There are overall rules for writing no matter what genre is your focus. Your main character has to be active and not passive for instance. But fantasy does differ in some ways from other genres and has its own set of unspoken expectations. Once you know about them, it’s kind of cool to watch for them in a book and see if you can catch what tricks a writer is using—or fails to use. If a book feels flat, many times it’s because the author left one of these out.
Crowds of characters: Unlike many other genres, fantasy is known for having an obscene number of characters. Fantasy and the other speculative fiction genres, like science fiction, are pretty much the only books to come with their own glossary of names in the back. The Wheel of Time series from Tor just released their own eight-hundred page glossary of characters, places, and terms. That’s some serious crowd. No one could keep all those characters straight.
So in fantasy expect lots of people from door guards to generals, scullery maids to kings. The tip for writers comes in remembering that each of these characters, even the ones who have no lines, should have their own motivation. The handmaiden to the princess needs to have a reason for her life and actions just as important to her as it is for the princess to escape her tower. In other words, don’t forget to give motivation to all your characters, even if it be as simple of a guard’s feet hurting and he can’t wait to get off his shift. It doesn’t have to be stated, but the character’s actions can make it apparent.
POV Party: Why have one main character to follow through the whole book when you can have three—or five! Sure, there are plenty of fantasy stories that stay in first person with just one character, but there are just as many that tests the boundaries and uses multiple points of view from several main characters or even secondary characters—used simply because they are expendable. (You know, the guys in the red shirts sent out there to die and show the situation is serious.)
In Grudging, I have four main character points of view, each with their own character arc. The important thing is to make them different enough from each other so that the reader doesn’t feel they’ve seen this before. They need to have different goals, different character journeys, and even different personalities. We don’t want to spend time with five characters who are just alike. I created an experience politician, an inexperience boy finding his way to manhood, a girl who wants to find her magic, and a priest testing his faith. All very different.
Each POV character should move the action of the plot and yet also have their own story to tell.
Wacky Worldbuilding: Where else but fantasy do you get to build a world from scratch? Not even painters or Lego builders get to create their own government, religion, architecture and economy. Everything that makes up a culture. Basically the writer of fantasy can go crazy and come up with anything the human mind will accept as possible--and sometimes things that aren't. So that’s why the writer also has to be careful and make sure these things link together sensibly. If your city is in a desert like in Grudging, then your economy isn’t likely to be based on farming. They’d have to get their food from elsewhere and trade for it somehow.
And don’t fall into the trap of piling up paragraphs of worldbuilding. That slows down the pace and will bore the reader. Try and include details in small bites, and only when the story demands it. The best worldbuilding serves two purposes: It makes for a full and rich world and shows something about your character’s personality and actions. Worldbuilding becomes an extension of your character and who they are.
For example the beards in Grudging. Beards are a symbol of reaching the threshold of manhood culturally, but the size and shape of them also expresses each character's personality. A great way to show what your character is like without coming out and telling it.
Magic Munitions: Once again the writer of fantasy has so much freedom when creating a system of magic. The sky’s the limit—or is it, because many fantasy characters can fly. Unlike science fiction where problems are solved with gadgets and brainpower, in fantasy we pull the rabbit out of the hat—no explanation needed. Magic is just there, often you don’t have to give a reason behind it, and that’s fine. Nobody ever really said why Harry is a wizard, but there are other rules to remember about magical systems.
Use of magic should have a consequence. Maybe it makes your character exhausted or they get a bad rash. Perhaps the consequences are harder to see like in Grudging, such as they become dependent on magic or they begin to fear what it can do. But your characters and your story will be richer if magic has a darker side and isn’t too easy.
Speaking of too easy. A character that can handle anything with magic and never makes a mistake is a boring character. If they are new to magic and everything comes naturally that’s a total turnoff. The best magic systems have a learning curve, and no character should be perfect with it. That’s the way to get a believable and deep story.
Vats of Villains: Regular books may be satisfied with just one antagonist, but not in fantasy. In fantasy the henchmen have henchmen. We are talking layers of villains for your main characters to kick their way through. And the ultimate, bad-guy villain may stay out of the picture until books later in the series. Heck, in Lord of the Rings, you pretty much never see the guy. Instead you’ve got Ring Wraiths and Orcs to focus on. That can work just as well, if not better if you have something on screen for the characters to fight and something more scary waiting in the wings.
Just be careful to make sure your antagonist actually does some evil doing. If you character is going to rid the world of evil, the reader needs to see what sort of oppression that means. A villain that is always talked about and never felt doesn’t raise any emotion in a reader. The reader doesn’t have reason to care. So have a villain and let him/her or others do bad things in her/his name. (I’m a firm believer in equal gender, racial, and sexuality rights for villains as well as for heroes. It’s about diversity.)
And don’t forget the motivation here also. Thugs and brutes need a reason for their actions just as much as knights in shining armor. In Grudging, Ordoño hands over members of the city as sacrifices and they aren't above torture, but there is a cultural and political reason for it that comes out later in the book. The bigger the villain the deeper and more complex the motivation should be. Life isn’t black and white, give your antagonist some grays and you’ll do your story a favor.
A world of chivalry and witchcraft…and the invaders who would destroy everything.
The North has invaded, bringing a cruel religion and no mercy. The ciudades-estados who have stood in their way have been razed to nothing, and now the horde is before the gates of Colina Hermosa…demanding blood.
On a mission of desperation, a small group escapes the besieged city in search of the one thing that might stem the tide of Northerners: the witches of the southern swamps.
The Women of the Song.
But when tragedy strikes their negotiations, all that is left is a single untried knight and a witch who has never given voice to her power. And time is running out.
A lyrical tale of honor and magic, Grudging is the opening salvo in the Book of Saints trilogy.
November 17, 2015