Fantasy Dos and Don’ts

Right, new week, new load of posts coming your way! Today, I’ll be pointing out some of my most important dos and (mostly) don’ts when writing fantasy fiction.


Try to be Tolkien – The last boats to the Grey Havens set sail in the 1950s. Would you write your novel using a quill from the 6th century? Nope. Then don’t write it using ideas that were popular over 50 years ago.

Describe clothing – By this, I mean don’t describe it down to the shiny brass buckles on someone’s boots. In fact, if you can help it, you shouldn’t be describing clothing in any detail unless it plays a major role in the story. Nobody cares if your character looks like a medieval superhero or is wearing the legendary plate armour of some god with an impossible name. Be imaginative and describe things through actions and dialogue. The reader is hardly going to picture your characters walking around naked unless you tell them they’re wearing clothes.

Live in the dark ages – How many fantasy stories involve a world that’s a blatant copy/paste of medieval Europe? Loads. I’m sick of it and so are many readers. Fantasy should be about imagination and dreaming up worlds that are more exciting than our own. Why not write about a floating city in the sky? How about using the Aztecs or an Australia-style colony as inspiration for your world? You can use medieval Europe to inspire you if you really want, but take some time to research the period and make it a bit more unique and think about it some more.

Have long battles – Battles are not exciting for the soldiers involved. They are brutal, unforgiving and grim. Don’t try to describe military formations or tactics. Don’t assume someone is a hero because they are a skilled fighter. Don’t dehumanize war. Conflict is always about the people involved and the interesting part usually comes before or after a battle. If I come across a battle that doesn’t drive character development, I get bored very quickly.

Make your hero awesome – Heroes are more interesting when they grow from ordinary people. Does a sunflower start out as a sunflower? No, it begins as a tiny, insignificant seed. You water it and care for it and it becomes something greater. As a writer, you need to do the opposite. Throw some crap at your ordinary person and watch them struggle through it. Put them through difficult times and give them some hard choices and they will emerge a hero. The same goes for your villain. The only difference is the decisions they each make.

Make them drink mead – A personal peeve (and old habit) of mine. What follows is the unimaginative fantasy writer’s thought process on food and (especially) drink. If characters are not rich and/or live in the ‘north’, they must drink mead/ale/beer (out of tankards, usually at an inn) and eat nothing but great chunks of meat and loaves of bread. If characters are rich/nobility, they must drink nothing but wine. This is complete and utter rubbish. In fact, it’s a typical 20th/21st century attitude. Give your poor fantasy denizens some variety and diets that won’t kill them before the story ends. Why not forage for berries, seeds or nuts? Why not go fishing? Why not use magic to purify water so it can be drunk? Before you put such clichéd drinks as mead into your story, find out what it actually is and who would have drunk it. If I catch any modern-day authors describing their characters chowing down on salted pork and guzzling a tankard/flagon of honey mead (mead is made with honey anyway) I shall hide in a cave somewhere until I am inevitably defeated by a bloodthirsty paladin and his plucky band of adventurers.


Be original

Be creative

Be edgy

Try to change the status quo!

Now don’t get me wrong, I love the fantasy genre. I grew up reading the kind of stuff that we view as clichéd today. Fantasy can include heroic deeds, amazing creatures and world-shattering magic, but it should be done differently and it should be done with style. Have you ever read a fantasy story about a secret agent who must thwart a sorcerer’s plans to destroy the world’s energy reserves and force it to rely on his magic entirely? I thought not. Get out there and write something new.

Check back tomorrow for the second (and final) part of ‘And Don’t Call Me Shirley’. This week I will be looking at place names in fantasy fiction.


9 thoughts on “Fantasy Dos and Don’ts

  1. Pissant Partisan 30-Jan-2012 / 13:28

    Nice post. Like every other type of fiction each sentence needs to have some objective, so a pointless battle sequence would be just..pointless.

    • James 30-Jan-2012 / 16:56

      Thank you very much. Glad you found this interesting!

  2. debyfredericks 30-Jan-2012 / 19:57

    I enjoyed your post, especially your comments on food. How many times have we all read stories where people live on an island, but nobody is eating fish? At the same time, food is something a writer can use to bring their world to life without seeming to. For example, we all know that bananas grow in a tropical environment. If your character goes out and eats a banana right off the tree, you’ve told them reams about the setting without several pages of exposition.

    PS, that story about the secret agent vs. the sorcerer? You should write that!

    • James 31-Jan-2012 / 13:42

      Very tempting to write that story, but I came up with the idea in about a minute. I’d be reluctant. Maybe one day, eh? 🙂

  3. Aly Hughes 30-Jan-2012 / 23:15

    Yet another great post! I must agree, fantasy being written in a medieval type of setting is too overdone. There’s hardly any change in the cultures, politics, and technologies. It’s as if once magic is added to the equation, people just stop inventing and exploring beyond magical abilities. I’m pretty darn sure if Da Vinci lived in a fantastical realm he’d still be creating amazing inventions and technologies that could have been popular with people who couldn’t wield magic!

  4. hereticfox 30-Jan-2012 / 23:46

    Splendid post!

    Sometimes the old cliches are still a good source of entertainment, regardless of whether it’s new or not. I often find myself wanting a quick trip through the alleyways of medieval London instead of crossing the oceans in search of boldly-made new worlds to set foot in. There’s a certain warmth that comes of familiar settings, no? Had a good laugh at the D&D reference, by the way.

    However, I do strongly support your taste for originality; which is getting harder to do these days, it feels like. At least, not without the risk of seeming Dadaist. I’m going to second Miss Fredericks up there by saying you should be the first of us to follow up on that secret agent vs sorcerer idea. It already sounds like an interesting read.

    I sorely wish I could sit down with you and a couple cups of cocoa to discuss the marriages of old and new, but doing that in a place as public as WordPress seems like a good way for someone to pilfer ideas.

    Looking forward to your Tuesday post!

  5. jasondrexler 31-Jan-2012 / 00:34

    Good post, especially the part about clothing—this happens way too frequently. I also started following your blog, so write on!

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