you fantasize about publishing a novel? If your daydreams run to magical situations, consider writing a fantasy. Just send publishers something different from the popular Harry Potter and Twilight series. By now, they’ve seen boarding school spin-offs and more vampire novels than they can sink a fang into. Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy series even put vampires in boarding school.
Get your creative juices flowing by reading books from some of the subgenres listed below. Then acquaint yourself with the basic rules for writing fantasy and you’ll be ready to craft a magical tale all your own.
Let’s start with Harry Potter. Set in the here and now, Contemporary Fantasy often has mythical beings (centaur and giants) and magical settings (Hogwarts, Diagon Alley). The main character practices magic and this ability separates him from mainstream society. Holly Black’s Spiderwick Chronicles are another example of Contemporary Fantasy.
Similar to Contemporary Fantasy, Magical Realism is set in the present, but with a more subtle element of magic. Some people do magical things, but don’t make a big deal out of it. Their magic doesn’t set them apart although they may be considered odd. There are also no mythical beings. Read Isabella Allende’s The House of Spirits or Sarah Addison Allen’s Garden Spells.
Historical Fantasy can take place at any point in history, but here are some of the more popular kinds:
Wuxia is set in historic China, includes martial arts mastered to a fantastic degree. The form is best known to Americans through films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or House of Flying Daggers.
Steampunk is set in early industrial Victorian England. Check out the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic series, The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, and The Anubis Gate by Tim Powers.
Celtic Fantasy is based on Dark Age Celtic myth, as in Katharine Kerr's Deverry series.
Prehistoric Fantasy takes place before recorded history. Read Clan of the Cave Bear or any of the other books in the Earth Children series by Jean M. Auel and People of the Wolf by Kathleen O’Neal Gear.
Based on history that didn’t actually happen that way, Alternate History often includes a shifting of political alliances or who won what war. See Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker series or Ysabeau S. Wilce’s Flora Segunda. Note: Not all Alternate History is fantasy because not all of it contains magic.
High or Epic Fantasy
In this subgenre, characters are called to a quest. They encounter large casts of characters in sweeping stories that often include swords and elves. The master is J. R. R. Tolkien with his Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Sword and Sorcery
Similar to High Fantasy, Sword and Sorcery places more emphasis on action and physical danger and less on grand vistas. The goals are based more on the character’s own interests than a higher good. Study Robert Howard’s Conan the Barbarian.
Closely related to High Fantasy and Sword and Sorcery, this subgenre emphasizes a single hero figure versus the greater good or action, action, action. Read Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword or David Drake’s Lord of the Isles series.
Fairytale Fantasies are often set in historic feeling worlds. These elaborate reworkings sometimes begin with popular tales, such as Rumplestiltskin, retold in Elizabeth C. Bunce’s A Curse Dark as Gold, but some turn to less known tales, such as Maid Maleen, retold in Shannon Hale’s Book of a Thousand Days.
This type of fantasy is very similar to science fiction and may include interstellar travel and other sf props. But there are also mystical elements, such as the Force in Star Wars.
Sometimes the science is more sophisticated than the society currently wielding it, resulting in an appearance of magic although science is the true cause. Check Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels and Sharon Shinn’s Archangel series.
Time Travel Fantasies
Unlike science fiction, this time travel is accomplished through a magical means, not science. This popular fantasy subgenre includes Mary Pope Osborne’s the Magic Treehouse series and Jon Scieszka’s The Time Warp Trio series.
These heroes don’t rely only on high tech gizmos. Their superpowers are magical or mystical. Face it, there really is no scientific reason that Superman can fly and what is Spider Sense? Stone Arch books just published Last Son of Krypton by Michael Dahl.
Set in the future, these stories take place after something dreadful brings civilization to its knees and is a big hit with teens who firmly believe grown-ups have pretty well messed up the world. Look for Janni Lee Simner’s Bone’s of Faerie and Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth.
In this type of fantasy, the main characters are animals that behave like the animals they are (cats act like cats), except for the fact that they speak and have complex societies. The classic rabbits of Watership Down by Richard Adams have been joined by Erin Hunter’s feline Warriors.
Whether contemporary or set in a medieval-styled world, the main element of these stories is the humor. Turn to Piers Anthony’s Xanth series and Robert Aspirin’s Mythadventures novels.
This is where the Twilight books fit in. Think suspense and danger and evil, although the lines between what is good and what is evil are often blurred. Laurel K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, Vampire Slayer books are also Dark Fantasy.
In romantic fantasy, the main character is usually female and, although romance is not usually the main plot, it is an important element of the whole. Tamora Pierce’s Wild Magic Series is a great example for younger readers.
LET YOUR FANTASY FLOW
Knowing exactly where your story fits into a list of fantasy subgenres isn’t vital. Studying subgenre is simply important because it helps you see the wide range of possibilities for your story. As you develop your idea, keep these rules in mind.
1. Start with research.
New writers sometimes think fantasy is the easy way out. Since it’s fantasy, it’s all made up. You don’t have to do any research.
In the Magic Tree House books, Mary Pope Osborne sends Jack and Annie to various historic locations. Civil War on Sunday comes in at exactly 5,991 words, but Osborne still had to put her characters in the right clothes in historically realistic situations. The publisher has taken advantage of this research by publishing Research Guides to accompany some books in the series.
Fairytale fantasy means reading version after version of the tale you want to expand on. Anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics are other possible topics. Your research isn’t done until you can…
2. Create a world.
Whether your story takes place in the early industrial period like A Curse Dark as Gold or in Mongolia as does Hale’s Book of a Thousand Days, you’ll have to bring together enough detail to make the world real. What are the values of the dominant culture group? How are these values expressed? What types of settlements do people live in? What do they wear? Drink? Eat? Your world has to have a history and a government. Shinn’s Archangel books have several distinct cultures.
You also need to create a physical landscape. What is the local geography? The global geography? Where is one town situated in relation to its neighbors? How are the towns laid out? McCaffrey’s Pern books don’t take place on one small peninsula but across a globe. You may need to draw maps to keep everything straight.
Not all of this will make it into your story. Yet, it is the kind of information you must know to create a rich, cohesive background for your…
3. Three-dimensional characters.
Even if you’re writing a story in a subgenre with stock character types (knight, king, or faerie), your characters need to feel real. You need to know as much about your characters as you know about their world. What is their background? What do they want more than anything? What do they fear? Love? Hate? Don’t work up this level of detail only for your main character, but for all of your characters.
Once you have the character’s personality in place, you can play with what these traits mean for the plot. How can his fear or desire cause him all kinds of trouble? Hamilton’s Anita Blake, vampire hunter, finds herself attracted to a vampire. And if your main character’s love interest has a goal or secret that conflicts with the main character’s, so much the better! Just be sure to…
4. Build a bridge for your readers.
Pre-Harry Potter, a lot of readers thought they just couldn’t “get into” fantasy. It was just too weird, too strange, too other. Rowling outsmarted them. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Book 1 in the series, opensnear modern London in a town of her creation, Little Whinging. British readers recognized modern Britain. American readers know a suburb when they read about one. Once she had them hooked, she swept readers into the fantasy settings of Diagon Alley and Hogwarts. The beginning of the story served as a bridge to take readers from their day-to-day lives to Hogwarts.
You also need to build a similar bridge between human readers and non-human characters. The more nonhuman the character, the more necessary the bridge. In Dragon Slippers, Jessica Day George bridges the gap between readers and dragon characters by giving the dragons hobbies—they are all collectors. One collects shoes. Another dogs. Yet another, stained glass.
Familiar emotions can also bridge the gap between reader and character. Vampiric Edward and werewolf Jacob both vie for Bella’s affection in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight. Love. Jealousy. Competition. The need to be needed. Who hasn’t felt these things? Give the characters emotions and traits your readers can identify with. Create a link between your world and the world of the reader. Pull them in to a world…
5. Bound by Rules.
No matter what fantasy world you set up, no matter who your characters are, the rules you establish are the rules you must use from the opening page until the very end. The trickiest rules concern the magic in your world. Who can use it? When? Wands or spells or potions? Or all three? If your character must clearly speak an incantation to make a spell work, gagging that character will put a real damper on the magic. A character who needs sunlight to power their magic can’t suddenly perform by the light of a single candle just to save the maiden fair.
Sometimes the character must struggle with the rules. In Harry Potter, junior wizards and witches are not allowed to perform magic in the Muggle world. Do it only at a steep price. In A Curse Dark as Gold, Charlotte realizes she has to break a curse, but to do it, she must figure out the rules of the magic that is so new to her.
Learn to work within the rules of fantasy. Use these rules and the inspiration of so many subgenres to create a unique fantasy world that editors and readers alike will want to explore.
Sue Bradford Edwards is an editor, writer, and book reviewer who lives and works in St. Louis, Missouri. Find out more about Sue’s work at One Writer’s Journey, her blog about writing and editing; The Bookshelf, her book review blog, and her website.