What to Consider When Writing Your Fantasy Novel (Part 1)

Fantasy novels are popular. Along with middle grade, romance, and YA fiction, fantasy manuscripts are among the most requested on the MSWishlist.

Whether you are writing to be self-published or are hoping to land a publishing deal, there are a number of elements to take into account when you draft your fantasy novel. (The ways in which self-published novel characteristics differ from the expectations of traditionally published novels will have to be a topic for another blog post.)

Just like a fantasy book, there is a lot of ground to cover here, so I am breaking this into two blog posts. This first post covers the essential elements of a fantasy novel and the second will address tropes, subgenres, and audience.

Do you have the essential elements?

Let’s look at the aspects that set fantasy apart from other genres first.

Magic Systems

This may seem like a no-brainer, but what is and how does your magic system work? How do the characters interact with the magic system? Will the reader understand it? There are so many resources for developing magic systems, but the most well-known is probably Brandon Sanderson’s Magic Laws. He describes them more as guidelines, rather than laws, and acknowledges that they can be broken, but through them, a fantasy writer can establish a solid, believable magic system.

Take time to think through how your magic system works. What can magic do and what can’t it do? A good magic system plays a part of the narrative without being distracting.

Keep in mind that magic systems fall into two main categories: hard magic and soft magic.

  • Hard magic has to follow set limits, and most importantly, the limits need to be understood by the reader. Using hard magic unquestionably limits your characters. For instance, a character that controls fire can’t manipulate air, a finite source of magic can’t suddenly be infinite, and the spells in a book can only be used to cast specific spells. Classic examples of hard magic are Avatar: The Last Airbender, Sanderon’s Mistborn series, and anything to do with Spiderman.
  • Soft magic is more flexible in nature, which creates a sense of wonder. There are some rules that the magic system has to follow (i.e., you don’t want to create a dues ex machina situation), but there are not as many limits to the system, and the reader knows less about the limits. Examples of soft magic include the Force in Star Wars, certain (but not all) magical powers in Harry Potter, and Gandalf’s magic in the Lord of the Rings.

A Well-Developed World

I used to be an urban planner, so I love learning about how cities form over time. Maybe this is also why I love the worldbuilding of fantasy novels.

Every fiction novel needs to have a well-developed setting, but fantasy authors have to go a little farther and describe a new or alternative world to readers while not dumping an encyclopedia of information on their laps.

A lot of research, creativity, and planning has to go into creating a world that is almost as much of the story as the characters. Authors like N. K. Jemisin, Sarah J. Maas, and Leigh Bardugo have such popular series because their books are set in such unique, luscious worlds. N. K. Jemisin even hosts a Masterclass that includes her steps for worldbuilding.

The city of Velaris from Sarah J. Maas’s ACOTAR series plays a strong role in supporting the story. [Image shows a night sky with intense stars over a warmly lit city and cold mountains.]

The setting of your novel should influence who your protagonist is and why they want what they want. It supports the character arc and plot points to make the story more believable. In Game of Thrones, the wall is a prominent landmark that acts almost like a character itself, keeping Westeros safe from everything “beyond the wall.”

The simplest worldbuilding can be done with with notebooks, drawings, inspiration boards, and documents with world details. There are some very creative, artistic worldbuilders on social media that share their hands-on techniques (search #mapmaking or #worldbuilding).

If you are more technology-inclined, you can find many resources online. One of the most well-known is WorldAnvil. This site has varying levels of memberships, including a free one. You can use it to organize elements of your world such as timelines, maps, histories, and images. While they aren’t a mapmaking software, they do have resources for building maps on their blog.

Strong Characters

Think about your favorite books, movies, or TV shows. What do you like about them? I’m sure some of them had some pretty epic battle scenes, or maybe a blush-worthy love scene, but what would those scenes mean if you weren’t invested in the characters?

Kaz from Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows is a strong character not because he’s necessarily a good person but because of his backstory and his relatability. [Image shows a white man in a black jacket with a black bowler hat.]

Strong characters with relatable traits are essential for all writing. (Notice I didn’t say they have to be likable traits.) I would even argue that in fantasy writing these characters have to have even stronger emotional ties to the reader than they would in other genres because they are in a world that the reader doesn’t fully understand.

Dig deep. Then dig even deeper. Understand what your protagonist wants more than they do. If you don’t know what’s driving them, then your readers won’t either—and they won’t care if your protagonist wins or loses the battle at the climax of your story. A good, free resource for understanding your protagonist is on storytelling master Michael Hauge’s website.


Storytelling is bigger than life. Most of us don’t make high-stake decisions all day long, which is why we love reading stories. Our brains are programmed to crave stories because they tell us how to survive, so when we are in dire situations, we will (sort of) know what to do.

Raising the stakes in a novel—fantasy or any other genre—is important to keep everything in your novel moving forward. If the highest stake in your novel is that your protagonist will lose her right pinkie finger to an evil orc lord if she doesn’t accomplish her goal, your readers are not going to care.

That said, you don’t have to make “the death of the human race” your stakes either. Many times people associate fantasy, especially epic fantasy, with really high stakes. The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Harry Potter all have really high global (or intergalactic) stakes. If good fails, evil takes over. While there is nothing wrong with this, they need to have a connection to the characters’ personal stakes to make the reader care.

Having only low stakes can also make intriguing story arcs in fantasy novels as long as those “low stakes” have high personal consequences for your protagonist. I recommend reading Tiffany Amber Yates’s Intuitive Editing to get some great advice on strengthening the stakes with plot points, tension, and even point of view.

In The Witcher, Geralt, Ciri, and Yennefer have found themselves needing each other as a family. If they don’t accomplish their goal, they lose their “found family” and evil takes over the world. Their stakes are both high and low. [Image shows a man, a girl, and a woman in three different poses.]

A Power Structure or Government

Closely related to worldbuilding is creating a power structure or form of government for your novel. Unless your novel takes place in an alternate form of our world, you will need to start from scratch.

If you don’t know where to start, take a look at your map. If you’ve spent time creating different landscapes and ecosystems, think about where on your map lie the most resources. Where does the environment make it hard to survive? Where can settlements form that are easily defendable? Then build up from there.

If your land is scarce in resources, how does that affect the power structure? Maybe that leads to a single ruling power (think about The Hunger Games). If you have separate but equally powerful territories, how do they interact? Are there different species with different power structures? How do they interact with one another and amongst themselves? What is the hierarchy of power?

When you’ve considered some of these basic questions, put together a power structure that takes into account four main aspects of power: a military force of some kind, an administering government, the financial resources, and the cultures of your world. (This is when studying world history might help you understand how civilizations move in and out of power.)

Coming Up Next . . .

The next post on this topic will cover tropes, subgenres, and audience. That is not to say you need to develop certain aspects of your fantasy novel before others, but that they all work together to form your creative story.

Did I forget something? What makes fantasy writing stand out to you? What do you like or don’t like about it? Please share your thoughts and helpful resources in the comments.

Do you need help figuring out where your story is lacking?

Published by Leah Boyer

I'm a professionally trained copy and line editor. I do both fiction (mostly speculative, fantasy, and historical) and nonfiction (academic) editing. When I'm not editing or writing, I am caring for my two youngsters, getting lost in a story, tending to my native plant garden, or enjoying the charms of San Diego with friends and family.

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