I’d like to begin by talking about how writing fantasy is not different from writing any other genre. Whether you are writing fantasy, romance, mystery, or literary fiction you work with the same writing tools to meet virtually identical goals. Foremost, you have to tell a story. Proust may very well be one of the sole authors who got away without one, but most everyone else has to have one. If you don’t have a story to tell, the reader is going to close the book on you. Under the umbrella of “the story”, you also need to develop your characters, maintain point of view (be it singular or many), attend to the right balance of narration and dramatization, use appropriate tense(s), consciously employ the best chronology for the story, and so on. For the writers of most genres, this would be enough balls to have in the air.
And then there is fantasy. The very connotation of that word holds infinite worlds, limited only by the imagination of the author. Think of the worlds wrought by J.R.R. Tolkien or J. K. Rowling. Middlearth and Hogwarts are but singular side trips to the vast realms. What this means for the fantasy writer is that work unique to this genre is mastery of “world building.” The fantasy writer builds up the world the story takes place in from the ground up. But it is much more than simply imagining a different landscape.
A proper world built from scratch needs a full history, spanning not only centuries but millennia. Does your world have magic? If so, what are the rules? In most fantasies, there are often consequences for using magic, and it is not always simply done. What kind of technology does your world have? Has gun powder been invented? What metals are used? What are the social customs, forms of greeting, clothing fashions? What is taboo in your world, the rituals around death? What religion or gods are believed? Do the gods themselves appear? What forms of government are followed, the politics? What are the curses people use? (This can be a surprisingly interesting question, as the answer can incorporate religious beliefs and speaking what is forbidden.) This is only the short list of questions that need to be answered as the fantasy world gets built.
Is it surprising to say that many a writer has gotten lost in world building and forgotten that they started out telling a story? The successful fantasy writer uses world building to advance the story and develop character and not make it an end to itself.
I would argue that the non-fantasy writer also must successful world build. A realistic story set in the Minneapolis of right now has to consciously put that world on the page. Many writers neglect this, and weak writing results. Perhaps what sets fantasy writers apart from writers of other genres is that we take nothing for granted.
Another aspect perhaps unique to fantasy writing is that most stories in one way or another tell the Hero’s journey. In my classes on writing fantasy, I have described the Hero’s journey like this:
The all purpose hero is someone set apart from ordinary humanity through miraculous birth or other special qualities, and undergoes a test in the form of a quest or journey. The quest takes the hero out of the ordinary sphere of human life, often into a new land where different rules apply. Passing through a series of challenges, the hero is helped in the quest by the magic or wisdom of some, and hindered by others. Although the quest seems difficult, when the end is achieved, the challenge is resolved with surprising ease. The hero acquires a boon – something valued, such as new knowledge – which he or she brings back to the human community for its benefit.
You can find examples of this hero template in Mesopotamia’s Gilgamesh, the Finnish epic Kalevala, the Lord of the Rings, and even Star Wars (the original trilogy). Throughout the history of humanity we have always seemed to have a need for a hero. It could even be said that each one of us is the hero in our own personal story.
I am right now finishing the first novel of a fantasy series. Because I am writing for a young audience, I have been conscious of one other aspect that writers of children literature attend to – as if there wasn’t enough to think about already. Much of children’s literature investigate the idea of justice. As Dickens’ Pip put it, “[i]n the little world in which children have their existence there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt, as injustice.” Whether it is rebellion against an injustice, or a goal to set things right, social justice is the flame that ignites the story, and turns what began as mere characters into heroes.
--Michael Kiesow Moore
Michael Kiesow Moore is an award-winning writer of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. His work has appeared in several books and journals, including Among the Leaves: Queer Male Poets on the Midwestern Experience, Water~Stone Review, Talking Stick, Evergreen Chronicles, The James White Review, and A Loving Testimony: Losing Loved Ones Lost to AIDS. His awards have included a Minnesota State Arts Board fellowship, a Loft Mentor Series Award, and poetry nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He has taught creative writing at the Loft Literary Center and curates the Birchbark Books Reading Series at the Birchbark Bookstore. For more information visit www.michaelkiesowmoore.com.