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Fantasy is a huge niche and one with plenty of fanatical fans. It's a brilliant genre to write in and today, Ben Galley, fantasy author and self-publishing expert, discusses the main aspects.
Let’s jump straight in by looking at the main aspects of the average fantasy book:
By definition, fantasy is a genre that typically features the use of magic or other supernatural phenomena in the plot, setting, or theme. Magical or mythological creatures often feature, as well as races other than humans, such as elves, dwarves, or goblins. The worlds within fantasy books are usually medieval in style, both in terms of technology and culture. This is what primarily sets fantasy apart from sci-fi.
So that’s it. There’s your fantasy genre in a nutshell. But like any genre, it can’t just be labelled or confined by one paragraph. Fantasy is a very wide and ever-evolving genre, straddling many different sub-genres at once, or even mixing with completely separate genres.
Sub and splinter genres
There is a veritable plethora of them.
To name a few: there’s epic fantasy (involving disgustingly thick books and very long series), high fantasy (usually very traditional and Tolkienesque), dark fantasy (which mixes in horror or grim themes), grimdark (employing a dystopian element in the world or plot), steampunk (a mix of fantasy and Victorian, clockwork, and steam elements), arcanepunk (a blend of scifi and fantasy), historical fantasy (incorporating magic into historical fiction, often mixed with the ‘sword and sorcery’ subgenre), and lastly, urban fantasy (which blends the ideas of magic and myth with modern day worlds.)
Quite bamboozling, isn’t it?
Just why are there so many sub and splinter genres? It’s because fantasy, since the books Tolkien and Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber, has somewhat burst its banks. Fantasy is in a unique position where it can seem tired and radically new at the same time. Boundaries are therefore pushed, and stereotypes tweaked, to keep its core values alive.
For instance, the idea of magic is an old one but fantasy authors seem relentless in their quest to turn it on its head. Unlike genres such as crime or romance, fantasy is theoretically limitless, thanks to its very nature. It’s this reinvention and experimentation that appeals to many authors, me included.
Build yourself a World:
World-building is hugely important to fantasy. I would say that 50-60% of the work a fantasy author has to put in to a book consists of world-building.
Why? Well, fantasy rests on the use of strange and unfamiliar worlds. Authors must dream up cultures, races, religions, histories, weather, clothes, food, music… all the different aspects that we take for granted in our own world. Making this world rich enough and deep enough is the tricky part. It’s an important job, especially when you consider the implications a world has on the plot and your characters. What if there were two suns in your world, rather than one? What if there was a war going on? Or what if it rained molten lead? Your world affects everything in it. That’s why it’s important. For a great example of world-building, look at Brandon Sanderson’s Way of Kings books.
Magic. It’s almost a prerequisite of the genre. (Even though there are fantasy books that don’t feature magic in an obvious way, they still deal with other worldly occurrences, or the supernatural.)
Let me introduce you to something called the magic system. A common phrase used by authors and fans alike. A magic system is how magic in your world works. For instance, reading spells aloud is a form of magic system. Again, the opportunities are almost limitless. What about drawing magical abilities from pain (as in Fade to Black, by Francis Knight)? Or eating different metals for different effects (called Allomancy, another Brandon Sanderson gem)? Just like the boundaries of fantasy itself have expanded, so has the idea of magic – what it can be, and where it comes from. When writing your fantasy, try and mess around with your idea of magic. It’s another chance to be creative and individual.
Incorporate some mythology:
Fantasy draws a lot from classical mythology. Why?
Because mythology also consists of monsters and creatures and magic. The two lie very close together when it comes to contents and themes. Tolkien borrowed a lot from mythology when he built Middle-Earth, using Nordic, Germanic, and archaic English myths and legends. I use Nordic and near-Eastern mythologies in my Emaneska Series. Even if you don’t want to borrow a whole pantheon or myth, borrow the creatures, plots, or heroes instead. It creates a bit of familiarity in your book, and also give you the chance to play with some stereotypes too, both of which can make for interesting reading.
As you can see from this quick examination, fantasy has few boundaries. Those that it does have lie within the author’s imagination, or the intricacy of a magic system and its rules. What I like about fantasy, and why I love writing it, is this license to experiment, to dream big. You could write about fire-breathing squirrels if you were so inclined. That’s the beauty, and, pardon the pun, the magic of this genre. No limits, an incredibly open-minded audience, and the opportunity to truly create something different.
Do you read or write fantasy? Do you have any tips or questions about writing fantasy? Please leave your comments and questions below.
At 25, Ben is a young self-published author from sunny England. He is the author of the fast-paced fantasies of The Emaneska Series – a trilogy likened to the gritty love-child of “Lord of The Rings and Sin City”. Ben is incredibly zealous about inspiring other authors and writers.
He runs the popular advice site SHELF HELP, where he offers honest and simple advice about writing, publishing, and marketing. He wants to help others turn their passion into their profession, and to follow their wildest dreams. Ben can be found being loquacious and attempting to be witty on Twitter (@BenGalley) or at www.bengalley.com