The rules of good writing apply to every fictional genre. Put your protagonist through the wringer, facing ever greater dangers and tougher dilemmas. Build the story, tie in the subplots, and construct a satisfying resolution. Do it all in clear and comprehensible prose.
But through writing my novel Gog-Magog, I’ve realised that fantasy as a genre offers writers specific opportunities and challenges. Here are seven ways in which fantasy has its own demands.
Everyone, be they hero, villain or walk-on, has an agenda and motivation. They are greedy, or they seek approval, or power, or sex. And everyone has their own personality traits. When readers see glimpses of these (especially if characteristics are contradictory), they lose themselves amidst a rich and complex population. And that’s what they want.
It’s true of any genre, but in fantasy there is infinite potential to mix all sorts of types, from the grotesque to the fey. So we writers can go to extremes, making characters complex, contradictory, and larger than life. Scythe down the bland with the blade of imagination!
A bonus – strong incidental characters, be they obstructive or biddable, give the protagonist something to bounce off.
The infinite palette that fantasy offers allows us to invent a multitude of creatures and peoples. So make sure they are not just variants of conventional tropes.
Ursula Le Guin in The Left Hand of Darkness made her characters hermaphrodites, 50 years before trans rights entered the mainstream. GRR Martin has Tyrion and Bran as central characters. We should do no less. I admit I haven’t gone far enough in this respect in Gog-Magog, and the novel is flatter for it.
Fantasy can be grim. But grim offers potential for humour, be it broad, cynical or slapstick. Have posh types slip on dragon poo. Make warriors sardonic, like The Hound in Game of Thrones. Create jokers and fools.
In Gog-Magog, the giants are guided from Tibet to Albion by a comical Buddhist hermit who thinks they are Yeti, and knows little more of the modern world than they do. Humour relieves the darkness for the reader.
With infinite story possibilities, it is easy to make fantasy relevant to any aspect of the real world. In fact, it’s impossible not to. And that’s wide range of themes. Think what Wakanda means, think what The Shire means. Obviously readers don’t want to be preached to, but incorporating themes and symbols adds depth.
In Gog-Magog, the giants are protectors of the earth, fairies are protectors of air and water, and witches of living things. So they have thematic meaning relating to pollution, climate, and nature. And the giants are refugees, struggling in a dangerous and unfamiliar land. Retelling Britain’s forgotten origin myth brings our concept of the nation into question. All this makes the novel (I hope) more than just and adventure.
5. Good and Evil
The biggest theme is always the battle between good and evil. You might even say that’s what fantasy is for.
More than any other genre except perhaps horror, fantasy can make the antagonist not just bad, but evil incarnate. Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name.
Don’t forget that the badder the baddie, the more heroic the hero.
But let the sense of dread build. Don’t let us, or the protagonist, meet the enemy too early. Jon Snow doesn’t fight the White Walker army until well into the saga, Harry doesn’t have to face an active Voldemort until volume four, while Frodo never actually confronts Sauron.
Fantasy fans love to immerse themselves in a different world, with different customs, religions, plants and animals. Not all are essential to the plot. What they are essential to is the believability of the world, and hence the plausibility of the story within that world.
God is in the detail, so think about flora and fauna and food, and music and buildings and clothes. (By the way, it doesn’t always have to be bloody medieval.)
Fantasy doesn’t need magic, but it’s poorer without it. The danger is that if magic can do anything, life is too easy for those who possess it. In Gog-Magog the giants have earth magic, but it doesn’t mean they can move mountains. And they certainly can’t whip up a storm (that’s fairies). So make it a limited strength, then up the stakes by disabling it!