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How to write great fantasy

Understanding the world of fantasy and its subgenres as well as how to succeed in the genre.

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Fantasy stories dwell deep inside the imagination of the author who creates them. This unique genre often features mythology, supernatural elements, and magic. Unlike genres steeped in reality, fantasy broadens the scope to allow for a vast array of possibilities limited only by the author’s creativity.

What is the fantasy genre?

At their most basic, fantasy stories generally include magical and/or supernatural elements. (Sci-fi, its equally popular partner on the other side of the speculative fiction genre, tends to be more based in science and technology.) Modern-day witches and wizards, another realm that lies beyond a magical wardrobe, and modern cities protected by dragons are popular premises that already fall under this genre. Modern fantasy dates to the late 19th century, but when J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis came on the scene decades later, the genre took off. The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia set a strong precedent for good fantasy and are still referenced today by many looking to venture into this area of writing.

Understanding fantasy subgenres

Within the larger umbrella of fantasy are subgenres that each have their own specific nuances. Here’s a list of some of the common ones you’ll see on bookshelves.

Epic fantasy

As the name implies, epic fantasy relates to the size and scope of their stories. They are long narratives told on a grand scale that typically involve a quest and a large cast of characters. One author who inspired and paved the wave for many young epic fantasy writers is Terry Brooks. The Sword of Shannara, his first book in the Shannara series, was published in 1977 and became the first fantasy novel to make the New York Times trade paperback bestseller list. Since then, Brooks has added 29 more books to that series, wrapping it up in October of 2020.

“If you can put my book down because you have to go to work tomorrow, I haven’t done my job.”

When asked what makes a good epic fantasy story, Brooks said it often draws on legends and Greek and Roman mythology, and it harkens back to an earlier time. “There is an examination of moral character, of people, and of moral codes. When do you cross a line by deciding not to act or not to enforce a moral code?” Fantasy, he says, observes the human condition through a conflict experienced by the heroes/protagonists of the story. “Every good story I know in epic fantasy has the character overcoming. It’s the hero’s journey, and the hero’s journey requires they prove themselves and discover who they are and what their strengths are.”

Brooks learned early in his career that an author’s first obligation is to tell a good story. “Forget about everything else. Don’t try to be different and wonderful and cool. That’s not going to work for most writers. You figure out what your story is and then tell it in a compelling fashion. If you can put my book down because you have to go to work tomorrow, I haven’t done my job. I want you so caught up in my story that it hurts you physically to put the story down.”

Urban fantasy

This subgenre is fairly new, coming into its own around the late 1980s with series like Borderland and War for the Oaks. An urban fantasy fuses modern, real-world locations and events with supernatural or magical elements. It encompasses a wide range of possibilities.

Rachel Aaron’s DFZ series that takes place in Detroit in the near future and includes gods, dragons, and self-driving cars is a great example. For Aaron, there are two main components in good urban fantasy.

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First is the juxtaposition of the fantastical with the normal, like dragons in Detroit, vampires running a coffee shop in Seattle, a demon hunter complaining to his prey about rent in Chicago. Aaron says it goes beyond just adding magic to the modern world. “It’s exploring how magic/dragons/vampires would change our normal lives. It’s making our normal, boring world mysterious and magical again.”

“Even the badass demon hunters and half-fae princesses still have mundane concerns like rent and work and annoying relatives that they never really get away from no matter how powerful they become.”

Your characters are the next important element to consider, says Aaron.

“Unlike traditional or epic fantasy, where the characters are typically great figures chosen by destiny, urban fantasy heroes and heroines tend to be pretty normal. Even the badass demon hunters and half-fae princesses still have mundane concerns like rent and work and annoying relatives that they never really get away from no matter how powerful they become, and that constant connection back to our reality makes them super relatable,” she notes.

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She says this relatability of characters makes this subgenre so popular: Our protagonists aren’t distant noble heroes, but rather flawed people trying to make it work – and we love them for it. “They live in cities, just like us! They get excited about coffee and make irresponsible food choices late at night, just like us!” Aaron says. They’re very human, even if they’re not human at all. “So long as you’ve got fantastical stuff in the real world and people who have to deal with it in ordinary, relatable ways, you’ve got everything you need for a great urban fantasy.”

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