You like fantasy, you say? Join the club, Mac, and pull up a chair. The common man who may have only briefly dipped his fingers in the ream of fantasy may think that fantasy is limited to dragons, princesses, enchanted swords, wizards. How sick and wrong you are, buddy. There are THOUSANDS of variations to the genre of fantasy, all unique and beautiful in their own ways. After all, fantasy is, as described by Merriam-Webster dictionary, “something that is produced by the imagination : an idea about doing something that is far removed from normal reality”. And considering the human mind is infinitely complex and mysterious, it’s safe to say that the fantasy genre is limited to the boundaries of the human imagination, which is to say, boundless.
Harry Potter is fantasy. Dragon Ball Z is fantasy. Ghost Busters is fantasy. Lord of the Rings is fantasy. Take your pick of any unrealistic story involving the paranormal, magic, superhuman powers, talking trees, and aliens. It’s all fantasy. As for me, personally, my favorite type of fantasy stems from the acclaimed video game franchise, Final Fantasy. Those games make me cry like a baby. I could write a whole article about what makes them so damn beautiful and heart-wrenching (in fact, I will. But not now). And to let you know where I’m coming from, I’ll even include piano arrangements from the games (or scenes). Because I’m caring like that.
When Rikku shouts, “Yunie will die, you know!” and I just start losing it (
And when Yuna’s performing the Sending and they’re all crying and I’m crying because it’s scary and beautiful at the same time
Or when Vivi sees all the other black mages falling to their deaths and it’s just awful (
I didn’t even PLAY all of this one, and “Eyes On Me” still makes me cry like a bitch (
Or when Sephiroth is standing in the fire he started to destroy Nibelheim, because he’s gone batshit and thinks he’s a god…and then later he kills Aerith and Cloud lowers her into the water…I get chills every time (
Or, worse yet, THIS freaking scene (
I think I’ve made my point. But my bigger and more important point is this: Fantasy comes in all shapes and sizes, but there is a right way and a wrong way to write it. I’ve seen fantasy butchered a fair number of times, and by now I think I’ve got a good idea as to why it has the potential to suck so badly. So kick back and listen to all the feels tracks I’ve given you, and I’ll let you in on some secrets to writing decent fantasy.
How to Write Decent Fantasy!
Step 1) Read. And read a lot. “What?!” you scream, truly aghast. That’s right! Even if you’re an avid fantasy worshiper, any good writer knows that it will do you good to read EVERYTHING…not just fantasy. This is where a lot of fantasy writers screw up royally. When you only read one genre, you’re limiting your creativity to a small box, and it shows in your writing. Let’s say you want to write the next big vampire romance novel (and God help you if you do, poor soul). You read all the vampire romance novels you can get your hands on, and then get to work. What do you have now? A book that looks exactly like all the other shitty, god-forsaken pieces of…*indistinct mumbling*. You get my point though. Believe it or not, exposing yourself ONLY to the genre you want to write is a one-way ticket to incurable writer’s block and inevitable self-hatred. The best cure is to read everything you can get your hands on: Read a book by Amy Tan, read a travel book, read Charles Dickens, read true crime novels, crappy 80’s romance, a collection of essays and short stories, read horror, read mystery, read sci-fi, read Buddhist philosophy. Read crappy books and excellent books, and take note of the differences. Read my blog (hehe). The more you read, the more well-rounded your writing will be. You will have access to more varied vocabulary, a sense of culture, and you will be inspired by things you never thought could inspire you. Reading everything opens your mind up to possibilities you never knew existed, and even if you don’t like something you’ve read, at least now you know what you do and do not like (and why). That’s useful knowledge too.
Step 2) Don’t try to find inspiration in just one medium. Art is funny like that (and yes, writing is an art. Don’t forget it, bub). If you ONLY read, I’m sure you’ll have lots of lovely ideas. But even that isn’t enough. You need to expose yourself to every possible inspiration. Watch a few movies (good movies, preferably). Play a few video games (aesthetically pretty ones, ones with good stories, ones with good characters and music). Go sit outside for awhile and look at the flowers, the weather, the trees. Go to a mall and people-watch. Just GET OUT and do something new.
For example, I find more inspiration than I ever thought I could just by watching movies and playing games like Final Fantasy. Sometimes when I’m in the middle of a movie, I have to fight the urge to sprint out of the theater and go write because I was suddenly, inexplicably, hit by an odd inspiration. But having said that, do NOT, under any circumstances, try to replicate a game or a movie in writing. SO many writers do this, and it kills them. Books, movies, and video games are all their own unique entities. Completely different animals. Why do you think movies based on video games always end up so crappy? Sure, it’s fine to draw inspiration from one of those things. But DON’T write a book that looks like a movie script. It never works. Writing is an art in and of itself, as is video game-making and movie-making. I always think in this line, though: I love Final Fantasy. What do I love about it? The amazing characters, the complex story lines, the twists at the end, the unimaginable feels. So instead of writing a book that’s basically Final Fantasy VII except for a few name-changes, I’m going to look at the elements I like best about the Final Fantasy series and try to recreate them in my own unique way. At the same time, I have to incorporate the literary devices and elements I would normally use in any book. The end result is usually very satisfying.
Step 3) Don’t let the fantasy elements outweigh anything else. In my opinion, good fantasy includes everything that any other well-written book includes: Character development, good word usage, an interesting plot, no gimmicks or stereotypes, beautiful writing, symbolism. The fantasy elements of a fantasy book shouldn’t be the winning feature of the fantasy book. Sound strange to you? Well, a fantasy element can certainly be the central theme or goal. But if you’re lagging in the character department because you’re so wrapped up in what kind of magic you’re including in the story, that’s no good. Fantasy, even ethereal, dream-like fantasy, should be anchored by all the other elements of a good book. In other words, Don’t let the technicalities of your fantasy book run away with your imagination so that the writing itself becomes watered-down. It happens a lot.
Step 4) Develop a strong sense of visualization. Don’t you just love books that make you feel like you’re there, standing alongside everyone, watching that same sunset, fighting that same monster, sharing that same kiss? It’s pretty magical when an author can accomplish that. And by the very definition of fantasy, your readers should be feeling the same way about your fantasy book. The worst kind of fantasy is the kind that you can’t relate to or feel immersed in. How do you fix this, you ask? Do this exercise to get better at promoting visualization: It’s called nature writing, kids! Get in the car, we’re going on a trip! It might sound strange to you, but nature writers really have the ability to make you feel like you’re there with them. I always felt like nature writers could be incredible fantasy writers, so I do this myself every now and then as an experiment. And it works! Here’s what you do: Go outside someplace, anyplace. It could be your backyard, a park, a cave, a mountain, a forest, a beach, a lake, a river. Preferably someplace beautiful. Now, grab your pen and paper. Sit down someplace. Really soak it all in, the colors you see, the sounds you hear, the feelings, the smells. Absorb it all. Really meditate on everything around you. Take as long as you’d like. As soon as you’ve felt like you’ve immersed yourself in your surroundings, begin to write. Write the entire experience down, as it’s happening. Write about the wind, the temperature, the scenery. Write about how you feel, sitting there. Is it a hard seat? A pillow of moss? Write about it. What do you smell? Rain? Mildew? Dirt? Salt? Is it uncomfortable? Write about that. Is it quiet? Loud? What do you hear? Are you nervous for some reason? How do your surroundings make you feel? Write it all down. Every possible little thing. I always found that this type of writing is like a spiritual experience.
Do this as often as you can, at different places. Your goal should be to hand this to someone and make them say, “Wow! I really felt like I was there!”
Why is this important for fantasy writing? Put your thinking cap on, Sherlock. If you can’t describe a lake properly enough to make people feel like they’re there, how do you expect to describe magic? Once you’ve mastered the ability to make people feel immersed in something you’ve written, you can experiment with fantasy. Follow this doctrine: A magic spell or a mythical place should be as effortless to describe as a sunset or a lake. Once you’ve done all your nature writing and have mastered your ability to whisk the reader away to a faraway place, you can do this next: Sit down in the same places you’ve been sitting (your backyard, maybe), and instead of describing it, start describing another place. A made-up place. Maybe a magical forest or an abandoned castle. Anything you can dream up. Now begin describing your imagined place as clearly as you could describe your backyard. THAT’S how you pull your reader in.
Step 5) Don’t write about something unless you have a strong emotional attachment connected to it. Pick something. Maybe you had a dream once that made you wake up crying, or maybe it was so vivid that you felt this deep spiritual emotion when you woke up. Maybe there was a time in your childhood that was so happy that it makes you smile to think about it. Maybe there’s a certain place you feel strongly connected to, like a certain forest or a beach. Maybe you were molested as a child and that pain is still fresh in your mind. Maybe you can recall your first kiss with such clarity that you can feel the magic of it right now. Pick a feeling, any feeling. People get inspired all the time by concepts, by aesthetic beauty, by certain instances of badassery. But at the most basic human level, people are gripped by emotions. So let emotion be your greatest inspiration. With this in mind, you can write a fantasy novel that embodies something very moving for you. If you’re moved by something, odds are you have the capability to make others moved, too. And that’s the most fulfilling thing about being a writer: Pulling at people’s heartstrings and making them feel a certain way. How does this make for a good fantasy novel? It makes for any good novel. For fantasy, you have more freedom because you’re not limited by what’s “realistic”. You can take something you find emotional and transform it into something magical, beautiful, inspirational, more so than in any other genre. Also, it’s easier to write something you feel emotionally connected to. Otherwise it’s like writing a boring report for school.
Step 6) Avoid gimmicks and stereotypes. This is the kind of stuff that makes non-fantasy readers hate fantasy. For the love of God, don’t write a vampire book. Don’t write about witches and wizards, dragons, elves, fairies, mermaids. If you have to write about one of those things, put such a unique spin on it that it’s no longer a gimmick. Fantasy is about the limitless reaches of the human imagination! Don’t underestimate your imagination! Don’t be afraid to write something really bizarre and out-there!
Step 7) Write what YOU want to read. “Oh, I guess kids killing other kids is popular now. I guess I’ll just write about that…” NO, NO, NO. You put that pen down, Jimmy! Don’t you DARE write something just because you think it’ll have mass appeal! You know who had mass appeal? Nazis. That didn’t make it good, did it? You should sit down and think to yourself, “What do I want to read?” And then write it. I know that’s kind of cliche, but it’s always true.
I know all of these things just sound like suggestions for good writing in general, but lemme tell you, I’ve seen too many fantasy writers fudge this up more than they should’ve. A lot of the time, fantasy writers assume that as long as they include sparkly interesting magic things, it won’t matter what the characters are like or if there are gaping plot holes in their story. As long as you remember the things I’ve listed, you should be good to go. I’m sitting in my dark, windowless room in a bikini eating Waffle Crisp with my hands, so I think it’s safe to say that I should be done for now and go get my daily dose of vitamin D someplace in the Outernet.