You have always loved fantasy.
J.R.R. Tolkien, Andrew Peterson, J.K. Rowling, N.D. Wilson, C.S. Lewis, Jill Williamson, and S.D. Smith all have prominent places on your bookshelf and in your heart. You could talk about their stories for hours.
And in your heart of hearts, when you first realized that you were a writer, you wanted to write stories like theirs. Not just classics and bestsellers, but stories that could shake the world and make a difference in people’s lives with their themes and messages.
Writing fantasy that makes a difference.
There’s just one problem. You don’t know how.
You’ve agonized over blank pages, not knowing where to start. Or you’ve read through your work and known that it doesn’t measure up. How do you write fantasy that matters, especially when so many great authors have done it before you?
You’ve come to the right place. Within this post, you will find a guide for writing impactful fantasy that lives on in the minds of your readers, as well as some encouragement for the discouraged fantasy writer!
But What Exactly Is Fantasy?
All fantasy readers, fans, and fanatics have faced the following situation.
You’re in a group of people, and your favorite topic, books, comes up. After about an hour or so of delicious book-ish gab, you mention that you love reading fantasy.
Someone says, “That’s great! What’s fantasy?”
You open your mouth to explain… and then realize you have no idea how. The fantasy genre covers such a wide area of books, authors, and classics; where do you even start?
Let’s begin with what is included in some of our favorite fantasy novels.
Most fantasy stories and series, like The Lord of the Rings, Wingfeather Saga, and Green Ember, involve a new world. For some novels, this new world means a world with different rules, different technology, and different creatures. For others, the world may feel familiar to us, but it has some distinguishing characteristic that makes it completely different from the world we know.
(For example, Green Ember is set in a world where the main population is all animals who talk, which is entirely different from today’s world. But Kara Swanson’s Heirs of Neverland is set in a world that feels similar to the modern-day, except for the fact that all the fairytales about Neverland are true!)
Fantasy worlds are similar to the sci-fi genre’s new world(s), but while sci-fi looks to the future, fantasy is often inspired by the past. You will find mention of tunics and dresses and delicious historical details that have been turned upside down and inside out to fit this new reality.
All that leads us to a simple definition:
Fantasy is any book with a new world (ranging from a completely different world to an alternate version of this world) that the author has developed, including, but not limited to, a magic system, fantastical creatures, and different rules for the universe.
Because the story takes place in a new world, fantasy lends itself exceptionally well to compelling messages. Through stories and characters which are very different from anything that would happen in our world, the reader can learn important lessons about temptation, courage, and love.
That is part of the reason fantasy stories stay with us for so long.
But actually writing fantasy can also seem incredibly intimidating. Especially if you are a writer who longs to make a difference with your work, it looks like an impossible task—creating a whole new world out of your head and making a fantastic theme that will touch readers?
How do you write fantasy like that? Where do you even start?
These seven tips give you somewhere to begin and some ideas for writing a fantastic fantasy tale!
Tip #1- Do Your (Reading) Research
You finally have it. That brilliant fantasy idea which is unique and wonderful. An idea for a world that you have never heard nor read of before but are so excited to begin writing about.
And I am on the edge of my seat right now because your idea might end up being my next favorite fantasy work! I know you are just dying to pick up your pen and throw yourself into this story.
But before you start writing, there’s something vital that you need to do.
Before your eyes get all glazed over and you stop reading this post, you should realize that this may be the most fun research you will ever do.
I am challenging you to read all the fantasy you can get your hands on.
Raid your shelves, search the library, borrow books from a friend. Read great fantasy classics and read authors that you may not know or have just heard of in this post. Read books, read trilogies, and read short stories.
Develop your knowledge of the fantasy genre and the stories involved. As you read, consider what you could learn from these authors. How do they set up their magic system? How do they make the world feel believable? How do they hook you into the story?
Don’t ever copy their ideas, but use their work to inspire your own! You can repeat this step throughout the writing process if you want to continue motivating yourself, as long as it doesn’t distract you from your own story.
Be inspired, but also try to learn from these stories. After all, this reading is strictly for research purposes. 😉
Tip #2- Figure Out Who You Are Writing For
As you worked your way through your favorite fantasy authors, you may have noticed the differences in style from each one. S.D. Smith doesn’t use half the description that J.R.R. Tolkien does. Andrew Peterson includes (occasionally) funny and (often) beautiful snippets of poetry; Jill Williamson doesn’t.
This is partially due to each author’s unique style, but it is also due to the particular audience of each book.
Jill Williamson wrote her Blood of Kings books for young adults, so she included the darker touches of an evil spirit that comes in and possesses several of her characters. S.D. Smith wrote his Green Ember saga for 8-12-year-olds, so while there is darkness, the characters themselves are not corrupted. (Not to mention the main characters are all rabbits!)
Part of the joy of fantasy is that the message can be appreciated no matter how old you are. I would recommend the above books to almost anyone. But when you’re writing, you want to consider who you are writing for carefully. Fantasy can quickly become complex, and it is easy to get bogged down in details without realizing that you’ve never even figured out who you’re writing this story for.
Take a step back from your idea and think. Who will benefit the most from this story? Will you write for adults? For teenagers? For kids?
Your audience will affect what you include, how long you make your books, and even how you present your story’s theme, so you need to figure this out before you waste time writing a novel in an inappropriate way for your audience.
Tip #3 – Prepare, Prepare, Prepare!
If you’re a pantser like me, you’re probably muttering right now. “I don’t need to prepare. I’ve written plenty of other stuff, and it comes out fine. This tip isn’t for me.”
Yeah, I thought so too. But when I found myself with time on my hands, I decided that I might as well start hashing out my fantasy novel ideas before I dove into the writing. I scribbled down a (very) rough outline, but I spent most of my time developing my world.
I started with a Pinterest board to visualize what my world looked like. Then I began writing down ideas for names and words in the language of my new world. I started developing the people groups and building a world that was as unique as it was beautiful.
But I didn’t spend much time on my messy notes—just a few jottings down of the big ideas of my world here and there.
But once I started writing, I surprised myself. I needed to check those notes over and over, finding out names and keeping up with all the details that were quickly eluding me as I got into the busy work of actually writing.
The truth is that writing fantasy can be complicated. The fantasy writer is trying to develop a whole new world, complete with a different history and people, and a story captivates readers. With all this going on in your head, it is easy to lose critical details and inspiration.
It’s a strange fact, but when you’re writing a complex fantasy novel based in another world, it’s easy to forget how your world works.
So for all the pantsers who want to try their hand at fantasy, I encourage you to write something down.
It doesn’t have to be complicated. This isn’t outlining to the nth degree. Your worldbuilding can be as simple as a page listing out important names for things and characteristics of your world that will affect your story. But do something that you can refer back to as you write.
The more time you spend developing your world beforehand, the stronger your story will be when you sit down to write. (And the less time you will spend pounding your head against the desk because of the important detail about your world that you can’t quite remember anymore.)
For all you plotters, this step is your permission to plan your heart out! You could fill a notebook full of ideas from your reading research or make a forest of notecards covering the walls of your room (get permission from your parents first before you start redecorating!). You could even draw maps of what this new world looks like and draw pictures of the different people groups.
Do whatever works for you; just spend some time developing the new world that you will set your story in. (And don’t forget to have fun doing it!)
Tip #4 – Start Writing… But Don’t Give All Your Secrets Away
The moment is finally here! You’ve done your research, you’ve decided who you want to write this story for, and you’ve got some ideas for your world jotted down somewhere.
Now is the time that you can finally start writing, starting at the beginning of a story that already enthralls you.
But before you dash away from this post and put pen to paper, I want to advise you about the number one mistake young fantasy writers make when they first start their unique stories.
They give everything away too quickly.
Let me explain. When you begin writing your fantasy work, you have all these fantastic details about your world in your head. Maybe you have horses that glow in the dark, dangerous mountains that float upside down, or sea creatures that sing.
Whatever it may be, it’s incredibly tempting to spill all your details at once in a glorious (and long!) prologue or interrupt your first chapter to sweep your reader through every corner of your new world in a lengthy monologue. Resist that temptation.
Because the hard truth is that in the first chapter, it doesn’t matter. At the beginning of your story, your reader doesn’t care about your fabulous nitty-gritty world details. Yet.
Your job as the writer working on the first couple of chapters is to get the readers interested. Throw in an action scene. Introduce paradoxical and compelling characters.
Go slowly. Allow the story to sweep your readers off into this fantastic world before you give them all the fantastic details, revealing the intricacies of your new world as your character experiences them.
If you work it right, your reader won’t just be intrigued. They’ll turn into a raving fan!
Tip #5 – Don’t Make It Feel Fake
Tell me if you relate to this. You’re finally working on that great fantasy novel. You’ve written a great first few chapters featuring your unique idea: horses that glow in the dark.
You have great ideas about how this will play into the plot, you’re enjoying your characters, and you’re feeling good about yourself as you send the first chapter off to some people for feedback.
But when the feedback gets back, you can’t believe your ears. You’re hearing things like, “This character just doesn’t feel real. I just can’t believe this would happen. This horse thing just doesn’t make sense to me.”
Where did you go wrong?
If this is you, I want you to realize first that this might not be a problem with your story or your glowing horses. This particular critiquer just might not like fantasy (horses glowing in the dark or otherwise). And if that’s the case, not even J.R.R. Tolkien himself would have been able to please them.
But, on the other hand, if this is consistent feedback that you are receiving, you may want to take another look at your own perspective.
Yes, you read me right.
As Robert Frost wrote, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”
Whether you realize it or not, your feelings about your story leak out into your writing. If you don’t believe in it, your reader won’t either.
This problem can be especially tricky for the fantasy writer because we may be dealing with things that seem so… well, fantastical. You may be thinking, “How in the world can I believe in my story? I’ve never even seen a horse that glows in the dark!”
If this sounds like you, I encourage you to remember that this isn’t a world you came up with two hours ago to your characters. This world is all they’ve ever known, with stories and history that are unique to this world alone.
Maybe having horses that glow in the dark doesn’t make sense for our world. But in yours, maybe this has been happening for years. Maybe all horses shine, and people use them as nightlights! The possibilities are endless!
So write as if it makes perfect sense. Write as if this is the way things are. Write like it’s a history book and like you’re telling a real story. Write “Once upon a time, horses were bright lights in dark times,” and don’t cringe because, in your world, that’s literally how it works!
Another helpful tip that I have heard from other fantasy writers is not inventing a whole world from scratch. In other words, use our world as a basis for yours. Incorporate details that will feel familiar to your readers (like the horse creature) with something extraordinary (like these horses glowing in the dark).
This combination of familiarity and strangeness will help the reader believe your story and keep them intrigued about what you will reveal to them next about these strange horses that glow!
Tip #6 – Cultivate Unique + Understandable Dialogue
We’ve all read it—that fantasy writer who writes in the medieval style or with old-fashioned language. You understand what they were trying to do. It even makes sense at times.
But inevitably, you end up slamming the book down, thinking, “Nobody actually talks like that!”
This distaste can be a matter of personal preference on the reader’s part. The fact is that part of the fun of fantasy is making your characters talk in ways that nobody would in real life.
But there is nothing that kills a story, plotline, or compelling character quicker than dialogue that doesn’t feel realistic or dialogue that the reader cannot understand. Your reader will end up unengaged with your story rather than on the edge of their seat.
There are three things to keep in mind while writing your dialogue that may help with this.
First, try not to go crazy with different accents. We, fantasy writers, love to throw in distinct speech patterns with various spellings that show how the word is pronounced. The more different accents, the better we are pleased!
The problem is that if the reader can’t understand what the character is saying, all your hard work writing a fantastic accent will have been wasted.
Keep it simple. Start with one manner of speech that is different from that of your audience, and be sure to take the time to explain as you go along. (This is where characters from different backgrounds come in handy. Incorporate a character who doesn’t understand this new accent, and you have a great reason to explain things to the reader who is in the same boat!)
Second, always make sure readers understand what new words mean. I know that I love to throw in words from the “old language” in my fantasy books. But it’s easy to forget sometimes that while I may know what the word means, my readers don’t unless I tell them.
So make sure that the context clarifies what this word means before you go throwing a bunch of other strange words in. And, if you have a lot of new words you want to include, you may want to consider writing a glossary that your readers can reference.
Third, avoid using “modern” words. Modern slang that makes perfect sense to us, like “sup,” “cool,” or even “OK,” wouldn’t make sense to the characters and will feel out of place to the readers, especially if you are writing more medieval-ish fantasy.
(If you are writing fantasy that takes place in an alternate form of our modern world, you can disregard this tip in favor of the opposite: don’t use any old words that wouldn’t make sense to your story’s time and/or the world.)
Fourth, realize that this is a process. You aren’t going to find the balance between unique and understandable in one night. But taking the time to cultivate your dialogue brings you one step closer to writing stories that readers will love and comprehend.
Tip #7 – Incorporating Your Theme
Now, we’ve gotten to the part that you’re really here for. Now that you’ve done your research, prepared your world, and have gotten down to the business of actually writing, how do you do it? How do you write a meaningful fantasy story that crackles with light and truth?
The answer is in your theme.
For those of you who don’t know, a theme is a fancy writing term for the message that you want to get across with your book.
It is the truth that you wanted to tell when you began writing this story, the words that God laid on your heart to share. It’s also what you’ve been inspired by in many other great fantasy works, though you may not have realized it at the time.
One fantasy work whose theme has inspired me is Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga. Let’s look at those books for an example. These books have an incredible message: that your name, your identity, has power, and this identity and power run deeper than your skin. How does Andrew Peterson demonstrate this theme?
He introduces to the reader a character named Kal, whose name and identity are suddenly thrown off-kilter when he joins the evil Fangs in a moment of weakness. His name no longer seems to matter as he is shunned by others and forced to constantly battle with the consequences of his choice and the new physical appearance that came with it.
Kal is face to face with the question that the reader often finds herself asking. Who am I when I don’t look like, live up to, or act like my name?
Of course, the theme answers that question indisputably: reassuring Kal, and us, that our names are more profound than our skin or our actions; our identity is foundational and unchanging. But Andrew Peterson never comes out and tells us this.
Instead, he shows us through the events that happened in Kal’s life and the encouragement of other characters. Through his plotlines and masterful conclusion (which I won’t spoil for you, just read the book!), he shows us who we, the readers, are and who we believe we are is what really matters.
This example shows us in writing fantasy, as with all other genres, it all comes back to the essential writing rule of thumb:
Show, don’t tell.
You may be writing an incredible story to remind your readers that God is good in the hard times. And that is amazing! But don’t just write a line that tells us that in your last chapter and consider your story complete.
Give us a character who is going through a hard time. Show us how it hurts them through challenges and plot twists. And then demonstrate to us how God is good to that character even in the midst of what is going on.
Those are the stories we’ll remember.
You Know How to Write Fantasy that Matters…
But You’re Still Discouraged
Wow, we’ve made it! You started by wanting to know how to write fantasy that matters, and you now have seven tips that will help you do so!
But you still may have the nagging question, “How can I do this? I’m not J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, or Andrew Peterson. How can I write a story that could ever make a difference like theirs?”
I feel the same way. In a world of great fantasy novels, it’s easy to wonder why your story matters. How can we, the young fantasy writer, ever measure up?
But I want you to think about something.
None of these stories that I’ve been talking about throughout this post are anything alike. With long descriptive paragraphs and beautiful prose, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a story about hobbits and a ring. Jill Williamson wrote a story about a kid who can speak to others with his mind, writing in a style that smacks of young adult novels and medieval periods all at once. And Andrew Peterson throws exclamation points and footnotes every which way!
Every one of them is unique, just like you.
The truth is, young writer, you aren’t all those people. You can’t be like these great authors because you are you. You have a story that only you can tell in the way that only you can do it.
You may wonder how to make your story unique and why it matters, but your story is already unique because you are unique.
And your story matters because you matter.
So give yourself permission to be different. Give yourself permission to write as you were born to write. Tell the stories that God created you for.
And watch your stories come to life.
Your Next Steps
Go ahead and implement these tips into your current fantasy work. No matter what part of the process you are in, you can use these tips to make your story better and write a theme that will make a difference in people’s lives.
And don’t forget to develop throughout a world as unique and compelling as your story idea. Part of the fun of fantasy is telling (and reading) a story that could happen nowhere else except in this book’s new world! So have fun as you plan, visualize, and imagine a whole new world.
Are you struggling with developing your fantastic (and complex) fantasy world? Download our free worldbuilding questionnaire for a comprehensive list that will help you consider your world from different perspectives and give you fresh ideas for new elements!