This is a different issue in the Novel Writing guide. I’ve gone over the process of writing one, how to handle editing and even how to work with action scenes. This time however I’m looking at an entire genre. Fantasy is by far my favourite, and in years of reading and writing it, there are things I’m tired of, things I hate, and I’ve spoken about them in length in a previous article. Now I’m focusing on how you should write fantasy, what things you need to consider.
Our Elves Are Different
No one can deny that the ‘traditional’ fantasy races, aka the Scandinavian aka Tolkien’s races, have a certain appeal. They’re in most people’s minds when they think of fantasy—even though by definition fantasy is EVERYTHING you can come up with—and as such they’re a common element of it, especially if we’re dealing with pseudo-medieval worlds.
But when you’re writing this type of fantasy, or any other where you use commonly seen races—Vampires in Urban Fantasy for instance—you need to make sure yours stand apart from the norm. A fantasy novel is more than just its world and creatures, but you should always strive for some measure of originality, even when using existing concepts. They might be elves, vampires, werewolves and dwarves but they need to be your elves, vampires, werewolves and dwarves.
Example: Let’s take my medieval-ish fantasy setting from previous pieces. Let’s add Dragons and Vampires to it. Here are their concepts.
Dragons: Once a magnificent race, the stuff of legends and horror tales, the death of their Queenmother Ashbel marked the beginning of their decline. Over the generations they lost the power of flight, the elemental breaths of myth and their nigh-impenetrable iridescent scales. What remains is a dull mockery of their former glory, a race too busy with internal squabbles to leave its mark on the world.
Dragons are still the most cunning of species, however, and many scholars believe they could create an eternally lasting civilisation and possibly rule the world if they only looked to the future instead of focusing on the past. Dragons are inventive beyond any other mortal measure and the few dragon artefacts found reveal a technological level far superior to any other.
Vampires: When High King Gradius, of what is now Pastral, decided to burn the Morrow Swamps, he hoped to eradicate the marsh-dwelling vampire race. Tired of their attacks on his merchants he decided to end them and so razed their homeland. He destroyed the once fertile bog but only succeeded in spreading the vampire plague across the land.
Little did they know vampires only need their ashes to touch water to revive, and even a single flake is enough to spawn a fully matured vampire. By destroying their homeland, he increased the vampire population exponentially. Gradius’ Curse became a common name for Vampires, and since his time people have been afraid of coming near deep pools, as these feral creatures are known to leap out and drag their victims to the depths, drowning them before they feed.
In these examples I have taken two fantasy races and given them my own original spin. Dragons are weak and wily, much like humans when you think about it, and they’re so focused on regaining their glory and fighting each other, they don’t realise how much they could accomplish, again like humanity in some ways.
For Vampires I’ve mixed them with the Slavic Rusalka, water-dwelling and with a penchant for drowning. The spread of their ashes to water adds a nice reproductive ‘mechanic’ to them and with Gradius’ actions, helps explain why they’re predominant in this world.
Shock and Awe
It doesn’t matter if you’re going big and weird with your fantasy or with a more subtle approach, the one thing that remains true of fantasy is the need to awe your readers. Fantasy is about wonder, about showing people worlds and people they could never meet, to keep them daydreaming about your creation even after they’ve put the book down.
Be it a vault with intricate patterns on its ceiling, statues of great leaders, their eyes still carrying the person’s intelligence, or even a monstrous being, an abomination stalking the world’s civilisations, waiting for the time for its revenge, your goal is to spark their imagination, to make them wonder about this world, to let them see it in their minds’ eye. But there is a balance. If you tell them too much, you’re forcing your view on them and while they will picture it, it’s your view and not theirs. If you tell them too little, they’ll have a hard time seeing it in their minds and dreams.
The perfect balance is telling them enough to see it, but leaving room for them to add their own details. For example, in my works I barely describe characters beyond a couple of physical characteristics, such as eye colour or hair colour/length. I want you to add a face to them, to make them your own. Maybe you’ll use known actors or even family member. I’m only giving you a few pointers on how they look to me, but it’s up to you to make them real.
Of Subtlety and Magic
Magic is a common trope in fantasy and one I have no problems with to be honest. I like magic.
But when you’re doing it, you need to decide on what magic is like (and this goes all the way back to the planning stage of your novel). Is it a force of subtle control, using metaphysical concepts to create changes or manipulate events and people; or is it a force of destruction, flashy, shiny and with a lot of bangs and booms? Or maybe it’s something in between, with different schools of thought and magic.
Whatever the case, the most important bit is consistency. If you decide on a particular type of magic, the other one can be a curveball but don’t get used to throwing them, make it unique to a single character, to make them special—though you will have to explain what makes them different, , what is wrong with them?
If you go with a mixed world, then you need to figure out how a specific magic school ties to a person. Is it personality? Is everyone capable of mastering all forms of magic with enough time? What does it say about a person if they’re an enchanter/charmer?
Magic is as much part of the world as your characters and so the decision on how magic works has to affect how its users behave and how others behave towards them. Here are some examples:
Manipulator: Spellcasters use their skills to control or twist others to their service. Not only are they mistrusted but if one of them is in your village, the no one is to be trusted as they could all be under the wizard’s control.
Ritualist: Magic isn’t something anybody can freely use, as it requires careful preparation and the right materials. Kingdoms and villages request their services, the most common being fertility draughts. Rituals can also have evil uses but they’re easily identifiable by the dark clouds and red lightning in the sky. As such, Ritualists are trustworthy sort, unless you see a weird storm over their home.
Fireball Adventurer: These Wizards run headfirst into danger, flinging destructive magic at whim. They live for the next adrenaline rush and the opportunity to show their might. If they visit your town, make sure you give them a mission that takes them as far away from your homes as possible. They only know one way to do their jobs and that is with extreme prejudice!
Elementalist: Every one of these spellcasters is tied to a specific element and their personalities reflect it. An Elementalist can’t use magic from other elements, suffering great pain if they even attempt it or death if it’s of their opposite element.
There are many more ways to handle magic, but make sure you are thorough with it. Do note that these concepts can work within the same world, or they can be the rule of magic of the entire thing.
One of the most important things to decide when building your fantasy world is how people talk to each other. I’m not talking about made-up languages, but English grammar. Do you use a Ye Olde English style mixed in with modern turns of phrases or do you forgo a era-specific speech and just write naturally?
If you’re attempting a fully medieval experience, language is the most important. There are modern words they didn’t have and vice-versa, and you need to make sure they’re ‘era appropriate’. Some people might not care, but the true Historical Fantasy fans will complain if the language isn’t correct for your setting. I know at least one person who hates modern curses used in medieval worlds.
The opposite applies. Olde English in modern settings can be jarring at best, damn near impossible to read at worst.
Also, I know at least three British people who will hunt you down and kill you if you even dare to have someone talk like stereotypical Brits in period dramas. If someone in your novel says “Guv’nor” even once…you’ve been warned.
Speaking of, try your best to avoid Phonetic Spelling. You’ve seen it often enough with Scottish accents, mimicking how they sound, or others writing Oirish. They never work, trust me, they don’t. They just make things more confusing for the reader. Simple sentences become undecipherable script. And there’s the off chance you’ll offend your Irish readers with your heavy Oirish. A Feck here and there is good, but don’t abuse it. Don’t have Scottish people say ‘Dinna’ or ‘Dinnae’ for ‘Don’t’.
You can do it, and if you manage to successfully pull it off, my hat’s off to you, but I would advise against it. It’s not worth the hassle. Conversations should move your story forward, they should carry your reader to the next plot point or scene, they shouldn’t leave them there wondering just what the hell the merchant said that was so offensive. If you’d like an example of how bad phonetic spelling can get. Just read Order of the Stick, a D&D inspired web-comic. I love it but Durkon can get confusing to read.
I hope this latest issue has been helpful to you and if you have any questions I’m at your disposal! See you next time for another Novel Writing guide issue.
(Featured Image Credit: Alex Ruiz – DeviantArt)