Fantasy, you could argue, is the oldest of the literary genres, starting some four or five-thousand years ago when Gilgamesh and Enkidu formed the first party of adventurers and set out to slay Humbaba the Terrible in the name of glory. Ancient peoples told stories of gods that influenced their lives and monsters that lay in dark places beyond the known world. Great heroes, whether eager or reluctant, carved their names in history by facing these outlandish forces. That tradition continues even today. Though fantasy has blended with so many genres over the millennia, its core remains the same. Imagine a world where those incredible ideas truly existed, where small hidden people really did help or hinder travelers as they see fit, where fire-breathing reptiles soar through the sky, and the rich elite are literally living off the lifeblood of the peasantry. Fantasy is the genre that takes these fantastical antiquarian notions and drops them right next to us. Even when a vampire is seducing high school girls, that’s fantasy.
The Fantasy genre’s rich history and deep roots are both its greatest strength and greatest weakness because it is absolutely reliant on aesthetic, these little markers that you can recognize and know that you’re reading, watching, or playing fantasy. There’s nothing wrong with that aesthetic inherently, but when it’s such an intrinsic part of the genre, it can make those that try their hand at it lose the forest for the trees.
There’s more to fantasy.
You might have elves dragons or vampires making their appearance and causing trouble just like you’ve seen in other fantasy stories, but what you might not have…is a good story.
If you’re lucky, you see this problem upon reading the finished product for yourself, but many writers submit their grand opus only to be rejected because they couldn’t appreciate the craft of fantasy storytelling beyond the surface qualities of sword and sorcery. Luckily, very few have the unique horror of publishing or producing something for the whole world to see and to have it torn down by critics and audiences alike. They wonder to themselves, “Why? Why doesn’t anybody like it? I did everything I was supposed to do! There’s a scene where a dragon obliterates a mountain with a thunderbolt! It’s amazing!”
If you remember nothing else while writing fantasy or any other genre fiction, remember this: The setting, tropes, technology, races—whatever—are only there to deliver the story, not for the story to deliver them.
The story must be given priority.
Remember your fundamentals of storytelling. Evoke the 12 steps of the hero’s journey. Build upon the sturdy foundation of the 3 Act structure. Ride the waves of rising action, climax, and resolution but have a theme to center your tale around. Ensure that your hero or party has a desire, that they struggle to achieve that desire, and grow as people. No one enjoys stories because they happen to have dragons, elves, and people shooting lightning out of their hands; they enjoy stories because they tell a human story, and this is important even if your story doesn’t have any humans. Even if your hero is an elf who grew up among a race of elves and has some really weird elf problems, your story will still be a product of our human existence the same way Aesop was never really talking about a lion. The elf should crave success, form bonds, fall in love, and fight for what they believe in so you can have a hero and a tale worth reading all the way to the end.
So, for a genre that has had 5,000 years to mutate, there is precious little advice to give because the possibilities are virtually limitless, and I’m sure you know that if you want to write fantasy nowadays, you better make it original and bold. And don’t forget that the story comes first.
Thanks for reading. As always, if you consider yourself a writer, or just want to start developing your talent, I hope you’ll consider participating in one of our monthly genre contests for a chance to win cash, a custom digital book cover, and an author spotlight interview.
And I started a Twitter! Follow @proseopiate for announcements about posts and contests. Maybe we can develop our own community. Spread the word so we can have more contestants and greater diversity of submissions.