I’m very excited to present this article on writing fantasy, exclusively for Kidlit by Gail Carson Levine.
The Magic of Fantasy Writing
The great thing about reading fantasy (and writing fantasy) is that we get to have experiences not available to us in ordinary life. The great thing about writing fantasy is that we’re able to take a deep dive into what those experiences might be like.
As a reader, I feel disappointed when the dive is a belly flop. For example, an invisible force field hitting an invisible, immovable object frustrates me, especially if the hero I’m rooting for is trapped behind the object. How can she engage with it if she doesn’t know what it is? Then, if she does engage and it gives way but I don’t know how, I’m doubly annoyed. I can’t rejoice with her if I don’t understand her triumph.
Here’s a confession: I don’t believe in magic or elves or fairies.
Seven Suggestions for Writing Fantasy
So I know that I face a high bar to persuade at least some readers to buy what I’m laying out. How do we do it? Here are seven suggestions for writing fantasy:
- Start the fantasy early, before the reader has time to imagine a realistic world. Take Ogre Enchanted, my latest novel, a prequel to Ella Enchanted. My main character, Evie, is a dedicated healer, but her methods wouldn’t survive scrutiny by the American Medical Association. I introduce the magic in the first sentence of the book, when Evie’s friend Wormy forgets to mash her inglebot fungus—there’s no such thing as inglebot. Grimwood, a fever remedy, shows up a page later, and, soon after, pig bladder, which certainly exists, but no one uses it to heal sprains!On page 5, the adolescent giant Oobeeg is mentioned, though he’s too large to fit through Evie’s mother’s front door–a mite of sensory information. Oobeeg is there because his mother’s leg was gashed by an ogre and a healer is needed. Now we have giants and ogres. On page 9, Evie herself is turned into an ogre by the fairy Lucinda of Ella Enchanted fame. Giants, fairies, ogres, and weird medicine. The world taking shape and we’re just on page 9.
- Writing fantasy elements that develop characters. With Evie’s transformation, I give the reader an understanding of how it might feel to be an ogre. Coarse hair grows on Evie’s hands. Her fingernails are long and filthy. She’s bigger than she was before, so seams have split; her apron is squeezing her stomach; the soles of her shoes are flapping. Significantly, she’s ravenous, even though she had breakfast only a little while earlier. Even more significantly, she calls Wormy’s earlobes “the sweetest part.” Not much later, I let the reader know how easily she gets angry, which is unlike her human self. Rather than an invisible force field, Evie’s ogre side becomes one of her antagonists. The way she deals with it, including what she eats and doesn’t eat, are important in defining her.
- Set things up beforehand to prepare the reader. Much later in Ogre Enchanted I need Evie to get the better of a dragon, and dragons in this world are vastly bigger than ogres, plus they have flames and flight. It took me a while to figure out how to do this when writing fantasy, but when I did, I introduced on page 82 a historical enmity between dragons and ogres, and I showed the over-the-top reaction of Evie and the ogre band she’s with to the sight of just a dragon’s tooth. When she faces an entire dragon forty pages later, the reader is ready to believe she can survive.
- Include detail, especially sensory detail. Sensation puts the reader there. Once we’ve made our world solid with sight, sound, touch, and smell, we can’t write an invisible force field, because it won’t fit.Smell isn’t our species’ strongest sense, but it’s uniquely tied to our emotions. In her ogre form, Evie sweats copiously–and stinks. Baths last only briefly. Her ogre side likes the smell, but her human side wants to crawl out of her hairy skin.
- Make the humans and the creatures relatable. Evie, who craves relief from her isolation from humans, is painfully aware of her looks and her odor. And she can barely tolerate the terror she strikes in people. Anyone who’s ever felt unwanted, even for a moment, suffers with her.Not that appearance is the only way to make readers identify with fantasy writing. They feel for Ella in Ella Enchanted because of her curse of obedience–we’ve all many times had to do what we don’t want to. In my Princess Tale, For Biddle’s Sake, the very flawed fairy Bombina (who loves to turn people into toads) is sympathetic because of her desperate love for a girl named Parsley.
- Writing fantasy that embraces the reader with touches of wonder. In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, sorcerers are born when lightning strikes marble, which ignites a flame that contains the new sorcerer, who rockets into the sky. Just dreaming up this kind of thing makes me happy, a feeling I hope readers will share.
- Invent your own creatures. Don’t go with stereotypes. Dragons don’t have to be big, and elves don’t have to be small, as Tolkien proved. At a conference, I once mentored a young writer who had a charming voice. My only criticism about his fantasy writing was that he leaned on stereotypes. When describing a certain wizard, he used direct address to say to the reader, “You know how wizards are.” I don’t. I have my own ideas, but this was his story, and I wanted to meet his wizard.
Writing Fantasy Isn’t Easy, But It’s Worth It
Just saying, all of this isn’t easy. Maybe none of it is. A young writer I know has an ongoing dispute with her brother about which is harder, writing or basketball. Writers know, and it isn’t even close. But it’s a joy to invent worlds with creatures who live under an unknown sun and to invite readers to share the fun.
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More tips on fantasy writing:
If you’re struggling with writing fantasy that pulls readers in and doesn’t let them go, hire me as your developmental editor.