What is a Fantasy Novel?
So, you want to write a fantasy novel, eh? I don’t blame you. Losing yourself in a fantastical world of your own design is fun… and we want writing to be fun, right?
But, I hear you cry, what is a fantasy novel?
That’s a great question.
Simply put, a fantasy novel contains supernatural or magical elements that you won’t find in real life. Here be dragons (or your favourite mythical being of choice) my writerly friend…
Now you know what a fantasy novel is, you need to decide which sub-genre you’re writing in. Are you writing:
• Epic Fantasy: Epic quests, featuring swords, dragons, elves and sorcerers, set in secondary worlds (i.e., not our world)
• Urban Fantasy: Set in a modern day city in our world, full of snark, banter, and magic
• Dark Fantasy: Fantasy novels with a terrifying twist of horror
The list goes on.
Regardless of sub-genre, there are 4 Principles for Writing a Fantasy Novel you need to master if you want to do a good job.
Let’s get into it!
The 4 Principles for Writing a Fantasy Novel
Principle #1: A Magic System
That’s right! We’re tackling the big kahuna first. Every fantasy novel needs a magic system, and the task of creating one can seem daunting. Luckily, you can ask ourselves 5 Simple Questions to make the task easy and fun:
• How do people use magic? How do your characters tap into their magical powers? What abilities does magic give them?
• Who uses magic? Are your magic users called witches, wizards, sorcerers, or something else? Do you have different factions of magic user? How are they different?
• What is the cost of using magic? In every great fantasy novel, the excessive use of magic comes at a price. What is that price? Exhaustion? Pain? Possible death? Something else?
• How are magic users limited? Unlimited magical power is boring. Your characters could never be defeated, or put in danger. What are the limitations of your magic system? What can’t your characters do with magic?
• Where does magic come from? What powers your magic system? Does magic feed off the lifeforce of the user? Does the magic user need to invoke their power from an external source, like nature? If so, what effect does this have on the external source?
Now you know how to design a magic system for your fantasy novel, let’s look at an example.
Example: The Witch’s Revenge by S. W. Millar
The Witch’s Revenge is the first novel in my Myth & Magic urban fantasy thriller series. Here’s a quick breakdown of the magic system I designed using those 5 Simple Questions:
• How do people use magic? My magic users cast spells to access magic. The ability they tap into depends on the spell they cast (e.g., a glamour allows them to change their appearance).
• Who uses magic? My magic users are called witches.
• What is the cost of using magic? Using too much magic too quickly (especially for inexperienced witches), causes exhaustion, and can lead to prolonged states of unconsciousness.
• How are magic users limited? As above, magic is not an unlimited resource. One example of how magic is limited is that magical barriers can only defend against magical attacks, not physical ones (i.e., witches can still get shot, barrier or not).
• Where does magic come from? Magic comes from a limited reserve inside the user. They have to build it like a muscle if they want to use stronger magic. It feeds off their energy.
Principle #2: Complex Characters
Just because you’re writing a fantasy novel, that doesn’t mean you get to skip over character development. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good magic fight as much as the next fantasy nerd, but readers aren’t really reading for that.
Say what now?
I know, I know, but hear me out.
Readers read for the characters. They don’t really care about the magic fight. They care because the character they relate to is in danger.
So, how can you create complex characters readers relate to?
Gave them The 5 Foundations of a Relatable Character, which a talk about at length in my book, How to Write Brilliant Beginnings.
Give each major character (including your villain):
• A Wound: A past event the injured them physically, emotionally or mentally
• A Scar: The flawed belief they have about themselves or their world as a result of the wound
• A Desire: An external goal they want, which drives the plot and the external conflict
• A Need: A life lesson they need to learn, which drives the story and the internal conflict
• A Uniqueness: A talent, skill, or symbol unique to that character
Example: The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks
A great example of a complex character in a fantasy novel comes from Terry Brooks’s The Elfstones of Shannara.
Princess Amberle Elissedil, a major side character in the novel, is wonderfully relatable.
Here’s a breakdown of her 5 Foundations:
• Wound: Amberle was Chosen to protect the Ellcrys (a magical tree that protects the elvin city of Arborlon from demons). When she was Chosen, the Ellcrys spoke to her, it’s power terrified her.
• Scar: Amberle fled Arborlon and denies her place as one of the Chosen (she’s has the flawed believe that the Ellcrys’s power is unnatural).
• Desire: The Ellcrys is dying and (reluctantly) Amberle wants to restore its power and protect Arborlon from a demon invasion.
• Need: To embrace the power of the Ellcrys, and her destiny as the last of the Chosen.
• Uniqueness: Amberle is the first female Chosen in centuries (which is vital to her character arc and the plot).
Principle #3: A Hierarchical Society
Whether it’s a ruling royal family in an epic fantasy novel, a supernatural police department in an urban fantasy novel, or a class system in a high fantasy novel, they all tend to have a hierarchical structure that underpins their society and culture.
Example: The Curse of the Cyren Queen Series by Helen Scheuerer
A brilliant example of a well-constructed class system comes from Helen Scheuerer’s Curse of the Cyren Queen series.
Here’s a quick overview:
• The main character, Rohesia, is a bone cleaner (one on the low-borns), who live down in the lowest depths of Saddoriel.
• Not only that, but she’s a circlet wearer (the daughter of a criminal, which makes her the lowest of the low as far as her society is concerned.
• When Roh enters the Queen’s Tournament, she competes against the high-borns, who live in the upper sector of Saddoriel, and hold her in utter contempt
• The whole society is ruled by Queen Delja, who claimed the throne because the goddesses blessed her
Can you see how the structure of Scheuerer’s society puts her protagonist at a distinct disadvantage?
Principle #4: The Rules of Your Universe
This is one of the only times you’ll hear me give this advice, so pay attention, my writerly friend. When it comes to your universe, you must follow the rules.
What exactly do I mean by this?
Say you’ve set a particular rule around your magic system. Part way through writing your fantasy novel, you realise this rule has created plot problems for you. It’s so tempting to break that rule and come up with an out of the box magical solution to solve your character’s problem. Trouble is, this annoys readers.
If teleportation isn’t part of your magic system, your protagonist is backed into a corner, then they teleport out at the last minute with no explanation, readers will hurl your book to one side, lip curled in disgust.
Far better to have your main character solve their problem through wit and ingenuity.
Example: The Novice by Trudi Canavan
In The Novice, Trudi Canavan sets the rule that each magician only has a certain amount of magic inside them, and that once it’s ran out, it takes time to replenish naturally. This means she can’t have a magician use all their magic, then use tons more five minutes later.
Doing that would break the reader’s trust.
But there’s more. Want to learn how to write sensational settings? Great! You’re in the right place. But first… what do I mean when I say, “Sensational settings?” Check out Settings for a Story: Fantasy novel basics and examples
Have you already written your fantasy novel and it’s time to edit? Check out How to Edit a Fantasy Novel
At first glance, writing a fantasy novel can seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Follow these 4 Principles for Writing a Fantasy Novel, and you’ll write a page-turning, out of this world story guaranteed to delight readers.
Post Written by Shane Millar
Shane Millar is a Fictionary Certified Story Coach and the author of the Write Better Fiction craft guides. He is also the author of the Myth & Magic and Chosen Vampire urban fantasy thriller series.
Shane holds a BA in journalism and is a member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi). He lives in Buckinghamshire, England.
He has taken too many writing courses to count and enjoys reading as much as possible. Shane is obsessed with five things: the writing craft, mythology, personal development, food, and martial arts movies.
Want to hire Shane to edit your book? Visit: https://swmillar.com/editing