25 Things You Should Know About Writing Fantasy

I don’t write fantasy. Not really. I’ve written it from time to time (my short story collection, Irregular Creatures, has some). And Blackbirds apparently counts as “urban fantasy.”

Just the same, I am woefully underqualified to write this list. But by golly, that’s never stopped me before. So here I am, offering up my “list of 25″ in the fantasy arena. Though I write with a certain authoritative sense of gavel-bangery, please understand that these are just my opinions–

– and shaky, unproven opinions, at that.

Accept. Discuss. Discard.

Do as thou wilt.

1. Nobody Knows What The Fuck Fantasy Is

Fantasy is a bullseye painted on a horse’s rump just before someone fired a magical spell up under the nag’s tail and set her to stampeding. We can all agree that something that has dragons in it and castles and a great deal of faux Medieval frippery is likely to be considered “fantasy,” but beyond that, it’s hard to say. It probably has magic or deals with the supernatural. It likely avoids science. It might be scary, but not so scary that it be labeled “horror” instead. It’s a fuzzy, muzzy, gauzy, hazy fog-clogged hollow, this genre. As it should be. Genre does best when its definition is decidedly low-fi rather than high-def.

2. Fantastical Fiefdoms

Fantasy is vivisected into various gobbets, limbs and organs — sword-and-sorcery does battle with epic or high fantasy, horror-tinged fantasy used to be “dark fantasy” but now it’s “urban fantasy” or maybe “paranormal fantasy” or maybe “fantasy with vampires and werewolves looking sexy while clad in genital-crushing leathers.” There’s fantasy of myth and fantasy that’s funny and fantasy that’s laced with a thread of science-fiction. You have magic realism and one day we’ll probably have real magicalism and I’m sure there’s a genre of fantasy where lots of fantasy creatures bang the whimsy right out of one another (hot centaur-on-goblin action, yow). Sub-genres have value as marketing tools and as a way to give you some direction and fencing as you write. Otherwise: ignore as you see fit. Or create your own!

3. Rooted In The Real

Reality is fantasy’s best friend. We, the audience, and you, the writer, all live in reality. The problems we understand are real problems. Genuine conflicts. True drama. The drama of families, of lost loves, of financial woes. Cruel neighbors and callow bullies and loved ones dead. This is the nature of write what you know, and the fantasy writer’s version of that is, write what’s real. Which sounds like very bad advice, because last time I checked, none of us were plagued by dragons or sentient fungal cities or old gods come back to haunt us. But that’s not the point — the point is, you use the fantasy to highlight the reality. The dragon is the callow bully. The lease on your fungal apartment is up and your financial woes puts you in tithe to the old gods who in turn make for very bad neighbors. You grab the core essence of a true problem and swaddle it in the mad glittery ribbons of fantasy — and therein you find glorious new permutations of conflict. Reality expressed in mind-boggling ways. Reach for fantasy. Find the reality.

4. Break Reality With Your Magic Hammer, Rearrange The Resultant Shards

Reality also offers up awesomeness in the form of data. You may think, “Well, I can’t research a fantasy world because it doesn’t exist, dummy” but again — root fantasy in the real. Look to actual events. Look to history. Look to culture and religion. Mine truth for fiction. Some cultures (Asian in particular) have a practice where friends and family and villagers help pay for each other’s funerals. Right there, you can take that, tweak it, use it. Drama lives there. What if the village won’t pay for someone’s funeral? Why? What’s the stigma? Why the exile? Adherence to dark magic? Broken oath? Cranky centaur bastard child?

5. Woebetide The Faux Medieval Frippery

Kings and knights and dragons and oaths and tithes and princesses and plumbers rescuing those princesses from giant rage-apes and — okay, wait, maybe not that last part. What I’m saying is, European Medievality (not a word) is the meat-and-potatoes of the fantasy genre. And I think we can do better than meat-and-potatoes. Look beyond that single slice of time and space for your inspiration. What about the 18th century bloody rivalry between chiefs and kings in Hawaii? Or the French Resistance in WWII? Or Masada? Or that time the Ewoks repelled the Empire and blew up the Death Star in their space gliders?

6. Go Weird Or Go Home

The power of fantasy is that you can do anything. Anything at all. You start with that core of reality and from there you’re allowed to grow anything from that fertile seed-bed. And yet, so much fantasy looks like so much other fantasy. Stop that. Embrace the wide open openness of the genre. The power of magic is that it’s motherfucking magic. You are beholden only to that which you yourself create. Go big. Dream weird. Be original. Why do what everyone else has already done?

7. Opinion: The Bravest Fantasy Right Now Is In The Young Adult Space

I’m just putting that out there. Discuss amongst yourselves.

8. People, Man, People

It’s easy to get lost in the shiny crazy bits — dragon undertakers and goblin butlers and the culinary traditions of the Autochthonic Worm Lords. It’s easy to be dizzily dazzled by the sheer overwhelming potential fantasy affords. But at the end of the day, fantasy has to be about characters above ideas, above culture, above all the fiddly fantasy bits. Great characters are our vehicle through the fantasy.

9. The Heart’s Bane

Fantasy fiction often seems to be about external conflict — sieges and escaped gods and blasphemous magic and, I dunno, unicorn orgies. But what we connect to in storytelling is the internal conflict. What lies in the heart of a character is what we understand — and, in fact, relate to — most. Yes, the battlefield is a muddy bloody hell-ground of decapitations and magic missiles, but those two forces are clashing based on the motives of characters — characters who feel betrayed or vengeful, who send nations to die to rescue one lost love, who risk it all because of some real or imagined slight decades before. The human heart — even when encased in an ogre king’s chest — drives fantasy fiction.

10. Dolls Nesting In Dolls

Put differently: find the little story in the big story because the little story needs to actually be the big story. Did you follow that? Let me explain: fantasy is often about epic motherfucking stuff. Quest for the magic boomerang! Dragon Parliament is going to war with the Unicorn Tribe of the Northern Blood Red Shadow Death Crescent-Steppe! Evil has awakened from its thousand year nap and now stumbles drunkenly toward our villages — oh by the gods he’s stubbed his toe and now Evil is very very angry. Those are big stories. And they don’t matter. Not without a compelling little story. The story of a boy in love. The story of a fractured family pulling itself together (or further apart). A coming-of-age tale! The tale of redemption and regret! The big stuff is just a trapping — epic shadows cast on the wall, thrown there by firelight.

11. Building A World Where Nobody Lives

Though the stage is essential, theater is not about the stage. All the pieces on it contribute to the action, the blocking. But theater is not about the stage. Theater is about the stories of people, and so too is fantasy. Fantasy is not about the worldbuilding, though it’s tempting to make it so. It’s a tantalizing proposition, to slide down that muddy chute (get your head out of the gutters, and also, out of other people’s mud-chutes, I mean, unless they invited you) and to keep on going — designing forest ecologies and ossuary cities (bone-o-polis!) and the mating dances of the randy tumescent Ettins. And weeks later you’ve forgotten the story. You’ve lost the characters (if you ever had them). Worldbuilding supports story, but is not itself the story. Worldbuilding is just the stage. It demands attention. But not all of it.

12. The Seduction Of Detail

Fantasy gives itself over to detail very easily. Exposition. Explanation. It feels like, “Well, the readers have never experienced this world before and so I must paint for them every inch.” You can spend a whole page on describing the pommel of a knight’s mighty sword or the density and temperature of pegasus cloaca, and I’ll admit that there exists an audience for that sort of thing — readers who want to be immersed so fully in a world’s minutiae that it bubbles up into their nose. For my money, if the fantasy is more about those details than it is about the story or the characters within it, I’m done. I’m Audi 5000, son.

13. Free Range Cage-Free Fantasy

Grow your world and its many details organically. Meaning, describe it when you need it. The test is easy: can the audience continue without this information? If the answer is no, describe as simply and clearly as you can manage. If the answer is yes, the move on to the stuff we care about.

14. Reality Versus Authenticity

Fantasy would seem the opposite of reality as in, “My reality does not feature merfolk flea markets or werewolves having sex-wars with vampires, and this book has those things aplenty.” And yet, each tale of fantasy must have its own reality and the way you accomplish this is by embracing authenticity. Authenticity makes everything feel real, even when it most certainly is not. Authenticity comes from consistency and confidence in your writing. (Logic and common sense don’t hurt, either.) Authenticity is a nice glass of warm milk that puts any reader’s disbelief down for a long, comfortable nap.

15. This Thing’s Got Rules, You See

Part of that consistency I’m talking about is maintaining a level of consistency in the rules of your fantasy worlds. Your sex-dragons and sentient blimp-creatures don’t need to act like my sex-dragons and sentient blimp-creatures, but they do need to act in a way we find consistent and believable. Discover the rules of your magic systems. Find out what the zombie magus can and cannot do. What happens if a werewolf tries to make a baby with a mummy? Hell, that’s a good question for all of us to answer whether we’re writing fantasy or not. I don’t want to be sandbagged by some squalling wolf-mummy. Fuck that, man.

16. The School Of Cool Has Been Shut Down For Serving Re-Heated Poop Mash To Students And Is Pending Investigation Thanks For Your Patience

Don’t put something in your story just because it’s cool. Won’t work. It’ll feel like a third nipple just sitting there, squirting scalding hell-milk in your eye. Elements of fantasy should be cool and work in the greater context of character, setting, theme, whatever. “DUDE SO AWESOME” is not a justification for inclusion.

17. Gone Off The Reservation

Yes, I’m exhorting you to go big, go weird, or go home. But you can go too weird. You can conjure an insurmountable distance between your world and the audience by being too abstract, for embracing weird just for the sake of it. Byzantine abstractions are fascinating, but they don’t do well in protracted storytelling unless you can somehow help the audience relate to it. We need to find our story in your story. If we can find no recognizable landmarks, if we can find no familiar paths — even murky ones — we won’t connect with your story. The weirder you go the harder you must strive to connect with us.

18. The Chosen One Is Done, Son, Unless He Got Buns, Hon

Personal opinion: the chosen one is over. Kaput. *poop noise* Jesus, King Arthur, Paul Atreides, Rand al’Thor, Spongebob Squarepants, whatever. Fuck the prophecy. It’s over! It’s a puerile convention in a genre that’s matured well beyond the need for such over-common trappings. Anytime I read, “He’s the one person who can save the kingdom / defeat the monstrous monster-thing / wield the magic sword known as Lion-Tickler,” I just roll my eyes and gently close the book. I no longer buy it. It’s lazy. Do better. (Oh, unless you’re subverting that meme. Then you get a fist bump. And a genital bump, if you’re into it. *eyebrow waggle* Oh, hey okay, since you’re getting out the Taser, maybe not.)

19. If Your Character’s Name Has More Than Six Apostrophes I Will Choke You

If your character’s name has a bunch of consonants jammed together, I will slap your face. If I need a ten-page pronunciation guide to sound out your hero’s name, I will kung-fu your soul. If you’re desperate to make your character names sound “exotic” and “weird” without any cultural underpinnings or consistency, I will clone you and make you fight yourself in a McDonald’s ball pit. If all your fantasy names sound the same (Galen Galorn Galendal Galendel Galendole Gaileen Crystal Gayle GALEYGALEGOOBYGALE) I will pull out your heart, stuff it with acorns, and leave it for the squirrels.

20. This Way To The Great Egress Ha Ha It’s Actually An Owlbear Lair You Fool

One of the things I really like about fantasy is that it pretends to be escapism. Even the word fantasy suggests an imagined escape. But fantasy can — and perhaps should — be used to explore some really deep, really profound stuff. By stripping away the faculties of real life you crack open bone and open up the marrow. No topic is too weighty for fantasy — life, love, death, marriage, social norms, violence, politics, government, commerce, sex — and yet fantasy is a honeypot, luring you in with promises of a trouble-free escape. That is, in the truest sense of the word, fantastic. (See what I did there?)

21. Maybe You Don’t Need To Write A Ten-Book Epic Cycle

You will not get your giant epic fantasy series (with accompanying 1000-page mythic dictionary) published if you’re a new writer. Some authors can get away with this. Most can’t. Before I tackle any big fantasy series, I wait until it’s all finished. Because suddenly the author starts taking five year breaks between books and then gets hit by a bus before Book Eight and suddenly I’m up poop river without hip-waders.”But now I’ll never find out what becomes of Lady Braidly Manabozho of the Shadowdark Hegemony! Will she be forced to marry Lord Krommng’kar? Will she accept her destiny as one of the Sandmurai and join the Magenta Falconer’s Guild?” Maybe calm down. Start smaller.

22. Read Broadly Lest Ye Regurgitate A Thin Slurry

Don’t read only fantasy. Read histories and mysteries. Read biographies and mythologies, thrillers and chillers. Reading only in your genre ensures you regurgitate your genre.

23. Fuck Tolkien

Tolkien deserves kudos. High-five to him. And now we’re done. Stop emulating him. No more elves and orcs and dwarves. No more slavish D&D devotion. Fantasy isn’t beholden to this dude. Nobody’s forcing you to trample the same grass over and over again. He is not the only example (and fantasy needs few examples, anyway). As a sidenote, “fuck Tolkien” sounds like “fuck token,” which I think is how one properly accesses an orgy. “Ahm, yes, I’m here for the unicorn orgy.” “Do you have your fuck token?” “I seem to have… lost it.” “Then get lost, pervo.” “But I have this copy of the Silmarillion.” “I said get lost.”

24. Also: No More Hot-Pants Vampires

I like vampires. I do. And I like tight leather pants. Hell, you put a vampire into some tight leather pants and give her a katana, I’m good to go. But, urban fantasy — it’s time. It’s time to back away from the beleathered bloodsuckers and sexy vampire hunters and their hirsute lycanthrope lovers. All the romance and the vampire clans and swords and the two pistols and the sexy tattoos and — I mean, we’re done here, right? Is there nowhere else to go? Can’t you at least file off some serial numbers?

25. Write Down Your Dreams

We dream at night unfettered. Our minds unmoored from the known, lifting and drifting into the unknown. Anything is possible in our dreams. That’s why our dreams are so powerful — we feel something strong upon waking even as the dream breaks apart in our hands like a crust of beach sand. It’s why I encourage writers to write down their dreams if they found them so affecting, and it’s now why I think our dreams serve as an excellent model for fantasy fiction. The same feel I get when dreaming is the same feel I hope to reach when reading fantasy fiction — the sense of being out of my head, of entering territory that is unknown and so becomes both beautiful and frightening in equal measure. I want to believe that the author is not fixed by the rigors of reality or the reagents of the genre and that here, All Things Are Possible. The power of the fantasy is in its limitlessness to explore human imagination. Stop walking the same paths. Stop feeling trapped. Find the dream. Write what you want to write and let that free your fiction.

Fantasy or otherwise.

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  • I love this list! haha!! These are some excellent points and commentaries! I am wanting to write a fantasy story myself, and have read lots of books (both fiction and non-fiction). These are quite helpful.

  • I absolutely love people with ridiculous, and therefore wonderful, imaginations, people who truly think outside the box and are fearless in presenting their ideas but who are also respectful of those who may stumble across their words. All this to say, your examples blend well with all your points, and this list is truly helpful to those trying to write the vague fantasy story. Thanks.

  • I love this post. Excellent and hilarious, and you went into things I never thought of. Now I’ll have to go back and rethink and I’m totally okay with that :)

  • Fun stuff. Speaking of vamps in hot pants … I always thought it would be fun to read or write a story about a fat, balding, overweight vampire who has the sex appeal of a rutabaga.

  • Have to disagree on #7. What I’ve seen in YA Fantasy is hopelessly inadequate and often belongs under Romance instead. Good, thoughtful Fantasy fiction that isn’t afraid of a little exposition and expecting readers to come from college reading level and above will always have a ready audience.

  • 75% of fantasy novels would disappear if the protagonist wasn’t, in some degree, “the one.” The book doesn’t have to be about a savior, but with this rule stories like Ender’s Game wouldn’t exist.

    Was Ender told “you are the chosen one!”?

    No, but we as readers understand that he is the only one that could have claimed a victory. And that aspect of the character makes him interesting. It a classic literary character and I would argue it will never truly get old.

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