s easy for writers to fall into robotic, clunky writing to make it sound “medieval” in your fantasy setting. This can be fixed by paying attention to the way the pros do it and by making each of your characters unique in their communication.
Use just the right amount of detail. In general, fantasy stories include more detail than most other genres. It’s these details that can bring a new world to life or add a sense of magic to the seemingly normal. Too little detail, and your world won’t be enchanting (or horrifying). Too much, and it will be difficult to read. Use beta readers and those handy reading eyes of yours to find the sweet spot.
Remember the laws of your world. Whether we’re talking about magic, physics, politics, or social norms, keep track of all the laws in your fantasy world. This might seem obvious, but it can get complicated keeping track of an entire world that only exists in your mind, and no one likes those wonky anachronisms in a fantasy book. Luckily, you can get all those ideas out and keep them in the Notes section of Dabble, which is always just one click away from your manuscript.
Avoid deus ex machina. Literally translating to “god from the machine,” deus ex machina is a literary term referring to something new that comes out of nowhere, usually at the climax of a story, to get the characters out of an impossible situation. It’s lazy writing that usually renders conflict and character arcs meaningless, and is all too easy to do when you’re throwing magic left and right in your story. Make sure everything makes sense and is consistent in your fantasy story.
Get writing. Yeah, I’m going to be that guy. But the only way you can actually bring all these elements together is by writing. Get those words down. Finish a chapter. Set a goal and crush it.
The best way to get writing is with Dabble. With built-in goal tracking, focus mode, the famous Plot Grid, and so much more, Dabble makes writing your fantasy story easy and fun.
For us fantasy writers, it provides a great place to keep all of our research and made up information. Keep track of your characters, your world, your magic rules, and your very specific form of plant life that is used for that really neat potion.
When you’re creating an entire world—either from scratch or to layer on our own—you need to keep track of it all so it’s there when you need it.
If you’re already a Dabbler, you know I’m preaching to the choir. But for everyone else, click here to try everything Dabble has to offer for fourteen days, completely free, without even entering your credit card details.
Do you have a story in you? Of course you do! Come write with us for the Dabble Writing Challenge.
Essentially, a beta reader is an (hopefully) objective third party who will read your novel or story and provide (hopefully) constructive feedback. A beta reader is not an editor, and often they’re not writers either, though there’s a good chance a lot of your beta readers are going to be authors as well.
If you’re a regular writer of romance or are looking to dive into this popular genre, you might be on the lookout for some stellar plot ideas. Spend any time reading and exploring the genre and you’ll know that romance is just one word for dozens of different subgenres all with their own tone and style.