Updated: Jan 14
Written by Nicole Gaudette
Are you thinking about writing a fantasy novel? First, congrats on making that decision (it’s a hard one!). Now that you have, you’re probably thinking, how do I write a fantasy novel when I’ve never done it before?!
If you’re thinking about writing a fantasy book, you probably didn’t just stumble on this all of a sudden. You’ve read fantasy books, you love the genre, and now you’re inspired to write one yourself. Well, you’re in a better place than you think.
What is the Fantasy Genre?
Fantasy is a genre that goes beyond the natural, and often involves the supernatural in some way. For example, a typical fantasy book may include your standard werewolves, witches, and vampires, or it may be set in a supernatural world, and magic may or may not be a significant element.
Fantasy doesn’t have the same limits that other genres have due to its lack of restrictions. Most of us are fans of this genre because it gives us a break from real life.
No limits can be freeing for a fantasy writer, but that freedom also makes fantasy one of the hardest genres to write. It’s so easy to go off the rails, but you still need to write something that people can connect to in some way.
So, here are 12 tips for writing a gripping fantasy novel readers will love!
#1: Know Your Fantasy World Like the Back of Your Hand.
If you’re creating a brand-new world for your fantasy setting, you need to know everything about it down to the smallest detail. You obviously won’t share every single one of those details, but you as the writer still need to know them.
You may want to think about creating a map (yes, a literal map) for your world so you always have an idea of where your characters and scenes are set, and what each part of your map is like (e.g. different climates? Geography? Trees and landscape? Animals? Bugs? Seasons? Inhabitants?).
You may also want to think about keeping a book bible, which can help you to keep track of all of your characters (including the ones only mentioned once) and all of your locations (including the ones only featured briefly). A book bible will also help you to remain consistent, and is especially important if you’re writing a series. You don’t want to be scrambling around trying to remember the name of your protagonist's dog in book one when you're writing book six.
#2: Don’t Get Lost in Describing Your Fantasy World.
As I said in the previous point, you need to know your fantasy world completely, but that doesn’t mean you’ll actually share all of those details. That’ll be boring!
It’s very easy to get stuck in the details of fantasy novels, and many newbies tend to write blocks of chunky text that describes the most trivial, unimportant aspects of their fantasy world, thinking it’s better to be thorough and be as vivid as possible. However, that is NOT the way to do it.
You want to leave some room for your readers to use their own imagination. They don’t need to know what every character is wearing in every scene (unless fashion is somehow important to the story), and they don’t need to know every bite of food they’re eating (unless the character is choking on it or something like that).
You’re the one creating the world, so you need to know these things, but that doesn’t mean they’re important to the actual story you’re writing.
#3: It’s All About Your Characters.
For the most part, fantasy still comes down to one thing: your characters. Think of Frodo and Sam, or Harry Potter, in recent memory.
Even though you’re writing a fantasy novel, your readers won’t necessarily connect with the magical, supernatural elements of the story (and even if the plot is parallel to our human lives, they may not connect those dots). This means that they are more likely to connect with your characters instead.
Make your characters, especially your main character, someone your readers will connect with emotionally. Are they relatable? Lovable? Heck, even hateable? (hello anti-hero - but do be careful not to make them *too* bad).
There should be some good and some bad, and there should be something about your villain that we love, relate to or understand. It may be in a relationship they have with someone, their motivations for why they’re doing what they’re doing, or something about them personally that they have experienced or currently suffer from.
For your good guys, the same applies. You shouldn’t make them too good because readers won’t be able to relate to them (no one is perfect). Give them a believable flaw, and don’t make everyone fall in love with them (especially if your main character is a female). No one is loved by everyone.
#4: Keep the Story Moving.
Some fantasy writers often feel that just because their story is full of magic (e.g. magical occurrences, magical creatures, magical characters, and so on), that they don’t need to have as much going on.
However, your story will get boring if you fall into that trap. This point also wraps in with not getting lost describing your fantasy world, since both of these will make your story boring.
Think about what is happening in every scene. Each one should move the plot forward in some way. If you just have two characters sat talking, their conversation should be important to the story. Dialogue shouldn’t exist just because it’s funny, because it’s exposition, or because it’s a filler.
Keep the story moving, have something happening constantly, and keep your readers engaged to the end.
#5: Always Remember Your End Game Goal.
Before you write your fantasy novel, you should already know how the story ends (whether it's a standalone or a series). Everything you write until then ties into how it all ends, which is what the reader is ultimately waiting for!
Keeping the ending in mind will help you to make crucial decisions along the way. If you think of an idea you like and think it's cool, you have to think about whether it's relevant to your ending. If it doesn’t make sense to include it, save it for another story. Don’t screw up your ending before you even get there.
#6: Use Tropes, but Put Your Own Spin on Them.
The fantasy genre has like, a zillion tropes (maybe a little less than that), but it probably has more tropes than any other genre. Well, maybe romance can rival it, but there's still a lot.
Some will slam fantasy because of this, complaining about all the same old tropes that repeat themselves in so many books. But the reality is, readers of fantasy love those tropes. They work because we all love them!
So, use the fantasy tropes that stand out to you, but give them your own unique spin. Don’t worry about using the trope, worry about how you’ll make it your own. The chosen one is a fantasy trope that’s been used over and over again, but with pretty good results - because you can spin it many different ways. Keep that in mind.
#7: Adhere to Your Magic Rules.
This one kills a lot of fantasy stories! When you’re building your world and book bible, make sure you’re paying attention to the rules you’re creating when it comes to magic. You have to create rules, and you have to stick with them.
Fantasy is a genre that’s beyond the natural human experience, so to get people to buy in, you need to make rules and stick to them. If you don’t, readers will have a hard time making sense of your story.
What are the rules when someone dies? What are the rules when someone uses specific types of magic? What are the rules for spells? Don’t have one character punished for doing one thing, then another excused for doing exactly the same. Be consistent.
#8: Don’t go too Crazy with Names.
Fantasy writers like to get a little too cutesy when it comes to naming their characters and towns, but if it’s difficult to read or pronounce, that might turn off readers. Keep it simple!
#9: Understand the Fantasy Subgenre You’ve Chosen.
Fantasy is the umbrella term for a bunch of subgenres. I’ve heard there’s a crazy amount (50? 100?), but you’ll probably want to focus on which ones your book will fall under with Amazon (especially if you’re going to self-publish). Just head on over to Amazon and search their categories under Fantasy Books.
For example, there's urban fantasy (set in this world, usually in cities), contemporary (also set in this world/time, but not necessarily a city), epic (the super quests), sword & sorcery (speaks for itself), and more. My own series is both urban fantasy (set now in Washington D.C.) and Arthurian fantasy (a spin on Arthurian Legend).
#10: But Don’t Get Stuck in Only the Fantasy Genre.
Your book is going to have plots and subplots and all of that, which means you’re kind of weaving together multiple stories, but they shouldn’t all be fantasy! You want to add other genres into your story to make it more interesting.
The most common subplot is involves romance, but for a fantasy novel, you may also see mystery and horror fairly often. Think about how your plot could incorporate other genres (and make sure to read those genres, too).
#11: Have Fun with Your Magical Creatures.
Magical creatures are one of the fun parts of writing fantasy. There are so many magical creatures you can use in your story, if you’d like any. Research the different types of magical creatures out there, the different mythologies of the past, or create your own species.
If you use a known creature, try making it a little different in some way, especially for ones that are used often. For example, dragons are pretty common, but I’m adding them to my series in book 2. To make them a little different, my dragons aren’t going to be animal-like or monsters. Instead, they will operate like humans with their own politics, society, ruling class, education, and magic. They’re like smart dinosaurs (ha!).
Also, maybe don’t use every magical creature out there (unless it serves some purpose in the story). Try to choose a few and stick with them.
#12: Know Your Why.
This one gets a little sappy on you, but why do you want to write this story? What’s the main theme or key takeaway you want readers to have? We usually write stories, not because we want to entertain, but for some personal reason. Always keep that in mind.
So, there are your 12 tips for writing a fantasy novel.
Good luck on your writing journey!
Nicole Gaudette is currently working on the second instalment of her Arthurian fantasy series, Long Live the King, while managing an odd day job and even odder family in the Florida 'burbs. She shares some of her marketing knowledge with fellow writers on Instagram (@nicolegaudettewriter), and you can find out more about her and her writing at www.nicolegaudette.com/.