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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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Paranormal romance

Paranormal romance (PNR) is interesting because it’s a subgenre of both romance and fantasy. Similar to urban fantasy, it adds magical and supernatural elements into the real world, but romance also drives the main plot, featuring characters overcoming obstacles to find their happily ever after (or their happily for now).

Ice Age Shifters is a paranormal romance series written by science fiction and fantasy author Carol Van Natta. She says that just like fantasy in general, PNR needs three-dimensional characters, world-building, and consistent rules. Because PNR is partly set in the real world, writers must decide how the magical elements fit in. In her experience, Van Natta says, most PNR stories assume the true magical part of the world is hidden from most of humanity.

“PNR readers enjoy the fun of uncovering the world of magic, but [also] like the familiar details in the real world, plus compelling characters and comfort of romance’s inherent hope and upbeat ending. To me, the best PNR stories weave the two elements together so seamlessly that the story would fall apart without both,” she says.

Because PNR includes these magical elements, it allows authors to create unlikely heroes with roots in fairytales, myths, and legends. Van Natta says, “Vampires and shifters (which have expanded way beyond werewolves) are no longer monsters; they’re sympathetic characters who deserve love as much as everyone else. This leaves tremendous latitude for telling fresh stories while still keeping the touchstones that PNR readers love about the genre.”

Romance is also at the core of a PNR, so readers have certain expectations when it comes to romance genre conventions and sex scenes. First, Van Natta says, “Don’t break the romance genre rules and call your story a ‘romance.’ PNR readers get really testy about it.” There should always be a happily ever after or happily for now, and the characters do not cheat on one another. When it comes to sex scenes, Van Natta believes that the sex is on the page rather than behind closed doors in most PNR. “Poetic rather than graphic language works,” she says, “but most PNR readers are looking for some heat. Can your series succeed without it? Sure – check out R.J. Blain’s bestselling and hilariously snarky Magical Romantic Comedy (with a body count) series. But it’s the exception, not the rule.”

Superhero fantasy

This action-filled subgenre combines sci-fi and fantasy elements to create humans with superpowers who live in the modern world. Founded in the 1930s, DC Comics and Marvel Comics created iconic superheroes and supervillains like Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, and The Joker for comic books and movies. In addition, some authors write superhero fantasy novels. Similar to urban fantasy, superhero stories take place in the modern world, but the origin story may begin on another planet, like in Superman, or include something more scientific, like Peter Parker getting bit by a radioactive spider to become Spider-Man.

Drew Hayes is the author of the Super Powereds series, and for him, all good superhero stories boil down to the people, the powers, and the fun. By “people,” he means the characters under the masks and capes, the beings who exist both inside and outside of the action. “A superhero story isn’t just about flying through the sky,” he says. “The characters dealing with the self-imposed limitations of their mundane persona is a big part of the experience.”

When it comes to powers, explore their limitations and how they fit, or don’t, into the character’s world. “The challenges, threats, and moments of growth they experience are all part of it, offering the action and tension one expects in this genre,” he says.


“A story can bear the weight of many fantastical elements when it has a strong character foundation to start from.”

As for the fun, Hayes says that’s just what it sounds like. “Amidst all the danger and drama, don’t forget to address the fact that having powers would be awesome. Flying through the air on an errand, lifting a truck with one hand, cooking with heat vision: letting our characters do the same silly things we would do makes them all the more human and believable. Plus, it allows a chance to write some entertaining scenes,” he says.

A good superhero story includes not only a hero we want to root for but also a sinister supervillain who undermines and pursues the hero. At the core of great characters, Hayes says, there must be believable motivations: “A story can bear the weight of many fantastical elements when it has a strong character foundation to start from.” Hayes says characters will face seemingly insurmountable odds, make constant personal sacrifices, and at times work directly against their own self-interest. When we have a better understanding of their behavior, it helps us form a deeper connection to them. “None of us will ever swing from buildings via webbing like Spider-Man, but we can wrap our heads around the guilt Peter Parker feels that drives him to live that way,” Hayes says. “Similarly, Mr. Freeze might be a robber, but he’s also usually depicted as a husband trying desperately to find a way to save his wife.”