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Writing Fantasy: A Rough Guide

Updated on April 25, 2017

The Basics of Fantasy

Fantasy, also known as Sword and Sorcery is one of the more formulaic of genres to try to write. Which is probably why most people start off here. Though, that said, it isn't easy either. Here are just a few pointers which I came up with when jotting down ideas for fantasy stories. Some basics to act as a guide when writing this type of fiction. Although, in looking this over, breaking and bending the rules is as important (if not more so) than defining them.

First what I like to call the 3 M's:

  • Magic
  • Mystery
  • Monsters!

You also need a very clear and strong good vs. evil battle or conflict in the story. So you need:

  • Heroes
  • Villains

These can include

  • Humans
  • Human-like races
  • Non-human races
  • Gods and Demons!

'Good' races usually include:

  • Elves
  • Dwarves
  • Centaurs
  • Fawns
  • Fairies

'Bad' races might be:

  • Ogres
  • Trolls
  • Harpies
  • Ghouls
  • Satyrs

Also some characters of these races may be 'good' even though their races are generally seen as 'bad.' Dragons and Giants have been depicted as heroes although they were often originally seen as evil. Elemental creatures such as sprites may seem amoral or appear unconcerned in the affairs of humans. And there are many more.

Myths and Legends provide the basis for whether a fantasy race is good or evil however this can be successfully reversed (vampire love stories for example!) Could you create an evil fairy?

Other elements needed for the fantasy story are:

  • Weapons (also enchanted weapons)
  • Objects of Power (artefacts)
  • Technology perceived as magic (in certain cases)

And of course:

  • Quests! (Using the Hero's Journey formula)

How to Create a Universe

Oh yes, and one thing I forgot in that last section (and which is probably the most important thing you need) a fantasy WORLD!

But that's the fun bit which you can enjoy doing yourself. Here are just a few quick pointers:

  • 1st introduce very strong main characters. They are moulded by their world and surroundings but essentially human (or human-like in behaviour if otherwise) so that the reader has some sort of identification with them.
  • Strong characters detract from occasional mad sounding place/creature/character names. (you know there will be the odd one that not everyone likes the sound of). These are introduced casually, are known by the characters, and seen as commonplace.
  • Powers or strange events are seen as ordinary too, unless they happen unexpectedly (as in the real world).
  • There are rules to this world (similar to the laws of physics or the rules of magic - see next section).
  • It is handy for the reader if the world is an 'aside world' - either Earth in the far future or distant past, another planet or some alternative dimension (and this is identified in some way to the reader in relation to our Earth).
  • It is useful for the reader if there is a map of this world included. (I love fantasy maps and have spent many hours creating my own just for fun, never writing the stories which they were destined for. This can happen so be careful.) Sometimes it is best for it to be a rough or very basic map, just so the reader can get an idea of what the world is like, instead of being too detailed.

Antarctica Without the Ice

Antarctica without the ice as a fictional Atlantis, with place names, some real some imaginary.
Antarctica without the ice as a fictional Atlantis, with place names, some real some imaginary.

1. Magic

Magic works to certain rules:

  • A spell must be spoken or chanted
  • Words rarely mean anything but must be said with just the right inflections in the voice
  • People and objects of power must be invoked by spells (by naming them)

Some laws:

  • Law of Similarity (E.g. Voodoo dolls are only similar to the person, made using clay but because it looks like a person it becomes symbolically the person)
  • Law of Contagion (Things once in contact continue to interact from a distance after separation. E.g. the hair of the person's head connects the wax doll to the living person).
  • Reading a spell backwards reverses its power (E.g. the mummy's scroll)
  • Casting spells drains energy from the magic user in the same way that doing any other activity would.

Considering the ways in which certain laws of Physics work it is possible to twist these or reverse them in order to fit the logic of some alternative universes. Particularly considering the magical seeming effects which can take place in quantum physics. Scaling these up to ordinary sized effects is only one technique I have used to create this table.

Physics as Magic

Practitioners of Magic

There are many names for those who practice magic. Here are just a few: Enchanters/enchantress, Warlocks, Wizards/Witches, Magicians, Spellbinders, Gods/demons, Sorcerer/sorceress, Necromancers, Spellweavers, Conjurors, Mages, Magi/Magus, Maestro

Necromancers can also be known as Nigromancers (Nigro=black, Mancer=mage)

Using this analogy there could be other types of 'mancers' (I elaborate on an idea originally by Jack Vance) e.g.:

  • Those who summon air spirits/elementals are known as Aeromancers (This form of magic used by other magicians is known as Aeromancy or the Aeromantic arts)
  • Those who summon fire demons are Pyromancers (This form of magic is known as Pyromancy or the Pyromantic arts)
  • Earth magicians are known as Terramancers (Terramancy or the Terramantic arts)
  • Magicians who summon water spirits/elementals are known as Aquamancers (Aquamancy or the Aquamantic arts)

Following this Logic:

  • Those who summon beings from space are known as Aethermancers (The form of magic is Aethermancy or the Aethermantic art)

And to take this one step further, using Plato's 5 elemental forms, in order to summon each of these categories of beings the appropriate sign is needed:

  • Pyromancy needs Triangle protection (Tetrahedron)
  • Terramancy needs Square protection (Hexahedron/Cube)
  • Aeromancy needs Triangle protection (Octahedron)
  • Aquamancy needs Triangle protection (Icosahedron)
  • Aethermancy needs Pentagon/pentacle protection (Dodecahedron)

And a hierarchy of Magicians might go something like this:

  1. Spellbinder (a novice)
  2. Magicians (1st, 2nd, 3rd class)
  3. Sorcerers (sages in magic)
  4. Warlock (the High Warlock)

Other notes on the use of magic:

  • Individuals all have different capacities for using magic based on their own reserves of strength/energy
  • There are also self-taught amateur magicians who might turn out to be more powerful than even the High Warlock with training
  • Humanoid, half-human or non-human races can also use magic but it is of a different sort from that used by humans (and has a different hierarchy with different names). This is because it is 'worked out' by a different culture. There is fairy magic and elf magic which are also very different from dragon magic, for example.

Platonic Solids and Magic

2. Mystery

  • There are often cryptic puzzles as a part of the quest which the heroes must solve.
  • Only tell some of the rules that make up the magic (to the reader)
  • Characters are often in awe of the fantastic powers others wield (because it is mysterious).
  • Magic can be explained through using a magic user/learner as the main character however. Even here, though, there may be elements to his own magic which he does not fully understand (since he is still learning).
  • There are dark caves and sinister monsters. In fact all the hidden fears of humans.
  • A mystery story involves intrigue and treachery, bluff and double bluff, assassin guilds and ninja who move silently in the night. Conspiracies and deception. Or even those ports filled with "scum and villainy."
  • Mystery also involves the unmapped regions of the fantasy world, the fact that one might sail off the edge of that world. Or that the space/time continuum can bend into other dimensions suddenly, or at a magician's will, disgorging monsters.

3. Monsters

Monsters can really be anything imaginable but there are certain typically fantasy creatures (as mentioned above). There are also animal-human hybrids which could, theoretically, be created scientifically, such as:

  • Centaurs
  • Sphinx
  • Mermen/mermaids
  • Fauns/satyrs

Totally monstrous hybrids (created of two or more types of animals) include:

  • Griffin (lion and eagle)
  • Basilisk/Cockatrice (snake/dragon and cockerel)
  • Chimera (lion, snake and goat)
  • hippogryph (griffin and horse)

There are also monstrous animals which were presumed to have special powers in myths and legends e.g.:

  • Salamanders
  • Kelpies/Selkies
  • The Phoenix
  • The Kraken

And there are many more.

Demons and devils can be of any form. And shape-shifting is common amongst all monstrous creatures. Demons are usually hideous to behold.

Ancient Gods can be of the Lovecraftian type (including an unpronounceable name), or you could use mythical/biblical gods such as: Ashtaroth, Baal, or Dagon if you wanted to 'ground' your fantasy in a more identifiable world.

Other races need not be of the typical fantasy type. They can include any creature or sentient being which you can think of.

4. Heroes

Following the Hero's journey formula as put forward by Joseph Campbell, the hero is a young boy/girl who becomes involved in a fantasy adventure (generally against their will), is bestowed an enchanted weapon/object or sent on a quest, and is carried along by events. These events eventually conspire to show that the untrained youth reveals hidden powers or abilities which they always had, which makes them heroic. They must descend to the underworld or where no-one of their race has ever gone, to confront their deepest fears and defeat the evil which lurks there (this has been compared to a journey within, a deep exploration of the inner psyche). This hero may also have a jolly sidekick or a companion/lover.

The story, however, need not follow this formula. The hero could already be the best at what he does, a warrior or magician of power who is revered/feared by the ordinary people. He walks a lone path and had deep emotions or a dark past (This is done best by Michael Moorcock). He could be conscientious and concerned with great things. It is less believable that this sort of hero would have any companions (unless they later die). He is a lone wolf. This hero verges on the anti-hero.

Supporting 'good' characters for a hero include:

  • A father figure (perhaps an old warrior)
  • An old wise woman (knowledge giver)
  • A mother/brother/sister/other relative (a victim)
  • A pet or magical beast (symbiosis)
  • A band of knights (for a hero to lead)
  • An advisor (a responsible/learned person)
  • A lover (depending on type of hero, humble or sophisticated depending)
  • A companion/friend (lighter hearted and loyal)
  • Characters of other races (could fill any of these roles too).

5. Villains

There are levels of 'badness' in villains. A town may be governed by an evil overlord who oppresses the people, but his second-in-command could be even worse, since he does everything the overlord wants with relish and even wants to usurp the overlord. However the henchmen are not usually so actively bad, only mindlessly so.

An evil wizard may only be in the pay of the overlord, or he may control a nearby province of his own even worse than the overlord's domain. The wizard may conjure a demon or devil which only obeys his masters orders, so is mindlessly evil, but alienly so (therefore worse than the overlord's henchmen). But the demon might turn on the wizard which summoned him, and possess him.

An evil brother/father/relative/twin may have some spark of goodness still in him or have all values shot but still be held in affection by the hero who might have sympathy for them. If that person is possessed, however, they are not responsible for their actions and it is the demon inside them which makes them evil, and may ultimately make them go mad.

A madman is equally villainous, because he is unpredictable and can be violent, but is not responsible for their actions.

Smaller 'bad' people may be people who have gained bad reputations but are not really bad, or not in all situations, such as showmen, gypsies, street urchins or whores.

Pirates, scavengers and plunderers who live off evil can be seen in this light also, as they are but a product of the state of society in this fantasy world.

A bureaucrat, warlord or evil king or queen are the most evil because they rule in evil, and cause the deaths of many innocents by their rule. Yet they can be excused some of their evil if they are advised by evil men who wish to corrupt the ruler (and the ruler does not realise this).

The ancient demon god is the most utterly evil being, since all evil is created by the them. However the god may, perhaps, be more amoral, since, to a god, Mankind is but a speck on the Earth.

Technology Perceived as Magic

Some examples of a post-apocalyptic fantasy world's views of technology after they have forgotten what the items were for.

  • Telephone/Radio = telepathy
  • Lighter = creation of fire
  • Torch = instant light
  • Computer network = instant knowledge
  • CCTV = omnipotent vision
  • Weapon satellite = anger of the gods
  • Camera/Tape recorder = stealer of souls
  • Bulldozers/Tanks = monsters
  • Guns = thunderous death
  • Car = magic chariot
  • Aeroplane = flying monster
  • Bombs = magical mass destruction
  • Homing missile = inescapable death
  • Microwave oven = instant cooking magic
  • 3D printer = produce things out of nothing
  • Asbestos suit = fireproof magic
  • Bullet proof vest = immune to weapons
  • Medicine = healing magic
  • Drugs = will sapping magic
  • Electric chair = death throne
  • Motorbike = magic steed
  • Diving suit = underwater breathing magic
  • Nerve gas = invisible death
  • Gas mask = immunity magic
  • Windfarms = Megalithic structures to be worshipped

Quests!

What is the hero questing for? Is it the Holy Grail, or some other magical artefact which will make them rich and famous? Or perhaps spiritual enlightenment is their goal? The Grail, itself, in the myths, was both a priceless artefact with magical properties and a source of enlightenment. Its aspect has changed with retellings of the original tales and with how people perceive it. Many things were thought to be the grail - the graal, a mystic stone which fell from the heavens, the chalice which held the blood of Christ, a key to the gateway to another dimension, or the knowledge and understanding of the chakra system are all various interpretations of the same thing. And think how much more difficult it is to find if no-one knows just what it is that they are looking for! (Is this why no-one has ever found it?)

But, perhaps the hero is not searching for a physical object. He may be seeking revenge, or a place of perfection where he can dwell in peace, never having to fight again. They may even be looking for a person. A lost love or parent.

But, whatever it is, it is the impetus which takes the hero to the four corners of their world in search of it. It is the driving force for the story and what carries the momentum of the actions of all the characters. What the heroes want the villains may also want, or they may want to prevent the heroes from finding it.

Though you can write a fantasy without a quest in it, there is more of a sense of pace when there is a one. The quest may be as simple as the quest for survival, in a post-apocalyptic world or the search for enlightenment and the spiritual awakening of all Mankind (or elfkind/dragonkind etc.), saving the universe from a galaxy-wide threat or one small village from the ravages of outlaws.

But however you do it, remember this is only a guide. Bend and break the rules as much as you want and even make up your own. And good luck!

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