Writers Bloc series
Featured columnist: Jacqueline Carey
"Seven Rules: On Writing Good Fantasy"
1. Read within the genre.
It’s an old, old art form with its roots in myth, legend and fairy tale, and there’s very little new under the sun.
Whether it be a cursed ring, an enchanted sword, a lost heir or a fairy court living in Manhattan, your idea has probably been done before.
The trick lies in reinventing familiar tropes to make them feel fresh and new -- but to do that, you have to know what they are.
As with anything, you have to have a good grasp of the rules before you set about breaking them.
2. Read outside the genre.
All the fantasy writers I’ve met have been avid and eclectic readers. It’s part of what enables us to find fresh perspectives, to bring in new elements and make our work vital.
In my work, it’s obvious that the “Kushiel’s Legacy” trilogy was strongly influenced by historical fiction.
But there are other influences, too. The first third of “Kushiel’s Chosen” is structured as a mystery.
Few readers would suspect that at one point during the writing, I asked myself, “Hmm...what would Spenser do?”
What does a hard-boiled private eye have in common with a courtesan heroine with a knack for languages?
Not much on the surface, but they’re both dogged in the pursuit of information, with a tendency to ask questions that will stir things up when all else fails.
From paranormal romance to alternate history to fantasy noir, there’s a great deal of cross-pollination going on within the field these days.
The more you read, the more tools you have at your disposal. You might even create a brand-new subgenre!
3. Establish parameters and follow them.
Magic is good; magic is fun. But if magic doesn’t conform to some internal consistency, your readers will cease to willingly suspend their disbelief. What’s its source? How is it manifested? Does it take a toll? Can anyone do it? Why not?
It doesn’t matter what form magic takes or what the answers are, but you need to ask yourself whatever hard questions apply.
If you don’t, your readers will.
This applies to all aspects of world-building. If you create a system of nomenclature, follow it consistently.
In a family of three siblings, if the eldest is named R’hath, the middle is B’lal and the youngest is Jennifer, it’s going to throw the reader off.
If you’re writing fantastic comedy in the Terry Pratchett vein, that’s great. But if you’re not, then it’s probably not the effect you’re after.
Every reader who opens the pages of a fantasy book is willing to take a leap of faith and believe in the world you’ve created. That’s their gift to you. Don’t give them a reason to take it back.
4. Maintain a sense of awe.
It’s why we read fantasy, and it should be a part of why we write it, too. To escape mundane reality, to be swept away, to open a door onto another place, another time, where a world hangs in the balance and a single person’s courage may change its fate, or the Wild Hunt stalks our city streets.
Whether you’re making the strange familiar or the familiar strange, fantasy deals with powerful archetypes. They will be more powerful if you -- and your characters -- remain mindful of this.
If your mundane and prosaic heroine doesn’t have a moment of seriously freaking out when she discovers her charming new boyfriend is a vampire, the revelation will lack impact.
If, say, your Dark Lord doesn’t have characters groveling in bowel-loosening terror, he’s not all that scary, is he?
5. Keep it real.
Or, more accurately, keep it plausible. Fantasy pushes the boundaries of the believable, but it’s most effective when it’s rooted in a certain amount of reality.
Ordinary horses can’t gallop for hundreds of miles on end. Even heroes need to eat and sleep. A world can’t function without a socioeconomic structure.
And the small, visceral details that convey these things -- a lumpy pallet, an imperial profile on a coin, the aroma of spiced skewers of meat grilling in the marketplace -- serve as touchstones that anchor the reader’s belief in your world.
Pay attention to emotional and psychological details, too. If a character has lost his family in a traumatic accident, he’s going to grieve for a long, long time. Grief doesn’t pass in a chapter.
If something dreadful has happened due to a character’s folly, she’s going to carry guilt around like a millstone. You don’t have to harp on it, but don’t forget about it, either.
If the effects of a serious event don’t cause ripples throughout the story, it’s not going to resonate.
6. Do your homework.
This is what enables you to keep it real. If one of your characters is an herb-witch, study up on herbal lore.
If you’re writing a fantasy set in a desert climate, do some research! It doesn’t have to be dry and scholarly, but finding a source of information that will provide some of those anchor-point details and feed your imagination is crucial.
Older source material, which often already contains an element of the fantastic, can be excellent for this purpose.
While doing research for “Kushiel’s Avatar,” I found some wonderful journals by an 18th century British doctor traveling through Ethiopia. It’s a great way to look at the world through fresh eyes.
Don’t neglect field research. Never ridden a horse? Visit a stable that offers trail-riding. Never held a sword? Try a Renaissance fair.
You don’t have to become proficient at the things your protagonists do with ease or in their areas of expertise, but the more experience and knowledge you have to draw on, the deeper and richer your writing will be.
7. Every rule about good writing applies.
Fantasy -- good fantasy -- doesn’t get a pass. Show, don’t tell. Avoid infodumps. All the rules apply. Good writing is good writing in any genre.
Things are changing, but the perception persists in some circles that fantasy is easier to write because, “Oh, you’re just making it all up anyway.”
In the first place, there’s nothing easy about “making it all up.” And in the second place, a good fantasy requires the same level of craftsmanship that any piece of well-written work does; and perhaps even more.
There’s a double burden involved. You’re asking readers to laugh and cry and rejoice with people who don’t exist in a world that never was.
It’s not easy. But if you do it well, they will.
Bio: Jacqueline Carey is the author of the critically acclaimed “Kushiel’s Legacy,” a trilogy ("Kushiel's Dart," "Kushiel's Legacy," "Kushiel's Avatar") of historical fantasy novels concluding with "Kushiel's Avatar." Her new novel, "Banewreaker," was just released. It is the first volume of “The Sundering” duology.
An avid reader, Jacqueline began writing fiction as a hobby in high school. After receiving B.A. degrees in psychology and English literature from Lake Forest College, she took part in a work exchange program and spent six months working in a bookstore in London.
While living abroad, the desire to write professionally emerged as a driving passion. Jacqueline enjoys doing research on a wide variety of arcane topics, and an affinity for travel has take her from Finland to Egypt to date.
She currently lives in west Michigan, where she is a member of the oldest Mardi Gras krewe in the state. Although often asked by inquiring fans, she does not, in fact, have any tattoos.
Official site: Jacqueline Carey
About this series: The Writers Bloc series is an ongoing column featuring practical advice for writers. Nope, not a support group. Not until someone busts out the tequila, anyway...
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