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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73 comments

  • “This is the nature of write what you know, and the fantasy writer’s version of that is, write what’s real.”

    Great list, as per usual. This bit is, I think, often where it’s the easiest to fail.

    The more fantastical your world (which you WILL make internally consistent) the more the ‘real’ bits must be realistic. So if your fantasy world is inhabited by people – and they mostly are – they must behave like real people, and if they don’t you should let the reader know why. If your horses can run for three days straight without a rest, you must let the reader know why.

    ‘Because it’s in fantasy land’ does not count as a reason.

    And the reason you do this is that if your ‘real’ bits are so real the reader can taste it, then they will accept that flying cow or giant rage-ape because they trust you. And if they trust you….you’re home.

    And yes, yes YES to number 8/9. Fantasy is, at heart, about people. I like to think I write fantasy because you can twist your characters in a way you can’t in a mundane world, subject them to pressures that are impossible in this world. Then you can see how they bleed, and it can show you something about the human condition from a different angle. But then, you know, I’m a sadist :D

  • I love this list. My husband and I sat on the couch and laughed as I read bits out loud — and hubby is not a morning person. My two year old laughed too, but probably for totally different reasons (I did have to make some word substitutions — I admit it, I’m the one with the potty mouth, so we long ago decided on a substitute word that would never be used in any other positive fashion in our home — “vegan” :-) Apologies to all the vegans out there).
    And hey, for once, a TerribleMinds list made me think, “hey, someday, I might be sort of competent at this writing thing” (though the more common, “Crap, I do that, damn I don’t do that has certainly improved this draft of my novel). Now, if you’ll excuse me, the kid just found the mini-Nerf shooter I bought his dad for father’s day …

  • I am in the process of plotting (a first for me, I used to be a pantser until you, Good Sir, covinsed me differently) a fantasy novel, where I want the world to be surreal and dreamlike and decidedly un-Tolkiensque, which is why I have also taken up my dreamjournal again. Oh, and it takes the ‘choosen one from the prophesy’ and puts a spin on it, in part inspired by the Harry Potter fantheories that everyone got it wrong and that Longbottom was in fact the choosen one. It will be YA-ish and I’m only planning one book.

    So, I have to ask, have you been picking my brain?

    • Did you actually read the Harry Potter books? It was explained, quite clearly, that Harry was definitely the ‘Chosen One’ and that Neville was not.

      • Or; rather, the question is: Have you read Eva’s comment properly? It does clearly say ‘…puts a spin on it…inspired by the Harry Potter Fantheories that…”.

        Let emphasis be made on the term ‘fantheories’.

  • Yes, The swords and dragons and elves and orcs thing is done.
    Kal’ang’har and names of that nature, no thanks.

    However, what I like most about this 25 Things list is the optimism and the encouragement. The most important Chuck Wendig truth-nugget?

    “The power of fantasy is that you can do anything. Anything at all.”

  • So speaking of fantasy, there was this really interesting world I was hearing about. Called Blackbloom. Whatever happened with that yeah?

    (Just couldn’t help myself as usual.)

  • I dig sword & sorcery far more than fantasy. Fantasy is Obi Wan, old wizards and swords and shit. Sword & Sorcery is Han Solo, scoundrels and misfits. The only reason the hero is going on a quest is out of a mad jones for gold, whiskey and skirt. I’ll take Leiber over Tolkien any day.

  • This is a fantastic list. Internal consistency and most of all, characters that feel real are so incredibly important in any genre, but especially so in fantasy. The further you go in distorting the reality, the more grounded it must be, otherwise there’s just no impact to your crazy metaphisics of infinite triangular forms of spelling the name “dog” or whatever.

    I must express my thanks for number 25. Dreams are incredibly important. It’s our unconscious self going wild. Had it not been for you, I would’ve forgotten my incredibly powerful dream I had this night that I still thought about after I had awakened so strongly as if it’d change the course of it. On its own, it might not mean much, but then I put it into the setting I currently work on and it is a perfect detail for the dystopian technological utopia city state, as well as serving as a great contrast to the outer, much more simple and more mythical world.

    I also agree. Enough with Tolkien. Let the guy’s fantasy rest already. For a while I thought about elves and dwarves, but then realized just how meaningless those races actually are, when I can just have a bunch of *people* be vastly culturally different, but still the same people, and I don’t need no pointy ears or beards to do that. Even then, the people with usually “elvish” traits work better as the freaking miners and metalworkers.

  • Fantasy is my tomato-seed genre. Most people take it, plant it, grow another tomato plant, BLTs, yum. And that’s ok. Me though… I grow a tomato plant. Tend it carefully. Wait for the little cherry tomatoes to ripen. And then I pick them and use them as ammo to pelt the kids down the street and we have the most awesome summer ever and next spring everyone on the block has tomato plants growing from their gutters.

    Um, yeah, like that. It doesn’t stay neat.

  • Very amusing article. I agree with you up to a point – much of what is out there today is regurgitation of the past, i.e. Tolkien. However, I do not think that the new stuff out there is anywhere near the equal of the classic fantasy. The archtypical fantasy stories are grounded in myth, religion, the farmboy with a sword, Luke Skywalker as Christ, good vs evil, etc. They are used because they are good stories. But the window-dressing does get old, I agree.

  • So the other day I dreamed that I went to Walmart in China and it morphed into an outdoor mall. Is that proper fantasy material? lol. I think rather it was my subconscious telling me I should go back to visit.

    I do love fantasy but I’ve never ventured to write it for all the reasons you’ve pointed out above. Mostly I’d be afraid of only being a regurgitation of those that have come before. Maybe I should just go *weirder* though and see what happens.

  • The part that can set the wife off on a rant (and me, to a lesser extent, since I don’t have a prospective literary dog in this fight) is how the definition of “Urban Fantasy” has been appropriated by the Paranormal Romance crowd.

    Urban Fantasy is supposed to be just that — URBAN. Fairy Tale darkness where the Spooky Deep Dark Woods archetype is replaced with the modern equivalent, the Spooky Deep Dark City.

    Somewhere along the line, somebody misapplied it to novels one step removed from breathless bodice-rippers, which oddly all seem to have the same cover: A tramp-stamped woman in leather pants, ass toward the viewer, holding some sort of weapon. Those started to sell, and BOOM — there goes the actual “urban fantasy” out there. Now it’s all vampire soft-core, all the time.

    • @Gareth —

      Yeah, it’s weird — it used to be that urban fantasy didn’t necessarily have to be urban so much as modern — Charles de Lint, for example, sometimes had that moniker even when his work wasn’t precisely city-fied.

      But then it became that which you identify.

      The other thing is, some of those books with the leather-clad vampire ass-cheek aren’t bad books under the covers — and don’t even match the cover at all.

      I do know that when it came time to noodle on a BLACKBIRDS cover, the first thing I told Angry Robot was, “None of that, nope, not one bit. And they agreed, proving again what a cool publisher they are.

      — c.

  • Have to agree with all of them, except maybe #25. And only in my personal case. Tried writing down my dreams and they were beyond weird. #17 weird. Soooo….

    @Alan Smithee – I think you’re confusing “fantasy” as a catch-all genre with “epic fantasy”, which is a very specific subgenre of fantasy. Though I agree – I love Fritz Leiber and indeed any fantasy story about charming rogues up to no good, which is probably why it’s the kind of stuff I write myself :)

  • I do write fantasy, albeit not (yet) professionally, and I very much agree with most of the points in this post. And may I add how very grateful I am that you managed to get your publisher to spare us from yet another MY-BUTT-LET-ME-SHOW-YOU-IT urban fantasy cover?

    But I do, at least partially, disagree with one part of #15, and N.K. Jemisin’s recent blog post that I was going to link to as a counterpoint has already been posted above by John Vise (though in its original appearance, on her own blog, there’s a lot more discussion going on in the comments.

    Basically her point is that when you load magic down with too many rules, you lose the sense of wonder that you get from myths, legends and classic works of fantasy. It becomes overly mechanistic and predictable – “thin storytelling papered over a Players’ Guide”.

    And I tend to agree. Now, don’t get me wrong – I’ve read some excellent books that did employ very structured, rules-bound magic. But when I think of the fantasy books that have moved me the most, the ones that have gone beyond just being damn good stories and into the realm of something like modern myth – I don’t see a lot of rules there. Magic in those books tends to be something wild, organic, unpredictable – awesome in the literal sense of filling you with awe. I don’t think you can get that with a rules-bound magical system – at least, not easily. That sense of having stumbled into something unfathomably powerful, complex and ancient (even if in reality it’s no more ancient than the author’s own imagination), beyond mortal ability to fully comprehend, can’t really come across if everything has to follow neat, orderly rules.

    I think what people sometimes mean when they talk about magic needing to have rules, though, is that it needs to have limits. Especially, magic that the protagonists are capable of. No one is interested in the adventures of an omnipotent hero, who can do literally anything, because nothing is a challenge to them. Likewise, the magic of antagonists needs to have some sort of limits to it in order for the protagonists to have a fighting chance. But limits are different from rules. The former I’d agree are necessary. The latter… may be a help or a hindrance, depending on what kind of story you want to tell.

    • @Lynna:

      I can totally dig that. I think more to the point for me it’s not so much about the audience knowing the rules but about the author finding some kind of internal consistency within that space — so that you don’t go betraying it over and over again without even realizing it. Some fantasy goes that way sometimes and seems to violate its own making. I think “There are no rules” is, itself, a kind of rule — and I like your notion about limits instead of rules.

      — c.

  • First thing in my head: I still think you can write a Chosen One story. Frankly, I’m writing one now. But it’s kind of funny how it works; this Goddess needs somebody to be her vassal, and she sees somebody on Earth born to a very powerful man, and she goes, “Eh, she’ll do.” The rest of the legacy is made by the “Chosen One” herself.
    …so yeah, with finesse, you can do it. Although then again, I may be biased.

    Second thing: total agree on the “use-real-life-themes” thing. One of the themes in my book right now is about religion, mostly about my views on it. I hope it works out (I really, really, REALLY hope so), because I think the ideas behind it are important, especially since they’re ideas that I learned myself, personally.

    Third thing: ENOUGH WITH THE VAMPIRES. Never read Twilight myself and I’m already sick of it. Also, it’s an overdone theme. Maybe every once in a while is fine, but can everybody stop trying to write about them? I mean, do that if you want to, but don’t do it because it’s the trend.

    You made some good points, Wendiggy! Applause to you from me. (And no I will not stop calling you Wendiggy IT’S TOO FUN SHUT UP)

  • Thank you for #5 and #8 – there’s so much truth stranger than fiction that you don’t have to go that far to find great ingredients for a story. And it is all about character. I believe that a setting for a story is just like the setting for a gem – you gotta have it solid, but admirers notice the princess cut emerald, not the four prong business holding it to the chain.

    One of the difficult things about writing fantasy for me is figuring out a polite yet factual response to the question, “You write fantasy? How many hours of World of Warcraft do you have to play in a day to write a good story?” The factual answer is none, but since there’s nary a goblin, orc, or elf in anything I write it’s tempting to add more words either in front of or after “none”. Heavy on the meaningless intensifiers. I’m not knocking video games, I’m saying that if the dear to your heart fantasy project is set in Wyoming it’s a question whose basic assumptions may bug you.

    Thanks for a great post, again!

  • Know I already posted, but I’m going to do so again to say THANK YOU to those who commented on the “urban fantasy/paranormal romance” conundrum. I write urban fantasy. In that my fantasy stuff is set in the cities of Boston and Chicago, tweaked only slightly. There are rules to my magic, abilities are inherited via genetics, and nobody’s bodice gets ripped. My main characters are an FBI gang task force agent and a former pro-hockey player turned Shaman through promises made to entities beyond himself and years of training. There is a love story, because well, honestly, most good stories have one, but it’s secondary to the MAIN story (if integral). Honestly, there isn’t even much sex (there’s some, I PROMISE :-) not because I’m against it in ANY way, but because I was very consciously NOT writing a paranormal romance.
    When I try to describe the genre to people, though, they either say, “Huh?” or look at me like I have smut on the brain.

  • I’m currently in the planning stages for a novel. Today is the third time in less than two weeks that, while reading something you wrote, I got a great idea for a character or plot element for my book. Most of the ideas are pretty far removed from what I’m reading at the time, but they keep coming just the same. You bring the inspiration, my friend. Thanks for that.

  • Re: #25. I had a dream last night that there was a bank of toilets (except they were in shower stalls) and the one toilet overflowed and I had these weird animal shit balls floating all over. So I got the toilet unplugged but I still had to shovel up all the shit balls and send them back down the toilet.

    Kinda feels a bit like my work life right now. I really had to laugh – I mean, how much more accurate of a metaphor can you get?

  • Yay, fantasy! I had to keep re-finding my place while reading this one because I kept stopping to cheer. Seriously. (yes, I’m in the basement by myself.)

    The novel I’m tightening up this summer is a historical/piratical fantasy with a healthy slosh of magical realism (imagining Chris Hemsworth, Kate Beckinsale, and Taylor Kitsch as the main characters really doesn’t hurt either). I’ve always believed that accurately telling a fantasy set in a very believable real-life world makes the fantasy elements much more accessible. Added bonus, you don’t have to spend as much time describing the setting. This pirate story got me reading everything from dry 18th-century seamanship manuals (thank you GoogleBooks) to street-fighting references, the rubrics of the 15th-century Dominican Mass (in Latin) and South American herbalist sources…and that doesn’t even count all the pirate histories. I took a chunk of it to a writers workshop last fall, and one of the pros asked me about my background in sailing. When I told him I’d never sailed a day in my life and that the nautical references were book-learned, he was stunned: said he’d been an avid hobby sailor for decades and couldn’t tell from the writing that I wasn’t also. (Heh, I can’t even swim.) Having said that, it’s important not to beat people about the ears with random facts and uber-description. It all still has to fit or it just becomes white noise.

    I totally agree with most of these, but especially #8. The best, most engaging characters are messed up and flawed. Characters should presume incorrectly, second-guess themselves, see their plans and expectations fall apart in ways they never considered. They should fail in spectacular fashion. They should be real people, but they’re better than real because as the writer you can make them just as damaged as they need to be…and then damage them a little more. Mwahaha.

  • #7. Nah. I can kind of spot you Harry Potter, but Hunger Games is a reboot of an old Dr. Who episode and Twilight? Seriously?

    #23. A-fucking-men. I love Tolkein. Adore him. Wanted to be Sam. Had a crush on Legolas (don’t go there). I don’t want to read about your elves. Ever. I’m serious.

  • Ok, since it appears to be a thing: #25. But only one. I dreamed that while my two best friends and I attacked a fake castle, we were jumped by guards, and I beat one to a pulp with a stick and my main character had to pull me off the guy’s bloody corpse. One of the few dreams I’ve had that didn’t contain explosions.

  • This is such a pet topic of mine as a writer of high/epic fantasy that I don’t even know where to begin for fear that I won’t be able stop. Probably my favorite word when it comes to fantasy is verisimilitude. First off, it’s just fun to say, but it is also so incredibly relevant to the world-building process. I’ve linked to probably the most pertinent entries on my blog, but the tl;dr version echoes a lot of what you’ve said here:

    – Just because you’re writing fantasy doesn’t mean you don’t have to do some research about real-life things.
    – Before you start writing a book in any sub-sub-genre, make sure you’re familiar with what has been done in that and related genres (fantasy caper? read/watch some modern day capers). Why? Not so you can imitate but so you can innovate, extrapolate, avoid the obvious cliches.
    – Just because you have to do a bunch of research doesn’t mean you should share *everything* you learned and/or made up while writing the book. No one wants your exhaustive knowledge of orchids.
    – What you’re going for with world-building is “familiar but fresh.” Don’t give us unicorns and call them dragons. Don’t use dragons at all unless you can wow us with how original your twist on them is.
    – The hero of destiny is over. I’m also thinking that the crap sack world whose crappiness is demonstrated by the nonstop rape and murder of innocent people is also on its way out.
    – The tastes of fantasy readers as individuals and as a group is constantly changing. Pay attention to the trends in hopes of staying ahead of them, not to simply imitate them.

  • Fuck yes to #7! Anyone who says otherwise needs to read YA outside of the blockbusters. (Especially since The Hunger Games isn’t even fantasy, sillies. Unless there’s a hint of magic, dystopia lands on the SF side of things.)

    Take, for instance, A Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson. Took the Chosen One trope and refreshed it in a totally bad ass way. Or the way the author built a potential love triangle only to smash it to smithereens.

    Or Cinder by Marissa Meyer. Cinderella with a hint of Sailor Moon turned post-cyberpunk with a touch of potentially world ending plague that may or may not have been released by evil, magical aliens from the moon. Definitely the best book I’ve read so far this year.

  • Hi, Chuck, first time commenter (love this blog) mainly because I’ve been thinking about #5 for the last couple of weeks.

    First of all, I think #5 ‘faux medieval’ and #23 ‘D&D’ (I don’t think Tolkien should be blamed for the road-rash Elves, goblins and dwarves. Point that sucker at table-top RPGs instead) are pretty much the same thing.

    The problem I have with the “Don’t set it in a Faux Medieval European World, set it in…” is that I’m European, I’m British, and Welsh, and Celtic, and all those other things. I grew up with Arthur and Robin Hood, and Henry VIII, the hundred Years war, the Illiad, Beowulf and so on. That’s the culture I know without having to think about it. I know the subtext.

    If I were to write something set in, for the sake of argument, China, then I could do my research, find out everything there is to know about the place, but it is unlikely that I would ever really get the sub-text. There’s a danger of cultural imperialism, of pissing all over other people’s mythologies in the hope of being cool and edgy.

    Not saying I couldn’t write something set in a fantasy world based on the Five Dynasties but there is high likelihood that it would be more “Kitten eating scrungies” than “Crouching Tiger”. I’ll never understand the concept of ‘chi’ the way somebody raised to it does. I may see it, I may get it, but Ii won’t have grown up with my parents referencing it at the dinner table the way my parents referenced who should play outside-half for Wales.

    And that goes for any other culture, Arab, African, or any other ancient culture outside of my own.

    No matter how much research I do, I would still be filtering it through a Western European experience. Of course setting it in a time period outside the medieval, the dark-ages, the enlightenment, is an equally valid way of not writing yet another freaking fantasy about winsome damsels and surly knights.

    Don’t be lazy, don’t just use the same tropes everybody else has used in the same way they have used them, don’t translate your last D&D game without at least trying to file off the serial numbers, but don’t trample all over somebody else’s culture either. Don’t grab at “The Leopard Men” of Nigerian mythology and simply think they are another version of werewolves. Don’t think “Coyote” is the same as “Satan” (which at least one 1980s horror book did — to the point of having his number be 666). Don’t think “Dreamtime” is the same as “‘shroom time”.

    Step lightly on other people’s myths.

    At least that is how I see it. Of course, ‘don’t be boring’ is the most important point.

  • Two notes:
    First, while reading this list all I could think of was the works of R.E. Howard. Worlds only described as much as we need (with a bit of embellishment with that intro to Conan), internally consistent rules, and indeed characters being a driving force. Of course with most of these heroes the driving force was lust of one sort or another (Justice, Women, Gold, Power, Adventure, killing Vikings), but I always loved it. And hey he did short stories, not giant epics.

    Secondly: thanks for another list. They always serve to help inspire me. Not in the “hey that gives me a plot idea!” way so much as the “Yes, this serves for a dramatic renewal or purpose after petty annoyances have leeched at my life force.” Sort of way.

  • This is probably my favorite “25 Things” post thus far, especially considering the “lack of authority” disclaimer at the beginning.

    Fantasy is such a wide genre that hasn’t even touched its potential, because as you pointed out, the potential is limitless. My WIP falls into the fantasy genre, and I find myself towing the line between “convention” and “weirdness.” A mixture of both is good.

  • #21 – YES YES A THOUSAND SINGING FUCK-ANGELS YES. I am so tired of trying to pick up an interesting book and seeing that it’s “Book One of the Dostak Cycle/Triology/Canto/Saga/whateverthefuck”. Or, gods help us, PART One. It’s like going on a blind date and the second you put the napkin in your lap, your date says “So I’m thinking I’d like to have the wedding in Cabo and we should have three children.” If I like the book, I’ll read more of them, but I’m buying a book, not signing on for a freaking series, plz. (I get that this is marketing-driven. I still hate it.)

  • A few things: I think creatures like elves, dwarves, goblins, etc. are still viable races. But to make them work, you have to make them your own, be original with them. Give them qualities that you would like to see and haven’t seen before. Show your readers that these are not your Tolkienesque Elves, but a human-like creature with the same problems as people face in the real world. They all have to seem real, even though they aren’t. Keep in mind that they aren’t human, and will tend to have a few different traits/qualities. Other than those qualities though, make them resemble humans.

    I find that I agree with a lot of this. Root fantasy in the real. So far I hanen’t actually written a book, but I find that a lot of good ideas can be found (and then applied to a fantasy world) if you just look at history. Create realistic characters, and let them drive the story forward. Magic is an unimaginably powerfull force capable of doing just about anything. It needs to have limits, but it also needs to be something you don’t find on Earth.

    I only recently started to read your blog, but I love it! It’s full of great ways to write well.

  • Regarding #7 – spot on with that observation! Harry Potter obviously set the bar pretty high in that regard, but there are many others that are quite well written and more importantly continuing to keep kids enthusiastic about reading…Rick Riordan’s work particularly comes to mind.

  • One you don’t mention: Don’t just write up your D&D game and call it a story! There’s a lot of books out there that read like that’s just what they’ve done. It’s boring.

  • I write fantasy and soft scifi (often with an apocalyptic event floating around there somewhere) and as a READER of all those genre fuck yes do I agree. I am so goddamn BORED of elves and dwarves, and leather-clad vampires, and zombies and guns. Please, someone, do something new and interesting…

  • I’m a constant reader of many genre’s and really appreciate your list….I just wish writers would take a peek at it….I don’t now how many times I’ve read the same basic story by different authors.

  • As someone plotting out a rather involved fantasy novel right now, I thoroughly enjoyed this list! I also feel proud that I haven’t fallen into some of the pitfalls that you outline here!!!! Now to go write as a celebration

  • Well this list is interesting…
    Vampires are boring, especially when carrying crossbows with infinite bolts. Yes.

  • #24…lol. I just read a book about an beautiful, exotic-looking vampire girl wielding a katana. It was called “The Immortal Rules”. Isn’t that something? :)

  • Ultimately I agree with most of the items on this list at least in part, however I disagree on some of them because I think that the point is too extreme. The main issues of this were with the “Chosen One” and the “Tolkien Go Home” parts. I think that to an extent your point is true but overall it is wrong because it lacks true context.

    The idea of the chosen one is a bit cliche and can ruin a good story if done wrong, however you must ultimately realize that most stories that have a single defined “protagonist” also have that person play the role of the chosen one even if they don’t really express it. In some stories such as Harry Potter, The Matrix, etc the main character is defined as the only person who can bring about “victory” or the desirable ending of the story and the reader/viewer is aware of this and the characters sometimes even discuss it openly. That can work but its hard to pull off. In other stories such as the Sword of Truth series a more medium approach is taken as the protagonist is the chosen one but its not really said out loud like that or at least not for a really long time.

    Now this brings me to the part that I think kills this idea completely and makes it worthless as a writing tip. With very very few exceptions (I’m looking at you A Song of Ice and Fire) stories are extremely predictable. This comes from the fact that all stories are build on the same basic plots (even though some do have unique twists). Ultimately any given character has only 4 possible endings for any given story arc. #1. They are ultimately the winner of their story and “good” triumphs. (The villains slain, evil is defeated, the murder is caught, they win the girl/guy, etc). #2. The protagonist makes the True Hero’s Choice and sacrifices themselves in order to win. (Victory is achieved but it gives the reader melancholy about the hero’s life). #3. The hero of the story is actually the villain, they either were always the villain or they became the villain along the way. (You either die the hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain ~Harvey Dent). #4. No significant change is achieved within the story and it ultimately more a learning experience about (something). 1984 would fall into this category.

    Now knowing that basically every story ever written will fall into one of these four categories you can come to realize that the first 3 all have the fact in common that that hero is usually the chosen one. The fourth option won’t work for 99% of all authors. As a fantasy author you need to approach the chosen one idea with great care and finesse, but it can be used and it is best used in such a way where your characters aren’t running around saying, “Only you can save everything” even if that is the case.

    Now the second part. With the Tolkien part I can see where you are coming from, however your method is not a good way to go about expressing the true issue. The real issue here comes from stories such as Eragon which take LOTR and then copy/paste a lot of the world building into their story. The author is in love with LOTR and wants to create stories in the universe but he can’t so instead he takes most of the important elements and copies them. THAT is bad. Fantasy isn’t actually any different than other stories in any significant way other than the fact that its actually easier to convey certain feelings, ideas, etc. When you said that there is no great definition of fantasy you were completely right for the wrong reason. The real reason fantasy is undefinable is because any plot in existence can work as a fantasy story as fantasy is really just a tool for the author. Ultimately any magical, fantastical, or alien element of a good fantasy story is actually just a way to personify something that is real. If you have some race that isn’t human in your story they don’t exist for no reason, they exist to help express differences in human nature. If the race doesn’t do this then it is violating the “Don’t do it to just be cool” reason.

    If used properly having elves, dwarves, dragons, whatever in a book can add a great deal to the story and can actually be the main plot. I read a book (forget the name) that is entirely about elves and it very much follows a Tolkien D&D heritage but it was a worthwhile read because it ultimately used the elves as a tool to explore the corruption or society. For this reason alone I disagree with that statement.

    Overall I liked your article and agree with 90% of the points you made. For anyone who wants to write fantasy I can give you only a few tips. Your story doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, in fact you will be LESS successful as an author if you write that way because it just doesn’t sell well. Most people want to read a book that is high octane, simple, and easy to read. James Patterson is a grand master of writing these kinds of books. I suggest coming up with simple stories and writing them. Save your sweeping fantasy story that will rival Tolkiens works for later. Your earlier works might not be great but the practice will make you a great author and if you collect your best ideas and save them eventually you will have a great story.

  • GODDAMNIT CHUCK, YOU JUST EVISCERATED MY ENTIRE IDEA! DX -weeps in corner-
    I was hoping to do something oh-so-magical with different races. Back to the motherflippin’ grindstone . . .

  • My little addition to your Fuck Tolkien: it’s not just elves and orcs that need to go. I’m fed up with the walking. We must go from here to another place. There we will be told where to go next. And so on until the end. And then they start walking. Yes, I get it. Mordor is far away, and walking is probably the best way to get there (except those damn eagles), but it’s been done. Come up with something different.

  • I find myself strangely drawn to #25. Why has this never been done? Is this because it can’t or shouldn’t be done? Is it because too many people can’t remember what they dream? Or is it because as adults we lose whatever part of the brain (sense probably gets in the way) that allows us to actually imagine like we used to as children? Maybe someone will change this one day………

  • Hmm… I agree with most of this. I’ve been wondering for some time some things to avoid while writing a modern dark somewhat supernatural book. The question I have been wondering for so long: Would people rather a “For-The-Greater-Good” or “Bleed-Your-Heart-Out” protagonist?

    • I am sick of the dark/angsty anti-hero trend. I’d really like to read about a pretty nice guy who tries to do the right thing. Maybe that’s just me.

  • Somehow I woke up yesterday with some ideas for a fantasy novel. After science-fiction and young adult, I thought it would be nice to change and explore territories I usually hate (including granpa Tolkien). I’m glad once again google dragged me around terribleminds and this list. I couldn’t agree more on some points and it gave me inputs on what not to do. Thanks :)

  • Awesome list, very entertaining work. If anyone is in search of a place to publish/share their fantasy stories or poems, https://flowofprose.com is a great place to start. It’s a writing/publishing app with a really positive community that I just recently started using. Best of luck, Scribblers!

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