How to Write a Fantasy Novel that Gets Read in 8 Steps [+Template]

By Steph Fraser | Posted on March 18th, 2019

If you are interested in learning everything about fantasy novels and want to learn how to write a fantasy novel, you are at the right place – keep reading.

The amazing thing about the fantasy genre is the way it propels us into unknown lands that only exist when we imagine them. They invoke emotional reactions in our minds.

From the beginning of time, people have always sunk deep in their imaginations to deliver awe-inspiring stories. A fantasy novel is an example of this, and they have a strong root in every society.

Writing an original fantasy novel that will incite awe in the minds of readers can be tasking. This is because you will be creating a new and different world, and this means creating characters, personifying things and ideas. More importantly, making people believe everything in your fantasy novel.

To come up with a successful novel in the fantasy genre, a whole lot of considerations have to be made as well as plans put in place. Fantasies are set in fictional worlds. Crafting such a world where the characters will function and engage the readers in an immersive experience is a difficult task.

There are some twists in fantasies that make them a top choice for readers. For one, the plot does not just tell about magical characters, objects and creatures to create a compelling story. It is set in an entirely different parallel world.

However, it subverts the readers’ expectations to make them perceive the world as a different place altogether.

If you want to write a fantasy novel or interested in learning how to write a fantasy novel for the very first time, it is important to unbind the chains holding your imagination in check – go wild, catch fire.

Follow these steps and you’ll find the complicated process is made a little easier:

  1. Get some help
  2. Study others
  3. Understand worldbuilding
  4. Include all worldbuilding essentials
  5. Dive into your characters
  6. Craft your plot
  7. Add meaning
  8. Outline the novel

In this post, we will highlight the steps involved in creating an engaging and captivating fantasy novel.

Some Advice for Writing a Fantasy Novel

In the words of Charles Bukowski:

If it doesn’t come bursting out of you

in spite of everything,

don’t do it.

unless it comes unasked out of your

heart and your mind and your mouth

and your gut,

don’t do it.’

‘unless it comes out of

your soul like a rocket,

unless being still would

drive you to madness or

suicide or murder,

don’t do it.

unless the sun inside you is

burning your gut,

don’t do it.

Now, Bukowski was a poet. He likely didn’t know much about fantasy fiction. But, what he said about writing – in general – applies to fantasy writing too.

Because fantasy is difficult. It might seem easy-peasy at first sight – after all, you can just make it up, right?

No extensive research required.

WRONG.

Dead wrong.

In fact, fantasy novels – good ones that get published – are probably far tougher creations than realist works.

Why?

Because they require fully inventing a whole new world.

That new world needs its own geography, biology, history, and sometimes laws of physics. You have to invent them all – and what’s more, they have to be internally consistent.

The sheer workload is plain unthinkable for some writers. Without a killer drive, you’re unlikely to follow through.

So, as Bukowski says, ‘unless the sun inside you is/burning your gut’, don’t do it.

Write a historical novel or a thriller. Much easier.

But – if fantasy is your calling – if strange species, misty, faraway lands, and alien terrains lure you to this magical and mysterious genre – then keep reading.

Fantasy in the Mainstream

Indeed, you may just have made the right choice – for fantasy is an increasingly popular genre as society gets increasingly ‘geekified’ and the once abstruse goes mainstream.

This is in part due to the successful, big-budget adaptations of fantasy works such as Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter and – more recently – HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Who knows? Maybe your own literary endeavor could receive such a lucrative adaptation.

But not, of course, without due preparation, and careful attention to the following handy hints and recommendations.

So now, dear adventurer, humble wielder of the pen, listen closely to our diligently gathered advice on how to write a fantasy novel.

Fantasy Novel Template

Before diving into our fantasy writing steps, it’s a good idea to get yourself set up with a template as well. Our fantasy specific template will help you work through these steps efficiently and effectively:

fantasy novel template

No book is easy to write, but fantasy is particularly complicated. Using templates and software will help you keep things organized and build your world without missing anything.

1. Getting Help to Write Your Fantasy Novel

Before we start, there are some best novel writing resources that may be useful to you in writing your first fantasy novel.

Squibler

squibler homepage screenshot

The next generation of editing is here. Squibler is a tool used by 5000 authors worldwide including some who’ve written bestsellers.

The tool enables writers to organize notes and track progress using visual note cards and a split screen interface. The program is like having a coach working alongside you as you write.

squibler split screen example

Its features allow writers to sort their ideas, filtered by tags, without losing track of them. Gone are the days of endless piled-up, screwed-up paper notes.

It’s outlining system lets novelists store chapters, scenes, and notes safely and then conveniently drag and drop them into the right place when necessary.

Thanks to Squibler, writers can put their books together quicker than ever before.

ProWritingAid

prowritingaid homepage screenshot

It is amazing that artificial intelligence is now able not only to check basic problems like spelling and grammar but help correct your style too.

Clunky, awkward sentences jump onto ProWritingAid’s radar and the tool can suggest helpful changes for the struggling writers.

Problems like repetition or excessive use of the same word are also highlighted by the software. Writers who use ProWritingAid – creators of fiction, non-fiction, and online blog content alike – report improvements in their writing style. The program’s useful prompts act as a tutor to improve their wordsmithery.

You can sign up now for a free trial. If it works for you, take up a plan with flexible monthly payments.

You may seek a more extensive edit from a human being at a later date but many of those who do so still report immense benefits from using an automated system like ProWritingAid.

Online Community

Software like Squibler and ProWritingAid will help you a lot when you are trying to learn how to write a fantasy novel and your puny human brain can’t handle it anymore.

Thank Greyskull for the new wave of automation. While fantasy writing will never get any easier, these tools allow us to take on greater workloads while our novels become longer, richer, and more elaborate.

It’s not just the aid of our Artificially Intelligent friends that will get you through the arduous quest of writing a fantasy novel, however. Only the loneliest wolves amongst us can avoid the natural need for a gang – a fellowship, as it were – of other fantasy readers and writers.

This gaggle of chums can assist us in staying accountable and motivated to the writing process so that we finish those novels strong. Other people can also be sounding boards for our ideas, rich sources of feedback, or collections of confidantes to laugh and cry with when the stress of novel-writing becomes too much.

Fantasy Writers

fantasy writers facebook page screenshot

With 7K+ members, Fantasy Writers is the Facebook place to be. The friendly, well-moderated group allows users to post sections of their writing. You can ask for feedback from fellow journeymen and journeywomen in the land of make-believe.

Fantasy Writers (Reddit)

fantasy writers reddit sub screenshot

With 107K+ writers subscribed, Reddit’s Fantasy Writers sub is a valuable resource to those looking for camaraderie and feedback.

Fantasy-Writers

fantasy-writers.org screenshot

The website fantasy-writers.org provides a welcoming and supportive forum for troubled and enthused fabulists alike, so check it out too. 

2. Study Others Before Beginning your Fantasy Novel

If you want to know everything about how to write a fantasy novel, stick with one simple rule: Read and study others as much as you can. Reading is a significant aspect to consider if you want to become a good writer.

Before you start writing your fantasy novel, there should be an understanding of the elements particular to literature in the fantasy genre. The best way to learn the ins and outs of these primary elements is to see them in action.

Read some fantasy before you begin. There are two things you can look out for while reading:

The Setting

Carefully consider how authors create a complex, imaginary, and immersive world in their books.

Then, stand aside and place different plots side by side to identify what worked for each story and see if they can work for you as well.

For example, think of how tranquil the village from The Lord of the Rings is different from the desolate volcanic wasteland seen in Mordor.

The Character Building

Examine how authors develop the characters.

Observe their appearance, imperfections, obsessions, and goals. What kind of trials and challenges do they go through? How do they evolve from those trying times?

3. Understanding Worldbuilding in Your Fantasy Novel

London, 1980’, you write, and your readers have some clue what you’re referring to. ‘Gulgaroth, in the Year of the Ape’, and you have a lot more explaining – and thinking – to do.

Consider all the world-building a fantasy writer has to do before even starting the story:

  1. Drawing maps
  2. Creating the different species
  3. Creating new cosmologies
  4. Mapping out the rise and fall of multiple imaginary kingdoms

Ever played Dungeons & Dragons? Seen how chunky those rule books are? If not, check out the picture below:

Dungeons & Dragons rule books

Those are just the basic ones. The literature outlining the races, climate, demography, history, and cultures of the world of Faerun, in which the game is set, is immense. This gives you a good idea of the complexity of world-design.

When it comes to how to write a fantasy novel, you have to create an immersive, believable universe for your readers to get lost in. You want a make-believe world that’s as rich and vivid as the one we live in.

Readers want the fantasy to take them out of their humdrum lives and, for that, you’ll need to make the make-believe believable.

Different Types of Worlds

This work of world-building is most necessary when it comes to having a clear understanding of how to write a fantasy novel that will keep readers hooked in an imaginary world (or worlds).

Think of Lord of the Rings, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire or Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series.

Some fantasy series are set in multiple imaginary worlds, like Diane Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series. A series of parallel worlds is the setting for the action in this story requiring an even larger imaginative conception.

Dual Worlds

There are also fantasy stories set in dual worlds – moving between our ‘real’ world and another one, full of magic and mystery that our protagonists discover.

Think of Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia or The Bridge to Terabithia. These latter stories are often called ‘portal-quest fantasies’ because their questing characters travel through a portal to another beyond our mundane one.

Then there are fantasy stories about the intrusion of supernatural worlds into our own – think of the stories of H. P. Lovecraft.

Urban Fantasy

There are stories set in our own world with added fantastical and supernatural elements. The urban fantasy subgenre fits in this category, with works such as the Anita Blake books and The Dresden Files being especially popular.

In urban fantasy, the supernatural elements are sometimes hidden, known only to particular initiates, or they are an acknowledged part of the world. Urban fantasy is the real world with a magical twist.

While urban fantasy requires less extensive world-building than single-world high fantasy and portal-quest fantasy, the supernatural elements still need to be richly considered, believably drawn, and internally consistent.

This means you can’t set a rule, for example, that a vampire explodes upon touching garlic, and then have your Count Dracula villain eat a load of garlicky guacamole for dinner.

So, although you don’t have to design a full-fledged, bran- new universe, you still need consistency and believability. This will help you avoid annoying and boring your readers.

4. Worldbuilding Essentials

Your understanding of how to write a fantasy novel will get clear when you will learn more about how to create your own world for your story.

There are several elements to this world-design.

Let’s look at them each in some detail, taking examples from some of the most classic and best in fantasy fic. We’ll also think about some of the tools you can use to help build your fantasy world.

Geography and Climate

Your world needs believable geography. What are its seas, rivers, and mountainous regions like? How do they differ in climate from its lowland plains?

To figure all this out, map-drawing can be a great exercise. The finished maps might even get included in the book. Think about the gorgeous illustrations of imaginary worlds such as those of Moominland and Middle Earth.

For research, maybe look at medieval maps. Or, for inspiration, check out the cartographer Karen Wynn Fonstad’s books: She’s created vast atlases of some of our favorite fantasy worlds including The Atlas of Middle-EarthThe Atlas of Pern, and Atlas of the Dragonlance World.

minecraft homepage screenshot

Minecraft is a great tool for designing imaginary built environments. Transfer your cities of the mind to the screen to develop a richer, more lucid sense of the world you’re creating for readers.

Cultures

What are the religions, customs, class or caste systems, and rituals that characterize the society of your fictional universe? This is another essential element of worldbuilding that will help you get better at how to write a fantasy novel.

Are there classes that are considered higher in status to whom their lesser must defer?

What systems of etiquette govern the relationships between them? (This can be a great context for action: Consider rags-to-riches stories, or Romeo and Juliet-style narratives of lovers caught between social worlds).

Do different classes live in different parts of the world? How does this intersect with your design of geography? Are there posh quarters inhabited by the wealthy, separated from slum areas where the poor are condemned to dwell?

Is the system of hierarchy rigid, with individuals trapped from birth in their assigned social status (a caste system)? Or can individuals move from rank to rank, up or down (a class system)?

To research, read the anthropological literature on diverse cultures. Let it help you come up with ideas for intriguing ritual practices and strange cosmological beliefs for novel social hierarchies and new cultural customs.

Politics

How is the world of your novel governed?

Is it a feudal world, with leadership inherited? Is it a republic, like that of ancient Rome? Are there different systems existing side-by-side, such as a federation of rural, democratic hamlets, bordering a despotic tyranny?

Or, are there multiple systems vying for dominance, a peasant republic making a revolution against a brutal monarchy?

Wars are often the manifestations of political conflicts. Your story could take place against the background of a civil war or revolution.

You could benefit from reading some basic political theories and political history to get an idea of the types of possible rulership there are. You may be able to gather some inspiration for generating your own fantastical polity.

Economy

Consider how the industries and work systems of your world interact with its system of government and its social norms. Are there slaves who work in mines for a feudal ruler, for example?

Cosmology

What is the cosmic origin of your world? Read the world’s vast mythological literature to get some ideas.

How about checking out James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, a classic anthropological treatise on the world’s different religious beliefs.

Or, have a look at cosmological literature directly, by reading something like the Finnish Kalevala (a collection of folk tales) – in which the world comes out of an egg.

Try to generate your own original story of the origins of the universe in which your world is set, drawing on these age-old myths.

Races

Don’t be too cliché here.

Readers don’t want another novel full of the stock panoply of elves, gnomes, and dwarves. While it’s okay to draw on such well-known fantasy species, think about how you can add an original twist.

Maybe in your world, the elves are stupid rather than smart and the halflings are incompetent rather than crafty.

For example, in Stan Nichols’ Orcs: First Blood series, a conflict between orcs and humans is depicted, but from – as is unusual – the point of view of the orcs rather than the humans. Thus Nichols adds an unconventional twist to a typical fantasy concept. 

Describing fantasy creatures is a special challenge. Luckily, there are some tried and tested resources out there for the struggling fantasy writers that are sure to help you on how to write a fantasy novel fast.

Check out Philip Athans’ Writing Monsters: How to Craft Believably Terrifying Creatures to Enhance Your Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction for some stunning tips on this aspect of the fabulist’s art.

History

To craft a fully believable fictional world, it is necessary to give a sense of the historical background involved.

What empires have risen and fallen, what kingdoms have come and gone, what civilizations have weathered environmental catastrophes and which have gone under?

Everyday life reflects history all the time. It shapes contemporary goings-on. The history you write may well span a timescale far greater than that covered in your book, but it is necessary to develop it as a rich background to the adventures of your characters.

It will lend depth to your world that will make it believable – not just a cookie-cutter, imitation fantasy world.

Diana Wynne Jones brilliantly satirizes all the mind-numbing tropes of fantasy fiction in her The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Check it out if you want a run-down of all the features not to include in your work.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland

Fantasy is about creating a believable, brand-new world. Perhaps you include features shared by other famous works, but with additional, original twists. Developing a rich, believable history is one sure-fire way to ensure your world is not simply a cliché assembled from a box like IKEA flat-pack furniture.

Take Frank Herbert’s novel Dune as an example. Flip through that masterwork of epic science fantasy and you’ll find chapters that are preceded by epigraphs from fictional books – sayings of prophets, sagely advice to rulers. These books within books establish the desert planet of Dune as a credible alternative reality for the imagination of the reader.

Frank Herbert’s novel Dune

Why not pepper your work with some of your own fictional non-fiction?

Try not to obstruct the movement of the plot and the development of character. But, the insertion of such details can lend a dash of realism to your fantasy universe that will hold a reader’s attention throughout.

Language

Great fantasy works often contain so-called ‘conlangs’ – short for ‘constructed languages’. Well-known examples include Tolkien’s Elvish and Dwarvish. The world of Star Trek has spawned Klingon.

Tolkien’s Elvish language

It is far from essential to create such languages and it is likely to be a less essential part of the world-designing process than other aspects. However, it may prove useful as an extra dash of realism for your imaginative palette.

You could base the novel language on one of the world’s existing languages and its grammatical principles if you want to avoid too much nonsensical grunting. As with all aspects of worldbuilding, believability is key.

5. Characters

You can’t learn how to write a fantasy novel without understanding character development. Fantasy is all (or mostly) about character building.

Whether your novel is a space opera, high fantasy, a historical work set in medieval France, or chick lit in present-day New York, readers always look for the same thing. They want richly drawn, contradictory human beings undergoing struggles like themselves.

Even the villains should be more than one-dimensional, simple figures of evil. Darth Vader had complexity and the tincture of a light side. Whether your readers ultimately sympathize with your characters or not; they still need to come across as real.

Thus, it doesn’t matter whether your character is an elf, an alien, even a robot (think Star Trek: TNG’s Data): They need that ‘human’ touch. The X-Men features mutant characters who often feel more genuinely human than the Homo sapiens who revile them.

x-men homepage screenshot

Readers will not keep turning pages without compelling character development keeping them interested.

Think about the people you know as well as figures in history or popular culture. Try to develop a rich psychological profile of your character based on your own empathetic understanding of people.

You can use our character development sheet guide to help you. Draw on your lifetime of experience with others to produce genuinely believable fantasy people.

Give Them Flaws

The key to the character is a contradiction: No person is complete without yin and yang, without light and dark.

Readers are much more interested in flawed heroes, even anti-heroes, than stereotypical action men without any vulnerabilities.

Characters must change as they quest. They must ultimately learn something and undergo some transformation as the plot follows its three-act structure.

Your story might be a coming-of-age tale, a rags-to-riches (or rags-to-riches-to-rags) narrative, or the telling of a wayward, rebellious son’s return to the safety of home.

There are infinite options when it comes to character development, but the key thing is to make sure that your protagonist – and hopefully your reader – is not left unchanged by the experiences described in the novel.

Show Don’t Tell

Consider how the character’s attire and physical features reflect their personality. Instead of telling, show.

Show your readers the features of your protagonists’ personalities, through detailing how they look and behave.

Does the sagely wizard smoke a pipe? Does the crafty gnome carry a penknife? Perhaps the warrior man bears a disfiguring scar on his brow, bespeaking a terrible, traumatizing battle in his past?

Feed your readers clues through such images. Don’t let your characters reveal everything about themselves in speech: That’s not realistic. In fact, real people are often chary of letting others know too much about their pasts.

Tantalize your readers’ curiosities about details of these individuals’ pasts by describing them trying to hide the truths of who they are. Perhaps your warrior stiffens up whenever he is asked about a particular battle – maybe he committed some atrocity about which he remains conflicted with guilt.

Perhaps your gnome says ‘Let us not speak of my father’, indicating a shameful or sorrow-filled family history.

Create Their Past

Think about your characters’ pasts and that of their lineage: It is their experiences which have made them who they are today.

So write their life stories.

Keep these in separate files from your novel and consult them when needed. While it can be strategic to keep readers in the dark about aspects of your characters, it is vital that you have an in-depth knowledge of who your adventurers really are.

6. Plot

Here is one area where it can, in certain ways, be helpful to use a cliché of some description. There is something elemental and archetypal about the plot.

While worlds vary – from the medieval-inspired world of Middle Earth to the hierarchical, dystopian future of The Hunger Games – the principles of the narrative are age-old and continue to entice readers from generation to generation.

To put it in simple terms, a plot is divided into three acts:

  1. A beginning
  2. Middle
  3. An end.

The beginning sees our world and characters introduced to the reader. The middle sees the confrontation with some kind of dilemma or crisis, often placing our characters in mortal danger. The end sees some resolution of this problem, usually involving a transformation in the protagonists’ character and understanding of their world.

Scroll through the plot synopsis of some of your favorite films and novels and try to identify this basic three-act structure.

Do Some In-Depth Plot Study

If you want to do some more in-depth learning, consider checking out Robert McKee’s great guide Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting.

Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting.

While the target market is those hoping to be screenwriters, you couldn’t ask for a better book on how to craft compelling narratives.

Or, if you want to delve into the archetypes of a story as they appear across world literature, have a look at the work of Joseph Campbell, a scholar in the areas of comparative mythology and comparative religion.

His 1949 work The Hero with a Thousand Faces details the archetypal ‘hero’s quest’ story, a so-called ‘monomyth’ at the heart of mythological tales and legends. It is one told often, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Beowulf.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

George Lucas himself credited Joseph Campbell’s theory of mythology as an influence on his Star Wars. The principles of the story that Campbell discovered remain as relevant as ever.

7. Add Meaning to Your Fantasy Novel

In all this talk of character, plot, and world, don’t forget about the message. Your book should have a core, motivating question or philosophical idea that it wants to communicate or raise for consideration.

What has driven you to write your story? What inner psychological dilemma, or existential quandary, compelled you to set your fingers to the keypad in the first place?

One might say, for example, that the following core themes or meanings are at the heart of the following works.

Harry Potter

harry potter info

The theme of death is key to the Harry Potter series. In particular, the message that the fear of and flight from death rob us of the brilliance of life is at its heart.

A Wizard of Earthsea

A Wizard of Earthsea

Power and questions of the responsibility with which it comes are central to Ursula Le Guin’s first installment in her Earthsea quartet.

The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings

The struggle between good and evil is the classic theme pushing forward the narrative in Tolkien’s great work.

So, what theme sits at the core of your work? Think it over.

For books to be memorable and truly classic, they have to touch on some fundamental aspect of the human condition. Yes, they may be entertaining and wonderfully escapist. To make their mark in history, however, they also tell or ask us something deep about our world and our lives.

Rewrite

This doesn’t end here. The unknown rule on how to write a fantasy novel and to become a great fantasy novel writer, you have to rewrite.

Well, apart from the nod to Tolkien’s The Hobbit, we want to remind you that great novels aren’t written, but rewritten. You’ve put pen to paper, finger to the keypad, and submitted the great fell of a completed fantasy novel.

Now, it is the time to go all the way back to the beginning and embark on a new adventure: the edit.

The edit will involve ironing out any inconsistencies or inaccuracies in your world. Don’t let readers do it for you.

Woe betide you end up like author Larry Niven, who at a 1971 Worldcon had to put up with a gaggle of MIT students chanting ‘The Ringworld is unstable!’ The boisterous lot had uncovered an engineering flaw at the heart of Niven’s design for the Ringworld, a ring-shaped space colony. As a rigid structure, the world was not in fact in orbit around the star it encircled and would likely drift, colliding with its sun and falling apart.

The edit is a valuable time to make sure your world is both believable and internally consistent, to avoid any such embarrassments later on. It’s also a time to remove any purple prose, excessive description or clunky exposition.

While world-building is vital as background to the novel itself, the story still needs to be an efficiently told story, with a beginning, middle and end, and action from cover to cover. Plot development with every word is vital.

Readers don’t want to feel they are thumbing through an encyclopaedia or an RPG rulebook. Can you remove any unnecessary details to make sure that the setting is that – a setting – for the action of the protagonists, and doesn’t come to dominate the space of your book?

8. Outline Your Fantasy Novel

Once you decide on the theme, plot, characters, setting, and time frame, it is the right time to outline everything in the sequence.

Drafting an outline before writing can help you analyze the twists and turns of the events. Also, you can create headings and divide events into the chapters to make it more comprehensive for your readers.

A story pyramid is an ideal way to structure your novel. Divide the events broadly into three phases: beginning, the body of the story, and climax.

Moreover, compile the events by showing the course of actions, turning points, conflicts, and resolution.

Outline Your Way

While it’s vital to outline the plot beforehand, there are a few ways to do this.

Some authors have a full-fledged, scene-by-scene outline. They then only need to add description and dialogue, into the file of the outline itself, to complete the novel.

Others opt for a sparser, more general idea of the story’s opening, dilemma, and climax, to be kept in a separate file and referred to when necessary.

It’s all down to your personal style: Do you prefer the security of a rigid plan, or a bit more freedom to explore? As long as you don’t set out without a map, you’re A-OK.

Write Your Fantasy Novel with Confidence

My advice has not been as exhaustive as the Silmarillion or as encyclopaedic as The Dune Encyclopedia. Nonetheless, I hope it has helped somewhat as you embark on your wordsmith’s quest to write the next LOTR.

A recap: Build a believable world, draw complex characters, map out a plot in advance, and then… write. Oh, and then edit. Think you can take on the challenge, humble adventurer?

Please… be my guest. 

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