How to write a fantasy novel


Perfectionism pays

Fantasy fiction is a difficult area. On the one hand, no one (literary agents, publishers, or readers) demands great literature. On the other hand, good story-telling remains essential - and far too many fantasy first-timers neglect the basics. As always in writing, only a perfectionist attitude will succeed, and that demands care with respect to story, characters and prose. For more, see our words of wisdom below.


Geraldine Pinch, acclaimed fantasy author

Writing Fantasy is not an easy option or a quick way to make money but if you have the imagination to see wonders and the skill to describe them, if you have things to say that can only be said with dragons, then Fantasy may be your genre. The best preparation for writing Fantasy is to read myths and legends from lots of different cultures.

Many Fantasy classics are longer than the average novel but you don't have to write a multi-volume epic to break into the Fantasy market. Anything from 90,000 to 200,000 words is an acceptable length. Ideally your novel should be satisfying in its own right but have the potential to be the first of a series.

Literary agents see hundreds of manuscripts set in vaguely medieval worlds in which magic works. There will need to be something distinctive and compelling about your manuscript to make it stand out. Don't base your book on a role-playing game and don't feel that you have to use the standard cast list of warriors, wizards, dragons, elves etc. Only write about elves if you are passionately inspired by elves and have something new to say about them.

Creating new worlds is one of the most enjoyable challenges in fiction. Readers (and that includes literary agents!) should feel that you know everything about your invented world and its history. Getting to that stage may take years of thought, planning and research. Then, be ruthlessly selective. Most of your beloved background material should stay in your notes. Genre novels are expected to be fast moving, so don't start with pages of scene-setting and explanation. Plunge into the story as quickly as possible and only tell your readers what they need to know when they need to know it.

Your basic plot doesn't have to be completely original. You might choose to tell an old story with a new twist or from an unusual viewpoint. There will always be a market for classic quest stories and battles between good and evil but if you don't genuinely care about how and why the `good guys' win, neither will your readers. If you give your heroes unlimited magical powers it will be hard to get enough tension and conflict into your plot.

Try to restrict the number of `Voices' you use to tell your story. If your main viewpoint character is an outsider of some kind, this will make it easier for your readers to identify with her or him. Your characters don't have to speak in pseudo-archaic language but they shouldn't all sound like American teenagers either.

Finally, remember that what works in a Fantasy film or comic, won't necessarily work in a novel. Blow by blow accounts of sword fights can be boring to read and huge battle scenes just confusing. In a novel, action scenes need to be personalized. Show what an individual warrior is thinking and feeling as he fights and you take your readers right inside the world of your imagination.

Then, get your manuscript to a literary agent ... and best of luck!